Thursday 6 June 2019

Badgers and Other Beasts: the books of Janni Howker by Paul May

I have a huge number of children’s books on my shelves, most of them bought in charity shops and second-hand bookshops over the years. I have not read all of them.  I used to think I might, but nowadays I think it’s unlikely that I’ll ever read some of them. Every so often I take a book off the shelf and start to read it.  And sometimes, just once in a while, I can’t stop.

This edition has easily the best cover
by Emma Chichester-Clark

That’s what happened when I picked up a battered paperback copy of Janni Howker’s Badger on the Barge one day last year. It was a book that I’d seen around a lot.  Several of Janni Howker’s books have found their way into school syllabuses over the years and that may be another thing that had put me off reading Badger on the Barge.  But the title story is simply devastating, as well as uplifting and very funny.  It’s about death and grief and families and relationships and it is beautifully written:

‘For the first time ever, she saw a badger. The black and grey striped head poked through the door, and then came the fat rippling skirting-board of his body . . .

“Come here, you silly old lump,” said Miss Brady. The badger came bouncing up to her, like a grey rug being shaken.’

Each of the five stories in the collection contains a death. Each of them confronts a child with new and sometimes harsh truths about the adult world.  The final story, The Topiary Garden, was republished later in a beautiful little edition with illustrations by Anthony Browne. 

Death is a presence in all Janni Howker’s books.  There are only five of them, if you don’t count The Topiary Garden. Badger on the Barge was published in 1984, and it was followed in quick succession by The Nature of the Beast (1985) and Isaac Campion (1986).  There was then a hiatus of eight years before Martin Farrell (1994) and another gap of three years before the picture book, Walk with a Wolf (1997). There has been nothing since.

Each book is quite different from all the others, in ways which might have put off some publishers (they were all published by Julia MacRae), but they are uniformly excellent. The Nature of the Beast is set in a Lancashire town as mill closures and unemployment threaten.  Isaac Campion is the story of the son of a Lancashire horse dealer at the start of the twentieth century, and Martin Farrell an intense, poetically written border ballad with a supernatural edge, set in the reign of Elizabeth I.  I wouldn’t say any of these books is an easy read, but they have wonderful characters, a rich sense of place and, above all, a brilliant, precise and economical use of language, which is exemplified for me by the opening lines of the picture book, Walk with a Wolf.

‘Walk with a wolf in the cold air before sunrise.
She moves, quiet as mist,
            Between spruce trees and birches.’

I love the way that 'quiet as mist' conjures up the silence of the early morning, at the same time as implying the the silence and the quality of the wolf's passage. Janni Howker doesn't say that the wolf moves like the mist, but somehow wolf and mist become one as they pass through the trees.  Most of this story is told in spare, deceptively simple language, but dotted throughout are images that deepen the effect. The wolf pack 'set off together, like eight ghost dogs, silent and stealthy as the coming of frost.'  The wolves are made part of the winter by this simile, just as they were by the earlier reference to the mist.

And there is a death, as always. The hungry wolves drag down an old moose.  'Drops of his blood fall like berries to the ground.'  

Sadly none of these books seem to be in print at the moment, though you can find new copies of Walk with a Wolf online.  I was able to buy very good (as in almost unhandled) hardback copies of all the other books second-hand, and that did give me pause for thought.  I wondered how much they’d been read, for I am really not sure that, with the exception of Walk with a Wolf, these are children’s books at all.  At the end of Isaac Campion the 96-year-old eponymous narrator has this to say:

‘One thing else I wanted to tell you. I have a notion in my head that children weren’t invented until after the Great War. In that time of day when I was born, you weren’t children with toys like they are these days. You were just a damn nuisance and a mouth to feed until you could do a days work.’

These are books that, even when they are about children are just as much about the adults around them. And I’d love to know how children react to them. 

I think I'll go and pull another random book off the shelf and see where that leads me.

From the dust jacket of Martin Farrell

Paul May's website


Sue Purkiss said...

I used to teach Badger on the Barge back in the 70s and 80s. They were marvellous stories for sparking off discussions about all sorts of interesting - and difficult - topics: The Egg Man dealt with what happens when a community gets suspicious about an old man who lives on his own, and there was one about a German prisoner of war which led to all sorts of good work and things being found out. I haven't read her other books; I must search them out, because she's a very good writer. Thanks for this, Paul!

Susan Price said...

Oh, 'Martin Farrell'! Wonderful book -- but I read it because the theme tied in with my own Sterkarm books. I hadn't realised she'd written so many others -- and by your account, Paul, they're just as good. Sue recommends them too! I must look out for them.

Paul May said...

There's a brilliant twist at the end of the German POW story, Sue - I re-read it the other day and it's a very complex story. Susan, I wonder if you also know Andrew Greig's Fair Helen? Also very good and in your territory! Slightly terrifying how soon really terrific books can be forgotten.

Ann Turnbull said...

Paul, it's so strange to be reading your post because I've recently finished reading Badger on the Barge and Isaac Campion, and have in fact drafted a review of Isaac Campion for Awfully Big Reviews - which I'll be re-joining in a few months' time. I agree with everything you say about Janni Howker's work. She is a wonderful writer.

Paul May said...

I’ll look forward to your review, Ann.