At the age of seventeen I was expelled from school. The Headmaster called me into his inner sanctum and shadowed by the Deputy Head admonished me for being a fully paid up member of the Communist Party. He demanded to see my membership card. I was not (and have never been) a ‘fully paid up’ member of any political party, let alone the Communist party. I didn’t even know how to contact it (Yellow Pages?), but I took the expulsion as a compliment to my independence and wore the accusation as a badge of honour. I had been expelled from a grammar school that thought it was a public school and where masters still wore gowns and the Head wore a mortar board and expected boys to stand when he entered the classroom. I had therefore, the further pleasure of being expelled from a rather bad ‘good’ school which left me at the age of seventeen, both ‘a snob and a revolutionary’ (as George Orwell put it in the Road to Wigan Pier with reference to a somewhat better educational establishment).
At bottom, I have retained this attitude to my middle age, but it was only recently that I came to consider it seriously and in so doing it has thrown me back into my childhood. It was from my father that I learned to be a socialist and from my mother that I learned ambition. At least it seemed so. Looking back, I realise it was from neither in quite that way, but rather the influence of two other parents in my home – the television and comics. I am one of the first generation of children for whom television, rather than books or film played a central part in my growing up. There is no doubt that the greatest moral lessons I learned as a child came from children’s television and The Beano. Perhaps I am shallow, perhaps I should declare that I imbibed the classics at my mother’s knee and could read Greek fluently by the age of four, but I can’t. My influences are the popular culture of 1950s Britain, especially those closely associated with the twin terms, ‘justice’ and ‘rebellion’.
I learned about justice watching the wonderfully proper Richard Greene playing Robin Hood. He played it as if the outlaw was essentially a spitfire pilot from the ‘Battle of Britain’ with his very proper girlfriend Maid Marian played by two actresses who both looked like teachers of domestic science. Nevertheless, they battled the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham (played by Alan Wheatley, in studded leather, and wearing fashionable Acker Bilke facial hair) who looked dastardly, and who seemed all powerful, but who week on week, was defeated by Robin and his Merrie men (why did King John never replace such an incompetent?).
‘Robin Hood’ was one of a number of ‘knights of old’ TV shows which included ‘Ivanhoe’ (with a young Roger Moore) and ‘William Tell’, with Willoughby Goddard as the wonderful Austrian gauleiter Gessler (a joyously hideous monica). All the heroes wore tights and, I presume, as television was still black and white, Robin and his men were attired in Lincoln Green. I can only imagine Robin in shades of grey. I do not want a colourised cut. I never questioned the silly outfits, the over tight leggings and the short jerkins (nor indeed the brilliantined hair). What I saw was heroism in the face of injustice not Nottingham’s finest camping it up.
What I did not then know and learned many years later and it was revelatory (like recovering a lost memory) was that Robin Hood had been produced by Sidney Cole who had supported script writers such as Ian McLellan Hunter and Ring Lardner, communist émigrés from the McCarthy witch-hunt who had themselves ‘used’ this serial, where a band of brothers ‘rob from the rich to give to the poor’ as an allegory of a socialist utopia of the greenwood. Had I been brainwashed or enlightened? Whichever way and perhaps both, I was hooked, an unknowing socialist by ten years old with a sense of injustice but as yet no target for my ire. I was also Robin Hood, leader of the gang and hero of the hour, as egotistical as you could get and also oddly as egalitarian.
The writers of Robin Hood had learned well what Orwell had insisted upon in The Road to Wigan Pier that ‘we could do with a little less talk about ‘capitalist’ and ‘proletarian’ and a little more about the robbers and the robbed’. It is hardly surprising therefore that Robin Hood figures so strongly in Orwell’s own development as a writer and political thinker. ‘As a very small child’, he tells us, ‘[He] used to imagine that [he] was Robin Hood … hero of thrilling adventures’. 1 What Orwell realised was that his personal ‘“story” ceased to be narcissisticism and became more and more a mere description of what [he] was doing’.2 In wanting (‘in a revolutionary age’) to turn ‘political writing into an art’, Orwell recognised that not only is it useful to understand the writer’s early development but that ‘if [a writer] escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write’. 3 Disciplined in later life, the polemenical writer becomes a strange mixture of egoist, historian and politician. 4
I knew that Robin was really a decent English middle-class bloke and that, like Orwell, I too, couldn’t ‘proterariarise my accents or certain of my beliefs, and I would not if I could’. 5 Robin Hood was the yeoman hero every suburban lower middle-class boy knew himself to be. Such ‘childhood’ characters as Robin Hood are the sand around which the pearl of mature sensibility forms. Such a core is irrevocable, emotional and tinged with faith.
I also bought the Beano religiously until I was thirteen. It was a weekly comic quite unlike anything American, with strip stories produced by D.C. Thompson of Dundee in Scotland. Alongside conservative Biffo the Bear and Lord Snooty, the rest of the paper heaved with anarchy. Here was Minnie the Minx, Little Plum (the most non pc native American ever who started each sentence with ‘um’,), Dennis the Menace and Jonah, but best of all there was the regular adventures of the Bash Street Kids, the working-class antidote to Lord Snooty and his odd mates or the old school bores of the Eagle and Magnet. The Bash Street Kids, led by Danny in his black jumper emblazoned with a skull and cross bones ( based on Richmal Crompton’s William), daft Smiffy, Sidney and Wilfred, Fatty, Toots (intended as a Boadicean type) and the immortal Plug were the epitome of rebellion, always getting the temporary better of teacher (both he and his wife had moustaches) or the Janitor (whose cat wore a janitor’s cap with ‘janitor’s cat’ written on it) until whacked into cartoon submission by a big swishy cane. The canings were the respect due to all rebels – an act of recognition.
Many years later and just like my revelation regarding Robin Hood, I found out that the Bash Street Kids and their secondary School education was intended by their main illustrator, Leo Baxandale to be a Marxist reposte to the elitism and hierarchy of the public school found in almost every children’s book and comic. Well not quite, they are in fact equal to teacher.
Commentators, academic and journalist, have categorized The Bash Street Kids as ‘rebels’. That is a misjudgement of them, and makes them less than they are. I did not conceive the Bash Street Kids as such; to have done so would have been to diminish their force, to constrain their being. It would also have posited a vertical structure of comedy,. of the Kids ‘rebelling’ against an authority which they recognised as set above them.
I held a horizontal structure in my mind. 6
I had, therefore, been prepared for the counter culture of the 1960s by the most seemingly innocuous of 1950s popular children’s fun. To hear Dick James singing ‘Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen’, the theme tune for the weekly serial, or to open a Beano and enter Bash Street Secondary, is to remind myself of how I became a ‘snob and a revolutionary’ and of what remained so deep it did not really surface as action until I was seventeen and disturbed my memory (as something fondly repressed) only when I became a middle aged man.
The generation born in 1953, the so-called ‘Coronation babies’ of whom I am one were the first real multi-media children. We had not only film and wireless (tuned inevitably on Sunday dinnertime to Judith Chalmers and Family Favourites followed by the Navy Lark or Parra Handy, but also books, comics (if you were very lucky American comics), portable record players (still capable of playing 78s) and later in the ‘60s wonderful pocket-sized transistor radios which, with their little earpieces, could be tuned to Radio Luxemburg or Radio Caroline where, for the first time, and in secret (a pleasure akin to children’s reading) you could enjoy the illicit pleasure of pop music, not yet available on the BBC. Most of all we had television which came into its own for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, commentators announcing the dawn of a new Elizabethan age.
As a boy, I was brought up on television adaptations of children’s literature rather than the books themselves. Billy Bunter, Just William and Biggles were visual treats updated for television, whilst Larry the Lamb and Listen with Mother catered for a young generation on the radio. In those days, boys’ entertainment was a heady mixture of cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, your dad taking you to see John Wayne at the pictures (national anthem played first before the double bill and Pathe news), making Airfix kits and reading war comics where every Japanese looked crazed and shouted ‘Banzai’ or ‘Aiee’ when shot; Germans looked menacing and taught a whole generation how to use ‘Achtung’ and ‘Britisher pig dog’. Such was our education in universal peace and brotherhood, but it was taken in good humour (children understand genre, and convention - indeed they demand it) and did no harm except perhaps to leave a slight frisson of superiority.
Such feelings, including those from the imperial adventures in the comics, left some pride but little of the supposed racism that is meant to come from representational encounters with the ‘other’. True enough we had no guide and the first black boy at my own school did not come along until 1968 (this was in a London Borough which is now fifty per cent non-white British born). In such an apparently homogeonous society it was class division not multi-culturism that still exercised political thought, the questions being economic and social rather than about ethnicity and integration. At school, this was reflected in whether you passed your ‘eleven plus’ and went to the local grammar or the (just for failures) secondary modern. Even if you went to grammar school, class snobbery emerged in how much parents had spent on a blazer (barathea being good, wool being non-u).
Girls were still brought up in the art of domestic science and expected to be secretaries, hairdressers and infant school teachers (if they were bright). Their reading seemed tame compared with the world of tanks, bombers, ranch wars and cut away plans of space vehicles or the latest idea in hovercraft. What was the point of tales of private schoolgirls playing hockey, grooming horses or winning endless gymkhanas?
In the lower middle-class suburb where I was brought up, a visit to the library was still a regular weekly pleasure (I was also sent to elocution classes: dancing [i.e. deportment] classes). Such proprieties did not stop the fact that most children’s fiction was already being mediated through television and film, already part of the growing popular commercial culture that included comic and cereal packet giveaways, cigarette and tea packet cards, tie-in toy products and related ephemera such as bubble gum sets (the most violent, anarchic and disgusting, at least in retrospect were ‘Civil War News’ and ‘Battle’ both produced by Topps in America and AB&C Cards in England; ‘Mars Attacks’ was not available in Britain to my knowledge). 7 I suspect that Edith Nesbitt’s The Railway Children (1906) is still pretty much remembered as presented by the Lionel Jeffries film of 1970. Many a boy just knew that the quietly volcanic Bobbie as played by the rather prim and proper Jenny Agutter was really a little minx, a fact finally confirmed to them in adulthood when Agutter returned all grown up for her steamy romp in ‘An American Werewolf in London’ (1981).
A vast number of us, first met Mary Poppins and Peter Pan through Disney’s versions and still cannot separate Baloo from the song ‘The Bear Necessities of Life’. Many of my generation have had to relearn our children’s books as literature later in life knowing even then in the cinema that Disney had dumbed down and sentimentalized Winnie the Pooh, Mogli and Peter Pan to fit in with the company’s version of Dumbo, Pinocchio and Bambi. Perhaps our first encounter with American ‘indifference’ to the rest of the world was hearing Dick Van Dyke’s appalling ‘mockney’ accent in Mary Poppins (pronounced ‘Merry’ by Bert), so hideously emblematic that comedians dined out on the accent for years. It was as close as one would come to ideology in action, and I don’t think I exaggerate too much in saying that it had a subliminal influence in preparing us for the protests of the Vietnam War. Thus trivia and trivial details add up to important consequences.
What Disney expunged was the complex and ambivalent relationship children’s books and stories have with adult mass culture. We saw adult standard classics through the prism of Hammer Films, the presence of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and a host of faces that would become familiar through television’s serialised adventures. Here and in the comics were to be found the shadows of the best-selling fiction of the 1900s to 1930s: P C Wren’s legionnaires, Baroness Orczy’s Pimpernel, Sidney Mulford’s Hopalong Cassidy and Edgar Wallace’s criminal underworld. Here too were even fainter traces of characters pinched from Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry Rider Haggard and H.G. Wells and rollicking adventurers from the nineteenth-century penny dreadfuls: buccaneers, highwaymen and avengers. Alongside this rich historical mix there were contemporary authors available like Dennis Wheatley (who found a new readership between the 1950s and early 1970s), Ian Fleming (whose work looked back to the imperial adventure and combined it with the American crime novel) as well as the titillatory histories provided by Daniel P. Mannix or the entire oeuvre of the wonderful and salaciously packaged New English Library. Despite the feelings that what was aimed at children and what was aimed at adults belonged to two separate realms, it was growing apparent that,
What is for children and what is for adults on a child level and adults on an adult level [was] far from clear. 8
That both children’s literature (and poetry) and adult best-selling fiction were aspects of popular culture was not lost on the censorious who saw an equivalence between what was beneath contempt (bestsellers) with what was below contempt (children’s literature),
I would as soon consider including [Enid Blyton] in a study of children’s literature as I would consider including say Mickey Spillane in a literature degree course. 9
This did not mean that books written for children weren’t children’s books just that books written for adults might be children’s books too. What quite was grown-up reading? In 1927, for instance,
[B]y and large [children’s books] were regarded as trash … No one, of course, would stop to consider critically the work of Angela Brazil ... but there were many people then who assumed that all children’s books were on that level,’ and even by 1939, only 40 per cent of libraries had children’s sections. 10
Much of this complex situation regarding popular culture is exemplified by Rudyard Kipling and his own ambiguous relationship with writing for children. On 7 October 1904, Rudyard Kipling sat down at his desk at Bateman’s, his Sussex home since 1902, to write a rather strange invitation to his friend, the journalist and editor Howell Gwynne. In it was a request for Gwynne to get, ‘from some London toyshop a donkey’s head mask, either in paper or cloth sufficiently large to go over a man’s head’. He also wanted, ‘a pair of fairy wings’. Fearing his friend might think him quite mad, Kipling explained,
Don’t think I’m mad but the kids are next month doing a little piece of Midsummer Night’s Dream, … I’ve got to be Bottom with the ass’s head and Elsie is going to be Titania. Hence, the wings. But if I don’t have a proper donkey’s head I’ll get into trouble from Elsie. John is going to be Puck but I don’t think he wants wings. 11
What lay behind the home theatricals was an idea that had been in Kipling’s mind since the end of the 1890s, when he had become fascinated with the Roman occupation of Britain and the deeply buried layers of history that were suggested by the hints in the Sussex countryside. Workmen carrying out repairs at Bateman’s had unearthed,
A Jacobean tobacco-pipe, a worn Cromwellian latten spoon and, … the bronze cheek of a Roman horsebit. 12
And close by an old iron works called Welland’s Forge was,
supposed to have been worked by the Phoenicians and Romans and, since then, uninterruptedly till the middle of the eighteenth century.
It was in a quarry nearby that,
[I]t pleased our children to act for us, in the open, what they remembered of A Midsummer-Night’s Dream … And in a near pasture of the water-meadows lay out an old and unshifting Fairy Ring … You see how patiently the cards were stacked and dealt into my hands? The Old Things of our Valley glided into every aspect of our outdoor works. Earth, Air, Water and People had been – I saw it at last – in full conspiracy to give me ten times as much as I could compass, even if I wrote a complete history of England, as that might have touched or reached our valley. 13
What emerged after a type of long incubation was Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), a book of stories illustrating the history of England, in which, as he told Edward Bok, the Dutch-American author, in 1905, that he wanted,
To give children not a notion of history but a notion of the time sense which is at the bottom of all knowledge of history and history rightly understanded (sic) means love of one’s fellow men and the lands one lives in. 14
Kipling chose as the central character of the stories Shakespeare’s figure of the hobgoblin Puck, acting as psycho-pomp in the children’s quest though the fabric of English history. If ‘the present was the moving edge of the past’ then nothing could be understood without an awareness of long receding history, forgotten in the rush of the new. 15 Yet Puck of Pook’s Hill was no straightforward elegy to a lost England. It was neither strident like the Victorian G A Henty and R M Ballantyne, nor maudlin like Frederick Farrar, whose school tale Eric (1858) was mercilessly spoofed in Kipling’s own Stalky and Co (1899) (and for which he had to apologise to Farrar!). Rather, through tales of Roman invaders, Norman conquerors, iron masters, local peasants and Jewish doctors, Kipling tried to open up English history as a tapestry rather than a chronology – Englishness as a concoction of differences and similarities that somehow made a community through time.
Puck was to be the conductor of a journey through identity, in which the ‘British’ (and more particularly its Edwardian synonym, the ‘English’) were not only confronted with their past but also where they participated in the past which was also their past, one in which participation was all. Yet historical community was also ‘mythic’ where continuity could only be taught by the ‘last of the race’ of the ‘People of the Hills’. By releasing Puck from his captivity, the children achieve their passport to the historical struggle for identity within community.
You’ve done something that Kings and Knights and Scholars in old days would have given their crowns and spurs and books to find out. If Merlin himself had helped you, you couldn’t have managed better! You’ve broken the Hills – you’ve broken the Hills! It hasn’t happened in a thousand years. 16
Kipling found Puck’s universe neither by pursing the fashion for spiritualism that had already swallowed up W B Yeats and Arthur Conan Doyle, nor by dwelling too long in the dusty pursuit of lost antiquarian books, but in the very heart of modernity. Kipling found his history in the technology of speed and the romance of driving.
To me it is a land full of stupefying marvels and mysteries, and a day in the car in an English country is a day in some fairy museum where all the exhibits are alive and real and yet none the less delightfully mixed up with the books. For instance, in six hours, I can go from the land of the Ingoldsby Legends by way of the Norman Conquest and the Barons’ War into Richard Jefferies’ country, and so through the Regency, one of Arthur Young’s less known tours, and Celia’s Arbour, into Gilbert White’s territory … in England the dead, twelve coffin deep, clutch hold of my wheels at every turn, till I sometimes wonder that the very road does not bleed. That is the real joy of motoring – the exploration of this amazing England. 17
In the multi-layered, partly ruined landscape of England was a history that was never quite remembered, never quite a totality, an evanescent but not quite tangible reality, to which the isolated facts of actual town and country pointed but could never explain or be reconciled to present thought. Thus to remind children of their country’s history is already tragic as this implies a history already forgotten or worse repressed. Puck’s history is a multi-cultural, multi-racial confusion that can be grasped only in the retelling of tales. Such history is represented as primal, beyond and outside of memory, locked in the thousand-year dream of the Hill People.
Kipling’s history, and a type of history it certainly is (more real than ‘the facts’) is the attempt to reconcile two types of forgetting. First is the forgetting caused by the rush of the present; secondly is the primal history of self and community built upon layers of the dead, which only exists in communal values, religion, superstitions and habits of mind, that are themselves the unacknowledged roots of self reflection. In Puck of Pook’s Hill, the certainty of Henty and Ballantyne was already gone, replaced by the attempt to recapture what was already perceived as lost. For Kipling, this loss has already occurred in childhood until meditated upon by the adult writer.
Since the tales had to be read by children, before people realized that they were meant for grown-ups … I worked the material in three or four overlaid tints and textures, which might not reveal themselves according to the shifting light of sex, youth, and experience. 18
History, like childhood can never be recovered, only grasped in a dream of history, never more than the potential of its remembering.
Nowhere does this become so self evident than in the introduction to Rewards and Fairies which Kipling produced in 1910 as a follow-up to Puck of Pook’s Hill. The heart of England is neither Roman, Saxon nor Norman, but archaic, occulted, repressed. To reach England is to see beyond into trees, stones and landscape, into language and habit of mind. Englishness is connected to the present by that almost ironic wish of E.M. Forster’s to ‘only connect’. To connect to history, is to go beyond the merely historical into a dream of England induced by the fairies.
Once upon a time, Dan and Una, brother and sister, living in the English country, had the good fortune to meet with Puck, alias Robin Goodfellow, alias Nick o’Lincoln, alias Lob-lie-by-the-Fire, the last survivor in England of those whom mortals call Fairies. Their proper name, of course, is ‘The People of the Hills.’ This Puck, by means of the magic of Oak, Ash, and Thorn, gave the children power –
To see what they should see and hear what they should
Though it should have happened three thousand year. 19
Puck however, is the spirit of primal repression ‘careful, of course, to take away [the children’s memory] of their walks and talks and conversations’, but Kipling contra Puck, is the spirit of tortured memory, bringing to the record, what Puck chooses to forget about the generations that lived, toiled and died generations ago and which are preserved in the fragments of ‘the stories [Kipling is] trying to tell … about those people’. For the last hundred years, British children’s writers (including the Scots and Welsh) have been on a quest for a lost, repressed England. Yet this ‘lost’ England (a golden age taking many forms) has never really existed, its absence continuously ‘replaced’ by a mystical landscape of the imagination which never quite fills the void.
The Edwardians concocted this territory from their own social, personal, political and technological neuroses and from the rapidly changing intellectual landscape they inherited from the late Victorians. This world of disturbance and uncertainty was bequeathed to two generations brought up in the shadow of trench warfare, aerial bombardment, class division and economic and imperial decline and bequeathed to later generations for whom the creation of a multi-cultural, multi-perspective United Kingdom still left unanswered the questions asked in the long lost summers before The First World War . The loss that could never be retrieved or replaced (because it was never really there) created a type of literary melancholia – an endless, hopeless search that yet projected a type of imaginative reality wherever it went. This reality found its clearest expression in children’s literature and its impact has been immense and continues today even more strongly than ever. The world of childhood reading has made us who we are and how we see the world.
This book’s themes touch upon landscape and myth, paganism and Celtic twilights, nannies and the public schools, orphans and adoptions, Fabianism and fascism, empires and administrators, suburbs and sea sides. They are all bound together by the hallucination of an England always and ever just out of reach: an England that exists only in one’s head as the imaginative possibility of what we could be and what we should be – a landscape and history which is always a moral imperative.
The themes of loss and recovery in children’s literature cannot avoid wider concerns nor fail to touch upon other sensibilities searching for utopia . Here can be found the stories of folk revivalists and Morris men, cycling enthusiasts and ghost hunters, garden suburb planners and garden gnomes as well as builders of scale villages and model locomotives all of whom give the history of children’s literature its context. In their ranks may be detected the new enthusiasm for hobbies and imagined worlds. Here is Frank Hornby, inventor of Meccano as well as the members of the first model railway club founded in 1910 and called (unsurprisingly) the Model Railway Club, where the diminutive delights of Lilliput arrive in miniature stations forever frozen in a past recoverable only through the pages of Flora Thompson and Laurie Lee. Here too can be found H G Wells and Jerome K Jerome playing toy soldiers on summer afternoons, their hobby immortalised in Little Wars as a game ‘played by boys of every age… and even by girls of the better sort’. 20
It was an irony not entirely lost on Kipling’s generation that the olde England that they sought could only be found along roads built for the very cars that threatened their idyll. ‘Never before have so many people been searching for England’, wrote the journalist and travel writer H V Morton in 1927, before setting off on his own motor quest down England’s leafy lanes. Yet what was England and where was it to be found?
Another writer would hold part of the answer. In 1891, Kenneth Grahame had already spent twelve years as a loyal member of the Bank of England, and in another seven he would be its Secretary, but his pin-striped dreams lay elsewhere in the artistic bohemia of the Yellow Book and the river banks of the Thames. On 25 April 1891 he published a short story in the National Observer. It was called ‘The Rural Pan’, about the gods of the riverbank forced to hide from modernity, but ever present to those who sought behind blind materialism and the world of city bankers. In 1908 the episode was incorporated into Wind in the Willows. In search of Otter’s lost son (so many orphans and lost children inhabit the work of children’s writing) Rat and Mole find themselves on a small island, bathed in an Avalonian light, at the centre of which is the all forgiving, all compassionate Great God Pan: ‘the Piper at the Gates of Dawn’.
Between the car-driven rediscovery of English landscape and history and the vision of Pan on an island in the Thames lies the key to the modern tradition of children’s writing which started with the Edwardians, was continued by the ‘lost generation of the inter-war years’ and which has re-emerged in the twenty-first century – a continuous dream of crisis, renewal and mythology for an England in search of certainty.
Children do not live their lives in isolation nor can their reading avoid the concerns of the everyday adult world. Books for adults take up the themes of childhood, reinventing them for an older readership whose sense of wonder, escapism and romance rejects the literary realism of the mainstream serious novel. Thus the girl who enjoyed Angela Brazil would also read the far racier Elinor Glyn or Ethel M Dell; her brother equally thrilled by the adventures of Bulldog Drummond as with those of Captain Bigglesworth. Adult fiction inevitably also fed back into the world of childhood. The First World War adventure tales of Nat Gould, Sidney Horler, Edgar Wallace and Rafael Sabatini faded eventually from the memory of their adult readers only to re-emerge in the pages of 1960s illustrated comics such as Lion, Valiant, Victor and Hotspur recreating the heroic shenanigans of a lost age for a new generation of boys looking for role models and excitement.
Thus appeared the last great British hero of a lost age, the pipe smoking astronaut, Dan Dare, drawn by Frank Hampson for the Reverend Marcus Morris’s new comic, The Eagle, a publication explicitly created to ward off the influence of the horror comics of 1950s America. Yet the American influence is to be found everywhere, from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy to Kenneth Grahame’s love of Uncle Remus, from J R R Tolkien’s rejection of ‘Americo-cosmopolitanism’ to the influence of Tarzan on Dan Dare. Or indeed Leo Baxendale’s creation of Plug, whose name is the shortened form of the American ‘plug ugly’. The American world represented all things modern and futuristic or commercial and crass according to one’s view.
In the continuous loop that joins ‘serious’ children’s writing to the world of genre escapism, themes curl round each other and reinforce the continuities that have, in the twenty-first century, blurred and sometimes obliterated the difference between adult literature and that aimed at children. ‘The juvenile reader’ (as Captain Marryat called them in Children of the New Forest) has long been the recipient of a world of myth, strange landscapes and heroic physicality and it is this landscape that increasingly provides the security and belief system that adults find lacking in the world of technology and consumerism. Philip Pullman’s epic of angels and evil is only the latest neo-pagan production in the relentless backward sweep of English children’s writing in its quest to find a mythology for England that confronts or bypasses Christianity in order to rediscover the world of pan-Celticism.
Paganism is not only in conflict with modernity but neo-paganism as a modern belief goes back in children’s writing even before the death of Queen Victoria. It is the central and most powerful continuous theme in English children’s stories and may be said to be the single most influential cultural idea that Britain has created for a post 9/11 world. From Wind in the Willows through the worlds of Bilbo Baggins and Mary Poppins up to the present day, English children’s literature seems continuously at war with the conventions of traditional religion. Conventional Anglicanism and muscular Christianity have long had to accept partnership with mystical Catholicism, neo-paganism, landscape worship and plain atheism, often mixed up in the same book where a strange English religiosity (rather than religion) is the theme and where the religiosity I wish to explore belongs as much to the secular left as to the right: Arthur Ransome and Trotsky’s secretary; L.P. Travers and G.I. Gurdjieff. Which is to say in the end that all British children’s literature from the crisis years at the beginning of the twentieth century through to the 1960s (and oddly revisited in the century’s last decade) is a peculiar blend of traditionalism, ruralism and empire as much as it is a hymn to liberty, freedom and rebellion: both Rudyard Kipling and Karl Marx, caught as Orwell put it, ‘between the priest and the commissar’. 21 It is here that childhood and adulthood meet in sentiment, outlook and emotional attachment.
Rewards and Fairies has faded more quickly than Puck of Pook’s Hill but it contains one poem that has outlasted all. ‘If’ is squeezed between a tale of smugglers, colonists and red Indians and one ostensibly about Napoleon. Its message (which has so grown in significance and popularity that it rates as one of the most famous of English poems) is of the potential and possibility of selfhood. Unlike the heroic manly verses of Henry Newbolt and the versifiers of the public school code of honour, Kipling’s poem is full of the doubt and insouciance that confronts the Victorian world from which he emerged and which he continuously reacts. ‘If’ is a poem and praise to the ‘indifference’ that makes real honour and wisdom in which a personal moral code, immune to demagogues and ideology, may confront and defeat the communal and historical forces which vie for command of personality. Orwell thought ‘If’ ‘sententious’, appealing to the ‘blimps’ of ‘the stupid early years’ of the twentieth century , but he also recognised that whilst ‘vulgar’ and sentimental, whilst aligning himself with Cecil Rhodes and the wrong class whilst emoting about the old British army and yet decrying the working classes, Kipling was no ‘yes-man or … time-server’.22 Withall, ‘Kipling [dealt] in ‘thoughts which are both vulgar and permanent’, a man who wrote ‘good bad poems’, defined by Orwell as,
a graceful monument to the obvious. It records in memorable form – for verse is a mnemonic device, among other things – some emotion which very nearly every human being can share.23
Such verse-poetry is, above all, communal, restorative and moral.
To ‘keep one’s virtue’ is neither to be an apologist for empire nor a proponent of the Monday Club, but to be someone whose personal journey is to find an easy and honourable ‘personhood’, which delivers ‘the Earth and everything that’s in it’ and makes the boy ‘a Man’. This is not sentimental hogwash (is it ‘sentimental’ because too many ordinary folk like it?) but a poem of struggle in which the outcome is neither reached nor resolved but left in that doubt that only death completes and which is still left without answer in obituaries or biography.
Personal as well as communal history is the quest for a ‘lost’ identity and remains nothing more. It is, of course, only this, already defeated search, as Freud first saw, and spent the years to his death codifying, that makes identity in the first place. In ‘Melancholy and Melancholia’ Freud was to write, ‘realty testing has shown that the loved object no longer exists’. In so doing, he missed the fact that the loved object is not missing because having once existed, but that one can ‘mourn’ for what never existed but should have. It is longing for a permanently absent ideal or, to put it somewhat more ironically, as John Osborne did in Look Back in Anger (1956), ‘if you’ve no world of your own, its rather pleasant to regret the passing of someone else’s’.
More importantly perhaps, in terms of personal feelings, children’s literature is the only ‘genre’ created from parental love, stories first told in intimate letters embellished with doodles, at bedtime and loved before being committed to print at the very moment that the children who acted as the first audiences were already old enough to know that the intimacy of father or mother and child had already passed. Sad too, that the success of these stories in print should so mar the adult lives of the author’s children or act as memorials to the death of beloved offspring. Kipling’s own son John died in World War I.
Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies become explorations of the quest not only for what we have forgotten but also for what we have forgotten about how we forgot. Perhaps this is why they are mixed anthologies of stories, poems and ballads, defeating any attempt at a logical or continuous narrative.
In The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), Orwell attacks Kipling as a toadying apologist for the upper classes and as an imperialist jingoist for the imperial cause. Kipling was more complex than Orwell believed. Orwell’s reactions to Kipling and his recognition of a deeper complexity waited five more years to find expression in his article on Kipling. The confrontation between Orwell and Kipling says much about Orwell’s own efforts to lay his ambiguities towards class and imperialism to rest. Yet it was also an incisive critical account of the fault line in a great writer which nevertheless forms the very basis of his permance in the popular imagination. Kipling warned the pheasant-shooting class that their days were numbered if they didn’t learn to be humane in their dealings with those below. Kipling also learnt ‘Hindustani, (urdu), something his left-wing detractors have never bothered to do. Perhaps Orwell’s rancour at his own class fits peculiarly well with Kipling’s own. Both men existed in the cracks of the class divisions they explored. Both were looking for England and both failed quite to find it, neither in the countryside of Kipling’s Sussex nor the grime of Orwell’s northern cities.
This is not a history of childhood reading of the chronological type but an essay in how literary sensibilities and societal desires coalesce in children’s books. The approach adopted is intended to take into account the lived experience of the continuity of reading and the mutations of media adaption. Thus a reading experience is not only personal but communal and ideological - a thread in rather than just a root of experience. Moreover no one reads in historical order, picking up books is a serendipitous activity. In my own experience, I had read Orwell (at school) before Kipling and knew T.S. Eliot off by heart at fourteen but had not read any of the children’s classics. Eliot simply came into my hands and I was hooked.
This means that what I want to say is not only about that area of literature called ‘writing for children’ (for which bookshops nowadays have ever enlarging areas set aside) but also about how adults tell stories to children in order to tell stories to themselves. Thus what follows is not a comprehensive literary history but instead a meditation on the nets of communal values found in children’s literature which spread across the first fifty odd years of the twentieth century and which made the multi- media generation in which I belong and who now find themselves in charge of our world.
George Orwell, ‘Why I Write’ in Decline of the English Murder and Other Essays (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988) p. 181
Ibid. p. 186; 183
George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (Harmondsworth: Penguin  1989) p.215
Les Baxendale, On Comedy: The Beano and Ideology (Stroud: Reaper Books, 1994) p.35
Number 38 ‘School Bombing’ of the ‘Battle’ Series was actually banned in Britain
Peter Hunt, An Introduction to Children’s Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994) p.96
Clive Bloom, Cult Fiction: Popular Reading and Pulp Theory (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1996) p.7
Harry Ricketts, The Unforgiving Minute: A Life of Rudyard Kipling (London: Pimlico, 1999) p.290
Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook’s Hill (London: Macmillan  1987) p.8
Rudyard Kipling, Rewards and Fairies (London: Macmillan,  1923) p.1
H.G. Wells, Little Wars (New York: De Capo Press  1979) p.1
Orwell, ‘Why I Write’, p.21
Orwell, ‘Rudyard Kipling’ in Decline of the English Murder and Other Essays (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988) p.57