Saturday 6 June 2020

Kitty Barne's Visitors from London by Paul May

Here are a couple of quotes from Kitty Barne’s 1940 Carnegie Medal winning book Visitors from London.  The four Farrar children have arrived in the Sussex countryside to spend their school holidays on a farm with a youthful aunt named Myra. 'Steadings' is a nearby farmhouse, rented by a writer friend of theirs, that has been empty for a couple of years. This writer friend has lent it to be used by evacuees.  

“. . . it was to be used for the overflow of London children if there was a war . . . They were all to be moved out of London, the children, millions of them, in three days . . . How many did they think they could take?
‘What aged children?’ inquired Myra . . . ‘What age and what sex?’
But that, it seemed, was more than Miss Williams or anyone else could tell her. The idea was that the children came to the London stations, and if a train was there, drawn up at a platform, they got in it and went. Any children, any platform, any train, to any place. As for their age, schoolchildren were between five and fourteen. How many could they take?”

The government have apparently promised to provide everything, but luckily Myra is practical and realistic. “Beds, blankets, mattresses—they’ve been promised, but that doesn’t mean they’ll come.”

It’s impossible not to hear the echoes of today’s government’s panic and muddle. Nothing changes!

This is the last of my wartime Carnegie reads and it's slightly dizzying to realise that it was published 80 years ago. I approached it with some trepidation when I finally managed to track down a copy. Four middle-class children on holiday from their boarding schools encounter four evacuated working-class families from London. It could be what a friend of mine once called ‘a minefield of naffdom’. Only it isn’t that at all. It turns out to be an outstanding piece of observational writing. I can’t remember ever reading such brilliantly observed very young children anywhere else outside of picture books—I’m talking about 2, 3 and four-year-olds—and it’s not just the small children either. This book is overflowing with economically drawn, fully-realised characters. Without looking back at the book I can count up twenty that I can summon up clearly—quite distinct from each other, each with their own, memorable personality. 

Frontispiece by Ruth Gervis

At times, especially at the beginning, the language used is a little dated, especially so in the internal monologues of young Jimmy Farrar. To a child in 1940 I’m sure this would have sounded fresh and contemporary, but it raises an interesting question for today’s children’s authors about how far it’s worth sacrificing longevity for the sake of that modern feel. Here’s Jimmy:

“. . . it was queer, it really was, the way David and Gerda remained dead nuts on horses though they hardly ever saw one. There was no money for extras like riding in their family. Came of having ridden in India, he supposed, when he and Sally were too small to do so. Now a car was worth looking at. Every blessed one of them different . . .’

I don’t mind this at all myself. I’m sure it’s how Jimmy and his contemporaries talked, but I suspect it may be one reason why this particular Carnegie winner is out of print, hard to find, and undeservedly forgotten. Not a huge amount happens, but everyone is changed by their experiences. Here are some examples of those young children I was talking about. In this first extract the families from London have just arrived after an exhausting journey.

“Hardly had they gone through the gate when they ran into a small boy. He had on a coat far too big for him, and his head with its large grey cap stuck out from the collar in a bewildered tortoise-like way.
            ‘Please, wot’s the way out of the park?’ he asked them in a wavering voice.
‘Way out of the park? But this isn’t a park,’ said Sally.
‘I got to get fish and chips for mum. I got a shillin’, but I can’t find no way out to the streets. I bin all round. No cops to ask either, there aren’t.’
            It was Ernest. His big grey eyes, ringed with fatigue, were swimming with tears. The moment Mrs Huggett had gone his mother had fancied fish and chips for a bit of supper, and sent him out to get some. He’d promised dad to take care of mum but he couldn’t find no shop . .  . If this wasn’t a park he didn’t know what it was.”

And here are some children playing on their own. This scene could come from any Nursery or Reception class (complete with well-meaning adult asking stupid questions, or well-meaning ten-year-old in this case):

“It was a hot day and no one was wearing very much. Cyril was driving Ireen, harnessed with a piece of rope. Sydney, in a pair of bathing drawers, was playing a game of his own up and down the steps where once poor Mr Bloss’s parents had climbed to mount their horses. He travelled up them, gave three stamps, and came down again; that was the whole game, but he’d made it up himself so he was happy playing it. Benjy was sitting in Syd’s bed of earth, digging with Syd’s spoon, busy planting his three wooly balls. Syd had lost interest in these possessions.
            Feeling interested, but rather out of it, Sally decided to tackle Benjy.
        ‘What are you doing, Benjy?’ she inquired.
‘Plantin,’ said Benjy.
‘What, potatoes?’
‘Yus. Potatoes and gravy.’ He hadn’t thought it out, but that would do.” 

A trip to the beach

Visitors from London was based on Kitty Barne’s own experience as a house mother looking after evacuees. She was married to Noel Streatfeild’s cousin, Eric, and it was at Streatfeild’s suggestion that Barne had turned to writing children’s books. After her promising career as a musician had been cut short by a botched operation which left her deaf in one ear, Barne had made a name for herself writing, producing and directing amateur theatrical performances for the Girl Guide Association, as well as serving as their music and drama adviser. By 1936 she was worn out by the work and found herself in hospital with a breakdown. Streatfeild, fresh from her triumph with Ballet Shoes, urged her to write a story about a musical child. This was She Shall Have Music, a book which lost out in the 1938 Carnegie Medal competition to Streatfeild’s own The Circus is Coming

Kitty Barne

Visitors from London is illustrated by Noel Streatfeild's older sister, Ruth Gervis, and the process of illustration was a truly collaborative one. Gervis describes it: 'After I had read over the MS, we would meet and then, her good ear towards me, her eyes shining, her face alive with interest, she would discuss her characters. I used to make dozens of quick sketches of every single character until I had got them as she pictured them.'

It's hardly surprising that Visitors from London reflects to some degree the conventional views of the time about the roles of men and women, but there are plenty of strong female characters in this book, not least 12-year-old Lily who acts as a mother to her two younger siblings. ‘I’m twelve I am. Two years I’ve bin looking after them. Mum she went to hospital and she said Lily, if I don’t come back you mind them.’ Lily is incredibly competent and practical, and she even travels with a tin-opener!  Then there’s Daphne, a volunteer who’s going to be a land girl and wears slacks. Here’s her first appearance: ‘She strolled on long slim legs over to the byre, and they saw her in the shadow leaning against the door, and talking to the cowman.’ Economical, elegant prose.

But Kitty Barne waits right till the end, when the husbands turn up, to show us why Mrs Thompson, with her two children and new-born baby, is so timid and miserable. ‘Mr Thompson had come down, as he told his wife at once, with the intention of taking her back to London. He had had enough of being by himself, enough of boiling the kettle and making himself tea when what he wanted was something hot and something ready when he got back from work.’

And then we see Mrs Thompson in the back of the van as they are about to leave: ‘Roly peered in and saw Mrs Thompson, a jelly of tears, sitting in a dark corner of the van, Myra Jinny (the baby) in her arms. ‘Been so kind . . . don’t want to go,’ she sobbed.’

This really is a very good book by a very good writer. She wrote many more books and I’m looking forward to reading them.

Visitors from London is out of print.


Sue Purkiss said...

I'd like to read this - be interesting to campare it with modern books about evacuees. Thanks, Paul!

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks for another Carnegie. I read this post yesterday, and read it again today.

The writing does feel fresh and grounded in well-observed real-life, esp for adults, but - noting that the title is out of print and hard to find - I am wondering about how the book worked with the readership, rather than the library judging panel.

Back then, would the writing and story have been too realistic? Parents & relations are usually the buyers and choosers of books so maybe the realism felt too close and too uncomfortable?

If you were reaind it as a bedtime story, would it be better to escape into imaginary adventures on boats or mystery islands when you had lived through this and other wartime experiences? Or how it would work as an end of the day classroom story in city schools?

Not criticising, just pondering. Hugely interesting!

Paul May said...

Penny, my impression is that, especially in the first twenty or thirty years, the Carnegie panel found it hard to shake off a kind of Reithian paternalism. The Library Association founded the medal 'to raise standards of children's books' and in the early years Marcus Crouch says 'although the views of children's librarians were sought, specialists in children's literature were very sparsely represented on the selection sub-committee.'

I don't think that the working-class children from London were very likely to have read this book - much more likely it found its way into the hands of children like the Farrars. I don't know what sales of Visitors from London were like, though it was reprinted in 1960, and apparently it wasn't until the 1960s that winning the Carnegie became a big deal. I certainly think that young readers would have engaged wholeheartedly with the children trying to make sense of their new life in the country, but I'd have to admit that at this point they were more likely to be reading Enid Blyton.

Mystica said...

I'd like to get hold of this one. Should be very interesting reading.