Geoffrey Trease interviewed by Chris Powling
Geoffrey Trease has never stuck to the rules. A ‘strong awareness of his readers’ says Margaret Meek in an early monograph ‘has made him an innovator in ways that are often overlooked’.
From his very first book, Bows Against the Barons (1934) with its portrayal of Robin Hood as a revolutionary figure, he challenged received opinion about historical fiction for children. Later books, Cue for Treason (1940) for instance, established another of his trademarks – strong female characters – long before the imperatives of Political Correctness. Similarly, his ‘Bannermere’ books in the 1950s did much to transfer the school story from independent to state establishments. More recently, books like Song for a Tattered Flag (1991), a vivid account of the last days of Ceaucescu’s Rumania, have reminded us that contemporary political events can provide appropriate material for children’s fiction.
In short, the career of Geoffrey Trease so far – 60 years long and 104 books wide – demonstrates that writing for children about public issues can be consistent with integrity, with artistry and with a willingness to allow young readers to think for themselves.
He can also paint a scene in swift, sharp strokes:
‘All the way down to the bridge the river was dotted with lighters and wherries transporting fugitives and their chattels to safety. The houses built along the northern end of the bridge were burning. Much of Thames Street, along which Hugh had walked only a few hours before, was now on fire. But the wind had veered. The advance of the flames along the riverside seemed to be slowing down. The conflagration was wheeling away and roaring into the heart of the City.
Conspicuous among the humbler craft was the royal barge, which came surging grandly past them on its way back to Whitehall. The tall figure of the King was unmistakable as he stood talking with his brother, pointing excitedly towards the bank.
“Seeing for themselves – at a safe distance”, said Grandfather tartly.’
Actually, even this latest book, Fire on the Wind , is something of a departure. At first, he wasn’t much attracted by his publisher’s suggestion of a book on the Fire of London. ‘All my books are about human conflict. I’m never very interested in natural disasters – I’m sorry about them but you can’t do anything, really. But I said I’d read around it and think... and eventually I saw how to do it in my own way. By focusing on the book trade, it became sympathetic to me and delighted her because she said “Even the reps will have to read this!”’
It’s easy to see why this amuses someone who’s lived on the earnings from his books all his professional life. Professional, in fact, describes his approach to writing exactly. Since his much-loved wife Marian died in 1989, after 56 years of marriage, he’s lived with his daughter Jocelyn in Bath – but in a separate apartment that allows him the conviviality and fun of family life, along with the privacy an author needs. His rooms are as neat and orderly as Geoffrey Trease himself and just as work-orientated: the sitting-room bookshelves offer row after row of titles in a variety of languages, but with only one name on the spine. It’s a reminder that from his very first book, which sold 100,000 copies in Soviet Russia, his appeal has been international.
His workroom is where he looks most at home, though. Here, from the position of the typewriter (manual, his seventh in a working lifetime) to the reference volumes on diet, on costume and on a diversity of historical settings, everything is ergonomic – and already set up for this interview. The day-bed is spread with articles, documents and memorabilia. Whatever the occasion, Geoffrey Trease is always well-prepared and appreciates it if others are, too.
So where did it all begin? Was his childhood, as the third of three sons in the family of a Nottingham wine-merchant, especially bookish? ‘Not really. I read what my elder brothers preferred and that was always adventure. I remember the Chatterbox volume of 1914 when I was barely five… and Ballantyne, Henty, and Gordon Stables. No fantasy, no nonsense. I never read the best things till later – Ainsworth instead of Scott, for instance.’ What he loved was stories. ‘I don’t know where the itch to tell a story came from but the fact that I could not write shows how early it was. My father came home with a wine-and-spirit trade desk diary for the year, which he never used, and said “you have this, kipper, to scribble in” and scribble I did – I can see myself, still, sitting in the corner of the room scribbling away and muttering the narrative under my breath.’
Once he could write, his grasp of a strong opening sentence was immediate. Compare this, for example –
‘Crash! The captain’s head struck the deck.’
(Geoffrey Trease, aged 7, starting the first story he can remember)
‘Crack! The long whip curled round his shoulders, burning the deck under his ragged tunic.’
(Geoffrey Trease, aged 25, starting Bows Against the Barons )
‘It was fun at first. The gnawing fear came later...’
(Geoffrey Trease, aged 78, starting Tomorrow is a Stranger ).
The storytelling itch was well established. By the age of 13 when, as a reward for his scholarship to Nottingham High School, he chose his first typewriter instead of the bike or cricket bat offered by his father. And it was certainly his desire ‘to be a writer not a learned professor’ which led to him giving up another scholarship, this time in Classics to Queen’s College, Oxford, when he was 20.
Brief periods as a social worker, a journalist and a schoolmaster followed, till – newly married at 25 and occupying a rent-free flat in the basement of a friend’s elegant town house in Bath – he sent off a proposal to a publisher for a book about the real Robin Hood. The response was immediate… and the rest, as they say, is history.
But not entirely historical novels. Only the intervention of Adolf Hitler, perhaps, blocked a promising career as a dramatist when Colony , his play for adults, was withdrawn from London’s West End on the outbreak of war. Subsequently, he was called up to the Army Education Corps and service in India. Like the 16 other works he’s written for adults (travel, autobiography and novels), it’s a reminder of just how versatile Geoffrey Trease is – of his ability to write well in almost any form, including the scripts for radio and, later, television he wrote as occasion demanded when the war was over.
His approach to writing, in fact, is inherently dramatic as he acknowledges in one of his autobiographical pieces:
‘In planning a play I had learned the value of deciding first upon the ending, that all important final curtain which sends the audience streaming out, satisfied and exhilarated, into the night... and so, backwards, step by step, to the beginning of the scene, and similarly backwards, scene by scene, act by act, to the beginning of the play itself. The method worked just as well with a novel, especially one with a strong storyline of adventure or mystery. I still plan my books like that, the closing chapter first, then backwards, episode by episode to the opening, until I have a firmly linked storyline of perhaps twenty chapters, most of them with their own dramatic climax (like the drop of a curtain ending the scene) to make the reader turn the page and hurry on to the next.’
Of course, the more successful an author is, so other demands on his time multiply. In Geoffrey’s case, true to his principle of never writing about a country he doesn’t know at first hand, there was much foreign travel. Also there were letters from readers to answer, his work on the Council of the Society of Authors and an increasing number of speaking engagements as a pioneer of what has come to be known as Writers-in-School. He enjoyed it all enormously but was always happy to return to The Croft, in the Malvern Hills, which was the family home for more than 30 years.
Then again, there was research to be done – with a fastidious readership to satisfy. When in Mist Over Athelney (1958) he described a hermit settling down to a rabbit stew, a 10-year-old from Inverness wrote him an indignant letter protesting that there were no rabbits in England during the time of the Danish invasion. ‘I sent him my apologies and a signed copy of the book. Since then I gather rabbit bones have turned up on Anglo-Saxon archaeological sites.’ Mind you, he had his expert admirers, too. His description of the details of Queen Anne’s obstetric history was queried by Sir Charles Trevelyan with his brother, G M Trevelyan, author of The Age of Queen Anne . From the Master’s Lodge at Trinity College, Cambridge, came the reply ‘Haven’t the faintest idea... but, if Trease says so, he must be right’.
His commitment to historical fact remains as firm as ever. For all his sympathy with the Left, he refuses to doctor the evidence. ‘I’m all in favour of race and gender equality... but I do object to any distortion of history. The fact that people in the past, even heroes, may have had views of which we disapprove strongly nowadays may lead you to tone something down... if you let your young hero treat animals, for instance, as he might easily have done 500 years ago, you’d immediately forfeit all sympathy on the part of the reader. But you can’t disavow history or alter it as if these things had never been.’
So, having remained popular and celebrated throughout six decades of shifting taste and ideology, has he any advice for today’s would-be writers for children? He ponders this for a while, then says, ‘my general advice, which I’d have given at any time, is to make sure of an alternative career. Only when your part-time writing is doing so well that your salaried work is an intolerable interruption, should you give up the latter.’
Sound words... except, of course, they don’t apply to Geoffrey Trease himself. When I pointed this out he smiled broadly and, with a maverick glint in his eye, said ‘Ah yes... but I break all my own rules, you see’.
The Geoffrey Trease titles mentioned above are:
Fire on the Wind , Macmillan, 0 333 58568 2, £9.99
Cue for Treason , Goodchild, 0 86391 079 3, £6.99; Puffin, 0 14 030231 X, £3.99 pbk
Song for a Tattered Flag , Walker, 0 7445 2412 1, £4.99; 0 7445 3082 2, £2.99 pbk
Tomorrow is a Stranger , Pan Piper, 0 330 30903 X, £3.50 pbk
Bows Against the Barons and Mist Over Athelney are both o/p, but watch out for a batch of Trease reprints this year from Pan Macmillan.
In the pipeline are The White Nights of St Petersburg and Trumpets in the West , completely rewritten for the tercentenary of the Purcell period.