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

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