William Mayne (1928-2010): or what if the greatest* 20th-century children’s author were to present us with an intractable moral knot?
The disgraced children’s author William Mayne died in 2010, some 57 years after the publication of Follow the Footprints, the first of his more than a hundred books, none of them for adults. A final book came out the year of his death, Every Dog (puissant title in the circumstances), and I haven’t read it yet, though I will. I’ll talk a little about his downfall at the close of this post, and doubtless more later, but what I actually propose to undertake is a gradual reading of these books, such as I can track down, starting with a rereading of the 20-odd that I own and know.
A Swarm in May (1955)
“Five shillings,” said Owen. “Well done, ye!” That was a choir-school phrase: no one knew who had invented it. It was a sign of joy and approval.
Swarm is Mayne’s third book: the first of an admired set of four set in a cathedral school (he went to Canterbury C.S. as a boy): since the cathedral holds services all year round, choristers have to stay in school for at least some of the holidays, or return early. So the setting is emptied: half-staffed, all-male, with Owen, the youngest choirboy — perhaps nine, helped some of the time by an older boy — uncovering curious and unsettling items very material to a bee-keeping ritual rendered vestigial back when Henry VIII abolished the monasteries.
So, buildings with hidden reaches you can creep down into, in which unexpected things are secreted, forgotten or never known by all the grown-ups round you: flashes here of Kipling’s Stalky: which continue in the depiction of teachers (as slightly absurd and eccentric adult cartoons, half-deliberate self-conscious parodies of themselves); in the well observed and witty delineation of trends and memes and traditions and catchphrases in the language the boys speak to one another; and of course Mayne shares Kipling’s fascination with the detailed arcana of specialist knowledge and technique (the jargoned world of choirs and organplayers; the physical feel of the practice of bee-keeping). But really this is a FAR far gentler world than Kipling’s; one in which loneliness very lightly touched on in an ebb and flow of communal affection, and agon (such as it is) uncomplicatedly (and sensibly) worked through.
The Twelve Dancers (1962)
It was no good taking Porky by the hand. The way to lead him was to walk in front. Porky would seem to look at everything else, but he would follow. He would follow anything in a wandering way. Once he had followed a kindly big dog down into the village, all the way from the house. The dog had taken him to its home and then gone to sleep. Ma had rescued Porky, and he had had to walk all the way home as well.
Dancers is set in a semi-isolated Welsh valley, somewhere at the head of the Severn, some not very specified time in the 50s — apparently no cars or radios, let alone TVs, but there is a Queen’s head on the coins: Marlene is new to the village, her mother a cleaner in various local households and a single parent (no backstory on this, or the reasons for their arrival). It’s Marlene’s first encounter with the yearly Traditional Dance, and she’s initiated into this intricate village affair involving girls at the school, curious ‘doors’ of various heights built into the church wall, and a semi-buried old dancefloor atop a nearby hill. The dance-steps (direction and number) decode into a sort of treasure map that will perhaps rediscover a lost or misplaced or deliberately concealed item — a cup — and resolve an ancient dispute over ownership of a tranche of land, known as Commons Wood. If the young-ish local landowner finds and claims it, he believes the land will revert to him: said land is probably not worth much, and he’s really more interested in the archeological riddle, but unsurprisingly there’s a certain crackle of class conflict as various schoolchildren side with or against him in this project (as — in the background — do their parents). Dance as enactment of tension, and as resolution: in the event, everything comes out nice (in fact the ritual indirectly enables a cross-class wedding), but it’s not hard to see this book as a forerunner of Alan Garner’s far more fraught The Owl Service (1967), where the children are rather older, and sexual tension and jealousy power the (explicit) magic that will be uncovered.
“I don’t how you’re going to make out at all,” said Mum. “Or I wouldn’t if we didn’t all feel the same. It’s the weather.”
“It’s the dreadful life we lead,” said Susan.
“What do you mean?” said Mum. “You’re the dreadful life, lying about like an old stump.”
Again rooted in a potential conflict about property: the “parcel of trees” of the title is a slice of disputed property cut off from the family garden by the intrusion of a railway line many decades before, and now only accessible through a culvert. Susan (14) discovers this secret near-garden and — when amiably challenged as a trespasser by railway officials — decides to prove that legal ownership has in fact reverted away from the railway company. With the help of a solicitor neighbour (working for free because it’s an unusual and interesting case) she uncovers a pertinent slice of recent very unofficial local history; villagers of very various ages semi-illicitly using the land for several quite unorthodox purposes. Woven into this is the portrait of Susan, her little sister, mum and dad, an odd-because-ordinary family who no more perfectly jigsaw than any non-fictional family (they live over dad’s bakery and must all do shopstuff when it’s busy). What Mayne catches so well is the affectionate combativeness and allusive abruptness of the speech within a loving close group like this, complete with subtle undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion routinised into play squabbles; and underpinning Susan’s need for the intimacy of solitude, probably Mayne’s deepest subject. (The illustrations, which contribute at least equally to the soft-spoken modern sensibility, are by Margery Gill.)
The kettle was boiling on a gasring behind the counter, where it had boiled for a century. It had boiled away every layer of paint on the wood nearby, and the steam had removed a deep hollow in the wood as well.
Sand is an amazing book, quite unlike any children’s novel before it, at least by any other author I can quickly bring to mind. At one (not unfamiliar) level, it’s a sketch of the fascination and antipathy between secondary modern boys and grammar school girls, in a small never-named northern coastal town — and as such fits into its time, the time of kitchen sink cinema and Coronation Street, the Beatles and, well, Ballard, actually. Because — in its deceptive, even diffident way — it’s a closer cousin to Ballard, Beckett and Camus than anything you’d surely expect to encounter in children’s books, at least those with Jill MacDonald’s cheery pop art Puffin on its cover. Of course, Mayne has a greater interest and thus a superior ear for family-based or school-directed banter than any of these better celebrated ‘grown-up’ modernist counterparts: whose flaw this is you can decide yourself, I guess. The town is situated huddled beside some great sand spar: it is being eaten, month by month, hour by hour, by its own dunes, and — behind the mildly prankish goings-on — it’s very much about the wearisome allure of entropy and erosion, the implacability of non-human forces. While it’s the fourth of four books reviewed here in which some aspect of the past is dug unexpectedly up, it’s the first so far in which the omipresent modern media eye on same plays a role.
So can we extract anything yet, from this small and faintly random selection? Actually perhaps not so random: Swarm did much to establish his early reputation: there were four choir school books, and they tidy pretty safely into an already popular a form of middle-class children’s literature: the school story in which “school” very much DOESN’T mean the kind of school most British kids were going to (he would increasingly break from this pattern). The comfortable presence of C. Walter Hodges as illustrator surely helped his recognition. Meanwhile Dancers, Parcel and Sand appear to be be the first three he published with Puffin books, whose role in developing the kidlit canon in the 60s was enormous. This was when Mayne soared into his ‘imperial’ phase; this was when my mum, a passionate amateur expert in children’s book who bought me all three, was paying close and interested attention.
It’s easy — and not especially surprising — to begin to discern themes over a decade’s writing: local ritual and the everyday linked via amateur archeology, generally by children, for example, as well as the persistent idea that digging up and understanding the past can transform a deliberately unmelodramatic but never mundane present. A delicately and often wittily sensual sense of place, and of willed solitude in that place; well sketched location as a kind of flight from company (and vice versa).
And then there’s the fact of his disgrace, and how it fits into all this. In 2004, in his mid-70s, Mayne was convicted of 11 charges of sexual abuse with young girls, sentenced to two and a half years in prison, and placed on the sex offenders’ register for life. The obituary in the Independent contained further detail: “Accusations of indecent assault made in 1973 and 1999 finally came to a head in 2004, when he was taken to court by a farmer’s wife in her fifties whom he had befriended when she was eight. She described being entranced by Mayne, but there were times when her erstwhile friend, normally so kind, witty and affectionate, would force himself on her. This abuse lasted for six years; five other witnesses came forward with similar accounts. Evidence of his criminal behaviour for 15 years from 1960 onwards was overwhelming, leading to a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence.”
So there’s the question Tom Ewing discussed several years ago on FT (in a Popular piece on Gary Glitter): “Take William Mayne, for instance, a children’s book writer of immense imaginative and empathic skill, and also convicted of serially abusing fans of his books. Is the thing that makes Mayne an excellent writer for children – his ear and head for how they talk and think – also what made him an effective paedophile, able to win and exploit their trust?” Comments threads on reports of the conviction divide, understandably angrily: anonymous posters arrive to say that they knew Mayne personally (the real Mayne), and the trial was a travesty, in fact and as reported: because he was much worse even than the verdict revealed him, or exactly the opposite, that he was innocent, and maligned. I’m in no position to adjudicate, and don’t plan to: I won’t pretend I’m bringing much new as regards sexual psychology or criminology to this story, and I’m sure I won’t be unearthing relevant new facts in the case.
But I do know a little about books and writing, and indeed about books and reading. All fiction — all writing — is a matter, at some level, of control and manipulation: marks made on a page to nudge a reader from sentence to sentence and page to page, effects conjured in head and heart, to fuse or collide in patterns, some open and undecided, some tried and tested, many much harder to categorise so glibly. It’s not forcing a pun to link the word “author” with the word “authority”: with such easy-to-miss power comes the risk of easy-to-miss irresponsibility, and anecdotes are legion, as we all know, of the ugly behaviour of authors. Nor can it entirely be a shock to recognise that someone who diverts the greater part of their energies to the acts and inner lives of folk that are made up is not always paying intelligent mind to the lives and wounds of those that aren’t.
Mutual misunderstanding was not a new topic in fiction — or even in children’s fiction — but surely few explored it with Mayne’s insight, humour, gentle delicacy or subtlety: how children are not party to adult agendas, compromises, habits and assumptions; and of course vice versa, that in growing up adults have very often lost or set aside a valuable way of seeing the world. That there’s a thread of trust that marks the path everyone is treading, and that this thread is sometimes very fragile indeed. Can sympathetic intelligence and wisdom — wisdom precisely about such trust — sit alongside deep selfishness and a capacity to abuse? Well, yes, sometimes I think it can.
Whether or not it’s the relevant truth in this case — I’m not competent to adjudicate, as I say — it seems to me challengingly important, because so challengingly dreadful, to propose that a genuinely lovely writer, a writer deeply worth reading, by children and adults, can at the same time be an abusive man who betrayed trust and responsibility. We’re all contradictory, and writers are especially well used to firewalling the sensitive imagination off from the reaches of life that are experienced rather than imagined, for all kinds of reasons, good and bad. And all writers — and this certainly includes me — write as much for an imagined reader as the readers they happen to know and meet in life. Who were Mayne’s imagined readers? What do his books tell us?
I plan to go back to the books, in all respectful caution, and reread and talk about them. They meant a great deal to me as a child, partly because my mother took such joy in them; I’m a grown-up now: I see many things differently. What’s gained, and what’s gone lost?