From The Weathermonger published in 1968 to Angel Isle published last year, Peter Dickinson’s imaginative insights over a long and prolific writing career continue to surprise. Brian Alderson assesses the contribution of this award winning writer who recently celebrated his 80th birthday.
Many and curious are the American inventions for awarding children’s book prizes. Among them is the Phoenix Award which is made annually by the Children’s Literature Association and (follow this carefully) goes to a children’s book that was published twenty years earlier and has won no previous award. Thus, the first phoenix to arise was Rosemary Sutcliff’s Mark of the Horse Lord, published in 1965 and summoned from the ashes in 1985.
From that time on the Association has been generous in its inclusion of British and Commonwealth books among the resurrected and Peter Dickinson has found himself twice honoured: in 2001 for The Seventh Raven, his tale of some London children held hostage by dissidents while rehearsing with a local opera group, and this year for his exploratory novel Eva. It could well be that in this case the judges’ choice was influenced by the striking prescience of the story: a dystopian tale set in an over-populated world where a medical research team has managed to implant the brain of a thirteen-year-old girl, whose body was smashed up in a car crash, into the sentient body of a chimpanzee. Involving, as it does, questions of globalization, of the power of the media, of medical ethics, and of our duties towards animal-life, the book can hardly avoid a succession of critical messages, but its triumph lies in the way these are subsumed within the story. Dickinson’s imaginative insight into how humankind might behave in extremities and his almost loving portrayal of the alien chimpanzees allow the story to free itself from the taint of explicit moralising. And Eva, reborn and shaking the ashes off her shoulders, emerges from her ceremonious welcome in Idaho, or wherever, only to find that she’s seemingly out of print.
A liking for diversity
And not just Eva, as we shall see later. She figures in what I think is Dickinson’s seventeenth children’s book, appearing twenty years after the first which was The Weathermonger of 1968. This too belongs to the dystopian genus and portrays an isolated Britain whose population (more or less contemporary with its publication date) is infected by a vengeful hatred of machines. As a rather startling work from a new kid on the block it met with considerable acclaim, which was to redouble over the next two years when Dickinson took his story backwards with two prequels: Heartsease and The Devil’s Children. (The three volumes were eventually reissued as a single, bumper edition, The Changes, rearranged to follow the chronological order of their events.)*
It is misleading however to see The Changes as a trilogy, for although the onset of British mechanophobia is common to the component volumes they have no organic continuities in the treatment of places or people. Each is an independent story and, as such, each exemplifies Dickinson’s liking for diversity – a point at once apparent if you look at their immediate successors. The first of these, Emma Tupper’s Diary, might loosely be assigned to the pensioned-off category of ‘the holiday adventure story’ but with its Loch Ness prank over- or rather under-laid with a fantastic twist to the plot. By contrast, it was followed by The Dancing Bear whichtakes a leapback to the world of sixth-century Byzantium where Sylvester, a slave bear-ward, and his charge, along with a stylitic saint, are driven to make an escape, or perhaps a pilgrimage, into the land of the wild Dacian Huns.
Thus, in those first books, Dickinson is found touching on a disparate collection of imagined and fantastic realities and the variety of theme and treatment which they display continues down to his most recent work: last year’s Angel Isle which can claim continuity from the immense Ropemaker saga of 2001 but reads as much as anything like part of some Dickinsonian Arabian Nights.
The versatility, the narrative power, and the dry authorial humour that is found throughout Dickinson’s workis astonishing and forbids any summary beyond the crudest kind of categorization. You can differentiate if you wish between everyday comedies such as the often hilarious girl-and-dog stories of Chuck and Danielle and the psychological dramas like The Gift; or between fantastic romps like A Box of Nothing and exotic adventures like the recent [image:Tears Salamander.JPG:left]Tears of the Salamander or the earlier Tulku which won both the Carnegie Medal and the Whitbread Children’s Book Award. There are also books which defy categorization, like one of my favourites, The Blue Hawk, a tale of magic and ritual which intrigues through its ambiguous setting: ancient Egypt? or some proto-ancient-Egyptian future?
Alongside these independent fictions however, there are some works where Dickinson ingeniously exploits narrative interconnections. Thus, the giant presence of Merlin under the rocks in The Weathermonger surely stands behind both the setting and the progression of the stories that make up Merlin Dreams. And, in similar fashion, the fascinating anthropological speculations that are so cunningly elucidated in A Bone from a Dry Sea surely triggered the four linked stories that make up The Kin. (This huge and riveting scenario of the imagination, positing how homo sapiens may have emerged from the African bush, may be accounted Dickinson’s most accomplished work. It was planned as a four-book sequence and appeared as such in the United States, but in Britain was bulked out to a daunting tome of some 640 pages. Only later were we vouchsafed four rather scruffy paperbacks.) Dickinson’s other Carnegie-Medal-winning book, City of Gold (which also won for Michael Foreman, its illustrator, the Graphic Prize at Bologna) exhibits a different aspect of the attention that he gives to narratives of the distant past, being an assemblage of stories from the Old Testament. Unlike, however, our three-hundred-year-old tradition which tended to present these tales as incomprehensible goings-on amongst men in stripey dressing-gowns, he gives the narration to a bevy of near-contemporaneous denizens of the Middle East – herdsmen, slaves, women-weavers etc – so that the stories come alive as folktales, legends, reminiscences... And, later on, in a novel of extraordinary ingenuity, The Shadow of a Hero, he intersperses a modern tale of the freeing of a Balkan state from communist rule with brilliantly-conceived folkloric inventions from its legendary past.
The primacy of story
Even this breathless summary of a cross-section of Dickinson’s writing should bear some witness to his own assertion that he is first and foremost a storyteller and that whatever philosophical or ethical cargo may be carried by his stories must be subservient to their dramatic structure. He has also said that he does not greatly care for the repetition of narrative themes and devices, however successful, from one book to the next – a sensitivity which further encourages his quest for new ground.
Launching oneself into unknown territory in this way may be hazardous (but may also be stimulating – and Dickinson knows all about hazards anyway, as may be seen from his unique compendium of game-theory and anecdote: Chance, Luck, and Destiny). There is also though a practical rather than an aesthetic hazard, and this relates to the inconstancy of ‘the market’. For while it is true that Dickinson is not found experimenting for experiment’s sake (except in oddities like Giant Cold), and that there is a constant in the profound attention that he pays to how people – young and old – respond to testing circumstances, these virtues do not easily permit ‘Dickinson’ to be presented to readers as having an instantly recognizable identity as do authors who are content to go on dressing up the same old message in different sets of garments.
This would not have mattered so much under the old dispensations of the book trade, before the irruption of the new economics and the new technology. The start of those changes (apt word) coincided roughly not only with the absorption of Dickinson’s loyal publisher, Gollancz, into the Cassell conglomerate circa 1994 but also with a shift in the conduct of national and international bookselling. The protection of the Net Book Agreement vanished, front-lists began to drive out back-lists (so that any new book was automatically valued above most of the old ones) and, in the conglomerates anyway, ill-informed girls in ‘marketing’ became screen-dependent, detached from any real knowledge of the titles under their control. (‘Can you tell me who wrote it?’ asked one young lady when I inquired about the availability of her employers’ edition of Treasure Island.)
Lack of engagement at publishing level increasingly seems to be handing over ‘the supply-side’ of book production to the faceless and entirely ignorant Internet contenders. Amazon replaces the historic Books in Print as being more reliable in these fluid times (‘Oh, if Amazon say "Buy new" it must be in print’) and to that source there is now being added the rapidly growing machinery for supplying Print-on-Demand (about which I append a note in the website section of this piece). The effect of these unprecedented changes is to shift the responsibility for sustaining an author’s place in the scheme of things from companionable publishers to the author himself, via a website, or to his readers, or potential readers, who must flounder around amid the garbage of the Internet promoters.
This can, of course, be seen as giving book-buyers a new freedom, but, where children’s books are concerned the inherent instability of the process is exacerbated by the cancer of what might be termed ‘generational short-termism’. This may best be explained by comparison with books for adults where exists a continuity of reader-interest and demand that stretches across generations and is supported by a continuing flow of critical debate. Post-war writers of a stature to which a children’s writer like Dickinson has some equivalence – Golding, Murdoch, Byatt – are sustained by a buoyant publishing momentum. Their established readership is joined regularly by new generations (some of whom will themselves become arbiters in publishing, journalism, the media, librarianship...) and the momentum is thus maintained.
But with children’s books there is no such continuity, especially in the appreciation of writers who eschew the rutted road of series-publication. Public awareness mostly derives from what the public remembers from its own youthful (and hence limited and casual) experiences or from blockbuster publicity and merchandising campaigns, while for those who do pursue some career in which children’s books play a part there is little systematic guidance over that mass of material that will have eluded their earlier selves. The Phoenix Award is itself an illustration of this tendency – a recognition that authors of distinction, still living, may not expect their books to survive for as long as twenty years in public esteem. (And classics are certainly not immune. Last week I mentioned The Fairy Caravan to an eminent person in the field, and was met with ‘What’s that?’ Gosh! it’s as though the head of the Institute for English Studies hadn’t heard of Pericles.)
The situation might be more encouraging if one could convince oneself that the thousands of books now hurtling from the presses are of a perfection that obviates the need for the productions of a superannuated past – but it seems to me that a society whose arbiters are ignorant of much of that past and whose children are deprived of Merlin’s dreamings, of the dancing bear of Dacia, and of Eva and her chimpanzees is indubitably an impoverished one.
Brian Alderson is a former Children’s Books Editor for The Timesand an historian of children’s literature.
* A complete listing of Dickinson’s books for children is to be found on the BfK website where dates are given for all titles mentioned in this article. It is there joined by a note on his manuscripts and working-papers which he has donated to Seven Stories, the Centre for Children’s Books, in Newcastle upon Tyne.