City of Gold (1980)

Since having been vaccinated four times does not, apparently, make you immune from COVID, I have had a lot of time on my hands the last four days and managed to make a dent in the small-ish number of Carnegie winners that I’ve not yet read.

Today I finished City of Gold and other stories from the Old Testament by Peter Dickinson which won the Carnegie in 1980. This was his second win, having won for Tulku the year before and he was the first author to win the Carnegie twice.

Like Tulku, City of Gold has a strong spiritual and religious theme; it is a radical retelling of Bible stories, each of the 33 stories is told by a different voice and in different contexts at a time before the bible was set down in writing. In some instances, the re-setting of a given story gives it a powerful resonance. For instance, the story of The Twelfth Plague which describes the Exodus from Egypt is ‘told by a father hiding with his family in a cellar in Lydda, during the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes, 168 BC’. As a frame, it is completely believable, and also brings to mind many other instances of religious persecution. Other stories again are told to boys who have just entered the priesthood or to calm a scared child. Yet other stories are recast as songs sung by women as they work or fetch water from the well.

The oral element is not only present in the framing device but in the way, the story is told by each individual storyteller who is interrupted by the audience and responds to them. For instance, the story of Babel is told by a grandfather to his young granddaughter who has been frightened by a troop of ecstatic prophets passing through the village:

“Run and beg a few cakes from your mother – tell her it’s for the prophets, so that they may bless us (…) Well done! And he blessed you? What’s that? You couldn’t understand the words, but he smiled? Then I think we may take it that he did bless you…. what’s that again? Speak slower and louder, little one. Why couldn’t you understand the words? Well, it’s an old story (….)” p27

The Gollanz edition (the original edition), which is what I have, is beautifully illustrated by Michael Foreman. A couple of years later, Foreman illustrated a picturebook which has recently become one of my favourites: Leon Garfield’s The Writing on the Wall which is a retelling of another bible story, that of Daniel interpreting the King Belshazzar’s dream, from the point of view of Samuel, a kitchen-boy in Babylon and for both books this different perspective illuminates aspects of the story which are probably not familiar to the average reader.

City of Gold also reminds me very strongly of another Garfield Carnegie Winner The God Beneath the Sea which is the retelling of some of the Greek myths. Both are exceptionally well-executed as reimaginings, retold in beautiful language with arresting imagery by a writer, as Keith Barker says ‘at the height of his powers’. However, I can’t imagine many children would be interested to read them – and this issue was also raised when the Carnegie was awarded. Barker goes on to say:

“…it was not a particularly popular choice and added fuel to the argument that the Medal was being awarded to books which failed to find a child audience. One correspondent to Library Association record wrote ‘as regards the Award in general, why does the committee so often choose something no ‘ordinary’ child would read?” (Barker, Outstanding Books for Children and Young People).

In In the Realms of Gold, Barker reports that panelist Vivian Griffiths responded that popularity with children was not a criterion; the point was literary merit. I think this strikes at heart of some of the questions about the Carnegie Medal, which I will come back to in another post.

At the back are short notes on each selected story which sets out Dickinson’s sources for each story. For me, the study, translation and interpretations of these sources have always been one of the most interesting parts of the bible so I geekishly looked at this for every story. Again I ask myself which child is this is relevant for though?

Dickinson was the recipient of many awards both for his children’s books and for his books for an adult audience. His children’s books were shortlisted for various awards and he won the 1977 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize for The Blue Hawk, the Carnegie Medal twice (Tulku, 1979 and City of Gold, 1980) and the Phoenix Award in 2001 and 2008 (for The Seventh Raven and Eva respectively). He won the Gold Dagger for his two first adult books.

I enjoy Peter Dickinson very much. I just don’t feel his two Carnegie Medal winners are aimed at or relevant for children, certainly not in 2022. However, for myself and my own reading pleasure, his other prize winners will definitely make it on to my ‘Reading List’.

8/10 (purely based on my own enjoyment of the books).

Updates from our Carnegie Reading Group

A year on and our Carnegie Reading Group is still going strong. We are a group of current and ex-Goldsmiths MA students who meet on a 3-weekly basis to discuss one of the Carnegie Medal Winners. As you may have seen in previous blogposts I kicked off this ‘project’ back in April or May 2020. We were in Lockdown One with all the uncertainties that entailed and a course I had planned to take in the Summer Term was cancelled as Michael Rosen, who ran it, was in hospital with COVID. Casting about for something useful to do while in limbo (other than navigating homeschooling, volunteering to bring out food to the local community and enjoying some fantastic weather, which we could frankly do with now, too!) I decided to read the Carnegie Winners in chronological order from the beginning and blog about the progress.

I also asked my fellow students if they were interested in reading along with me. Thankfully some were keen to do so and our three-weekly chats have been part of my new social network, undisrupted by Covid, partial lockdown, full-lockdown, cancelled Christmas, travel bans stopping me from seeing my family etc.

So, where are we now? First, we read one Carnegie Medal from each decade from the 1930s onwards:

*The family from One End Street by Eve Garnett

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge

*The Borrowers by Mary Norton

*Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce

*The Owl Service by Alan Garner

The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler by Gene Kemp

The Change Over by Margaret Mahy

*Skellig by David Almond

*A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly

Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd

The Graveyard Child by Neil Gaiman

Buffalo Soldier by Tanya Landman

Then we went on to read the (remaining) Carnegies of Carnegies, i.e. the ‘top 10 Carnegies. We had already read quite a few of the Carnegie of Carnegies – they are the ones marked with a star above. The remaining ones which we read next were:

Junk by Melvyn Burgess

Storm by Kevin Crossland-Holland

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall

Then we read Here Lies Artur by Philip Reeve for no other reason that I had read it, loved it and was going to include it in my MA dissertation and was curious to hear what other people thought of it.

After that, we read Lark, the latest winner, followed by, at the next meeting coming up, one of this year’s shortlists: Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo.

Where to next? Maybe we’ll cycle back through the decades – it is quite ‘useful’ to read some of the earlier ones which are sometimes forgotten and difficult to get hold of. I will keep you updated on progress!

PS. As you all know, thankfully Michael Rosen is back on fine form and teaching the module which was cancelled last year. In fact, this is one of the reasons my blogging is not progressing fast – we are being kept to the grind-stone with uni projects!

The Making of Man (1960)

The Making of Man by I W Cornwall , illustrated by M Maitland Howard, is a non-fiction book about the evolution of the human race. It has been superceeded by other titles and is long since out of print. In fact it is the last non-fiction book which won the Carnegie Medal. Possibly the committee decided to move away from awarding the Carnegie prize to non-fction which dates too easily and is difficult to compare fairly with the fiction. There are now other prizes awarded to non-fiction books, for instance the School Iibrary Assocation’s which better captures the genre.

Writing in 1965, Marcus Crouch was very complimentary about the book, comparing it to The Lantern Bearers; “an equally masterly but restrained, scholarly examination of the evidence of Man’s orgin” and written in “muscular prose”. It is illustrated by M Maitland Howard, a colleague of Mr Cornwall in a, for the time, novel way. All evidenced fact (e.g. bone fragments, skulls etc) are illustrated in black, those which are of conjecture are illustrated in red. This is a constant reminder to those who love to jump to conclusion of the importance of respect for the evidence.

I personally struggled to read it, and skimmed through it quickly. This is in part because it is not a subject for which I hold an innate interest, partly because I’m sure science has moved on and some of the conjecture have been proved wrong and we have learnt so much more in the interveening years. The illustrations and the factional way of presenting science was possible new 60 years ago. Personally, I enjoyed it less than the other non-fiction books which won the Carnegie – there’s no need to hunt down a copy of this unless you have a specialist interest in the making of man. 1/10.

The Lantern Bearers (1959)

Clearly, writing the blog post last week on how I was stuck on The Lantern Bearers cleared some sort of blockage, and I read it all in one sitting yesterday. Of course, it is brilliant, and I am not at all sure why I wasn’t caught up into the story in the first couple of chapters. In fact, it is one of those books I think I will return to again and I’ve just bought the first in the series, The Eagle of the Ninth to read them all chronologically. Denmark, where I’m from, was never occupied by the Romans (I believe we were some of the original ‘barbarians,’ i.e. ‘the people across the border’) and consequently I don’t really know much about the Romans, certainly not in the way that British children do as a matter of course.

The Lantern Bearers is the third of four books, loosely interconnected, sometimes called the Marcus series, or the third of eight books called the Eagle of the Ninth series, both of which starts with The Eagle of the Ninth. The Marcus series is about Roman Britain, though The Lantern Bearers is about what happens when the last Roman troops withdraw from Britain. 18-year-old Aquilla, a Roman decurion, finds that he belongs more to Britain where he has grown up and desserts the Roman army on the eve that they leave Britain. He deserts the Roman army to return home to his father’s house on the Downs. A couple of days later it is sacked by the Saxons, and Acquilla is taken as a thrall and brought to Jutland (Denmark). Three years later he returns to Britain with his masters as part of a settlement wave, escapes, and joins Ambrosius Aurelianius’s army. The rest of the book is about his life and destiny fighting against the Saxons and the Scots.

This is a story about divided loyalties, suppressed emotions and finding purpose in life. There are no glib storylines, hardly even a traditional happy end, but instead, depth and sadness at the loss of so much richness and civilisation as Britain enter the dark ages. It is beautifully written, and many reviewers have pointed to the fact that Sutcliff asks a lot of her readers, but they are well rewarded! The historical facts are an essential background to the stories, and with it comes a sense of loss of light and civilisation.

To me, what is striking is the sense of distance. Emotional distance because of the character of Acquilla, who is emotionally unavailable to himself, his peers and to us as a reader. And distance because of the ‘otherness’ of the characters. Having recently read quite a lot of 21st Century historical fiction, often written from the point of view of girls, partly in an attempt at reclaiming the history of girls and women, The Lantern Bearers strike me as very different. While Acquilla is a traditional hero in many ways, strong, loyal, skilled, there is little attempt at making us identify too much with him. We live in his world because it is so skilfully presented by Sutcliff, seamlessly weaved into the story as utterly believable background, less so because we share universal human sentiments with him. At least that is how it feels to me. And, having read The Silence of the Girls, I can no longer read a historical novel without thinking about the silent girls in the military camps.
Sutcliff is considered one of the best authors of historical fiction for children (and I would argue, for adults). Belatedly, I join the ranks of her fans. 10/10.

A Gathering Light (2003)

I am sort of stuck, ignobly, on Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Lantern Bearers. It has been on my night table for months, literally. I want to read it and I must. In the meantime, it’s stopping my blogging progress, but not my Carnegie reading project. With my book group, which meets every three weeks, we have been forging on. We initially selected one book each decade to read, and A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donelly was our selection from the 2000s. I recently wrote an essay about it for one of my MA modules, Researching Children’s Literature.

A Gathering Light won the Carnegie Medal in 2003 and had the distinction of being selected as one of the top 10 best Carnegie winners (the ‘Carnegies of Carnegies’). It is written specifically as a ‘crossover novel,’ i.e. a novel that can be read by children and YAs as well as adults. Interestingly, it has a very broad audience I think – one of my lecturers had read it in her non-university book group and had not even realised that it was a crossover book, she thought it was aimed at adults. With a 16-year-old protagonist, it would appeal to children from about the age of 13 or 14, I think. In some ways, then, you could say that this is an ageless classic.

A Gathering Light is set in the Adirondacks, USA, in 1906. The story takes place against the backdrop of a real-life murder which also inspired An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser and the film ‘A Place in the Sun’ starring Elizabeth Taylor. Sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey dreams of attending university and wants to become a writer against her father’s wishes. She takes a summer job at The Glenmore Hotel, where hotel guest Grace Brown (real) entrusts her with the task of burning a bundle of letters (this part of the story is fictional). But when Grace’s body is dragged from the lake, Mattie reads the letters and begins to suspect that the drowning is not accidental at all and that Grace’s ‘fiance’ Chester is responsible. Over the course of the book, the drowned girl’s story interlinks with Mattie’s own, giving Mattie the final push to follow her dreams.

There is much to love in this book. Paradoxically this is first and foremost a book that it pays to reread and those kinds of books are my favourite. In part, this is because the structure of the book is episodic and non-chronological. It spans the period from April to August 1906, and the chapters about Grace’s death are in the present tense while the chapters taking place before Grace’s death are written in the past tense. This structure provides ‘thickness’ and interest to the plot, but it takes a little while to work out what’s going on and then see the significance of all the little bits of the tightly plotted narrative. 

The essay I wrote recently looked at feminism in historical fiction and A Gathering Light was practically a textbook example. Girls and women’s voices are central to the narrative, and the book is, amongst other things, a meditation on the female lives that were lived in a small backwoods community. It is preoccupied with ‘real-life’ in many ways. Mattie continually questions why novels – specifically the classics – are about ‘other lives’ and never about life as she experiences it, living in a small community on the ‘edge of civilisation’. Hers is a modernist project to describe life as she sees it, the good and the bad – very often the lived reality of being a female; having painful periods, giving birth, the endless chores. 

Love, in its many forms, is also a constant presence in the novel. Running through it are the parallel stories of Grace’s love for Chester, expressed through her increasingly desperate letters to him, and the courtship of Mattie and Royal. Where Grace’s love ends in death, Mattie and Royal become engaged, only for Mattie to break it off when she realises that Royal does not love her for who she really is. In the end, she leaves her hometown to go to university to prepare to be an author. This is set in a rich tapestry of substories and relationships, of love, dependence and kinship – a novelistic forefronting of the web of interrelatedness that this community, and we all, exist in.

The novel works through a number of feminist topics as well as themes of race, heritage, and mental illness. And here’s my slight issue with the book; while it is a great novel to write an essay about because it abounds with examples and quotes to illustrate many contemporary concerns, it is almost too much. I get a slight feeling of boxes being ticked: Mental health issues, got a character with that, tick! Romantic love, tick! Postnatal depression? Tick! Child neglect and poverty? Tick! But my biggest bugbear is that racism is portrayed as being completely external to the community. Within the community, the two black characters, Weaver (Mattie’s best friend) and his mum are accepted and supported. Mattie herself says “My skin is so pale you can nearly see through it, and his is as dark as tobacco. There’s more alike than different about Weaver and me, though (…) and inside, he is exactly like me” (p31). Of course, that is both a true and a lovely statement. But, given that this book is set in 1906 and Weaver and his mum have moved to the town following Weaver’s father’s lynching, this seems to me to be both unrealistic and also a bit glib. Unfortunately, I do not think that black people were given this unquestioned support by a white community 115 years ago. We know racism is insidious and pervasive, and I feel that not acknowledging the reality of that, now or then, is to deny the reality of it. My sense of unease is further added to the fact that Weaver and Mattie both get scholarships, Weaver to Columbia and Mattie to Barnard. Again, I actually felt that this was so unrealistic that I looked up how many black men attended Columbia in 1906. According to the website ‘Columbia University and Slavery’ (, a website put together by faculty, students and staff from Columbia, the answer is one: “Not until 1906 did the first black student earn a B. A. from Columbia College. This was Pixley ka Ikasa Seme, of South Africa. He later studied law at Oxford, returned to South Africa, and became a founder of the African National Congres”. So Weaver could, in theory, had enrolled at Columbia, but to do so on a full scholarship would be remarkable indeed and it would be more realistic to make a complete song and dance about it in the novel. Anyway, he doesn’t go (due to the racially motivated attack by strangers), so it’s not that the book is ‘untrue’, just highly unrealistic. 

What is interesting is that this sits in contrast to a very strong insistence on ‘facts’. First, there’s of course, the ‘true story’ of Grace and Chester Gilette which provides a background narrative to the main story. The letters that Mattie reads in the novel are (actually heavily edited) copies of the real letters Grace wrote to Chester Gilette who was tried and executed for her murder. This story has itself inspired many fictional works of art – books, films and plays. Jennifer Donnelly is herself familiar with the area as her grandmother used to work in one of the ‘Camps’, hotels on the lakes, in the 1920s and told her stories from there. There is no doubt that Donelly researched how women and farming communities lived in the area in the period as well as on the hotel camps and the Chester/Grace story. This is specified in an actual bibliography (2 1/2 pages), and both an ‘Acknowledgement’ and an ‘Authors Note’ page details her connection to the story. If she had not displayed her research so overtly I don’t think that I, as a reader, would have questioned the fictional ‘truth’ of what she was creating to the extend I did, for instance on Weaver’s story. In other words, I tend to read historical fiction as fiction with historical facts somewhere on a spectrum between being mere background and providing interesting depth and understanding of a historical situation. Naturally, I still read A Gathering Light as fiction, but because Donelly has declared her sources so overtly, I expect a higher degree of realism and ‘truth’ in the historical setting. Instead, some of the substories suffer from ‘presentism’ (the imposition of the reader’s or writer’s contemporary values, beliefs, or awareness on to a past age), chiefly as I have set out, the substory about Weaver and his mum, but there are other too. Despite her insistence on the ‘facts’ of the research, Jennifer Donelly has taken a few too many liberties with the historical setting and that is why A Gathering Light fails to get full marks from me. 9/10.  

Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958)

What do you write about Tom’s Midnight Garden, a ‘modern classic’ if there ever was one? A book about which Phillip Pulman wrote that it was ‘a perfect book’? It is one of the Carnegies of Carnegies (i.e. the top 10 Carnegie winners) and is widely read and loved today and has been adapted for radio, tv, cinema and the stage. It is an exceptionally tightly constructed time-travel fantasy and seemingly kicked off a spade of time-travel plots to follow. I would venture that time-travel is one of the key plots in historical fiction for children and a host of other time-travel winners followed Tom’s Midnight Garden.
Tom is sent away to stay with his aunt and uncle for the summer holidays as his brother is ill at home. With no garden or children to play with, he feels lonely and unhappy, until one night he hears the clock striking thirteen and discovers a secret garden where he makes a new friend, Hatty. Yet it soon becomes clear that his new-found friend is living in another time altogether, and to her, Tom is a sort of ghost. Each time he visits the garden, Hatty has grown older. Finally, on a skating trip up the frozen river in the garden, Hatty and Tom begin to fade and become invisible to each other once more. However, it turns out that Hattie is the old lady who lives on the top-floor and Tom and she meets in the present before Tom returns home.

The story unfolds in a specific time and place. At the start of the book, it is not clear whose world is ‘real’ and if one of the children is a ghost, but over time the time-slip nature becomes clear and logical. Sometimes in time-slip fantasies, the present-day child is the catalyst for a change in the past (for instance in Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park) but not here. Tom and Hattie are brought together by loneliness and derive solace and happiness from playing together. As the summer draws to a natural close Hattie has grown up, and Tom is returning home to his family.

It is a book about relationships, Tom’s and Hattie’s of course first and foremost, but both are part of a web of other relationships which are described in a nuanced way. For instance, at the start of the novel, Tom very much feels that he’s been abandoned by his family and sent away to his aunt and uncle who he doesn’t know very well. But over the course of the story, his relationship with them grows and develops not in a schmaltzy way but to the point of mutual like and appreciation. Tom’s Midnight Garden is also a meditation on growing up and growing old, and about the passage of time facilitated through the ancient metaphor of the garden. Both Tom and Hattie are staying with relatives. For Tom, like for Mary in The Secret Garden (and it would of course be interesting to do a ‘compare and contrast’ on the two), the garden is a place of solace and healing of hurt. For Hattie, playing with Tom in the garden is assuaging her loneliness and benign neglect. Significantly, they are not able to leave the garden until the last meeting where they are able to escape to skate on the river together. Here, at the end of this sequence, Hattie has met her future husband and leaves Tom behind.

Tom’s Midnight Garden is both well-constructed and well-written. I admire its tight construction and internal logic, but somehow it left me slightly unmoved. I liked it, but I didn’t absolutely love it. 7/10

An update on this project

Back in April, in the throes of Lockdown I, I started this project with the intention of reading my way through the Carnegie winners in a chronological manner and blog about it along the way. In my naivety, I thought I’d probably be done sometime in the Autumn. After all, since I can read a book in a day or two and write a couple of pages in as much time, how long could it take? As it turned out, quite a while because no, I wouldn’t have absolutely masses of time now everything was cancelled, and yes, I was right that homeschooling is for people with a more saintly disposition than me. The result was predictable, and, currently, I’ve only covered the first 21 years. 

So what have I learnt about the project so far? While it can take me a day or two to read a great book (sometimes stretching the concept of ‘day’ past evening and night into the early morning hours), I am also capable of procrastinating endlessly by reading other books instead if the subject of a particular Carnegie Medal winner does not grab me. I have confirmed (to myself, if nobody else) that short stories are not my bag (sorry Walter de la Mare and Eleanor Farjeon) and that Romantic fiction whether disguised as fantasy or not, is definitely not my bag either (sorry Elizabeth Goudge and Elfrida Vipont). On the other hand, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by some excellent family stories (thank you Eve Garnett and Kitty Barne) and some riveting action (Knight Crusader, for instance) and those books I have sprinted through. 

However, the writing of the blog always takes me by surprise. Firstly, it can take quite a while to do the research, but I have learnt so much about the critical issues around the novels in writing these post, but the most surprising aspect is how much I have learnt about how I feel about any of the books. I am one of these people who often have to ‘talk’ around a subject to realise how I feel about it, and apparently writing serves the same purpose; opinions and issues held in my unconscious flow onto the screen, much to my own surprise. 

Simultaneously with reading for the blog I’ve been reading for my Carnegie book group which I set up for and with some of my fellow students. We meet every three weeks and discuss a book we’ve jointly chosen. So far, we’ve chosen one book each decade, often choosing one of the “Carnegies of Carnegies” if appropriate. We are coming into the last decade of books, and though we’ve slightly dodged this discussion by choosing two books from the ‘noughties’ (a term I hate, btw), we will soon have to discuss what’s next. We want to keep going; now we just need to find some selection criteria to identify our next reads.

The fact that my fellows students are also new to many of these books have come as a surprise. I am Danish, so I had not read many of the Carnegie winners before. The Danish children’s literature canon is made up mainly of books from Scandinavia and British / American novels in translation. Many of the Carnegie winners have probably not been translated in Danish and would therefore not have been part of my childhood reading. And when I moved here as a young adult, I picked up either the standard ‘classic’ books like The Wind in the Willows or contemporary books that were recommended to me one way or another. This was the starting point for the project: I wanted to explore British children’s literature in some sort of historical perspective (I am, after all, doing a Masters in Children’s Literature so this is exactly the kind of thing that floats my boat) and I wanted to discover great authors who were new to me. The fact that my fellow MA students had not read that many of the winners either has had the fortunate effect, for me, that the Carnegie reading has become more of a joint discovery than I had anticipated. It also raises questions about how the ‘canon’ of children’s literature is formed, but more about that another time.

One of the results of the procrastination caused by not knowing how to tackle the subject of William Mayne (now resolved, see the previous blog post) was that I managed to read the two Carnegie Winners I do not own (due to their expense) at the British Library and blog about them, so now my chronological attempt is a bit muddled. I don’t know if I should continue with my chronological blogging (the next would be 1958, Tom’s Midnight Garden) or whether it is more ‘true’ to my experience to blog about the book we read in the book group though these are, of course, scattered across 85 years. If anyone has read this far and have an opinion, either way, I’d be very grateful for the feedback!

A Grass Rope (1957)

A Grass Rope, written by William Mayne.

I have been debating how to approach this particular blog post for a while, choosing to ‘catch up’ on the two Carnegie Medal Winners that I had to visit the British Library to read – Visitors from London and The Story of a Valley. But now we are here, in front of A Grass Rope by William Mayne.

It was a promising start. I was not familiar with William Mayne before embarking on this project. His name kept popping up in my children’s literary criticism works from the 1960s and 1970s so I was excited at the prospect of discovering a great author (a prolific one at that, he wrote over 100 books for children) who would be new to me. Then I learnt that William Mayne was convicted in 2004 of sexual abuse of young girls, and by all accounts a highly predatory paedophile like Jimmy Saville at that. I had not yet read A Grass Rope by then, but I found any pleasure in the book had disappeared. I wasn’t sure if I should read it at all, but I decided to do so for the completeness of this project. I couldn’t spot any sexual or sexualised overtones in this particular book, thankfully, nonetheless, I have decided not to discuss the book on this blog. Other people might feel differently; Mark Skinner puts forward a different view about the moral issues around engaging with William Mayne’s oeuvre in his blogpost on Freaky Trigger: Though I couldn’t see any follow-up posts describing his ongoing engagement so maybe he had second thoughts too?

For myself, I swiftly moved on to Tom’s Midnight Garden, up next.

Visitors from London (1940)

Written by Kitty Barne, illustrated by Ruth Gervis.

In the summer of 1939, the four Farrar children come to spend the summer with their aunt and become involved in Operation Pied Piper when their aunt get wrangled into becoming a ‘Housemother’ for 17 evacuees at the nearby farmhouse ‘Steadings’. The children are involved, first with the preparations in getting the empty house ready for the four families from the East End of London, later with helping them settle into life in the country. As it happens, it is a short stay of only a couple of weeks, with some families staying on elsewhere in the countryside and some returning, reluctantly or with alacrity to their old life in London.

Visitors from London is illustrated by Ruth Gervis, a prolific illustrator of children’s books, who also illustrated books by Paula Harris, Mary Treadgold, Enid Blyton and Noel Streathfield. Her original drawings for Ballet Shoes are held by the Centre for the Children’s Books, and many of her other drawings are owned by the Museum in Sherborne. Ruth Gervis was the sister of Noel Streathfield, and Kitty Barne was also related to both through her marriage to Eric Streathfield.  I am a real sucker for illustrations like these; ageless pencil drawings of children, in the same vein as those of Eve Garnett.

Almost all are of the human characters, and Ruth Gervis recounts (in Chosen for Children) how she and Kitty Barne would send them forth and back before the final version was agreed. Kitty corrected an element here and there: ‘You’ve made her too old, she looks quite ten, and she won’t be nine till next birthday’ or ‘Aren’t his legs too long and thin, he is a very sturdy boy’. 

Visitors from London has long since gone out of print (Baker says it was the first one of the Carnegie medal winners to do so) and it is very expensive to buy second-hand. So for me, this was a British Library read, squeezed into my pre-booked reading slot. I came to it with preconceived expectations, from Barker, of a dated and old-fashioned book. After three hours of vicarious reading, I can appreciate his points of criticism, but where he saw a work flawed by its extreme topicality, I see a small masterpiece of early war-time writing. I marvel at the fact that Kitty Barne could observe, write, work on the illustrations with Ruth Gervis, print and publish a book between September 1939, when the story is set, and 1940, when it was published. And she achieved this in the midst of war and her own involvement in the Women’s Voluntary Service dealing with the evacuees to her home-county of Sussex! Besides, Keith Barker wrote the scathing review in the Library Association Guide to the Carnegie Winners in 1997. In the intervening years, publishers like Persephone Press have been set up with the express remit of finding neglected writing by mid-century (mostly women) writers. Through these, readers have discovered (or been reminded of) much excellent writing, lots of it set in time around the World Wars and saturated with the type of domestic detail given focus and importance by Persephone. In fact, Visitors from London reminds me very much of the war-time writing of Mollie Panter-Downes (also published by Persephone), only for children. It appears so real because, though we now read it as historical fiction, it is not. It is very much set in the here-and-now for the author, and in this way, it is more true to ‘real-life’ than all the books that were written afterwards by writers who could look back with historicist eyes or by writers who were not born then.

Keith Barker’s main criticism is that the novel is extremely topical and old-fashioned because it takes the “outsider’s look” at the working-class families, treating “those who yearn for the urban lifestyle” with derision and contempt – in modern terms Barne stands accused of ‘othering’ the evacuees.  Barker feels that this makes the book a “piece of historical interest only”. I don’t entirely agree with this point of view.

It is true that Visitors from London is told from the point of view of the upper-middle class Farrar children, who are returning to the countryside for the summer to stay with family. Parents are, as usual, conspicuously absent. It is also true that Kitty Barne does not have Eve Garnett’s perceptive understanding of working-class life, conveyed in a non-judgemental way, far ahead of prevailing fictional norms at the time. Indeed, the one genuinely villainous character, Steve, who lies, bullies, steals and gambles, is working class. 

But, Kitty Barne’s descriptions of people are quite balanced, and her portraits gently poke fun at working-class and middle-class, visitors and permanent residents alike. Her character portraits are not rejections of lower-class figures; for instance, she makes fun of Mrs Meredith-Smith (middle-class, from the country) with her do-gooder misguided attempt at engaging with the children in ‘naïve’ country games that she herself doesn’t fully understand. Fortunately, one of the Londoners, Joe, instigates a game of cricket ‘the national game’ known and played by all, female, male, young and old and which brings everyone together. Or here, the portrait of the warden, whose response to the disruption of war has been echoed, I’m sure, in many disgruntled reactions to lockdown-disrupted plans: 

“The warden was slowly working himself into a rage, partly at the idea of starting out again when he had only just got in, partly at the thought that there should be an enemy at all, for he had decided to remake his rock garden in September, and now it looked as if he would never have a moment to touch it”.

The Shepherd, Tolhurst, the very essence of a working-class country person, bonds with the Cockney evacuee, Fred; ‘This boy, he’s from London, said Tolhurst, introducing them as if they had never met. He’s fair eat up with curiosity about they sheep. Never heard so many questions in all my life’ `then he twinkled in a friendly sort of way, and added: Reckon I could ask him something bout London, come to that”.

Their relationship is the key to this book; it is not really about class, per se, but about values. As ‘Chosen for Children’, says: “Miss Barne loves the country like a countrywoman; that is, she takes it for granted. Her descriptions are delightfully free of romanticism. The country for her, and for her characters, is a place to work in”. 

What really separates the wheat from the chaff in Barne’s portraits is where they fit within her value system. The ‘visitors’ who are most successful are the ones who are adaptable and resourceful, like 14-year-old Lily who is acting as mother to her younger siblings or Mrs Jacobsen who contributes to the running of the household by cooking. The least successful ones are the ones who see problems at every turn, like Mrs Fell. The most successful and happy of the evacuees is Fred, who finds fulfilment and a productive life among the Downland shepherds. Though one might question his easy conversion from gang leader in London to happy shepherd, we do now know, now more than ever, about the strong impetus of ‘returning to the land’.

Keith Barker criticises the book for taking an outsider’s look at the working-class families who, in his words “invade the leafy middle-class suburbs” (actually not true, this is the deep Sussex countryside). As I said above, I think this is about values, rather than class. And in any case, surely both viewpoints are valid – those of the hosts’ and the visitors’ view? The real strength of the book is that it is based on real-life experienced by somebody who was there and did the actual job. The dedication of the book reads: “With Respect and Admiration to the Seventeen Housemothers of my Acquaintance”. Description of the evacuation scheme is quite breathtaking – 1 million children between 5 and 14 were evacuated in three days and Operation Pied Piper evacuated 1.5 million people in total. Comparison with current governmental schemes springs to mind, or not! In the novel, but probably quite true to life, thirty-five people fitted into one house, previously empty, with beds and bedding provided (in the end) but not soap, cutlery, cooking implements. And Barne was there, doing it, amongst the other housemothers. Maybe they were not always thrilled, just like the evacuees were naturally not always grateful or happy to integrate into country life. We might want the past to be different, and more in accordance with our own apparently ‘enlightened’ views, but this would not always be true.

Actually, there’s a sad, adult subplot, though it is treated with a sort of off-hand subtlety. that of Mrs Thomsen, who arrives with her newborn baby and two only slightly older children. She’s not yet recovered from the birth, she’s tired and overworked (we later surmise) by an unsympathetic husband, and is scared out of her wits by the threat of bombs. For her, the two-week evacuation becomes a period of rest and recuperation. Without much ado, the other women simply do all the work and allow her to lie in bed and rest and read until her husband summarily returns her to London so that she can provide domestic service for his convenience. The way that her young son has to assume adult responsibilities, the description of how, as she’s ‘been told all her life what to do’ so blindly obey a young boy, Jimmy,  who is trying to coax her out for a bit of fresh air for the sake of her children, the impact on the children of the mother’s anxieties which keeps them locked up in the room, all this could be a story in itself, though probably not for children. With today’s eyes, it is clear that she’s a victim of domestic violence (coercive rather than physical, probably) by her husband who forces her to return with him, against her wishes and best options for the family’s safety, but for his convenience of getting waited on morning and evening. Here I could have done with a bit of intervention from the other adults, but of course, again this is somewhat true to a period where the husband was the king and there was little objection to domestic violence.

I read Visitors from London the week before the UK went into the second Lockdown. While thankfully we are not at war, I had a similar sense of imminent threat and countrywide hardship which sharpened my appreciation of the book. Having been cooped up in London during the last one (albeit in the very privileged position of having access to a small garden and an allotment), and now embarking on a long dark winter one, with the threat of climate change and suspicious post-Brexit trade deals ever-present, I find myself agreeing with Kitty Barne’s values I too long for the countryside, the Downs and coastal walks! I find myself somewhat agreeing with the old shepherd’s views on London:

“I knows a town. Can’t have a bit of fire without it costs you money. If you wants a potato you got to buy it. Hy, the gentleman that comes from London to see I, he says if you want a pot of soil for a geranium in your winder you got to go to a shop for it. The earth we lives on! My! That’s London. Miserable old place, I call he.

Anyway, I can only hope that life will eventually go back to a semblance of normal as suddenly and completely as it does at the end of Visitors from London with Steadings empty again and the children about to return to school.

Visitors from London is the kind of book I hoped to find when I embarked on this challenge, a small hidden gem that would become a personal favourite. It is not perfect, it is a time capsule, for better or worse, it is well written but not linguistically outstanding, but I found it engaging and funny, interesting in its description of the preparation for evacuation, the domestic details and the love of the simple pleasures of the countryside. In my opinion, this book is absolutely ripe for reprinting by one of the flourishing smaller reprints out there – Persephone Books, Slightly Foxed, or Girls Gone By.  9/10

A Valley Grows Up (1953)

Written and illustrated by Edward Osmond

Osmond was a prolific writer and illustrator ( British Library holds 97 titles either written or illustrated by him), yet none are still in print, though some are available secondhand through However, A Valley Grows Up is so expensive, even secondhand, that I had to go to the British Library and read their copy. It is so nice being back there after lockdown and I’m enjoying it while I can. Thankfully it was a short book (82 pages), readable in the 3-hour timeslot we British Library cardholders are allocated upon booking.

Edward Osmond was an artist-illustrator and a teacher. When he was asked to help students with learning difficulties, he drew a village on the blackboard and, in effect, co-created its history with his students. The educational effectiveness of the concept led to a book about British history through the millennia as seen from a fictional valley in the South of England (Dubnonum/Dungate – based on Lewes in East Sussex). We start with the dinosaurs and gradually trace the story of a valley from 5000 BC to the present day (the 1950s). The same bend in the river appears on the cover and throughout the book on colour double-spreads, illustrating the changes to the landscape and the village.

It’s well-illustrated without becoming a picture book – most other double-spread text pages have black and white drawings showing specific points of the text.

The concept of place as a device for transmitting information about history reminded me strongly of James A Michener’s works (especially Centenary) except his was a fictional saga about the interrelationship between the land and the people where Osmond’s non-fictional focus is on (patriarchal) history.

Though it might have been seen as a great example of a non-fictional book trying to make history relevant to students (a genuinely worthwhile project) it fell out of print very quickly. However, it is a book that, in its time, was held up as excellent (through the award of the Carnegie Medal) and was presumably bought, taught and absorbed by children and it was undoubtedly designed to be appealing for them. And for this reason, it is fascinating to read.

In some ways, narrating history from the point of view of ‘place’ allows the author to take a more (apparently) distanced viewpoint and at the same time focus in on issues of particular local interest. The Roman invasion, the ascendency or descendency of Kings, political manoeuvres of various kinds are only really relevant to the narrative as they impact the inhabitants of this particular valley. Throughout, Osmond balances on the narrow edge between historical fact and the selectivity of fictional license. To be fair, he does not himself make any statements about the objectivity of his book but I, for one, expect an attempt at objectivity from a non-fiction book. I don’t read many history books that have fallen out of print, and I am shocked at how subjective and (consciously or unconsciously) ideologically transparent it is. Because of course, the objective stance is only skin-deep – there is a firm ideology which drives a highly selective history, specifically the history of MEN. There are no black-and-white pictures of women, only boys, men, buildings and boats and where women appear in the last two coloured double-spreads they are (significantly) portrayed riding or standing behind the men. There are no female children in the pictures and no portrayal of any domestic arrangements. This is a book about the outward history of males, kings, buildings, activities (hunting, war-mongering, farming, trade etc).

Servants (other than slaves) are mentioned on page 69, once. For me, this is a huge gap. But, the “New History’ movement – the study and interest in ‘lived lives’, social history which also considers the lives of women and minorities – didn’t really arise until the 1960s and 1970 so my interest in this aspect of history in part makes me a child of my time, yet I can’t help missing this aspect of history and de-valuing A Valley Grows Up accordingly.

The tone and the approach of A Valley Grows Up is didactic and educational and very clearly aimed at children: ‘Now look at those things in the picture which are not ancient and grass-grown’. Osmond tries to make history human:

“They are in a grave dilemma, because their corn is ripe in the little square field[s] sprinkled abut on the dry tops of the higher hills, and it is necessary to harvest it before the weather breaks.”

As the book progresses, Osmond’s omniscient didactic narrator makes this non-fictional history increasingly personal and fictionalized:

“The people also very much appreciated the fact that Hugo re-built the village church (…) he did this for a double motive. In the first place, he was growing old and thought it was time to achieve som good pious deed to weigh against all the bad, cruel ones that he realized stood to his charge; and besides this, he wished to outdo William de Vibraye, his neighbour at Bevermeer, who had already set masons to work on the new church.”

In theory, narrating history from the point of view of place could make it more ‘objective’, at least in as much as it could put across the story from several points of view. This is not Osmond’s project. His is fictional narrative camouflaged as non-fictional which makes it potentially more engaging (certainly than bare facts) but does it also make it more ideologically suspect?

We can’t accuse Osmond of ‘presentism’; the temptation to view the past through the eyes of a person in the present quite shocking statements like: “having met by chance they are having quite a chat as is the custom with slaves the world over when they are not under observation” as if slaves are just workshy and left with no reflection on slavery or how they might feel !!!). His is not a progressive political or social history work: “these three industries (…) employ many of the poorer people who live in monotonous rows of dingy houses”. (END OF!) I am not after a Marxist historical analysis, but some reflection on human rights and class-issues might have been in its place, even in the 1950s.

Osmond’s project is, in fact, a conservative and entirely personal one though this is not revealed until the last pages. Here he describes his interest in the past gained when he was a boy and tries to engender a sense of awe and possibility for the modern child; ‘a Roman farmhouse may lie beneath our local cricket ground, and it may even be you who bring these things to light’. So far, so good but the key to his feelings of the more recent past are made clear here:

“Clearly life in Dungate is much healthier and more civilized than it used to be; but are the people happier? They have sanitation and cleanliness, but no buildings or sanitation can compare with the fine work of the past. Everyone has more goods to use; but the monotony of factory routine has replaced the individual interest and care that was given by the old craftsmen to their work. Instead, people in AD 1900 work for machines or their factories, and the time has not yet come when these inventions may be used only to free man from hard and tedious labour and give him leisure to create beauty by the means of his new scientific prowess”.

So has this promised state arrived in the 1950s? No, apparently
‘outside the town, the pylons of the electric grid stand like gaunt skeletons among the mellow trees”. Most tellingly we just skipped the first and second world war, which would have had some impact on this fictional town. This is a firmly pastoral and nostalgic version of history.

The final page leaves us with the image of the labourer who finds some remnants from a Roman villa. He doesn’t know what it is, but as he has been poaching, he doesn’t want to tell anyone. If only he had told the vicar or the teacher, men of learning, Osmond says. Indeed this is an author who harks back to the ‘good old days’ where men of learning knew how to identify and interpret valuable information from the past.

A Valley Grows Up is typical of its time with an emphasis on continuity, chronology, (this is suffused right through the focus on a single place through time) and a patriarchal view. Looking at the Carnegie Medal Winners, it appears that a number of the 1950s and 1960s winners were preoccupied with British history, whether from a fictional or non-fictional point of view. I wonder whether this focus on the shaping of Britain, on her own soil, was of particular urgency and relevance as the idea of the empire was dismantled and brought into disrepute during the period. Several winners sought to educate British children about the country they were living in, in engaging ways. Some were non-fiction, e.g. The Story of Your Home and A Valley Grows Up. Others were fictional accounts, like The Wool Pack and The Lantern Bearers. It is interesting to look at their respective longevity. Historical fiction has the ability to draw a direct line between the past and ourselves and allowing us to understand what it was like to live in these times. At its best, it allows us intense emotional investment to identify with and reflect on the past and can become timeless. Tapping into some of these personal histories might be why historical fiction generally has more longevity than historical non-fiction. Non-fiction falls out of print swiftly and permanently; views of history changes over time, moral mores changes, new fact come to light and ways of viewing the past changes.

The surprising thing is not that there should be an interest in learning about the country in an engaging manner, but that The Valley Grows Up was chosen as ‘the best’ books of the year. It was not even the last non-fiction book to be chosen, maybe the Carnegie Panel did not think of longevity when they selected the winners in the 1950s?

2/10 – lovely project to make history more relevant to students but outdated in so many ways.