One of the joys of social media seems to be the periodic reappearance of a piece of bad verse that begins “I remember the corned beef of my childhood…” and then swerves off in to a list of details about British life prior to about 1980, none of which are worth getting nostalgic about.
I’ve never seen this shared by anyone I care about, but its most recent recycling did inspire me to finally go and look at some old children’s books I didn’t actually read when I was a child. They have always stuck in my memory as showing there was a world of “children’s fiction” that wasn’t like the Enid Blyton stuff I didn’t like or the fantasy stories that didn’t interest me, which I passed by on my way to start reading proper grown-up books like Animal Farm and 1984 as soon as possible. And now I have read them, and can report that their authors and characters would not recognise the Corned Beef Nostalgia view of their world either.
Squib by Nina Bawden (1971)
We never read this book in school, but I saw my teacher had a copy of it in 1983 and looking at the back cover suggested something quite a bit darker and more serious than the usual run of Puffin books. The unreality of children’s fiction is itself a theme in the story: these children are at the in-between age, at the end of childhood and bored of its limits, but not yet ready of able to become something else. They can see things that are wrong in their world, but they cannot explain or act against them, and they already have shadows cast over them by terrible events. It is not clear precisely where we are in Britain, but it seems to be somewhere in the south, probably not anywhere near London, circa 1970.
Robin and Kate are the older children, living on opposite sides of the road and already sensing different expectations from their different family backgrounds. Robin is the older brother of young Sammy and Prue, whilst Kate has no younger siblings since the terrible family holiday a few years ago. She was in the sea with young Rupert, who was in a rubber ring, and began to panic that she was out of her depth. Her dad came to rescue her, thinking the boy was safely floating; but then he saw he was drifting out on the tide, so went out after him. His body was washed up but Rupert’s was never found. “Rupert’s room” is still preserved in the house where she lives with her mum. Looking at old paintings of the boy convinces her that the mysterious silent child “Squib” they see at the playground may in fact be Rupert, after years being brought up by strangers under a new identity.
Robin knows this back story, but can’t help finding Kate exasperating in any case.
Kate Pollack was a girl who liked to get to the bottom of things. Nothing else to occupy her mind, Robin thought, feeling a bit sour suddenly; no newspaper round, no shopping to do for her mother, no Sammy and Prue round her neck, morning, noon and night! Kate wheeled out a neighbour’s baby weekends but though she said it was for pocket money it was really because she liked to pretend Hugo belonged to her. Robin had heard her, showing him off to the mothers in the park. My baby brother…
While scoffing at her “private school voice” Robin does have respect for Kate, and isn’t comfortable when she begins developing her theories around Squib’s identity.
Robin felt horribly uncomfortable. Dead people were dead; you didn’t talk about them. But perhaps Kate didn’t feel like that; she and her mother were pretty odd in some ways. It was a class thing, he thought: the posher you were, the less you cared what you said.
But Robin has his own class insecurities: he has been selected to rise through education to join the elite that can swap allusions to English poetry (standard school anthology selection) with the likes of the Pollacks. That puts him apart from the rougher lower classes, such as “the Wild Ones”, the leather-jacketed boys who threaten to have “flick-knives and bicycle chains” to use if they get too thirsty, but usually just seem to be a minor nuisance in the vicinity of the nicer kids. When we get to know one of them better, he calls Robin a “Grammar school yob.”
Squib lives with a family on the squalid caravan site near the gravel pit, which turns out to be a semi-derelict zone of ancient buses and other wreckage converted in to barely-habitable homes. Of course Kate convinces the others that they have to rescue the young “prisoner”, and he certainly seems to be in a state of neglect, in a home dominated by alcoholism and domestic violence.
This story does have a happy resolution, and the older children grow and learn that they were correct to reject the fantastic cliches of children’s fiction, but they were not yet ready for “being realistic” about a world whose full dimensions they are still not aware of. The dense undergrowth of the local “Wild Wood” fills their imagination as a zone of danger, but they are only just growing sensitive to the dangers in the peopled places not so far from their comfortable homes. Kate has been trying to understand her experience around the death of her brother, and this is something even the adults in this world are unwilling or unable to talk about. Her mother can only offer detachment, and in her work as an illustrator for children’s books she uses her child and her friends.
Kate stood beside her and looked. A wood like Turner’s Wood, dark and tangled; the tops of the trees invisible, out of the picture, but there was there was the feeling they were high above the children in the foreground, dwarfing them and, in some way, scaring them. You could tell they were scared by the angle of their bodies, leaning in, drawn forward and yet stiff, poised to run. ‘What are they scared of?’ Kate said.
’Can you tell they are? Oh good.’ Her mother looked pleased. ‘Why, I don’t know yet. I haven’t finished reading the book.’
‘Oughtn’t you to? I mean, if you’re drawing the pictures?’
‘Not until I’ve finished this one. You see, they don’t know what they’re frightened of at this point in the story. So it’s best I don’t know either. You get a truer feeling, that way.’
This book has illustrations, perhaps we should read it as her story and she made it all up around her pictures?
He’s Your Brother by Richard Parker (1974)
Mike, Jane and “Orry” (Lawrence) are the children of the Mr and Mrs Lewis, a middle-class family living in Kent. Mr Lewis is often travelling in his job as a cellist in a music group, he will be off for a month to work the Edinburgh Festival soon. He’s not strict in imposing his art on the kids though, since Jane is often playing Soft Machine albums in her bedroom. Mike’s bedroom is full of his collection of old railway memorabilia and antiques. Lawrence is often hiding under the stairs, and “Orry” is how he usually pronounces his name, since he is extremely withdrawn and uncommunicative. His condition is described as autistic when we follow him on his trips to the special unit he attends, to be given learning sessions with a child specialist.
I am not sure if the intended readers of this book were expected to notice, but what strikes me about the story is that Mike also would be regarded as “on the spectrum” in 2021, and it seems that the adults surrounding him in 1974 have something like that idea as well, even if they don’t vocalise it at any point. There are many times he misses cues or the adults explain them to him; he has to learn to appreciate the expectations of others. Jane is angry when her mother expects her to help out on household tasks, but it’s not clear where Mike got the idea that “Boys don’t sew on buttons” – the Lewises don’t seem to the sort of couple to insist on traditional roles, but are rather trying to deal with their children’s problems by giving them an environment in which they are treated as normal and loved for what they are, with the hope that they may grow up at their own pace.
Despite what he thinks of the place, perhaps Mike should have been attending sessions at Lawrence’s clinic as well. He could have got over his feelings about the game where dolls representing family members are set up in a sand-pit.
”I’ve never seen him playing with other kids like that,” Mike said.
”I told you something was happening. It’s like a bud opening.” Miss Grey stood up and for a few moments watched the game at the swing with a slight smile. “Well, I must get back to work,” she said, turning away. “Oh, by the way, Father wasn’t buried in the sand this time, I thought you’d like to know.”
Mike laughed. “Who’s the bad guy now?” he asked.
”No bad guys at all. That’s very important. It means he’s growing up and developing.”
”I’m glad I don’t come to your clinic.”
Miss Grey raised her eyebrows, not sure how to take this.
”I’d have a few people head down in the sand,” Mike admitted self-consciously. “After all, everybody has a few enemies.”
Miss Grey looked at him very seriously. “Enemies,” she said, “are a luxury that healthy people can’t afford.”
Mike puzzled over this, watching her walk away from him across the grass, then he dismiseed it as one of those clever things that people say and went over to the play corner to wait for Orry to finish.
I never saw a copy of this book in school, but it was listed in one of the Book Club leaflets full of titles that we could order in. The cover in the 80s was very similar to the one on this edition, and at the time it struck me “that looks a bit serious”. The actual story is warmer and happier than I expected. I don’t think I would have appreciated it at the time any better than Mike did.
Albeson And The Germans by Jan Needle (1977)
I was off school sick one day and so I got watch a TV For Schools broadcast (can’t remember if it was BBC or ITV) called Needle’s Eye, which was about the work of children’s author Jan Needle. It was filmed around his native Portsmouth and I think he must have talked about this book, but I mainly remember the discussion of the one we’re going to get to next. He did also mention his non-serious kids books such as The Size Spies and Another Fine Mess. The latter I did buy and try to read: lots of fun and nonsense about a mad professor inventing time travel and sending modern kids back in time to… I can’t remember when it was. They swore and picked their noses and weren’t prissy kids, that’s what he was offering, and it was the same setup in his other books, but without any time-telephones.
Jimmy Albeson is a good kid who has fallen under the spell of a bad influence, the truanting, shoplifting older boy Smithie. Home life isn’t particularly stable anyway, as mum and dad don’t have exactly regular incomes and they have to move regularly to avoid trouble with rent. The world they live is in is still full of old bomb sites and derelict buildings and scary places where children get killed in horrible accidents while trying to escape from angry caretakers. It’s a world where you have to carefully navigate the rivalries and street fights of the lads from different estates.
The kids on Hillside were mad. They’d do anything. They had the hill at the back of them, with chalk-pits and old forts and electricity pylons to climb. Lots of them got killed birdnesting and thieving, and they roamed around in gangs. Even Briar Boys thought twice about starting a brickfight with the Hillside lot.
I think we’re located in Portsmouth, although it’s not specified – it’s somewhere by the sea, and there’s a motorway to London that the boys try to get on to, in their pitiful attempts at “hitchhiking” when they try to run away from their mistakes.
What sets them off as fugitives is the aftermath of their breaking in and vandalising Albeson’s school. Their intention is to prevent the enrolment of 2 German pupils. They have been advised that this action will prevent that happening, by the preposterous teenage “witch” Pam, performing a ritual in a scrap metal yard in the vicinity of the spot where a boy died (the kids think hanging should be brought back so the adult responsible can be executed). Of course having Germans in the school is an outrage against the memory of Albeson’s dead grandad, who spent most of the war in a POW camp after his bomber was shot down and he lost a leg as a German fighter continued to fire on him after he bailed out. Since the mission would have been at night (the bomber is specified as having 4 engines, and grandad was the rear gunner), it’s hard to credit this as a deliberate action by the German flyer, but that question is never voiced by anyone.
Albeson never tired, either, of the tales of the prisoner of war camp, after grandad’s leg had been cut off in a German hospital. Of the mad and daring escape plans, of the stupidity and brutality of the enemy. They talked about other things sometimes, but visiting times in the old people’s home were short, and the war had been so long and so full of excitement and danger and smashing daring deeds… And the visits, short as they were, got fewer and farther between… In fact he hadn’t seen grandad for nearly a month when he was told one day the fags had finally done for the old devil (which was how his mother put it)
Losing an older idol, Albeson has clearly transferred much respect to wild and dangerous Smithie, and that’s how the two of them end up drawing “German crosses” all around the school interior.
By the time they got to Mrs Armstrong’s room, where the Germans were actually to be taught, there was no more ink to make Swastikas with.
Mrs Armstrong is the hapless liberal who sees great potential in Albeson, and also wants these kids to be enthusiastic on meeting pupils who come from elsewhere in “the Common Market”. She can’t help it if they are convinced Germans eat British flesh; they didn’t even get that idea off Albeson’s grandad, who didn’t mention it and was living proof it wasn’t true anyway.
As well as the ruins and slums that still filled British cityscapes well in to the 70s, this story also features a cheap and dingy cinema, and the business of cheating your mate in for free, where you watch whatever rubbish happens to be on. It’s a bleak time and place but by the end Albeson does seem to have a redemption arc, even though Smithie clearly doesn’t. It’s unlikely they could meet again 40 years later as the older boy would certainly have been dead for a long time by then.
My Mate Shofiq by Jan Needle (1978)
There will be no extracts from the text of this book. I think the most telling section is in chapter 11 where Shofiq is brought in to Bernard’s gang, and they all realise they should not use racist epithets any longer, as it is not true that “it don’t mean nowt” when they have one of the targets telling them very firmly that it doesn’t feel that way to be on the other side of them.
In Needle’s Eye, Jan stated that the moment in chapter 14, where a social security clerk threw a form at an old man who couldn’t speak English very well, was based on a real moment he witnessed. I cannot find much detail about the conference on “realism in children’s fiction” where apparently he was booked and then cancelled as a speaker, due to reactions to this book. I can find references to a current film project based on the book.
Some other things to notice about life in this Northern town. Firstly, the enthusiasm for moving people to tower blocks has now ended and the councils are looking at other approaches to housing. There are some early hints of gentrification may be beginning, as certain areas now have fancy pubs. Bernard’s older sister Wendy is probably going to grow in to a very angry lefty for at least the next decade, as she is already out of patience with dad and the attitude of the “Enochs” in the union at the textile plant he works in. Textiles are in decline anyway, due to cheap imports and the poor quality of the unmodernised plants that bad management haven’t improved in decades. Kids know that the local park is full of “dirty old men”. Street gangs fight with bricks and broken bottles, just like their southern cousins in Albeson’s home town, and the results can be really brutal. Bernard’s previous best mate got killed having a bit of high-spirited fun on the railway line, and he feels a certain amount of survivor’s guilt for being a good boy and staying at home that day.
What forms the real connection between Bernard and Shofiq is the undescribable problem at the hearts of their home lives: the mental health of their mothers. Bernard’s mum is on tablets (probably Valium) after having a miscarriage, which is why he has to come to do chores for her in the middle of the school day. His dad just wishes Wendy would pack in those pointless A-levels and help out more. Shofiq’s mum is deep in depression, and classed as a “nutter” in the gossip heard around school. But perhaps, Bernard slowly comes to wonder, the two women have similar problems that they have to deal with differently due to their home situation, and are classified differently by the busybody officials who always turn up to interfere and don’t listen?
Another work by Jan Needle that got in trouble with someone was A Game Of Soldiers. That featured young Nicola Cowper, who was of course the star of another great tale of difficult childhood.
Break In The Sun by Bernard Ashley (1980)
This is the one book here you can see on YouTube in its BBC adaptation.
Of all these stories of children growing and learning through hard times, this one has the strongest element of learning from the older generation who also come in touch with the pain they have been through as well, and there is a sense that a pattern of anguish may be broken out of.
In getting to that point we do however see the world is quite menacing, and young children know it. As soon as young Patsy hears a stranger calling to her as she walks along the canal path, she has to think of her safety:
She worked out the possibilities. Which way would be the best to run if she had to? Left, to the flats, or right, back to the shops? Was she halfway along yet? She smiled at him, bravely, as she would at a dog she wasn’t sure about.
Talk to him was best, she thought. He could grab her now, but he was soft, and she could easily fool him. Anyway, they were all harmless, these barmies, weren’t they?
But it isn’t the random “barmies” wandering in public who are the problem. Patsy can’t get on with her step-dad, and it’s the anxiety of the change in home life that has brought on her embarrassing new problem: bedwetting. Everything would be fine if she could just get back to their old home in Margate, and an opportunity suddenly appears when she meets a clueless amateur theatre group drifting along on a tour in that direction. They get through life in a careless, casual unconcerned style that would seem fabulous if she had time to think more about it. Another life is possible, and it’s happening already to other people nearby.
Lonely children who feel unloved in this world can set about dangerous or self-destructive patterns of behaviour – jumping around the top of tall buildings and industrial towers, for example. Going out on his odyssey in pursuit of Patsy causes Eddie Green to remember all the stupid things he did when he had trouble with his dad, and the sense of release when he was able to get away from that loveless home. Patsy has done him a favour by getting him to go back in to his own past without nostalgic self-deceptions.
…His voice went very low. ‘Some days I ‘ated ‘is guts so much I was planning ‘ow I was gonna kill ‘im in the night. I’m praying to God for the strength, But I know ‘e’d wake up an’ ‘ave me. So I got used to letting it out other ways….’
Kenny sat with his head back and tried to keep an expressionless look on his face.
’…Yeah, after one of those do’s I’d clear off on my bike an’ do stupid things – like deliberately go swimming when the water was dangerous, or go chasing across the railway line so close to a train I can’t risk a slip – or I go up the towers an’ jump till I feel better.’ He tapped Kenny on the knee as if he thought he wasn’t listening. ‘See, the way them towers was built, a little kid could jump across near the middle, where they nearly touched: the jump next to the gangway’s only about two feet across. But as you go further sideways so your jump ‘as to get bigger an’ bigger to get you over. Some days when I was in a real state I’d jump along the three of ‘em, hell or nothing, as wide, or wider, as I reckon I can push myself, where it’s over on to the next one or down fifty feet to the ground. An’ I proved something, see? So I feel a bit better, just being alive, I s’spose, an’ off on my bike before the foreman catches me….’
Kenny measured the towers inside his head – Eddie Green would definitely have killed himself if he’d missed his jump.
’…See, I’m so bloody miserable I’m either gonna kill myself doing it, or prove to myself it don’t matter a toss what my old man thinks of me, because I’ve got guts…’
Now why can’t that be a meme on social media, eh. It’s about as much a record of anyone’s real life as that bloody poem about corned beef.
The picture at the top is the illustration of The Railway Hotel on pgs 88-9. The People In The Playground was a book by Iona Opie.