I didn’t know it was treasure when I first read it, because treasure was everywhere then.
My sister and I grew up in an old house, a school, and there were books all over the place. And we were given more books: an aunt arrived with The Hobbit, and later The Lord of the Rings. Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was published when I was seven, and he lived just a few miles away. I would devour anything with magic in it, prose or poetry, thin or fat. I was going to write books one day.
Adult reading has, by and large, been a disappointment to me. It is always shades of “nothing can bring back the hour / Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower”. The enchantment is never so complete.
Occasionally I go back to see if it’s still there. Often it’s a mistake returning to books you loved as a child. You see all the creaky bits you didn’t see then. For example, I’m reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence at the moment. For some reason, I don’t think I ever read them all back when they came out—I was perhaps onto older fiction by then, or I was already spoiled by Tolkien.
Reading Cooper now, I can slip back into being one of the children: I knew all about that convention from Enid Blyton. These children always have parents who are elsewhere. They have cooks who bake them delicious provender, especially cake.
Cake must have seemed such a wonderful treat after the second world war when sugar was not to be had. It can never be so good in our times of plenty, but the idea of it persists.
I shall never forget the Turkish Delight in The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe. What a glorious sweetmeat that was to seduce Edmund so! (I have never, since that day, actually met a person called Edmund). But what a disappointment Turkish Delight was in real life. Sickly, sticky, it clung to the teeth in a revolting way. I still think it is only edible in small quantities with strong black coffee.
Back to Cooper. Her plotting is weak. Already I want to scream out and warn the children about the perfectly obviously stupid risks they are taking. It’s behind you! But she sets up a good pace. Her novels mingle safe and scary adults in a fabulous way, though it is clear adults are another species altogether. You would never trust a strange adult – that is one lesson clearly learned. Strange adults can be literally murderous.
But I am trying to get to The Midnight Folk, which is a children’s book by John Masefield, once our poet laureate. It was one of my deepest joys and more of a formative influence than I knew at the time. You can get it new as an audio book but not between covers. It’s not even in the Kindle shop. I know this because I've been trying to source a nice copy for a child of my acquaintance.
Fortunately, there are lots of second hand copies and some of them have the wonderful Rowland Hilder illustrations. I didn’t know, back then, that my graphic eye was being educated, as well as my seeing ear. I was learning to love Rowland Hilder and Pauline Baynes and Edmund Dulac (another Edmund – where have all the Edmunds gone?).
The Midnight Folk made me want to learn Latin (and later, I did). In the first chapter the protagonist, Kay Harker, is declining the Latin adjective ‘acer’. He gets stuck with the genitive and guesses first ‘Acrostic, acrostic, acrostic’ and then, in desperation, ‘Acrumpet, acrumpet, acrumpet’. I have remembered this all my life, as well as the first names of Kay’s evil governess: Sylvia and Daisy. “Kay had read a poem about Sylvia, and had decided that it was not swains who commended this one, but Mrs Tattle and Mrs Gossip.”
And this is the thing: Masefield’s writing is full of poetic references. I didn’t pick them up consciously at the time, but when I go back now, not only does the whole thing work for me – I can utterly and completely re-inhabit it – but I see where I started to pick up a sense of rhythm and form and delight. Kay’s governess is, of course, a witch. She is scheming and manipulative, but she has a beautiful singing voice. Here she is –
Mrs Pouncer cleared her throat and began:
When the midnight strikes in the belfry dark
And the white goose quakes at the fox’s bark,
We saddle the horse that is hayless, oatless,
Hoofless and pranceless, kickless and coatless,
We canter off for a midnight prowl . . .
Chorus, dear sisters . . .
Whoo-hoo-hoo, says the hook-eared owl.
All the witches put back their heads to sing the chorus:
Whoo-hoo-hoo, says the hook-eared owl.
Kay’s cat, Nibbins, says “I can’t resist this song . . . I never could. It was this song, really, that got me into this way of life.”
And it was the song that got me into a poetry way of life, without even knowing it. After The Midnight Folk, there was The Box of Delights, which I love too, but not quite as much because the whole experience is too obviously a dream. I got The Box of Delights out of Knutsford library. It was part of me reading my way through the entire children’s section. I had learned by then that other books by the same author were often listed inside the volume. I scanned eagerly for more Masefield, then consulted the card index at the library, and found they had a copy of – The Bird of Dawning. What a marvellous title!
But oh the disappointment, equivalent to the let-down of Turkish Delight, when I discovered The Bird of Dawning was in the adults’ section. It wasn’t a children’s book at all – and I got it out and I didn’t like it. No magic. No enchantment. No nothing.
Much, much later, I came to Masefield’s adult books as an adult and liked some of them very well indeed, especially the autobiographical ones. I also learned that the characters link up: Kay Harker, who is the child hero of The Midnight Folk, is a relative of Sard Harker, the eponymous hero of an adult novel published three years previously (the children’s novel is a far better work). I suspect there's a lot of Masefield himself in Kay Harker.
So everything leads to everything else -- and “Ho, says Rollicum Bitem!”