C. Powling Esq., March 13, 1990
The Old Chapel
Dear Mr Powling,
I am sure this sort of thing never works. I shall certainly go nowhere to accomplish it, and I am sure others would find it unrewarding to come here.
I have not sensed the lack in my not appearing in your neologies, and the one I did see had rather small print, but if you find it necessary to molest my ancient solitary peace for the sake of your new and madding piece, I am prepared to tolerate for a short time some person guaranteed not to be strident. My agent, David Higham Associates, will lead you to a photograph, for I have none.
As far as I could see, none of these stone Dale cottages had a name. A solitary figure, long grey hair disconcertingly wild and shoulders hunched in the drenching misty rain, watched me from the grass verge with piercing concentration as I inched along the village street. A local? I rolled down the window.
`Are you – She?’ it growled* before I could speak.
William Mayne likes to tease.
He also likes to divert you if he senses you might be gaining sufficient confidence to ask a question. `Shall we have some pudding?’ will adroitly intercept, the advantage followed up by a discussion on the merits, pace Mrs Beeton, of leaving the stones in bottled greengages. ‘I believe the flavour of the stone is the only thing that makes a stone fruit worth having: bottle them in honey with a little water, and leave ’em a couple of years to mature.’ We savour the greengages – and with luck the question will have evaporated. The rules, then, say I can divert:-
It is a distancing typical of the man himself. Yet, like the heart under the Puritan collar or the inspiration of plainchant, beneath the no-nonsense fall of Mayne’s style his novels (certainly in the last 20-odd years) are awash with emotion. The Jersey Shore and A Year and a Day from the 70s, say, or Gideon Ahoy! and Kelpie from the 80s – without the stylistic tricks, the dodging and twisting, the slowing of pace, all of which make a protective embankment, emotion would flood them. So in life, perhaps, he dodges and evades his audience, offering mock scowls and diversions.
Perhaps. An enjoyable speculation, anyway. A diverting diversion. (He might fancy such a conceit, but more likely will refuse to read an interview of himself, on the grounds that it is none of his business.)
The elaborate letter-heading on his reply to BfK was designed to mock ours. And, grateful though he is to the PLR office’s help – he loses their forms and they simply fill in his titles for him, which, for a writer as prolific as Mayne but without high individual sales, is occasion enough for gratitude – he pursued his complaints about their absurdly long address with a letter to the authorities, purporting to be from PLR and asking for a shorter one, on paper embellished ‘Public Ending Right’. Wistfully, he said he had heard no more. (‘You weren’t put off, then?’ he asked when I rang for an appointment.)
The computer allows him to play like this. After four years of trading in, upgrading, and taking over his sister’s cast-offs, he is in love at the moment with a dainty little Apple Mac, which allows him to make shaded prints of his photographs (a long-standing interest) or a fine production for the printers of a neighbour’s book, an updated century-old local Flora. Best of all, once a week he carts it two miles down the road to the primary school: it’s stuffed to the gills with programs to help the secretary and cheery games he has devised for sums, storytelling, writing, drawing. He is just William to the children, with whom he works in small groups – as we did, the screen offering me easy or hard `carries’, and rewarding my answers with `Are you sure, Stephanie? Quite right! Well done, Stephanie!’ Must be difficult to tell who enjoys it most, he or they…
Married for a while ‘a long time ago’ (about 1970 at a guess) and with no children (but a whitewashed doorway pencilled all the way up with visitors’ heights), he says his sole point of reference can only be `oneself as a child’. Yet throughout his work small children offer sharp-focus, sidelit views of life that suggest he listens hard and with fondness:
“`I’ll be better when I’m several, ” said the little brother. He was nearly four.’ (Netta)
`You haven’t got two colours on the same. Except one sock matches the other.’ ‘They both do.’ (No More School)
‘I remember. It was before I knew about money, a long time ago.’ (The Jersey Shore)
‘If I put [the straw] in my mouth the milk can look down it. ‘ At night I have to go to bed … Do you know what happens to me Johnny? I go to sleep. My eyes go out. ‘ (Plot Night)
And many other more complex thoughts from older children.
An escaping wriggle. `If you do put in a real quote, someone says “That doesn’t sound natural, would you mind taking it out?” What they actually say sounds much too precious.’ Almost pinned down. `If a character is going to talk a certain way, they will and that’s that.’ Gives up. `The bits of books I always liked when I was little were the bits I knew were true, but hadn’t seemed to one’s parents or teachers or acquaintances the sort of thing worth having regard for, and which you couldn’t tell them.
`It might be a comfort to some child to know that its way of thinking is not necessarily wrong because it’s not the “right” way – I don’t want them to think the accepted way has any more value at all than their own way. So if they can see people in books making efforts at saying things and not actually getting into a lot of trouble for it, or perhaps being brought round to another point of view, then that can possibly take away some pain from the reader in another instance.
`Today it’s not so difficult for children to say what they think more clearly to adults, because teachers are to some extent teaching through what they get from children rather than just imposing on them. The difficulty lies in pure organisation – if you’ve got 25 of them each saying their thing, sometimes you’ve got to flatten them a bit. I actually believe they’re still listening if you’re telling them a story and they’re talking to their neighbour – I can tell you a story and stir a pan and talk to the telephone, it can all happen if you get the balances right – but if there are 25 of them you must impose some external structure on them.’
He dismisses his own schooling (‘I gave up thinking school was any good at 14, though social pressures didn’t allow one to abandon it’) at the Cathedral Choir School, Canterbury, though it wove itself into the fabric of his life – the choir school novels, his musical interests, while even today we are playing (in twinky-twanky tones on the computer) a carol he composed for the children and their instruments. He himself tried teaching (and the BBC), though any reckless forays into direct questioning about what he did on leaving school are met with a `Can’t remember’ muttered into the lunch – a delicately laid out salad of mushrooms and home-made bread with rocket (no lettuce, nor dandelions – gold in every bank I’d passed – because their milky sap gives you fibrositis), chives, marjoram and parsley. And Wensleydale cheese.
The garden where the salad grew falls steeply away behind the house before merging into the daleside that sweeps, green and grand, up to a high bare skyline (not gardening, he says, but civil engineering). In front it shelters from the public road (of course) behind the post office. He has lived in the village 30 years, 17 in this house, converting it little by little from the original hall or chapel, re-levelling floors, opening out a wall here, building stairs there: we are eating in the cellar, with a gleamingly clean electric Aga, having coffee in the stable above with an open round stove for cheer, while upstairs in the now divided hall his desk looks out both sides to the glories of Wensleydale. A hardy, energetic man, only paint and wallpaper defeat him – luckily it’s not that type of cottage.
He’s found himself turning into a squire-figure: chairman for seven years in the days of Parish Meetings, he came to be responsible for the painstaking formation of a Parish Council (absorbing four or five meetings, sorting out their objections and difficulties). `Someone has to do it or it doesn’t happen – like the Commons Registration Act about rights over land.’ For years he prepared maps and dealt with commissioners, ensuring no one would lose their rights: `These things were not always written down before, and one has got to have an agitator somewhere – oh, I’m terribly bossy. Well, not that bossy – a little bit bossy. I was bossy there, just after Christmas..’ and he retold the Battle of the Institute Floor, when, as a trustee of the handsomely renovated (largely due to him) village hall, he had survived the wrathful hurt of the three ladies he had prevented, in the nick of time, from zealously scrubbing the new floor. `It’s all right for someone to be bossy if they dislike it – that means they’re doing it because they care.’
Time-consuming to lay pipes and drains, surely? `Actually I was quite pleased when one morning I told our “foreman”, a well-established resident who knows about such things, “Look, I can’t help you tomorrow because, you know, I’m just a working lad…” “Oh,” he said, “you don’t seem to go away very much, what do you do?”‘ He rubs his hands gleefully. `Just the right attitude – no one knows what I do.’
This, in spite of his local roots going deep. Born in 1928 `just down the river in Hull – this is my drainage basin’, he grew up not far away by Nidderdale. Having relished the soft pillows of rain rolling down the dale (‘I’ve no time for this “what lovely sunshine” nonsense’), he later perversely ponders on returning to the warmth of Australia, where for some years he struggled to teach creative writing to college students whose best work was often their letter explaining their absence from class – and himself wrote the nostalgic West Country stories, like A Year and a Day and Max’s Dream. But then agrees he would surely wither away. The intricate shading of family relationships is a recurring theme of his work and his own family – five children of a doctor, now 89 and in trouble the previous day for burning down his bed with an electric blanket – recur in his conversation: his father would like to believe he has only four children, refusing to speak to William because he has had to take charge of his affairs.
Despite total trust in his agent for over 20 years, Jacqueline Korn of Higham (‘a stalwart, no one better – how else can one tell whether to stick out for another 1/2 per cent?’), he is clearly very much in command, casting a shrewd eye over accounts, insisting on wrong texts (for Nicola Bayley’s The Patchwork Cat in 1981) being pulped, and breaking away from Julia MacRae when he no longer felt comfortable.
He has never written for adults, though a novel like The Jersey Shore (with a grown-up low-key jacket he designed himself -‘Well, they needn’t have used it’) appeals strongly to them. `Adults can read my books if they like, it doesn’t matter. I’m not interested in what they think.’ So he won’t, like so many, move over? ‘Ah well, it’s like the people at Portland Place who all want to move to Lime Grove if they can. They’ve forgotten which is the truly superior medium, they’ve forgotten where the backgrounds are better.’ The young reader’s imagination should be working like a radio listener’s? `Or like the typesetter’s. The typesetter of the Hob stories was extremely disappointed with the pictures – his own were much better, you see.’
Photograph courtesy of Walker Books.
Some of William Mayne’s 90+ titles
No More School, Puffin, 0 14 03.0376 6, £1.75 pbk
Drift, Cape, 0 224 02244 X, £6.95; Puffin, 014 03.2116 0, £2.50 pbk
Gideon Ahoy!, Viking Kestrel, 0 670 81165 3, £7.99; Penguin Plus, 014 03.2129 2, £2.25 pbk
Kelpie, Cape, 0 224 02427 2, £6.95; Puffin, 014 03.2854 8, £2.50 pbk
The Patchwork Cat, Cape, 0 224 01925 2, £6.95; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.443 5, £2.50 pbk
Hob Stories: Red Book of, 0 7445 0120 2; Green Book of, 0 7445 01210; Yellow Book of, 0 7445 0122 9; Blue Book of, 0 7445 0123 7; Walker, £3.95 each
Netta, Hamish Hamilton Gazelle, 0 241 12708 4, £2.99
Antar and the Eagles, Walker, 0 7445 0838 X, £8.95; 0 7445 1464 9, £2.50 pbk
A House in Town, Walker, 0 7445 0727 8, £6.95; 0 7445 1394 4, £2.99 pbk
Barnabas Walks, Walker, 0 7445 0533 X, £5.95; 0 7445 1352 9, £2.99 pbk
Men of the House, Heinemann Superchamp, 0 434 93089 X, £3.95
The Farm That Ran Out of Names, Cape, – 0 224 02757 3, £0.95
The following titles mentioned in this Authorgraph are now out of print:
A Year and a Day (1976), The Jersey Shore (1973), Plot Night (1963) and Max’s Dream (1977).
*’It growled.’ Mayne would not approve. The most characteristic element of his style is the dogged unswerving use of ‘said’ – almost always in the order ‘said Mother’ though occasionally a ‘she said’ slips in. I cannot be dogmatically sure (after all, he admits to around 90 titles – he claims he can’t count them because it’s so complicated, but I suspect this is for fear of seeming too self-concerned and that he really knows how many), but the most startling departure for me in Antar and the Eagles was the first sighting of an ‘asked’, a ‘shouted’, ‘called’ and ‘told’. The repeated monosyllabic ‘said’, blunt, dispassionate, lends not only a typical rhythm to his prose but an emotional distance – that distancing, perhaps, to which some commentators attribute the difficulties young readers can have with his work.