MARSH AWARD FOR CHILDREN’S LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION
Ladies and gentlemen! Dear creatures…
Some of you here tonight know well the extraordinary range of the Marsh Awards many of them for voluntary work, across the fields of social welfare, heritage, conservation and the arts, and some of you have been actively involved in supporting them. Bur more, I suspect, are of my ilk, and have been aware of the Marsh Christian Trust without really appreciating its remarkable work.
You’ve only to open a parish newsletter or something similar to see how our country is underpinned by a quite astonishing number of societies, clubs, organisations, many of them local; they’re the gossamer, sometimes visible, sometimes not, that links us – and in some ways the Marsh Awards resemble them. Not all of them command widespread publicity, but these awards, now totalling more than seventy, are often one of a kind and highly influential, and to those who receive them they make a very great deal of difference: the confidence that comes from the esteem of one’s peers, and some welcome cash.
One of the reasons King Alfred was remembered in medieval England as ‘Engle hyrde, Engle deorling’ – the shepherd of the English, the darling of the English – was his true care for his subjects. Do you remember how he set about learning Latin, and this while fending off the Vikings and coping with a recurring stomach complaint, so that he could translate into the vernacular? And in so doing, because there was no English prose tradition, coax and knead our language into a workmanlike and flexible medium. King Alfred was the first father of English educational reform. You can’t read his preface to Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care, in which he reviews the decay of learning in England, and how earlier cultures – the Greeks, the Hebrews, the Romans – had understood the crucial importance of translation, without being deeply moved.
For ðy me ðyncð betre, gif iow swæ ðyncð , ðæt we ealh suma bec, ða ðe niedbeðearfosta sien eallum monnum to wiotonne, ðæt we ða on ðæt geðiode wenden, ðe we ealle gecnawan mægen, ond gedon, swæ we swiðe eaðe magon mid Godes fultume, gif we ða stilnesse habbað…
‘Therefore,’ he says, ‘it seems better to me, if you think so, for us also to translate some books… into the language which we can all understand…’ And so he ploughs on, in hope and in faith!
My own first experience with translation was by no means so well-planned. Having failed my Anglo-Saxon prelims at Oxford, I was at risk of being slung out – or ‘sent down’, as Oxonians so gracefully put it. Sitting in a moored punt before my retake, puzzling over grammar, eating a pork pie and listening to a piece of music by my father on the radio, I was attacked by a swan. Well, I knew about Leda! I’d no wish to be raped! So I threw myself onto the bank, ripped a cartilage, and ended up in the Radcliffe Hospital with ample time to learn grammar, choose a nurse as a new girl friend, and for fun translate some of the lyrical, witty, sometimes saucy Anglo-Saxon riddles. In my twenties, I translated Beowulf; and when Seamus Heaney made his celebrated translation more than a generation later, he and I corresponded about the relative strengths and weaknesses of one another’s versions…
Because this is the point! Even an apparently simple line, or stanza, or paragraph, begs so many questions and can be translated in so many, so many ways. Many of us here know this at firsthand. And many who have run translation workshops have seen what a revelation it is for students to be confronted by a battery of factors, alternatives, and necessary compromises.
Margaret Atwood was wholly right to say, in her 2014 Sebald Lecture, that ‘the choices that bedevil the writer bedevil the translator ten times over’ and, of course, that ‘as writers we are in translators’ hands; while as readers, translations open doors for us that would otherwise remain shut… and allow us to hear voices that would otherwise remain silent for us’.
Quite the most ghastly statistic I came across last year (and I’ve just been writing about it for The School Librarian), was provided by Daniel Hahn in his Four Thought talk (Radio 4). ‘In preparation for this talk,’ he said, ‘I went to a major London bookshop – and it’s a good one – and did some counting. In my statistically laughable sample of one, this is what I found. 2047 children’s books, of which 2018 were by English-language writers, and 29 were translations. Of these, the number of living writers represented was… 6’
6! And overall, I think I’m right in saying, only 3% of books on bookshop shelves are in translation. This won’t do. It won’t even begin to do. And it bespeaks a combination of arrogance, greed and stupidity.
But this isn’t a new problem. Not at all. Like me, you’ll have read as children a number of books in translation without it ever occurring to you that they were in translation. Fattypuffs and Thinifers (I loved that book!) and Struwelpeter and The Little Prince and the tales collected by Asbjornsen and Moe, and Grundtvig, Arnason, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm and so on. But the truth is that in the 1940 and 1950s – yes, as long ago as that – publishers were no more interested in translation for the sake of it, for the sake of our children’s delight and education and horizons, than they are now. The translation of children’s books into English was and is no philanthropic enterprise but a commercial industry.
In a way, I suppose it’s indicative of how most publishers view translators and translation as something necessary but a nuisance that on the title page the name of the translator is often, in fact almost always, printed in small type, or in few disgraceful instances omitted altogether; and that the translator’s biographical note is customarily shorter than that of author and illustrator. In other words, translators are often treated like second-class citizens. Bad! Very bad!
But let me hammer home this point about education and horizons, since I’m preaching not only to the converted here tonight but to a readership – out there! Firstly, most of us have only a sketchy idea of the quality of children’s novels and poems being written in languages other than English – but we’re assured by experts that it is great, very great and copious. Indeed, one has only to look at the dipstick of tonight’s fascinating shortlist, and the longlist that preceded it, to see the likelihood of that. Secondly, our country is essentially multi-cultural (the compound is hurled at us every day), and this means that we should be educating and exciting children – native English-speaking children – with stories set in Pakistan and Poland and Lithuania and India and and and … translated into English. Are we doing that? Really, are we even beginning to? No, we translate scarcely more than a handful of books, and most of those are from west European countries.
I’ve compiled a little wish-list. As a writer, I wish there were some kind of monitoring system to protect my tribe against poor translations. I’ve heard a fair number of times from friends in Russia and elsewhere that some translations of my books are downright bad. What can I do about it? What can my publishers (who can’t read the translations either) do about it? Not a lot, except rely on hearsay, and play safe, and put quality before profit. As a reader, I wish more publishers were committed to a quota, however limited, of children’s books in translation – and were genuinely eager to contribute to the pressing social need for us not to be little Englanders but to feel and experience ourselves to be part of one Europe, one world. Is it precisely because we once had an Empire that we are still so often so self-satisfied and narrow in our thinking?
‘What is it?’ the sales director of the publishing house of Macmillan (where I began my own publishing life) recently asked a press of school librarians: ‘what is it that you want us to do?’
So as President of the School Library Association, let me reply that, inter alia, British publishers should simply make available more children’s books in translation – everyone here knows that the great majority of British publishers go to Frankfurt and Bologna without any express intention of buying books from foreign authors but only of selling rights in their own English-language titles – but I do want, most sincerely and admiringly, to exempt those publishers with books on tonight’s shortlist, Pushkin and Walker and Andersen and Bloomsbury. And finally, I would like the SLA to publish a survey in its Riveting Reads series given over wholly to children’s books in translation.
There! That’s just about enough from me. Have you come across Sam Cannarozzi’s delightful When Tigers Smoked Pipes in the Society for Storytelling’s Artisan series? It’s a booklet about openings and endings in traditional tale. ‘And they all lived happily ever after’. Well, of course. But here too are endings wonderfully succinct: Tfai! (That’s Inuit) Finished! Here are endings involving an exchange between teller and listener, and endings recognising that storytelling is a time in time and out of time! All this – and of course those endings that point a moral, or end with a lie, or that drive the listener back from the imaginary to the actual: ‘Excuse me,’ says one storyteller, though I fear my translation from Tamil may be rather approximate, ‘excuse me, but I must stop now. Because I’ve just heard that next door, in the Chesterfield hotel, a flea has given birth to an elephant, and I’ve got to go and check it out.’
But before I can do that… there are a couple of small matters. Since writing this little talk, I’ve been talking to the School Library Association, and the general editor of its significant Riveting Reads series – you may have seen the last book, on WWI with a fine foreword by Morpurgo – and I can report that the SLA is warmly disposed to add to the series with a publication on children’s books in translation! This is wonderful news, isn’t it? Thousands and thousands of school librarians will have an opportunity to read an authoritative assessment of titles very largely new to them. But of course the question is who is well qualified (and might have time) to curate this publication needs more thought.
And secondly. Well, this moment you’ve really been waiting for, and I hope I haven’t obliged you to wait for too long. The winner of the biennial 2015 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation is Margaret Jull Costa for her translation from Basque of The Adventures of Shola by Bernardo Atxaga, published by Pushkin – who had no fewer than three books on the shortlist.
FOOTPRINTS ON THE GRASS
Speaking of Gardens and Children’s Books
The Sixth Philippa Pearce Lecture at Homerton College, Cambridge
Yesterday evening, I sauntered, I dawdled, I shuffled… ah! how rich in assonance, consonance and alliteration the garden of our language is. Yesterday evening, I ambled and rambled, I padded, I pottered between.
Not between waking and sleep. Not between land and sea. Not across some tumbledown bridge, potent as all crossing-places are. No, I meandered between actuality and imagination in my own ever-changing garden.
Above me, the Milky Way, that astounding rash of stars never seen, not even once, by 42% of British children because of light pollution; below me, chalky earth, and the lifelines and layers of England; around me, such a depth of silence that any sound at all is singular and quick. A partridge, reshuffling its feathers; the hollow tom-tom of a distant owl; a cool breath of night wind; these, and that sense, indefinable, that sense of the green world growing.
No wonder our language teems with phrases, sayings and epithets relating to the world of the garden: ‘a tough row to hoe’, ‘a rose by any other name’; ‘other men’s flowers’; ‘our wills are gardeners (that’s Shakespeare in Othello): ‘Virtue! A fig! ‘Tis in ourselves that we are thus, or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to which our wills are gardeners’; ‘the grass withereth (the grath wizereth), the flower fadeth’ (the verse I most dreaded when it was my turn to read the lesson at school); ‘in the gardens of the night…’
Indeed, each word in our language (there are well-over 60,000, virtually double the number of any other language, largely by virtue of modern English being derived from both Anglo-Saxon and Latin, via Norman-French)… each word has its own stem and root. And other than the OED itself, the only book I use daily is the wonderful Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, edited by the felicitously named C. T. Onions. It may be short on silver bells and cockleshells, let alone rows of pretty maids; but, put simply, it makes my lexical garden grow.
And then, in my night-garden, I thought – I think I thought! – of how much the nature and purpose of a garden has changed, and how for our forebears in the Middle Ages it was essentially a place of order as opposed to the wilderness outside the walls or high hedges, a source of sustenance, a provider of healing.
‘Get a garden!’ writes Walafrid-Strabo in De cultura Hortorum in the 9th century:
Get a garden! What kind you may get matters not,
Though the soil be light, friable, sandy and hot,
Or else heavy and rich with stiff clay;
Let it lie on a hill, or slope gently away
To the level, or sink in an overgrown dell –
Don’t despair, it will serve to grow vegetables well!
One of my pillow-books is Geoffrey Grigson’s The Englishman’s Flora (I used to publish Geoffrey’s poems, and in Wiltshire Jane once cooked me the most heavenly lunch while Geoffrey scattered rose petals over my VW Beetle!), and I’ve just opened the Flora entirely at random. Scarlet pimpernel! Almost every county has its own name for it (it’s anagallis arvensis in Latin) and I learn that it’s been known for centuries as a combination of clock and weatherglass, and gives you second sight and hearing, and can be used for toothache, snake bite, and liver troubles, and also against melancholy. That’s why it’s known as Laughter Bringer, Shepherd’s Joy, Shepherd’s Delight.
This sort of knowledge, something we’re now eagerly recovering, has never been lost to societies more ‘primitive’ than ours. Much of it is embedded and transmitted in quatrains and sayings; and a delight in plant names if not properties underlies a lot of rather ‘weedy’ verse as well as poems as charming as Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Flowers’:
ALL the names I know from nurse:
Gardener’s garters, Shepherd’s purse,
Bachelor’s buttons, Lady’s smock,
And the Lady Hollyhock.
Fairy places, fairy things,
Fairy woods where the wild bee wings,
Tiny trees for tiny dames-
These must all be fairy names!…
In classical Greece and Rome, and before as well as after the Renaissance, plant life and lore was the subject of academic study and a quarry for poets. But of course our sense of gardens being at the heart of the matter goes back much further. One can hazard a guess that ever since humans stopped being nomadic hunter-gatherers and began to cultivate, the plants they grew and protected were perceived as having crucial and magical powers.
For more than a couple of thousand years, Chinese gardens have been repositories of serenity, literary, artistic and philosophical meaning, and have been planted and tended so as to embody the interaction of Yin (the dark, passive, absorbing female force) and Yang (the light, active, penetrating male force) that underpins the natural world and human biology.
Water, Water! The source of life itself, replenishment, delight. Think of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, just south of Baghdad, one of the seven wonders of the world – a series of terraces irrigated by water raised by means of a giant screw (this is in the days of Nebuchadnezzar, in the 6th century BC). Think of the glorious Moorish Alhambra in Granada with its ‘cuts and lodes and waterways’, to steal a phrase from Philippa Pearce. The Koran describes paradise as a leafy garden where fountains play and running water courses, the place where the ‘fortunate ones’ can take their rest. As you may well know, the word parÃ¡deisos was first used by Xenophon to describe the parks of Persian kings and nobles.
The most celebrated garden or orchard in Classical mythology, meanwhile, must be the one in North Africa containing the apple-tree guarded by an hundred-headed dragon – its apples belonging to the three Hesperides, daughters of Atlas. This myth has its Norse counterpart in the apples of youth that the goddess Idun picks and gives to all the gods and goddesses day by day – until they’re stolen by the giant Thiazi, and after they’ve been recovered again by Odin!
And yes, I was coming to it! The Judaeo-Christian tradition has its Eden:
‘And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.’
So here is the garden in which man and woman, called Eve ‘because she was the mother of all living’, became conscious of themselves, conscious of right and wrong; in which, therefore (I suppose) they developed memory. Banished from it, at large in the wilderness of the world, this consciousness (as M. Scott-Peck has pointed out) brings them intense pain but also more joy than anything they could experience in paradise; an opportunity to grow into responsibility and commitment, and to shoulder the pain of others.
You’d not be wholly right if you expected to find many a garden – what’s the collective name for gardens? – in the huge canon of folk-tale European and Middle Eastern, but they’re fairly plentiful in the Brothers Grimm.
Ashputtle is helped by little white doves in the dovecote and by the hazel and pear trees. Golden apples grow in a beautiful garden in ‘The Golden Bird’. Rabbit eats all the cabbages in the highly erotic ‘Bunny Rabbit’s Bride’. There are two rosebushes in the garden in front of the hut where Snow White and Rose Red live with their widowed mother. And in one of the tales shared by the Grimms’ with Perrault, ‘Briar Rose’ or ‘The Sleeping Princess’ or ‘Sleeping Beauty’, the briar hedge that grows round the garden and palace where the princess sleeps – a hedge teeming with ‘big beautiful flowers which opened of their own accord’ – protects innocence. And of course one of the Grimms’ most startling tales is also set in a garden: the grisly yet visionary sequence of events caused by the magic properties of a juniper tree…
But may I tell you a 15th century folk-tale, beginning and ending, what, no more than 50 miles from here?
‘The Pedlar of Swaffham’
Long ago, and not so long, there was a pedlar and this pedlar had a dream that he must walk to London. London Bridge!
He’d never been a tenth as far before. But he couldn’t get this dream out of his head, and the next night he had the same dream again: a man was standing over him, dressed in a surcoat as red as blood, and urging him, “Go to London Bridge! Go, good will come of it.”
So that’s what the pedlar did. He walked with his mastiff all the way to London Bridge. But when he got there, he didn’t know why he’d come, or who to talk to. He felt completely lost.
That night the pedlar stayed in a tavern.
Well! Three days went by. The pedlar admired a dancing bear. He saw a band of pilgrims set off for Walsingham, singing. But he was beginning to feel rather stupid.
“Why did we bother to come?” he asked his mastiff. “You tell me that.”
This was when a shopkeeper waddled up to him. She looked more like a hen than a woman, she did.
“What are you up to?” she demanded. “Are you waiting for me to turn my back? I’ve been watching you loitering around for the past three days.”
‘When the shopkeeper heard why the pedlar had walked all the way to London Bridge, she cackled with laughter. She nearly laid an egg!
“Only fools follow their dreams!” she exclaimed.
The pedlar looked at her so dismally. He was almost penniless, and very tired, and more than one hundred miles from home.
“We all have dreams,” the shopkeeper told him. “Only last night I dreamed about a pedlar with a pot of gold at the bottom of his garden. I ask you! Nonsense!” She patted the pedlar on the shoulder and tutted. “Take my advice and go back home.”
The pedlar went home.
He dug and he dug and right next to his gnarled hawthorn, the pedlar prised out of the clammy earth a very large metal pot.
Yes, and it was packed with gold coins.
He kept some, gave some away and paid for the church to be rebuilt.
All because he followed his dream. The whole point of the pedlar’s journey was to get back home again.
I first heard this tale from my father – he used to sit by my sister’s and my bunk bed and, with his Welsh harp, sing-and-say stories to us night after night. But what does it mean? What is this folk-tale saying? Follow your dreams? Be persistent, get stuck in? Give money to the church (not that medieval householders had any choice – they had to pay their tithe), give money and win a passport to heaven? All these things, no doubt. But surely the tale’s primary meaning is that the greatest treasure in the world is to be found on our own doorsteps, in our own gardens, within the bosom of the family, if only we have the nous to recognise it; this, and that we may well have to go away first in order to come back and find the treasure.
It’s really not so long since people in Britain accepted that we human beings were surrounded by thinking, feeling, two-legged beings, seldom or never seen – beings with whom, for the most part, it was perfectly possible to co-exist in harmony, but who exacted a price for disrespect.
Just over 400 years ago, Shakespeare wrote Midsummer Night’s Dream. Those ‘hempen home-spuns’, the illiterate, who saw a performance of the play, would certainly have not been wholly sceptical about the existence of fairy folk.
It was above all literacy that led to the decline of belief, or the willing suspension of disbelief: writing later in the 17th century, John Aubrey noted:
Before Printing, Old-wives Tales were ingeniose, and since Printing came into fashion, till a little before the Civill-warres, the ordinary sort of People were not taught to reade. Now-a-dayes Bookes are common, and most of the poor people understand letters; and the many good Bookes, and variety of Turnes of Affaires, have putt all the old Fables out of doors: and divine art of Printing and Gunpowder have frighted away Robin-goodfellow and the Fayries.
Robin Goodfellow. In a felicitous phrase, John Rowe Townsend writes of him as ‘the symbol of old and continuing England’, and that indeed is how Rudyard Kipling uses him in one of the most lovely and layered of novels, Puck of Pook’s Hill.
More and more I find myself thinking that people may die but they do not go away:
– times between times – when the fret
lifts and the world grows wholly wonderful,
we believe for a moment that we’ve levelled
our gaze and are singing in unison,
and only our own doubt
and sense of difference dates us.
Look! They have not gone away.
Not one of them. It is we who leave them;
and now all we can do is love and grieve them.
Given all this – the cultural significance of gardens and our human propensity to personalise the incomprehensible – it’s scarcely surprising that gardens are a leitmotif in the story of children’s books, and may well be inhabited not only by humans but all sorts of other beings.
Actual gardens! Gardens of the mind! Otherworldly, secure, threatening, contradictory, magical, paradisal, continuous, portals, places of growth and death, past, present and future. Timeless, and utterly, utterly alive.
Have you come across the goblin rather similar to Puck known variously as ‘Lubberkin’, and the ‘lubber fiend’, and ‘Lob lie-by-the-Fire’? In the north of England, he’s called ‘hob’. Hence, ‘hobgoblin’. Edward Thomas wrote such a wonderful poem about him:
He sounds like one I saw when I was a child.
I could almost swear to him. The man was wild
And wandered. His home was where he was free.
Everybody has met one such man as he…
He is English as this gate, these flowers, this mire.
And when at eight years old Lob-lie-by-the-fire
Came in my books, this was the man I saw.
He has been in England as long as dove and daw,
Calling the wild cherry tree the merry tree.
The rose campion Bridget-in-her-bravery;
And in a tender mood he, as I guess,
Christened one flower Love-in-idleness.
Following in the footsteps of Edward Thomas, sundry folk-tales and of Mrs Ewing, too, author Lob-lie-by-the-Fire, Linda Newbery makes this appealing creature the focus of her short novel Lob.
Lob lives at the bottom of grandpa’s garden. He’s old as old, and you can only see him sidelong, and only when he wants you to. When Lucy sees him on her own for the first time, her grandfather tells her, ‘You’re learning to see’. So we understand Lob to represent a way of seeing – a way of seeing that revolves around what he embodies and distils: green energy.
Lucy and Grandpa are gently laughed at, and often informed Lob is only make-believe, like the Green Man carvings in some churches…
And then green-fingered Grandpa dies; his cottage is pulled down; his lovely garden, Lob’s home, is wrecked; the whole place is turned into a development site, and Lob becomes an exile, looking for another home, another garden nursed and reared by someone with green fingers.
Now the story becomes picaresque and an antiphon – an alternation between Lob on the road, walking and walking, sprinkling seeds as he goes, Lob on a canal barge with a floating garden, Lob entering a city, Lob ‘manhandled, kidnapped, imprisoned, buried, dunked and almost drowned’ – between scenes such as these and Lucy at school, drawing green faces, Lucy derided for believing in fairy folk, Lucy missing her grandpa and his Lob stories, miserable when she thinks of the lost garden… until the day when Lucy’s parents secure an allotment – right next to blind Cornelius, who grows ‘tomatoes, and spinach, and callaloo…and peppers and squashes and eggplant.’
This gentle, wise and very cleanly, lyrically written book fulfils T. S. Eliot’s prescription of here and now and always. And in case you haven’t read it, I’ll do no more than anticipate the ending by saying that when Lucy meets Cornelius, ‘Each knew that the other knew Lob’.
Linda Newbery is post-Arcadian in that she doesn’t proclaim the superiority of country over city, but rather of green growth, wherever it may be, over concrete and whatever’s stillborn. Her book is imbued with a deep sense of the passage of the seasons. It’s a sort-of love song to imagining, understanding, and therefore breathing and living in the harmony with the natural world, and I wholeheartedly commend it.
It’s thirteen years now since Beverly Naidoo, Bali Rai and I (sitting round Julia Eccleshare’s kitchen table in Hampstead) awarded the coveted Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize to Sonya Hartnett for Thursday’s Child, set during the 1930s Depression in the Outback.
The central character is Tin, a sort of human-dwarf-mole, the younger brother of Harper Flute, the now adult narrator. Born on a Thursday, Tin ‘has far to go’, and where he goes is right under the garden-cum-yard and the foundations of the farmhouse!
After disappearing in a creek and surviving a mudslide by miraculously digging himself out of it, Tin often hides when he feels scared or vulnerable (the fortnight, for instance, when his little brother Caffy is dangerously ill), and where he hides is in the underground passages he keeps digging.
Worrying and upsetting his mother, Tin digs, and he digs, and he digs, until eventually the farmhouse collapses, and falls into Tin’s network of underground tunnels and passageways. And yet the architect of this disaster, by now a kind of little earth wodwo, is also destined to be the family’s (apparent) blessing… For Sonia Hartnett suggests that Tin is not only obsessive and a loner but, by digging, digging, may have been looking to find something, something that might help his impoverished family. Maybe he was prospecting, though the narrator Harper doesn’t buy that. ‘That’s cods, of course,’ she tartly says!
What a book this is: so superbly written as to make one elated; so firmly grounded not in imposed or manufactured events but in the rhythms of day-to-day life and the stillness of the Outback; so sensitive and yet unflinching in its handling of grief; so restrained in its use of metaphor; so poignant.
Plainly, this isn’t a book about a garden in any conventional sense but it is a book about surfaces and interiors, a book about the landscape of the spirit. Let me reiterate: it’s essentially on his own doorstep, in a kind of underground garden, that Tin finds consolation and works out his destiny and salvation. And in digging his own ground, he strikes treasures – just like the pedlar of Swaffham. One can press this line of thought too far, but the truth is that you simply cannot write about yards, orchards, gardens, without being conscious of (and having to take account of) their long story and significance.
Wreckage and healing. Well, of course they underlie the novel that (its author later allowed) was set in the house next to the one in which I was living.
First this author bombed it; then she curled up a little child against the square’s garden railings; and then, she subtly portrayed the development during the Blitz of a relationship between two runaways sheltering and living in the basement of the house.
How is London to be mended? Well, in the longer run, with the building bricks of mutual respect and affection between individuals, nations and cultures. But in the first instance…
I remember my mother taking my sister and me to London, and sitting on the bleachers to witness the new Queen’s progress to St Paul’s, and being appalled by the devastation around me. And you’ll recall, I know, the last and unforgettable words of Jill Paton Walsh’s Fireweed:
I think of it now, leaning on a broken wall, looking at St Paul’s. You can see it much better now that everything round it has been knocked down. All around me there are open acres, acres of ruined and desolate land, where the bombs fell. Over there the square tower of a gutted church survives as the only landmark, till the harmonious walls of the cathedral rise exposed in the background. It’s quiet here, and beautiful, for into this wilderness the wild things have returned. Grass grows here, covering, healing, and russet sorrel in tall spikes, and goldenrod, swaying beside broken walls, full of butterflies, and purple loose-strife, and one plant, willow herb, that some people call fireweed, grows wild in this stony place as plentifully as grass, though it used to be rare enough to be searched out, and collected. It is a strange plant; it has its own rugged sort of loveliness, and it grows only on the scars of ruin and flame.
I suppose they will build on this again, some day: but I like it best like this; grown over; healed.
The garden of England: bombed, wrecked, grown over; healed.
How can one not think at once of the early 16th century Corpus Christi Carol?
Lulli, lullay, lulli, lullay;
The falcon has carried my mate away.
He carried him up, he carried him down,
He carried him into an orchard brown.
In that orchard there was a bed,
Hung with gold shining red.
And in that bed there lies a knight,
His wounds bleeding day and night…
Here is the garden of the suffering Fisher King, the Guardian of the Holy Grail. He has been badly wounded, he is in agony. And only when one knight of the Round Table is so virtuous as to reach and see the Holy Grail can his garden, his orchard, his wasteland (it’s described variously in different medieval Romances), become green and fertile again.
That rules out Sir Lancelot! Sir Gawain, too, because of his lack of charity and faith. Only the virgin knight Sir Galahad and innocent, child-like Sir Perceval, and plain, unpretentious Sir Bors, actually achieve the quest.
Then they looked and saw a man rise out of the holy vessel, and his wounds were those of Christ on the cross, and they were bleeding openly. And he said: “My knights, and my servants and my true children, who have come out of dead material into spiritual life, I will no longer hide myself from you.”
I’m just going to make a quick reference to my Arthur trilogy, and trust this isn’t improper. In common with Gatty’s Tale , Waterslain Angels and Scramasax, gardens have an important part to play. The first is the garden of the Fisher King at Corbenic, and the second is where Arthur de Caldicot learns that the secret and hidden must remain buried until it’s time for them to see the light; the third shows the way in which experience – experience we long for as teenagers – so quickly distances us from Eden, a garden where Arthur grasps how much the violence and pain he has witnessed during the Fourth Crusade have changed him. In this garden, the bees live in harmony with two blissful innocents, in their white clothing, but promptly sting poor Arthur.
While he’s in Zara (now Zadar) in Croatia with the crusaders, Arthur de Caldicot steps into a garden after being involved in a terrible and tragic death, and it’s a spirit-garden: not only a place of nourishing peace but one where Arthur can reach an understanding that everything that must die, as it does in a garden, but that God’s children believe in the resurrection, just as the garden itself will be reborn.
By chance (or not by chance) I came upon a cloistered garden such as this while I was in Zadar, researching this book. It was behind a high wall and a locked door; and a nun, Siser Cika, who had the most engaging way of raising her eyes to heaven and slightly smiling, was working in it. I imagined at once that all her plants must have Biblical names: Jerusalem Cowslips, Mary’s Milkdrops, Yellow Archangel, Ladder to Heaven, St. Johns Wort, Aaron’s Rod, and spikenard – Steps of Christ.
Sister Cika squeezed my hand softly. ‘Arthur,’ she said, ‘you care and think and feel, you are awake to the world; and the more awake we are, the more we hurt when those we love lie ill, or leave us. This is how God’s children are. But He never allows us to hurt more than we can bear.’
‘All will be well and all manner of things will be well,’ said Sister Cika. ‘Take my words on your way. Living we die, but dying we live, Arthur.’
Sister Cika half-smiled at me, and she lifted her eyes.
Guided by his experience, his joy and pain distilled in these four gardens, Arthur de Caldicot comes to understand that, although he’s no Grail knight, each one of us does make a difference. A crucial difference.
Sister Cika told me that Saracens and Jews believe a person who saves the life of another saves the whole world. I believe that too… It’s people following each other like cattle, never questioning, never thinking for themselves, becoming numb to bloodshed and other people’s pain, who turn our world into a wasteland.
A tiny postscript: when I planted Sister Cika’s flower bed, I fondly supposed I was the first person to invent a spirit-garden. Not so,of course! Indeed, I visited one in Bamberg only a few months ago.
Minnow on the Say and Tom’s Midnight Garden were Philippa Pearce’s first two books, published in 1955 and 1958 respectively. And what they have in common, inter alia, are gardens, friendship, quest and a preoccupation with Time.
In Minnow on the Say, we learn that the garden where eleven-year-old David Moss and his family live in Jubilee Row is ‘something quite out of the ordinary’, but this is largely because of its shape and the way in which it leads straight on to the shining thread of the River Say (which is the Cam). Though there are moments in the book when the garden becomes almost an extension of the river itself, because when the Say is in flood it advances up the garden-path, something thrilling for any child and the child in each of us.
But there’s another garden of much greater significance. Adam is the orphan nephew of Miss Codling, and the Codlings have lived a little further up the river for centuries. Her garden is tousled and untidy and overgrown, and this is where Adam and David forge their friendship, often meet, and review what progress they’ve made in their search for treasure.
This treasure was hidden by one Jonathan Codling in 1588 after he was summoned to fight against the Spaniards and, paddling their canoe up and down the Say, David and Adam pursue their quest – trying to solve the puzzling clues left by Jonathan Codling (as narrated by his wife Judith), aware that adult rivals are threatening to find the treasure before they do, and up against Time itself.
In addition to the boys’ awareness that time is against them, and that Adam may well have to return to Birmingham with the quest unresolved, and Miss Codling may even have to sell up because she can no longer afford to maintain the old house, Miss Codling’s ancient father is caught up in time travel of his own. In his heyday, he was captain of the village cricket team, and played a pretty hand at bowls, but now he gets confused, and always think it’s the time before his son, Adam’s father, died.
It’s in the Codling’s garden – half-garden, half-wilderness – that Philippa Pearce allows David one of those moments of intense awareness, or raised consciousness, at which she so excels, so attentive to detail, and bringing the senses into play:
‘He went out in the boat, secretly, with the treasure -‘
‘And hid it “over the water” – somewhere on the far bank of the river!’
The boys gazed at each other, beaming mutual congratulations. David was stirred by so deep an excitement that he stood as in a trance of feeling: he felt the warmth of the sun on his neck; he heard the soft humming of the bees; he smelt the leaves of the apple-mint that had strayed over the neglected path and been trodden and crushed under foot. Adam stretched out his hand and took his, and began leading him, almost ceremoniously, towards the river. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is the beginning of our treasure-seeking.’
Yes, a moment at which, in which, past, present and future meet. But perhaps no less striking is the way in which Philippa Pearce characterises the limit of Miss Codling’s aspirations when, at long last, the coveted treasure is found. Not for her the baubles or bling – of course not. The Tudor treasure may consist of ‘rings and chains of gold, and bracelets and other things, among them being the silver necklace, with pearls hanging thereby like tears, that was brought but lately from Italy’, but, as Miss Codling tells David:
‘I have to keep telling myself that we must go carefully. For example -‘ She hesitated, and then went on sadly but with firmness. ‘It would be folly, for example even to think of a greenhouse.’
And when she discovers it would be ‘quite practicable and not too expensive after all to build just a small greenhouse’, section-built, by the back-door, she whispers half to herself, happily, ‘And I shall stay here forever’.
The two families celebrate together by drinking Flower Wine:
Thimbleful by thimbleful, the wine was dropping into the glasses. It was a reddish-brown colour, that the last of the sunlight illuminated to a deep gold. From it rose a scent heavy, sweet, delicious.
‘No wonder they speak of the bouquet of wine,’ murmured Mr Moss.
David, sniffing at his glass, tried to distinguish all the flowers of that summer bouquet: there was hawthorn, surely – and cowslips – mint – clary – roses, of course… His nose twitched, trying to remember where it had known that particular mingling of scents before.
This is such a lovely book, ‘scented with summer’, steeped in summer. It’s charming and kind and gently exciting. And in many ways it’s a rehearsal for what was to follow.
Only a couple of years ago, Philip Pullman gave us a magisterial reading of Tom’s Midnight Garden, so what follows are really no more than a few alternatives and addenda.
In Minnow, gardens are the means to an end. In Tom’s Midnight Garden, the garden is an end in itself. It’s a state, a condition, and that state is childhood. True, Philippa Pearce herself allowed that her walled garden represented the sheltered security of early childhood, and Tom certainly longs to remain there, but Tom’s strengths are not in the least abstract or metaphorical but very firmly rooted. Let me just list and here and there illustrate them, straightforward as many of them are.
I know some children, and some parents too, who have been deterred from reading Tom by the extraordinary network of events, relationships and thoughts Philippa Pearce portrays in the first couple of chapters. And emotions too. Irritation, regret, hot tears, frustration, impatience, suspicion, petulance and wonder: they’re all there.
But Philippa Pearce is a mistress of rapid establishing and swift characterisation and we know at once that we’re in safe hands. How crucial this is. If it’s not so, if even the author strikes a couple of false notes, the reader no longer so willingly suspends disbelief.
In touching on Philippa Pearce as a superb storyteller, let me simply draw attention to a couple of elements: construction and detail.
Tom’s Midnight Garden is both shapely and artful. This has to do with pacing. We feel the lengths of each scene, and switches from scene to scene, to be right. Revelations (such as the bar in the window of Tom’s room, once Hatty’s room) are achieved by careful planning, and like little electric shocks in their impact on the reader; the many passages about time as experienced by Tom and Hatty, and the very nature of Time (I’ll have more to say about these in a couple of minutes); and the visionary scene that goes outside the garden when Tom and Hatty skate to Ely , prepares the way for the end of the book, and is so appropriate in its timing as to seem to conform to the Golden Mean.
And now detail. The margins of my copy of Tom are littered with ticks and exclamation marks denoting my admiration of Philippa Pearce’s brilliant attention to detail: what I call ‘right’ detail, which would better be called ‘telling’ detail. She never, never inundates us in the way that, say, Balzac does – indeed she seldom overwrites and is never self-conscious or pretty for prettiness’ sake – and yet she engages all our senses, as well as bringing the sixth sense into play.
In addition to the felicitous instances one could pluck from every page, there are really beautiful set pieces, such as that describing how, in the grey, still hour before morning, Tom steps for the first time into the garden:
He had come down the stairs and along the hall to the garden door and stepped out into the garden, but time was much later. All night – moonlight or swathed in darkness – the garden had stayed awake; now, after that night-long vigil, it had dozed off.
The green of the garden was greyed over with dew; indeed, all its colours were gone until the touch of sunrise. The air was still, and the tree-shapes crouched down upon themselves. One bird spoke; and there was a movement when an awkward parcel of feathers dislodged itself from the tall fir-tree at the corner of the lawn, and seemed for a second to fall and then at once swept up and along, outspread, on a wind that new blew, to another, farther tree: an owl. It wore the ruffled, dazed appearance of one who has been up all night.
Tom began to walk round the garden, on tiptoe. At first he took the outermost paths, gravelled and box-edged, intending to map for himself their farthest extent. Then he broke away impatiently on a cross-path. It tunnelled through the gloom of yew-trees arching overhead from one side, and hazel nut stubs from the other: ahead was a grey-green triangle of light where the patch must come out into the open again. Underfoot the earth was soft with the humus of last year’s rotten leaves. As he slipped along, like a ghost, Tom noticed, through gaps in the yew-trees on his right, the flick of a lighter colour than the yew: dark – light – dark – light – dark…
Ah! If only there were time for me. The reader is within a dream, even as Tom without knowing it, is within a dream – one of old Mrs Bartholomew’s dreams – in which so much can happen, and does, within so few seconds. Or, one might say, in no time at all.
What I’ve had to say relates to the writer’s craft: construction and timing and characterisation and language and so on. But all this would count for little if Tom were not so warm, so wise, and tough-minded.
I was talking to a twelve-year-old girl about Tom a couple of weeks ago, and she put her finger on the core strength of the book when she told me she loves the book because she can visualise the same things that happened to Tom happening to her. That’s to say, its narrative and psychology are thoroughly sure-footed, thoroughly well-earthed. It contains no imposed and artificial flights of fancy – the bane of so many contemporary fantasies. On the contrary, Tom is organic, and, for all that it deals in dreams and spectral figures, quite commonsensical.
Despite the book’s limited cast, Philippa Pearce shows us the full wheel of childhood: Tom alone, Tom as friend, as brother, as son, as nephew, Tom with other adults; and she offers us adult viewpoints as well, in particular those of Tom’s uncle and aunt. In scene after scene, we follow the patterns of a child’s thoughts and imagination, hear the cadences of a boy’s voice, and recognise the voice of experience and the imaginative confidence behind them. So it’s no surprise to learn that Philippa Pearce greatly enjoyed the company of children (as indeed do I).
I can only marvel at Philippa Pearce’s way with time – with writing about time. Often using the grandfather clock in the house containing her uncle and aunt’s flat as a point of departure, she punctuates the book with little interior monologues in which Tom wrestles to understand what’s happening to him in the garden, and wrestles with the nature of Time itself. These are cunningly interwoven with earthfast action in such a way as never to lie heavy on the page, and are quite invariably written with lapidary clarity.
There’s ‘a calm assumption of intelligence’ – the words of a wise adult friend – in these passages, and it’s something very many children recognise and rise to. Those who do so find awaiting for them acknowledgement that Time is indeed a difficult as well as fascinating subject, for adults no less than children, and cannot be addressed without bringing memory and imagination into play:
However long a time he (Tom) spent in the garden, the kitchen clock measured none of it. He spent time there, without spending a fraction of a second of ordinary time. That was perhaps what the grandfather clock had meant by striking a thirteenth hour: the hours after the twelfth do not exist in ordinary Time; they are not bound by the laws of ordinary Time; they are not over in sixty ordinary minutes; they are endless.
Tom’s Midnight Garden is a book of many layers, just as our country is: our laws, our landscape, our language, our stories. In placing then-and-now-and-will-be at the centre of her novel, in allowing herself passages not apocalyptic but transcendent and visionary – everyday visionary; in the sensible, practical warning that we cannot hang on to our childhood, much as we would like to – and by its inference that those who do have to pay a heavy price for it; in these ways, and in setting the action within the stillness and flux of a garden that’s always so much more than just a setting, this is a very English book. Herein may be found, as William Caxton might have said, the joy of childhood, the joy and the pain, lost and through memory and imagination partly regained.
‘Nothing stands still,’ Hatty Bartholomew tells Tom, ‘nothing stands still, except in our memory’.
Listen, if you will, to G. K Chesterton’s wonderful words:
Here it is that I differ, for instance, from Stevenson, who I so warmly admire; and who speaks of the child as moving with his head in a cloud. He talks of the child as normally in a dazed daydream, in which he cannot distinguish fancy from fact. Now children and adults are both fanciful at times; but that is not what, in my mind and memory, distinguishes adults from children. Mine is a memory of a sort of white light on everything, cutting things out very clearly, and rather emphasising their solidity. The point is that the white light had a sort of wonder in it, as if the world were as new as myself; but not that the world was anything but a real world…
Ah! I must start now to set aside books and lists and stray leaves of paper: the garden of Oscar Wilde’s selfish giant, the only place where it was still winter; Mr McGregor’s garden; and David Almond’s edgy, tender Jackdaw Summer, symbolically beginning and ending in a garden; the heartrending poems, so many of them turning on flowers and gardens, written by children in Terezin concentration camp and collected inI Never Saw Another Butterfly; the magic ‘moonflower’ grown by crippled Dickie in Edith Nesbit’s Harding’s Luck; the kind-of garden at the beginning of Tove Jansson’s very funny and glorious The Summer Book, set on the little Baltic island that it takes all of four and a half minutes to walk around – not a children’s book but one with such a wise understanding of the relationship of child and grandparent; all these, and even Lucy Boston’s wonderful Green Knowe novels – I hope so much they’ll be the focus of a future Philippa Pearce lecture. Yes, all these and many, many more – Tom Bombadil, and a book on scent in the Islamic garden, and my own research pages describing seven ways of thinking about trees… yes, and Elizabeth Goudge’s Linnets and Valerians, a book I originally intended to form part of my line-up; likewise, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden.
Ten years ago, in freezing early April 2003, there was a memorable Federation of Children’s Books conference at St Felix’s School in Southwold. Memorable on several counts. Because 45% of the delegates were lodged in seething hot rooms in which it was impossible to turn off the heating, and 45% in bone-cold rooms in which it was impossible to turn the heating on. 5% of the delegates decided to sleep in their cars, and 5% sought late-night accommodation elsewhere! Memorable because Philippa Pearce attended. And memorable because Morag Styles (still afflicted with jet-lag, if I remember rightly) gave an enthralling lecture on Tom’s Midnight Garden.
I was at the conference to recite a bit of Anglo-Saxon from Burial Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, and to give a talk about my own writing life and the process of writing. I went to Morag’s lecture, and later wrote a few lines (there’s a passing reference to Tiddy Mun, the little man who is the spirit of the Fens):
On Listening to Morag Styles:
Skating to Ely
And listening, we laced our skates
on a morning so porcelain
we could see clean
out of East Anglia
right across the German Ocean.
Each hissing edge scoring
we were one fair fellowship
with the Fen Tigers,
and monks still at their orisons,
yes, and Tiddy Mun,
skating to Ely with Morag
I made so bold as to send this cameo to Morag – and to Philippa!
‘Dear Kevin…’ After acknowledging the verses in over-generous terms, Philippa soon got down to brass tacks, with an assessment of my own talk. ‘The second (part) was a getting down to the nitty-gritty of your writing and books (and after all that’s why you and not someone else had been invited). And I know you won’t mind my saying as one pro to another, that this second part was indeed interesting, but not enthralling…’!
Philippa also spoke of the first part of my talk – an evocation of place-names and people-names in East Anglia. And because I treasure her words so dearly, please allow me to indulge myself and share them with you: ‘what you said glowed,’ she wrote. ‘I could have listened to you much, much longer. I was transported…’
Philippa’s response suggests much about herself: how collegiate she was (and to tell the truth, many writers are, much more so in my experience than artists, let alone composers) – Gillian McClure has told me that she and Philippa Pearce were not only good friends but that Philippa Pearce was ‘a very good literary friend’ and read and commented on Gillian’s writing; how Philippa generously served her time on committees (she and I and Jan Mark were all on the East Anglian Arts Association literature panel together); how direct she was and how she didn’t mince words; how quickly and lightly she responded to any attempt to step between then and now, and between childhood and adulthood. Much of this, and more, is embodied in the very fine obit. written by Stephanie Nettell (a dear friend of mine, here today) for The Guardian.
For my own part, I’ve disinterred my Southwold talk, and as homage to Philippa I thought I might end with a simple recasting of the first few paragraphs:
In East Anglia, we’re in the presence of great writers: John Skelton, rector at Diss; George Crabbe at Aldeburgh, the finest poet ever to live on this coast; William Cowper; W. H. Auden, at school in Gresham’s – where my daughters studied for their A-Levels; Edward Fitzgerald, translator of Omar Khayyam; George Borrow, at home with the Romany; the Charles Dickens of David Copperfield; P. G. Wodehouse at Hunstanton; the much-underrated Mary Mann, author of splendid, grim, Hardyesque short stories; Lilias Rider Haggard; Edmund Blunden; Adrian Bell, Sir John Betjeman on regular raids; Ronald Blythe.
And in East Anglia we’re in the presence, more specifically, of memorable writers and illustrators for children: Anna Sewell, author ofBlack Beauty, was born in Great Yarmouth; Rider Haggard, whose King Solomon’s Mines andShe thrilled me to bits as a boy; Mary Sewell, who wrote ballads for children; the Arthur Ransome of Coot Club, set on the Broads; Rachel Anderson; Jan Mark; twice Carnegie Medallist, who lived at Ingham in Norfolk for 15 years; another Carnegie Medalist, Mal Peet; Malcolm Saville and Redshanks Warning (do you remember – the light in the pencil tower at Blakeney church?); Lucy Boston and John Rowe Townsend and Jill Paton Walsh (there are many who hold Goldengrove and Unleaving to be the two finest children’s novels written during the last fifty years). All these, and then there’s what one might admiringly call the Cantebrigensian Brigade: some Cambridge born and bred, some more recent arrivals: Althea Braithwaite, Adele Geras, Pippa Goodhart, Mick Gowar, the great John Lawrence and Gillian McClure (with both of whom I’ve shared books), Tony Mitton, Jan Ormerod, Victor Watson, all of them underpinned by the truly valuable and exciting work being done here at Homerton and at Anglia Ruskin. All these and at Shelford, and in everyone’s hearts, everywhere, our Philippa.
Who is there amongst us here – writers, illustrators, storytellers, publishers, librarians, teachers, booksellers, parents, grandparents, godparents, disciples and apostles of fine writing for children – who has not been influenced by one or more of these authors?
Like so much of our country, East Anglia is – to use the words of the brilliant Suffolk historical novelist, Peter Vansittart – ‘an old house packed with memories’. It’s a place instinct with its own history. And to live here is to live in one layer of time, conscious of what’s gone before, responsible for what’s to come.
‘Footprints on the grass: they were still plainly visible, although the warmth of the rising sun was beginning to blur their edges.’
Thank you so much!
Bibliography of Children’s Books
Foottit, Anthony A Gospel of Wild Flowers. With illustrations by Pat Albeck. 2006
Hartnett, Sonia Thursday’s Child. 2009
Newbery, Linda Lob. Illustrated by Pam Smy. 2010
Pearce, Philippa Minnow on the Say. Illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. 1955
Tom’s Midnight Garden. 1958
Walsh, Jill Paton Fireweed. 1969
Stevenson, Robert Louis A Child’s Garden of Verses. 1885
Crossley-Holland, Kevin Arthur: King of the Middle March. 2003