Joan Tate was a friend of the family: her lovely husband Clive worked closely with my dad on wildlife stuff; her kids babysat me and my sister when we were very wee and mum and dad wanted to go off and do young ppl’s dancing and that; and she was a writer and translater with ROOMS AND ROOMS AND ROOMS full of bookshelves, all walls right up to the ceiling is how I remember it (wrongly but not far off). She was a fierce, tough, clever, engaged, enormously generous woman who more than anyone else made me want to be a writer. As the obit at the link says, as a 17-yr-old she was trapped in Sweden when WW2 broke out, and basically had to shift for herself — taking odd jobs and teaching herself Swedish. She went on to become one of Britain’s leading Swedish-English translaters — and celebrated in Sweden — but she also wrote a pile of kids’ books, between the 50s and the late 70s, when her translation work became high-profile and time-consuming. I’ve got a whole pile of them* — many of them actually published as textbook stories for Swedish kids to learn English — and rereading some at the weekend I realised I knew many of them so well I hardly needed to reread them. But a couple I hadn’t seen — this one she’d given to my grandmother, because it was set in Edinburgh.
Have to say straight away: it may be about a gang of kids foiling some car thieves but it’s NOT a thriller. Joan’s approach was realistic to the point of “suddenly nothing happens” — there’ll be conflict in the sense that well-drawn familes may row bitterly over plausible things, but there’s nothing approaching escapism (the closest was THE WILD BOY, about a runaway hiding out on the yorkshire moors — and even this was largely about how difficult and suspicious he was with the non-runaway boy who comes upon him and befriends him — and about the practicalities and unsustainability of the situation).
Anyway as a gang the Runners like to run through the streets of Edinburgh of an evening — planned routes through and round the city. There’s four of them — two are twins, boy and girl — and one has family troubles: Stewart’s dad is a drunk who knocks him around. One evening when two of them are waiting for the other two to catch up, they see something odd about how cars are being left outside a workshop. They watch over several evenings, take nbotes, realise it’s a small criminal operation, discuss it a bit — they are worred that adult intervention will stop their evening running fun — and then go tell the police, who arrest the villains. They never even see the car-thieves except at a distance: no one gets to say “meddling kids blah blah” — the police are amused by them, but perfectly helpful. They don’t get into any trouble. They get a small but practical reward from someone whose jag had been nicked and resprayed. That’s it.
I kind of like this now for its anti-canonic anti-romantic rigour — but I think I would have found it a bit pointless if I’d read it as a child. The children’s byplay doesn’t have the comic intensity and obliqueness that I liked in William Mayne’s writing; or the sudden frightening shifts of reality in Elidor, say — maybe unsurprisingly I was already spinning off into SF anyway — realism in novels for teens didn’t appeal to me at all. Joan wrote (I realise now) as part of a quasi-movement I sort of admired without ever being caught up as a committed reader: books in which the protagonists were working class and city-bound, far more went into the detail of the feel of place than into complexity of non-quotidian plot (Puffin books made a conscious effort to encourage this kind of writing, in the late 60s and early 70s — I assume the target readership being working-class city kids assumed to be alienated by more middleclass ambience of much kidlit up till then). What I really do notice now is how elegantly and vividly Joan wrote these anti-fantasy scenarios: about small-town life where things aren’t so easy. I’m going to carry on rereading them and will report again.
MY PILE OF JOAN TATE BOOKS:
(series: the “joan tate books” 1967-68, pub.almqvist and wiksell)
the lollipop man and other stories
the soap-box car and other stories
polly and the barrow boy
the old car
the new house
the great birds
the wild boy
(series: “going up” mini-books 8-14, johansson åström, tate, pub.almqvist and wiksell)
night out and other stories
the match and other stories
the man who rang the bell
ginger mick (illus.quentin blake)
luke’s garden (ditto)
journal for one
[plus GOING UP 2: the main textbook]
(topliner: “romance” paperbacks aimed at 60s and 70s teens, but again more abt practicality and realism than pop bodicerippers)
sam and me
(haha also in topliner — has anyone ever encountered this? — is e.w.hildick’s BIRDY AND THE GROUP: “Birdy and the Breakers enter the Battle of the Groups — this one blows the pop world wide open!” — i must read this before i die)
the runners (see above)
wild boy (extended eng.pub of the wild boy)
sam and me (extended version of sam and me, above)
ring on my finger (extended version of clipper, above)
out of the sun (illus. by the great charles keeping, uncredited)
your town (non-fiction guide to LOCAL POLITICS and CIVIC ORGANISATION — nice aerial b&w photo of 70s shrewsbury on back cover)