mayne2footprintsThis is a project gradually to read and discuss the hundred or so books for children written between the mid-50s and his death in 2010 by disgraced author William Mayne, starting with a rereading of the 30-odd that I own or know. I talked a little about his downfall at the close of this post from last year, and will likely touch on it again. I’ve now re-read a further four, including his very first.

Follow the Footsteps (1953)
(cover image: William Stobbs)

“It doesn’t matter if you get it wrong,” said Caroline. “If we ask Daddy something he always tells us the long way round, which isn’t interesting at all. But he does try.”
“I can’t understand him sometimes, even,” said Andrew,
“That’s something” said Mr Feaste. “Intention better than fulfilment–net result fulfilment. Strange, what?”

As of the early 50s, the genre — established by E. Nesbit, developed by Arthur Ransome, routinised by Enid Blyton, Malcolm Saville and literally dozens of others — was quite tired and predictable: the middleclass children of a family, a dated shade of perkily bland, and often curiously under-examined, all RP and private schooling, arrive in a rural or otherwise characterful locale, and find a treasure, foil a crime or solve a puzzle. Mayne’s first published book for kids doesn’t much break with the pattern (certainly less than you’d expect if you know his later work), but the beginnings of the break are visible. The locale seems to be invented — I think it’s a made-up island just off the Northumbrian coast, not unlike the Farnes, but only a bridge-crossing away from the mainland. It’s an island with a history — ancient and recent. The recent is that the nephew of the local landowner is missing from school — the ancient is a curious tale about a saint who lived in the now-ruined abbey centuries ago, whose footprints were said to be visible on the ground in cold weather, and who hid a treasure somewhere on the island (presumably from Henrician iconoclasts, sicked on the monasteries the first of the Cromwells). Naturally, the children of the family — a sister and little brother — encounter and befriend the missing nephew, and help him solve the riddle and find the treasure. The place is reasonably carefully sketched (meaning imagined), though it feels more like an outsider’s idea for setting a slightly contrived puzzle, than a real place with real people in it. It’s too obviously a labyrinth begging to be entered, so it makes little sense that no one before the children has ever thought to (or got anywhere). Actually there is a local, one Squenn, who has been thinking along the right lines, but he’s a (deeply unMaynish) villain, with a silly name and an equally foolish comeuppance wobbling up the pike… The uncle is Maynish, though: an adult who doesn’t really understand children, who is both intelligent and (in his way) kind, and who behaves and talks in a slightly distanced, distracted way, the latter more to himself than anyone present. Plus: rivers and bridges, expeditions underground, an uneasy, semi-uncanny shift in (or under) the terrain of the setting, the gradual revealing of the mythified figures of the past as practical, human-scale characters, and their legends as decodable and detailed non-magical stories.


There’s a storyline we’ve all seen in many movies, old and new: you fall in love with that special someone but are firmly rebuffed; despite repeated very firm evidence that the feelings are not reciprocated (and never will be), you nevertheless press your claim against the odds, in all manner of relentlessly quirky or plain melodramatically ludicrous and extreme ways… and lo! your love object suddenly (and often at the darkest moment) realises that yes! you are the one! And yet, as we hope we most of us usually recognise, to “be passionately romantic” as per movie or novel in this way, is to be behaving the way stalkers do in the non-movie world. So that a long-standing trope in romantic fiction, familiar to the point of being invisible, is presumably at least now and then acting as deep spur within the inner lives of some, shaping their portrait of their own courage and persistence and deserts. Spur, that is, to abusive acts that will get them locked up (and quite rightly so).

A fair amount of classic kidlit fiction — and by no means just in its avant-garde or edgy reaches — features a trope that’s potentially just as irresponsible. In which more-or-less autonomous children — by dint of unsupervised time-freedom and natural curiosity — encounter on their own time a puzzle that the adults round them have left unsolved, and proceed to solve it. Their choices shape the story they’re in; their acts and decisions and investigations reshape the world the adults to hand — at varying distances — threw them into; the world, that is, that the asdults are also in. As above: Nesbit-Ransom-Blyton, via Narnia, Paul Berna, Philip Pullman and more. Sometimes the children skirt catastrophe; generally they save the day. The underlying implication — very agreeable of course to many child-readers — is that children are in various ways rather more capable than adults, and perhaps even (in a sense) a better kind of adult. Certainly various coded-disagreeable adult types are bested in many such tales, and the suggestion is everywhere that the nice grown-ups are too set in their ways (as well as busy) to have been able to achieve what the kids did, on their own (and often against advice or instruction).


mayne2schoolNo More School (1965)
(image: Peter Warner)

Mrs Oldroyd always went to the piano now, and played a hymn. Ruth went to the piano and looked at it. She had hoped that she would suddenly know how to play a hymn, because so far she had been as good as Mrs Oldroyd at her job. But the oiano just looked at her with its black and white teeth, without any helpful expression on its face at all.

This is a beautifully realised idea, aimed at somewhat younger readers, and encouraging them to ask themselves how they might cope if they suddenly had to run their own lives without adult help. It’s about a small village school — 14 pupils in all, and one teacher — which has temporarily to be closed when the teacher becomes ill. Rather than walk over the hill to the school in the next village, as the authorities require, the children decide to carry on where they are, and “teach” themselves. The main teaching duties are shared out between Ruth and Shirley, both 9, though a couple of the older boys help with cooking. The problems faced include discipline and authority — how to get older boys you know all to well in one role to behave non-disruptively, when they’re torn between being off in the field for harvest, as their dads want, and, well, skipping harvest AND proper school, if they agree to play along. But also there’s of course the fact that up to certain age, pupils are very rarely very clear about where particular lessons are taking them: they may know what they’re meant to do, as regards reading or sums, but not why, less still what the larger purpose is of any given strand of education. (And nor of course do all teachers!)

A source of the idea may have been Julian Gloag’s Our Mother’s House — a grim 1963 novel, much discussed at the time, in which the seven children of a single mother letting no one know when she dies, in the hope that the family won’t be broken up and sent into care (Ian McEwen’s The Cement Garden later trod similar ground). No More School is good on the anxieties and frustrations of the two little would-be schoolmistresses, but the overall tone is light and funny, gently absurdist, the situation doesn’t even last two weeks (and of course everyone is going home before teatime, even if they’re keeping matters to themselves). Even so, it raises (in its low-key and undemonstrative way) questions beginning to be asked really quite demonstratively at Berkeley and the Sorbonne by radical and militant students. And some of them it also answers, realistically and affectionately: this isn’t a manifesto, it’s a gently imaginative counterfactual snapshot; but kindly as it is, it’s more than just whimsy.

My mother loved Mayne’s writing at this point — she was something of a self-taught expert in children’s literature — and this was her favourite, to the degree that she often quoted it (“Draw and explain a hen”). It’s one of mine, also — though I was quite a lot older than its target readership when I first read it, I think. Which perhaps gets us to the question who his readers actually are/were. Adults admired his writing enormously — approving of his books for slightly unchildly reasons, probably — but he was never hugely popular with most children. Except those rare, readerly children who were perhaps more at ease with narratives that explored ambiguity and uncertainty, that turned away from quest-success and status-reversal and similar big-gesture eucatastrophic closures, and quietly nibbled away at the tropes that render so much children’s fiction so pleasurably fantastic (even when they’re absolutely not fantasies).

mayne2earthfastsEarthfasts (1966)
(Cover: David Knight)

“How long have you been out?” said Keith’s mother, in a tone that meant she would stand no nonsense, no matter how official the police visit was. It meant, too that she was old enough to be the policeman’s mother, if she wanted to be; and since she hadn’t actually been his mother at the moment he was born, she was going to be it now.

The word “Earthfasts” is non-standard, at least in the sense that it’s not in most dictionaries, though its meaning isn’t hard to guess at (and it appears in the book in a context that allows this). In Old English an “earthfast” was something fixed in the ground (example: a half-buried rock in a field); in the tale we’re reading, things we believe are fixed and rooted we find suddenly on the move, uncannily active, mysteriously and unbiddably agenda’d; nature off the leash, in ways playful or terrifying, and sometimes both. Up to the mid-60s, Mayne’s shtick can be described as a non-angry young man’s kitchen-sink realism, all subtly odd angles and surprising specifics, bound together with his extraordinary (and inventive) ear for the witty poetry of ordinary family language, its semi-private jokes and codes and silences. Now it shifted a little, backwards and forwards, to begin to explore older and more fantastic modes of story. Earthfasts in particular is a story about time-travel, so that local folklore intersects with the everyday — which merely amplifies his hold on, interest in and insight into the everyday is. An 18th-century drummerboy, Nellie Jack John, emerges from under a hillside into the present (there’s some ambiguity what the present actually is, as I noted some while ago, here), and his unintended arrival in our time is the occasion for the wider unsettlement. Farm pigs vanish, and return as dangerous wild boars. Standing stones vanish; distant giants walk the hillsides; invisible entities — from a mischievous but unsinister boggart returning to bother and entertain a local farm, to indescribable unseen objects or forces unleashed through the village. Mysterious armies seem to be massing, at one dimension’s remove — NJJ was planning to lead his soldier-boy pals to King Arthur’s treasure, rumoured to be stashed under the hill — and yet all of this, potent as it is (and bewildering), is really just the context and background to the friendship between the two boys observing and cataloguing it all, and trying to understand it: Keith and David.

This is a close friendship — neither has siblings — but not one of equals: “You’re clever but not intelligent, I’m intelligent but not clever” as David puts it, typically acutely, typically insensitively. Keith looks up to David, admires him and is somewhat intimidated by his intellect — but also feels that he often protects David from himself, from his inwardness, his abruptness, his occasional intellectual disconnection. The emergence of the newcomer — oldcomer, perhaps — heightens the need for both kinds of intelligence (they want to help the drummerboy, to return to his own time if possible but survive in the present if not, as well as explain his arrival), but as they’re negotiating the changed relationship, disaster strikes — unusually and unmediatedly shockingly for a children’s book. Now we’re watching people coping in an aftermath, events traumatic and dreary by turns: until the story folds back through the terrible knot of itself and things return to something more like normal. (Though not everything.)

I was a very episodic reader as a child, often rewarding myself for a few closely followed pages with a few skipped ones, so I very much didn’t get all the implications as a child-reader. It’s a pretty tough read, in fact, sometimes deliberately elliptical, and certainly uninterested (at this stage) in the deeper reasons behind the events. My original childhood Puffin books copy went walkabout years ago [hence random name on the scanned cover above left!], and I only belatedly quite realised Mayne subseqently expanded the tale into a trilogy, purchasing all three books in one edition. At which point WM may have re-written/retconned some of Earthfasts to fit with Cradlefasts and Candlefasts (I’m genuinely uncertain about this, and would like to know: it seems more difficult and darker than I recall, but as I say, I could be a bit of a skippy reader back then).

(Probably at some point I’ll track down a second-hand Puffin copy and check for myself.)


Wondering as I wrote up my notes on No More School about links Mayne might be making with the 60s student revolts in France, I spotted Dom Fox was tweeting notes about David Graeber and Occupy, anarchism and the unstable contours of the politics of authority. Beginning with the example of parents and children, he (like Mayne) was exploring the problems and puzzles of abolition, his focus overlapping with mine (or so I felt).

Anyway, here’s some of what he wrote, jigsawed together from twitter fragments (some skipped, some re-ordered it to be clearer for my purposes) (and I’ve alerted Dom, so he can pop by and correct how I’ve stated it if need be): “… a child can only to a limited degree evaluate the decisions of an adult parent; the parent’s authority is a mechanism which saves time (the time it would take for the child to achieve a mature outlook) at the cost of closing down, temporarily, certain lines of enquiry or debate. The child is not absolutely incompetent, and the adult is not absolutely competent, but for some purposes a form of tutelage is desirable. Authoritarian parents assume it is desirable for its own sake, a matter of relative status, of “honour”.

For the authoritarian, authority is a good in itself, the basis of other goods (which are good because someone in authority says so). For the anti-authoritarian, authority is evil in itself, because it obstructs access to the goods it at best proxies, and at worst destroys. For the non-authoritarian, authority is a proxy for some other good, which has to be proxied in order to be effectively distributed.

I don’t see authority as a “necessary evil”, or even as evil at all, but as a mechanism which trades present executive urgency off against a wider (and prior) commitment to rational debate. It’s about scheduling, timely conflict resolution, distribution of labour. There can be such a thing as legitimate authority, and the question of its legitimation (within an egalitarian context) is a hard problem that is not resolved by calling the whole notion of authority “kyriarchal” and demanding its abolition.”

The 60s ruptures — Strasbourg is usually considered the first of the soixant-huitard uprisings, in 1966 — postdate No More School, and it’s probably a reach to claim that the ideals and utopias that flavoured them were somehow in Mayne’s mind in 1965 or earlier (even if his second novel, recently tracked down but so far unread by me, is called The World Upside Down). Dom Fox’s fragmentary discussion continues, suggesting that the “decline of authority” that the 60s seemed to see and to celebrate is better described as a “modulation, from an overt, questionable and legitimisable form to a covert form, which can never be legitimate because its legitimacy is never in question. Replacement of epistemic authority based on displayed competence and credentials with ‘soft power’ of appeals to sentiment, shameless button-pushing. Meta-discourse rationalizing this as fairer and more agreeable, less hierarchical and elitist, than someone who knows something you don’t sharing it with you.”

I think Dom’s distinction (into “hard” and “soft”) is basically correct, and not just because it mirrors Mayne’s landscapes, his buried and fissured rock structures, his strange reaches of subterranean water. I like the pragmatic intricacy of Dom’s way of thinking about authority, as something at once unavoidable and in need of challenge — but I honestly don’t know how helpful it is to try and think about generalised aggregate trends from one to the other (what he later refers to as the “wild success of soft authority”). First, different layers and blocs of society, not to mention different generations, were pulling in different directions, relate to different structures of different authority in different ways (and the patterning of these ways will change over time, for generations obviously, but for layers and blocs also). Second, we are all of us at any given time within the ambit of rival structures of authority, soft and hard, which pull at us in different directions — and the way we’re pulled will change over time, sometimes quite sharply. Perhaps we can cluster the patterns somewhat, depending on likeness of class or or age, or similarity of context — but I think theoretical generalisations can quite easily mask the empirical particularity they’re meant to be explaining. (Not least because a theory usually comes with its own regimes of unspoken soft-power loyalty — as in, I’m citing [insert favourite comedy-punchbag intellectual A here] bcz he/she’s a power in the land round where I want to stake my claim, and behaving as if there ought be doubt about this will do me no favours ect ect]…)

The Battlefield (1967)
(image: Mary Russon)

They tiptoed on to the road, and along it. Then Leslie put her heels down and walked normally. “They won’t hear now,’ she said. We’re out of earsight.”
“It’s got darker,” said Debby. “Or is it the lantern. They work best in the dark.”
“I think the sky is blacker,” said Lesley. “I wish it would have a moon, or something. But I’m not frightened of this dark at all.”
“I don’t like evening dark,” said Debby. ‘But this is different. I think they change it at midnight, and this lot hasn’t got inhabited yet. But don’t put the lantern out.”


A constant theme in Mayne: children bothered — though that’s too strong a word, really — by the gap between their imaginations and intelligence on one hand, and their knowledge and experience on the other, surrounded by friendly adults who can’t (or won’t) supply the information they need to know, and don’t quite have the sensibility or means (or just the time) to close the gap. A very 60s stance: that the “childish” perspective — unstructured by adult knowledge, adult focus, adult demands, adult compromise, adult jadedness, adult resignation — has an undistracted under-informed unwised-up tenacity that causes logjams to shift; that a little knowledge, sometimes self-taught, often inexpertly applied, can move things around in unexpected ways.

I’ve seen The Battlefield described as “fantastical” — though nothing that happens in it is remotely impossible by the ordinary laws of physics, meteorology and meteorology. It’s the story of two sisters, who live over the pub their parents run, who begin properly to explore the battlefield itself for the first time: it lies close by, between village below, and pub above, a kind of quaking bog full of rough scrub and rocks fallen from the cliffs above. The girls are much the age of the two girls in No More School, nine or perhaps even less — Debby, the younger of the two, makes a joke about not knowing her seven times table, which is a tell, I suppose, but extremely hard to parse absolutely (as jokes always are). Perhaps we should treat the booktitle less as a naming — a an actual space of land outside a village, a historical event in confused tale in village memory — than as a metaphor of course — but what for?

At one level for the relationship between the sisters — not that they ever even argue or worse than play-tussle, and a lot of their play is trying out the ways language works and doesn’t, to describe the world, or just to disport itself in its local or ancient oddity — but they are quite different in temperament, a difference that provides much of the readable pleasure of the book. And at another level, it’s an allegory of the gap discussed above, the buried conflict between adult perspective (closed down, lacking space or time for curiosity or undistracted and immediate response to the world at hand) and childs’ eye view (which of course lacks experience, risk assessment, basic relevant knowledge). If it’s allegory — and we should note that the battle itself is a mystery, located in various pub discussions in Roman times, or the Civil War, or even the Crimean — it’s therefore a hint that this conflict can end very badly. The only adult present who seems to know what’s going on is a taciturn shepherd who rarely speaks, and no one much ever speaks to, even in the pub — but his explanations (which are roughly correct) come out as Biblical warnings that no one really takes any notice of. Though events don’t end badly this time — without giving too much away, the climax of the book, a strange swift fever-dream of a sequence of events, is pretty much the Aberfan disaster transmuted into one of Tolkien’s happy-ending eucatastrophes. The sisters find no bodies when they’re poking about in the unsettled boggy terrain the battlefield has become, a recalcitrant and uncontrolled landscape in flux, in ways the reader will find more frightening than they seem to; though they do find an old cannon. And something gets displaced: everything changes, including the shape of the world all round, very startlingly, but OK, nobody actually died today (or was even much hurt or frightened). The climax is told from the girls’ uncomprehending and at-the-time obscured viewpoint and is worth being slightly ambushed by, unspoilered, I think, so I won’t say more. Except to say that, as a carefully nice ending, it has a very strange undercurrent.


In 1979, when Lyotard sketched our present-day existential character — a consequence as he understood it of a mushrooming of new modes of media and technology —he summarised it descriptively (and notoriously) as an “incredulity towards metanarratives”, and named it the “postmodern condition”. Without wanting to refight the postmodern wars — you know, really ANY of them — I want to argue that there’s actually nothing new about the fact of our feeling conflicted, torn between rival structures of authority, loyalty, affective ease (and the stories and “metanarratives” that function as metalepses for these structures, this sense of ease). Maybe modernity helps tag the likely kinds of rival structure involved from, I don’t know, 1905-1968, and post-modernity for the patterns of conflicting structure that emerged after this. But acknowledging this is really just a way of demonstrating that it’s not a terribly helpful lens, more confusing than not until observed specifics are introduced to illustrate or challenge it, ideally from a variety of conflicting angles

As a writer evolving in time — though who isn’t? — Mayne wrote stories that centre round children discovering elements of an adult world round them, in its ancient and its present-day forms. Learning his trade in the 30s and 40s (as a reader), and starting out in the 50s as a published author, he was first working across a period in which elements of the pre-modern and the modern were at constant odds, and (from the mid-60s) in a period the forces and and trends genuinely (but confusedly) addressed by the notion of “postmodernity” were also arriving. If his central focus is the uneasy, fracturing interraction between deep past and everyday present, pop groups and modern media (meaning radio and television) often also play a part, now and then, arriving into his isolated valley villages and bleak north-eastern coastal towns to add to the complications. Outside these backwaters, the counterculture, that childrens’ crusade against war and racism, that naive refusal of life even slightly constrained or administered administered or denatured by technology, by bureaucracy, by compromise. The intricately heated blurring of the lines between classroom discussion and hallway knowledge, in and out of schools, which my friend Frank Kogan has explored in detail in the context of rock writing. Confronted with and affected by the new medias, this nested, tangled ratking cluster of rivals systems of authority, and the emergent literacies of same, students and professors wrangled on campus with the changing politics of learning and teaching, the young adapting far faster than their elders to these new tools, for good or evil. Fast-shifting changes in sexual mores; convulsions in settled assumption about the normalities of desire.

In all this, at whatever apparent parochial distance, Mayne’s project was the imagining, as an adult with the full literary reach that implied, of the world of the child (aged five or nine or 12 or whatever): confronting with puzzled fascination and boldly playful, stubborn curiosity the nature of the plasticity of ordinary language, the sheer shifting weirdness of words, at once so rigid with rules and usage, and so open and flexible. Authority — meaning the good kind of authority — and of course its abuse (very much the bad abuse) are also part of Mayne’s real-life story (with ugly impact, assuming the 2004 court case was decided correctly, on the lives of some of his readers). I agree with Dom, that the fact of authority, hard (or actually soft) is not just something that can ever just be wished away: or at least, that this is merely an innocently adolescent species of wish. But with every authority, there’s always the danger of abuse. As its own kind of authority, imagination is similarly inescapable, but it’s also always perilous: you can get lost in it, beguiled by its power and potential — and others can get lost with you, and hurt, your gift their calamity. Fracture is embedded in these landscape, hidden — as the fossil of ancient crime or calamity, though often just some curious earlier occurrence — to arrive, out of time and disorientating, sometimes radically, more often simply amusingly, readably (and educationally, if you choose to interpret “education” in a comfortably broad sense). The value of Mayne’s books remains the subtle, quizzical, precision with which he explores the (similarly?) embedded knowledge — who can command it, who can decode it, who can use it against itself, what unexpected turn these protocols upside down — within seemingly very ordinary and relatively unfraught situations. Though it’s not clear to me how much Mayne believes in ordinary or in unfraught. There are two parts to come, in this rereading, of the Earthfasts trilogy — and parts two and three were written in the 1990s, so I’ll wait till we get to them before I read these ideas back into Earthfasts in detail; The Battlefield — imperfectly formed and slight as it seems — begins to make a better sense, at least to me, studied in this context. For the moment, though, all his books operate more as uneasy, intuitive, unconsciously prophetic whispers of solid ground turned treacherous and strange, of landscapes as suddenly tricky to navigate for the old and the wise and the knowledgable, as the young and the adaptable.