Sunday, June 26, 2022

Rereading Old Children's Books

Bryan Wharton: John Sleigh Pudney (1967)

In his last few years, just about the only thing my father seemed to want to read were old children's books by the likes of Laurence R. Bourne and Percy F. Westerman, as well as 'Biggles', the 'Swallows and Amazons' series, and the school stories and adventure serials in his almost complete sets of Chums and the Boys Own Annual.

Percy F. Westerman: The Bulldog Breed (c.1930s)

"Resting the tired brain," he would call it. They were large books, printed on thick newsprint, with garish cover pictures, and they eventually occupied most of the bookcases in the house - relegating my mother's collection of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and other school-prize classics to the ever-growing rows of cardboard boxes in the basement.

John Pudney: Thursday Adventure (1955)

I was thinking of him the other day when I ran across a battered ex-library copy of John Pudney's Thursday Adventure in a Hospice Shop. I'd never read it before, but our family collection did include various other instalments in the cycle of "Fred and I" adventures: entitled variously 'Saturday', 'Sunday', 'Monday' Adventure - and so on through all the days of the week. There was even a coda of 'Spring', 'Summer' (and so on) seasonal Adventures.

John Pudney: Tuesday Adventure (1953)

The one I remember best was, I think, Tuesday Adventure. At any rate, the plot summary for that one included on the flyleaf of Thursday Adventure definitely rings a bell. I remember thinking it wonderfully imaginative and exciting at the time: it has some mildly Science Fictional elements in it, as do the other volumes, hence the inclusion of its author, John Pudney, in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction database.

For years I'd had in the back of my mind the desirability of acquiring a complete set of these books, days and seasons alike, all 11 of them - perhaps even deducing the hinted-at identity of "I", the narrator of the stories. Is "I" in fact a boy at all? And is Fred "I's" brother, or cousin, or what? For that matter, is "Uncle George" a real relative, or just a family friend?

John Sharp, dir.: The Stolen Airliner (1955)

Now I'm not so sure. Thursday Adventure, despite being the only one in the series to be filmed - as The Stolen Airliner - doesn't evoke quite the same feelings I expected it to. The storytelling seems a little on the perfunctory side, the heroes and villains too neatly lined up for our inspection from the kick-off.

Perhaps if I'd been able to read it when I was younger it might be different. Lord knows I wanted to - but our school library was sadly lacking in thrillers. Never mind, I'll always be grateful for those few unobtrusive SF anthologies it did include.

Anthony Asquith, dir.: The Way to the Stars (1945)

Though I didn't realise it at the time, John Pudney was a far more versatile and interesting figure than he seemed. As a slightly younger contemporary of W. H. Auden, he'd published a number of books on the fringes of the Macspaunday group in the thirties before finding his true audience in the forties as a war poet.

The Way to the Stars, pictured above, is famous for containing two poems by Pudney which are implied, in context, to have been written by Michael Redgrave's character in the movie: "Missing" and "Johnny-head-in-air." The latter, in particular, became a kind of R.A.F. anthem:
Do not despair
For Johnny-head-in-air;
He sleeps as sound
As Johnny underground.

Fetch out no shroud
For Johnny-in-the-cloud;
And keep your tears
For him in after years.

Better by far
For Johnny-the-bright-star,
To keep your head
And see his children fed.

John Pudney: Selected Poems (1946)

It was probably on the strength of this that his Selected Poems was published as a mass-market paperback in 1946.

His subsequent career as a hard-working journalist was punctuated by two sets of children's books, The "Fred and I" series mentioned above, and the "Hartwarp" series (for younger readers) in the 1960s. He also wrote a number of other novels and stories, though his main source of income appears to have been the non-fiction works he was commissioned to write, especially those on aeronautical subjects.

He was also an alcoholic. His eventual success in overcoming this habit forms the principal subject of much of his later verse, particularly that included in his second volume of Selected Poems, which I also own:

John Pudney: Selected Poems 1967-1973 (1973)

What of it, you may ask? He had his day; his "sins were scarlet but his books were read" (as Hilaire Belloc once put it). Is there any real need to resurrect him now? I suppose that I'd hoped "Fred and I" would retain the fascination they held for me as a pre-teen, but they don't, not really.

I don't regret making the experiment, though. It's true that we did feel at the time that my father was disappearing down a rabbit-hole of infantile fiction, dedicated principally (it seemed) to brave boys upholding the values of the British Empire against posturing Prussians, bloodthirsty Bolsheviks, and rebellious natives.

The other main thing he read was history, though, and the essentially tragic nature of that long chronicle of "old, unhappy, far-off things, and battles long ago" perhaps justified his predilection for the less testing pleasures of boy's literature.

I, too, now find myself reading old children's books both for relaxation and for the window they supply on the values of even the comparatively recent past. The "Bannermere" books of self-conscious leftist Geoffrey Trease, for instance, may seem fearfully buttoned-up and tame nowadays, but when they they were written - at much the same time as John Pudney's "Fred and I" stories - they definitely constituted a reaction agains the landed gentry assumptions of earlier children's fiction.

Annie Gauger, ed.: The Annotated Wind in the Willows (2009)

Much though I love Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, for instance, it's hard not to concur with my old Edinburgh Professor Wallace Robson's classic analysis of the class values that underlie it: the proletarian weasels' attempt to encroach on the inherited domains of Toad, the local squire, who has to be upheld by our heroes, Mole, Rat and Badger, despite their own contempt for Toad's foolish and criminal antics.

There's a lot to be learned, then, from children's books. It would have to be admitted that they can constitute an insidious form of brainwashing for the precociously literate. But the values of heroism, self-reliance, and refusal to kowtow to bullies encoded in most of them, regardless of fashion or era, is surely not to be despised then or now?

Bruno Bettelheim: The Uses of Enchantment (1976)

So I'll continue to collect and read them despite my occasional misgivings. There's some shocking stuff in some of them, I would acknowledge, but sheltering your mind from any views contrary to your own is not really much of a recipe for continued mental health.

I've always felt there was a lot in Nazi concentration camp survivor Bruno Bettelheim's claim of the continuing value of the shockingly violent and disruptive world of Grimm's fairytales, despite the understandable reluctance of many contemporary parents to expose their children to this barbarous world of ravening monsters and arbitrary power.

The goalposts may shift from era to era, but the need to think your own thoughts, defend your own values, and stand up for what you believe in lies deep at the heart of all the great works of children's literature from Lewis Carroll's Alice to Philip Pullman's Lyra books.

Children who don't read at all are in much greater danger of falling for charlatans than those who've imbibed copious doses of fairytales and beast fables at a formative age.

John Tenniel: The Nursery Alice (1890)

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