Jill Paton Walsh’s forebears were both energetic and idiosyncratic, and the bright little girl who was so often uncomfortable in their midst owes her creative independence not only to their genes but to the frustration and confusion they stirred up in her.
Her paternal grandfather, from a self-reliant working class background, rose through the Board of Trade after being spotted as a lift-boy reading Plato, and finished the war with little money but a row of medals for secret work against the Axis in Italy. About to retire, he was invited by the Pirelli company, who reckoned he knew more about their business than they did, to be managing director. So off he went to Italy and a wealthy old age – while his sister insisted on taking in washing till she died. Jill’s father, deprived of university by the Depression, became the world’s first television cameraman, a brilliant BBC engineer who died with 363 patents to his name.
‘He was a perilous parent, for he didn’t believe in stupidity the way other people don’t believe in fairies. If you asked for help with your maths homework, you wouldn’t go to bed until you understood it – I remember being up at two in the morning doing quadratic equations. More importantly, he was completely unprejudiced about women – being his daughter, not his son, didn’t let me off anything.’
Her mother grew up in Burma, in a half-French, half-Irish family, prosperous traders running a mineral water factory in Rangoon; at eighteen she came home with her mother to North Finchley, where she met Jill’s father. Jill was born there in 1937 – as Gillian Bliss, eldest of two girls and two boys. Around the outbreak of war, her mother’s mother married again, and Jill acquired a Cornish grandfather, a self-made businessman, owner of magazine publishers Link House. After sharing a night of air-raids in Finchley he declared no one could live like that and packed the family off next morning to grandmother in St Ives.
And so began Jill Paton Walsh’s almost umbilical tie with St Ives. When the others returned she remained, and until late ’44, when her grandmother died, she ‘was the only child of adoring grandparents in a spectacularly beautiful place. It marked me for life. As far as I’m concerned, St Ives is the place, where everything starts and where everything is liable to finish too – we have a flat there now, yards from my grandmother’s house, with the same view as I had from my bedroom window as a child.’
Holidays in St Ives continued until her grandfather’s death in 1949, then it was almost thirty years before she returned. She had got stuck with Goldengrove: the plot demanded buying paint and she couldn’t remember the shops – every landscape detail, yes, but not the shops. ‘I had started out disguising the place, but realised it was too well-known, and it seemed so important to write what I remembered.’
That journey was critical. ‘Although I was well into my thirties, I realised that I had never in my entire life set out alone, not knowing where I would sleep that night. A strange, liberating feeling.’ More startling was the book she bought at Paddington: Quentin Bell’s life of Virginia Woolf. ‘This was before the Bloomsbury vogue, and I didn’t know that To the Lighthouse was about St Ives – it says it’s set on Skye. It felt extremely odd, for the manuscript of Goldengrove I’d left behind was being written in a Woolfian mode – I didn’t know why, what the unconscious pull was. I got on the train and there it was: my day, my lighthouse. Indeed, the house Woolf lived in is about 100 yards from my grandmother’s, with our flat between.
‘I wandered down to the quay, and there was a man in a tattered blue sweater (as there so often is), and I asked, “Do you remember a boat called The Little Gill?” He stared at me and said, “You ’ad a brother younger’n you, didn’ you?”, and I had this immense sense of homecoming.’
St Ives was her childhood sunshine, but there was harsher weather. Her mother’s family had ‘walked out of Burma in front of the Japanese, and come home, initially to us, with funny accents and no idea how to make a cup of tea for themselves.’ There were tensions. ‘They thought a woman’s role was to be pretty, complaisant, charming. Good French and playing the piano were all right, but any other culture was insufferable pretension.’
Nor did St Michael’s Convent approve of clever girls, and had never aimed at university. Nicknamed ‘Ignorance’ because of her surname and good marks, she felt isolated, and, on a recent visit (‘it’s a very different place now’), was amazed to find they had arranged lunch with some contemporaries – people who had once mercilessly mocked her sporting skills. ‘I have a damaged right arm, a birth injury, but no one was let off anything, so some unfortunate netball team always had to let me in.
‘With hindsight, growing up amid this conflicting stereotyping did me good: all those pressures caused me to define who I jolly well was and what I was jolly well going to be like. It was repellent to me that I should be influenced by any of them.’
Oxford was a watershed. ‘Totally wonderful. For the first time I was connected to an outside world that shared my values.’ Finally allowed by St Michael’s new head to read in the library, she had had no idea of lit crit, but also no concept that one read only to pass exams. ‘So I was the dummy of my group but also the only truly self-winding person. I would never have got in if I’d been groomed at Cheltenham Ladies; as it was I was just this raging reader who didn’t know anything.’ She opted for philological courses: her familiarity with Anglo-Saxon words is that of ‘people I’ve known all their life, not just met them in a funny fancy dress in Modern English.’
All this has led her to view literature as a huge garden where one area is as fertile as any other, and to see the elitist Leavisite commitment to the realistic novel (dismissing Beowulfian fantasy, SF or children’s literature) as ‘complete illiteracy’. Can it be only accident that the Oxford of C S Lewis and Tolkien proved such a seed-bed for children’s writers that she can make a list of 18 well-regarded names?
But such ‘hierarchical intellectual snobberies’ persist. ‘I was appalled by the vitriolic put-down I got from certain quarters for having the effrontery while being a children’s author to write a book like Knowledge of Angels’ (the adult novel that was well-received in America but rejected by 19 British publishers before she published it herself and reached the Booker shortlist). ‘One reason for rejecting it was that “the phrases ‘well-established children’s writer’ and ‘novel of ideas’ just don’t go together”! The world of children’s books is largely free of this cultural triumphalism and spite, so the adult literary landscape came as an unpleasant surprise.’
This contempt lurks in something else that fires her up. ‘The mechanism that causes the “dumbing down” of children’s literature, which has been precipitous recently, is contempt for children. Let it not be forgotten that in order to dumb down the literature you offer them you have to entertain them in contempt. You lower the expectation of what they are capable of, and because they are programmed to fulfil our expectations you can render them cretinous if you are vulgar and contemptuous enough.’
Jill began writing children’s books as an alternative to going crazy. For a while after Oxford she taught English but, marooned in a south London suburb, with an untalkative husband and three children under four, she felt a misfit once again. They missed her income, she missed her students, and she saw the need for books for children. Her first, an Anglo-Saxon story with chapters tailored to the school term, was unpublishably didactic, but encouraged by Kevin Crossley-Holland at Macmillan she wrote Hengest’s Tale, followed by The Dolphin Crossing – in print for 30 years.
Today she writes, tenderly, for the very young, stories of magic like Thomas and the Tinners or lyrical picture books like When I Was Little Like You or When Grandma Came. This is because she enjoys the co-operative process of picture books, and even more because she is inspired by the grandchildren of her partner of many years, John Rowe Townsend. With many of her 33 titles for older readers, she also finds it no longer easy ‘to quarry the same layer in my subterranean mind’, and, although she has never had a proposal rejected, she does feel the current climate is not hers.
‘And I don’t think I could write a better book than I’ve written already.’ She is thinking of Gaffer Samson’s Luck, one of her many major award winners. It comes closest to the ideal she set out in the TLS when still a novice: ‘Like a soap bubble, with a beautiful iridescent surface and a simple form, shaped and sustained by an invisible message within it which a dignified self-respecting adult can reasonably offer to a self-respecting child.’
Jill’s literary life has been rich: she has taught creative writing, run courses for teachers and for gifted children extracted from Surrey schools, been a frequent judge, sat on innumerable committees, written half a dozen adult novels and, with John Rowe Townsend – a powerful influence and model – established an innovative specialist imprint, Green Bay, which they run from their home near Cambridge. Hence a CBE and Fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature.
When Jill Paton Walsh speaks with passion of the honourable reason to write for children, is she remembering that lonely girl who felt vindicated when she reached Oxford? ‘I don’t know who the literary, intuitive members of the new generations are, but I know I can address them with a message that might reach them. Unfortunately only with the help of intermediaries. And if the intermediaries become cloth-eared and contemptuous of their charges, the chances that you can find your audience, and the chances that your audience can find themselves in the culture of the world they’re born into, diminish rapidly. And that’s a disaster.
‘In the end it’s pygmies pulling down giants. And I don’t mean giant authors, I mean giant children!’
Some of Jill Paton Walsh’s many titles:
Thomas and the Tinners, Macdonald, 0 7500 1533 0, £3.99 pbk
Birdy and the Ghosties, Macdonald, 0 7500 0684 6, £3.99 pbk
Matthew and the Sea Singer, Macdonald, 0 7500 1176 9, £3.99 pbk
The Dolphin Crossing, Puffin Modern Classic, 0 14 036624 5, £5.99 pbk, Puffin, 0 14 030457 6, £3.99 pbk
Gaffer Samson’s Luck, Puffin, 0 14 031765 1, £3.99 pbk
Fireweed, Puffin, 0 14 030560 2, £3.99 pbk
A Parcel of Patterns, Puffin, 0 14 036259 2, £3.99 pbk
Grace, Puffin, 0 14 034729 1, £4.99 pbk
When Grandma Came, ill. Sophy Williams, Puffin, 0 14 054327 9, £4.99 pbk
Connie Came to Play, ill. Stephen Lambert, Puffin, 0 14 055615 X, £4.99 pbk
When I Was Little Like You, ill. Stephen Lambert, Puffin, 0 14 055829 2, £4.99 pbk (July 98)
Stephanie Nettell is a critic, author and journalist on children’s books.