Sunday 6 March 2022

What We Have Been by Paul May

'We are all of us,' says Penelope Lively, 'not just what we are now but what we have been.' She was writing about the origins of her 1973 Carnegie Medal winning novel The Ghost of Thomas Kempe.

 I live in London now, and I have done for nearly a decade, but before that I lived for forty years in the countryside, in Yorkshire for a bit but mostly in Norfolk. In a sense I've come full-circle because I was born in a hospital in Islington and lived for the first four years of my life in a top-floor flat in Hendon, 200 metres from the A406 North Circular Road, and a half-hour bike ride from where I live today. Here's a photo of the block of flats that I took yesterday. It's almost unchanged by nearly seventy intervening years, though the cars passing by look very different. 

It was here that I looked out of a window, the third from the right on the top floor in the photo, to watch for my dad arriving home in the car he'd acquired in his new role as a travelling knitwear salesman. And I saw, in the street outside, just by where I stood yesterday to take the photo, a car on fire. My mum had to calm me down and assure me that it wasn't my dad's car, but even though he walked through the door a few minutes later quite unharmed, the image of those flames melded with images of nuclear explosions that we saw all the time on TV in the 1950s and 60s to form the climax of the terrible nightmares I had for a few years. I can still picture it now. I'd thought we'd done with the nightmare of a possible nuclear war, but it seems not.

Driving along that section of the A406 today doesn't make you think of countryside. A narrow, grimy, litter-strewn pavement creeps along beside the six lanes of heavy traffic. It wasn't like this in 1955, and my childhood, even here in London, was surprisingly rural in feel. It was peaceful and safe. On a patch of grass behind that hedge near the front door my mum would leave me sleeping in my pram for an hour at a time. When I was older we would walk beside the North Circular, my mum pushing my sister in the same pram, and I remember trees and a grassy verge and just the occasional car passing. I played with a large gang of children of all ages in the wilderness of a bomb-site beside the flats. And, remarkably, as it does all over London, the countryside still manages to keep a foothold today, especially beside the rivers. I doubt whether many of the thousands of drivers who pass along this bit of road realise that the River Brent flows through a narrow strip of woodland right beside the road; that a heron often sits beside the river; that wild garlic grows in profusion on the river banks.

Wild garlic by the River Brent

I've now read the first 35 Carnegie Medal winners and almost all of them have rural settings. I'll even step out on a limb here and suggest that most fiction written for children before the late 1970s was predominantly rural in character, whether high-brow and beloved by librarians or low-brow and beloved by children.  Boarding-school stories were always set in schools in the countryside and even when Geoffrey Trease, in response to a plea from young fans, started writing his Bannermere series about ordinary kids in a ordinary day school he set them in the Lake District countryside. British society since the first world war has been overwhelmingly urban in character and yet children's fiction before the 1980s rarely reflected that reality. Neither did it reflect the reality of war.

I've mentioned before on this blog what a huge influence WW2 has been on children's fiction and especially on Carnegie Medal winners, but, looking down the list of winners I've read, I think it's only in The Borrowers and in The Lantern Bearers that children are given a real, visceral experience of what it might be like to the helpless victims of forces greater than themselves. In the two books written during WW2 about that war, We Couldn't Leave Dinah turned the war into a kind of adventure thriller with ponies and, Visitors From London concerned evacuees adapting to life in the countryside. For most of the period I'm talking about the Cold War continued inexorably, alongside the Suez crisis, the Korean war, the Vietnam war, Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the Cuban missile crisis.

So it's interesting that the spectre of nuclear apocalypse didn't, as far as I can recall, appear in children's fiction until the Cold War was almost over. I'm thinking of Robert Swindells' Brother in the Land (1984). Even later, in 2011, there came Mal Peet's Life an Exploded Diagram, a book which directly, and brilliantly, addressed the impact of the far-away crisis over Cuban missiles on the life of a boy growing up in rural Norfolk. It reminded me forcibly of the way I felt back then, and reminded me that the places I wanted to go in books were Enid Blyton's Kirrin Island or Arthur Ransome's Lake District and emphatically not the horror of a nuclear war. Robert Swindells and Mal Peet were both Carnegie winners with other books, and Mal Peet's Tamar is yet another WW2 novel.

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe is not about war and it has a comfortably familiar old-fashioned feel in some ways, but although it's set in an Oxfordshire village where the Harrison family have recently moved to an ancient cottage, the village is changing: '(Ledsham) was a very old place, half way between a village and a small town, and had, somehow, the air of being dwarfed by the present. New housing estates were mushrooming now on two sides of it, but the centre remained as it must always have been with the houses and streets a size smaller than the houses and streets of a modern town.'

Thomas Kempe is the extremely troublesome ghost of a seventeenth century 'cunning man or sorcerer'. He is out of tune with modern times, his spirit having been awakened by builders renovating the Harrisons' cottage, and he co-opts the unwilling young James Harrison to be his apprentice. He does not intend to be, like the town, 'dwarfed by the present.' Thomas Kempe communicates by writing and by throwing things around. Among the modern practices he deplores is learning about the weather from the TV. Here's a sample of his communications:

"There is much business for us in this town: I fancy many doe practise witchery. Tell thy family they shall know what the weather will be from me and not from that eville machine or I will break more pots."

The problem for James, of course, is that he gets the blame for everything. Thinking about his mother he concludes, 'I'm the sort of boy who might do that sort of thing. And she knows that. Because it's the sort of thing I do sometimes.' James, in fact, appears to have a mild form of what we might today call ADHD. The dialogue in the book, especially between the children, is an interesting mixture of convincingly naturalistic and slightly old-fashioned, so that, rather like the village/town we often seem poised between the 1950s and the 1970s. James has a tendency to say things like 'gosh!' and 'Crumbs'. It's a funny and interesting story, but it's more than that, and Penelope Lively intended it to be so. She puts it more succinctly than I ever could, so here's what she said about it in Written for Children:

"Thomas Kempe, and his background of a place—house and village—which have lasted considerably longer than the people who live there now, is a device for me to explore a personal preoccupation with memory. The curious business that we are all of us not just what we are now but what we have been. To grown-ups this is—or ought to be—self-evident. We know that we are sustained by our memories. Children, on the other hand, it seems to me, are barely aware of this, but at the same time they are fascinated by the implications of it all. No child seriously believes that it is going to grow up, and yet here are parents and others claiming once to have been children . . . The point at which children extend this unimaginable truth towards other people, and recognise the layers of time and memory in adults, seems to me to be an important moment in the growing-up process."

Towards the end of the book these themes rise closer to the surface and are articulated most clearly by James's elderly neighbour, Mrs Verity "You think back. And often it seems more real than now. I mean, here I am, like this, but in my mind it's like I was different. Young, you see. You never really believe you're not any more." James has come to realise that people have "layers, like an onion," but I'm not sure any child will be ready to understand Mrs Verity's truth. (I only just noticed the significance of her name!!) That's a thing you only really understand once you've piled on a few years yourself.

These themes of time, change, memory and age were also at the heart of Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden, and I'd be very surprised if that book wasn't an influence on Penelope Lively, as it opened up the possibility of addressing these kind of things in a children's book. Those same themes were the ones that powered Penelope Lively's career as a novelist for adults and helped her to gain the distinction of being the only writer to date to win both the Carnegie Medal and the Booker Prize. And having written The Ghost of Thomas Kempe she did in fact go on to write about war in a children's book, Going Back (1975), which was subsequently reissued on the adult list. Naturally those other themes are there too, as a middle-aged woman revisits the scene of her war-time childhood in the Devon countryside, but the book deals directly, through the children's soldier father and a conscientious objector called Mike, with some difficult moral issues.

So, why are all those children's books set in the countryside? When I was a child, even though I lived in towns and cities, most of my time was spent outside, away from my parents, exploring neighbourhoods with my friends. The freedom was real. We weren't tethered to playgrounds, constantly supervised and/or constantly available on a mobile phone. And the places we sought out were the wild, secret places, like the bombsite I'd explore with that random bunch of kids of all ages when I was only three or four years old. 

Maybe experiences like that make you want to be a children's writer, and then those experiences shape what you write. Maybe, even though we are now so urban, there is always a part of us dreaming of the natural world. 

I don't know, but one random and slightly unconnected thought does occur to me. There's this difference between being an older person writing for children and a young person writing for adults about older people. The children's author has been there. That young novelist straight out of university trying to win the Booker Prize has it all yet to come.

Paul May's website


Penny Dolan said...

Another thoughtful and interesting post to read and re-read, Paul.
Thank you.

Susan Price said...

Agreed, Penny!