Two for the price of one: Martin Farrell and a Clown commemorate 200 issues of Books for Keeps.
It was 1980
when School Bookshop News gave way to Books for Keeps and now here’s issue number 200. ‘So, what’s your classic classic over all that time?’ asks the Editor.
is the way to choose something, for only confusion will follow any retrospective analysis of all the possibilities. So The Winter Sleepwalker came immediately to mind, Joan Aiken’s funny, touching, incomparable short stories with Sir Quentin Blake’s perfect illustrations. But that won’t do, because I found it a classic from the start and it thus became choice number 45 in our unending series (BfK 146). Nor could I choose The Quickening by that errant genius, William Mayne, because no one will publish what is one of his finest books and I am perhaps the only person on earth to have read it. So, as an instant third response, I chose:-
the fourth book by Janni Howker, which was published by Julia MacRae Books in 1994. Fourth, but seemingly least remarked. Its predecessors, the short stories of Badger on the Barge, and the gritty Lancastrian tales of The Nature of the Beast and Isaac Campion all found themselves be-wreathed in prizes or gaining lesser acclaim as runners-up, but Martin Farrell, eight years in the making,was sui generis, a foreign experience for awards committees, vagrant in a critical climate that was perhaps less attuned to its uncompromising accents.
For the book
shifts from the vernacular storytelling of the two Lancastrian boys, Bill Coward and Isaac Campion, from mill-town and horse-breeder’s farmstead. Instead, the voice comes from the more distant shores of the ancient singer of tales. ‘This man,’ he begins, ‘he had no sort of name to waste breath on. He filled his mouth with drink. A swig and a slug before he had come through the door and like a horse at a trough at the wedding feast.’ As in the sung ballads you are not vouchsafed the information you have been taught to expect . ‘Nails o’God’ we next hear the wedding-feaster fatally say, ‘You dun mean to say he’s thinking he’s the first wi’ her!’ and so you must piece together, incident by incident, a double, triple, quadruple bloody drama.
is what matters, as the audience would have been attentive to what they were hearing of the feuding of Armstrongs and Grahames, those reiving clans of the Solway borders. For the story is told as though to such an audience, with breaks for comment (‘Are you roused? Are you listening?’) or interjections (‘Ach, ye must wait. My bladder is full. Open the door, let me into the yard’) and these serve not as distractions but as augmentations of young Martin Farrell’s story: wrested away for his own safety after the killing of his drunken stepfather, shepherded across wild lands by the Galloway fiddler, before being brought to the revelation of his parentage and the fate it held for him. Janni Howker has said that she was not herself writing the book, but (as Stravinsky said of The Rite) was the vessel through whom the story spoke. A unique achievement.
But for children?
Well, I would say ‘yes’ in so far as they too would have been in such a story’s audience and are open to an imaginative, if not a literal, understanding of what is afoot. (Unlike earlier listeners, they have the good fortune to be able to plumb the depths of the narrative. The storyteller stays with them on the page and richer meanings are yielded up by repeated readings.) But, in duty to those who are certainly too young for the raw balladry, I offer a second classic from our thirty-something years which has its own command of the imagination: Sir Quentin’s Clown.
This too is a ballad,
but one told entirely in pictures. We meet Clown himself in an old-fashioned dust- bin with some companionate toys, chucked out, or perhaps just superannuated, cast-offs. Unlike his inert fellows though, Clown peers about him and contrives an escape from the heap, finding in another pile of junk a nice pair of raggety trainers in which to explore the locality. Though never a word is said in the whole book, we are apprised that his ambition is to find a home both for himself and his deserted companions and, despite misunderstandings – not least a couple of involuntary hurtling flights through the air – he succeeds. And, what’s more, the success is not so much for himself alone as for the rather forlorn children and their single mum through whose open window he falls and whose quarters he transforms.
It is of course magic,
as you can see when he relapses into toyhood again at the end of his adventure. But it is a heart-warming magic, displayed on the big pages of a bande dessinée, which allow for an energy of both action and emotion that is entirely convincing (vide an astonishing drawing – barely more than a few lines – showing the girl pulling her little brother in a pram backwards up a staircase, Clown in attendance with a sheaf of broken but triumphant flowers). It’s a minstrelsy all its own.
The Winter Sleepwalker Joan Aiken, illustrated Quentin Blake, Jonathan Cape, 978-0857550484, £12.99 hbk
The Quickening William Mayne O/P
Badger on the Barge Janni Howker Walker Books, 978-0744590302, pbk O/P
The Nature of the Beast Janni Howker, Walker Books, 978-1406329902 £5.99 pbk
Isaac Campion Janni Howker, Walker Books, 978-1406329902 O/P
Martin Farrell Janni Howker Red Fox, 978-0099181613
Clown Quentin Blake, Red Fox, 978-0099493617, £5.99 pbk
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times.