Sunday, 2 August 2015


Do you remember the long dusk evenings of childhood summers? Staying up late, running wild with friends, dashing and dancing about, the sound of sprinklers, the smell of grass, where even the pools of light from streetlights falling on tarred pavement seemed to take on another magic.

Joseph Coello, whose debut poetry collection, Werewolf Club Rules, published by Frances Lincoln, with its wonderful cover by John O’Leary of a werewolf with teddy button eyes, which won the CLPE Poetry Award 2015, maintains running wild as a child was the well for much of his work. Sita Bramachari who was in conversation with him at the Hay Festival, posted a blog on the Book Trust site recently. I hope she won't mind me repeating some of what she said here:  His words really spoke to me about how much free time and living in the open space of the imagination was part of what I longed for as a child at the end of every summer term.

 Joseph Coello: ‘There were no gardens for each flat, so we would play out together in Victoria Gardens and climb the walls. There was a gargoyle there we called 'The Devil's Head' which was a Satyr fountain, chipped and broken and made of marble. We were afraid of it and drawn to it at the same time. It's those days of 'playing out' and imagining that I remembered when I wrote "The Satyr's Head."

An extract from The Satyr’s Head:

We danced in the light of the Satyr's grin,
the limestone details of the fountain,
weathered and mean,
the endless grimace of a friend.

The garden cloaked our tower block's stares,
its trees veiling the aerials, the satellite dishes,.
Its bricks a smoke screen to the traffic's roar,
the yells of our mothers.
Its bushes covering up the smog.
the jam-sweet scent of winter berries
disguising the stench from the bins.

We danced like our fathers told us we could,
spinning in the dead leaves
that spun from our steps,
like wry circus performers.

My own childhood was suburban. I grew up in a row of houses that led to the railway line where two huge stone pine trees grew and spent my summers hammering the sticky cones to get at the pine-nuts, or skipping over a sprinkler on a tiny square of lawn with rainbow arcs of droplets around me. But in the long evenings we ran wild scaring each other in the starlight with bats swooping down from the dark, the occasional ‘sputnik’ juddering across the sky and the sound of crickets, with the white glow of moonflowers and lantana (did you ever see the Australian film of that name?) and deadly oleanders perfuming the night.

None of it meant anything to me at the time. I simply didn’t realise how much the imagination was at work. Did I know then that a setting cannot live unless it’s observed in its details and particulars? And that the emotions that setting evokes are most effective when they are unique?

The writer Janet Fitch speaks of ‘the internal palette’ that keeps her informed. The opening paragraphs from her novel White Oleander could only come from a childhood of knowing oleanders.

The Santa Anas blew hot from the desert, shrivelling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blooms, their dagger green leaves.

We could not sleep in the hot dry nights, my mother and I. I woke up at midnight to find her bed empty. I climbed to the roof and easily spotted her blond hair like a white flame in the light of the three quarter moon.

‘Oleander time,’ she said. ‘Lovers who kill each other now will blame it on the wind.’

And now as I read my son David’s debut novel STONE RIDER, tiny sparks tell of his childhood and the hours spent much too high for a twelve year old, in the branches of a pin oak tree or carving a totem pole out of a wooden tree stump – living in his imagination, finding his own internal palette for expressing.

This summer, break the hold of the iPad. Give children a chance to run wild and 'live in the open space of their imagination' as Sita Bramachari puts it – tactile, sensory experiences that can’t be had from playing Minecraft or by ‘colouring in’ – so they can become poets like Joseph Coello or writers, artists, dancers, composers – whatever they want to be. But at least give their imaginations a chance. Let them run wild and ‘play out’.

'We danced like our fathers told us we could,
spinning in the dead leaves
that spun from our steps,
like wry circus performers.'  Thank you Joseph Coello. 
Twitter @dihofmeyr
Zeraffa Giraffa, by Dianne Hofmeyr, illustrated by Jane Ray, published by Frances Lincoln, is one of The Sunday Times Top 100 Classics for Children in the last 10 years.


catdownunder said...

Yes, I saw Lantana - Geoffrey Rush was superb in it - and I often think of it when I go past the lantana bushes near the local shopping centre.
But I read this post with immense sadness because I realised that the current generation of children do not run wild after dark, indeed they don't run wild at all. I even know children who are not permitted to play in their own back gardens unless an adult is out there with them.
We built "cubbies" and "tree houses" and spent entire days out of doors wandering back when it was dark - and here there were genuine dangers in the bushland we roamed in. We survived and it helped our imaginations grow.

Sue Purkiss said...

Lovely post, lovely pictures!

Joan Lennon said...

So evocative - thank you! Interestingly, there's another post about Australian memories over on the History Girls today by Gillian Polack - Well worth a visit.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Thanks for the pointer Joan. And yes Cat Down Under... more is the tragedy. I suppose our childhoods were similar. I had such wonderful freedom. I can remember climbing the mountain just to the back of my garden when I was 12 completely alone. And I know there were puff-adders out there. Were my parents neglectful, are we just more fearful for our children, or are there really too many 'baddies' out there? And you're right, Lantana was an amazing movie. I remember the opening and the sounds of the night as if I only saw it a few hours ago. Funny how some movies can leave such impressions.

David Thorpe said...

This is a beautiful post. I especially like the extract about the oleanders....