William Mayne: 1928 – 2010
Brian Alderson writes…
The unexpected death of William Mayne at the age (just) of 82 sees the passing of the finest writer for children to emerge since the Second World War. And the fine-ness is of course a trouble. Adults with fixed views on ‘what children like’ and a determination to feed them just that could cope neither with his range of extraordinary subjects (why couldn’t he just write school stories or family holiday adventures?) nor with the obliqueness of their telling.
Given the customary constraints on BfK obits, there’s no hope of describing, let alone justifying, the genius that inhabits so many of his more than a hundred books. But what can be hazarded is that the regularly rehearsed objections probably meant nothing to him at all. Unlike many (most?) writers for children, he did not observe the market and fashion his work to meet its requirements or to repeat successful formulae. No doubt it will be thought pretentious to say of him what Stravinsky said of himself: ‘I was the vessel through whom The Rite passed’, but that nevertheless comes closest to an explanation of a craftsmanship working outside of itself. Each story seems to have had an independent existence in some narrative galaxy and it was up to him to release it into print.
Unfortunately, controversy of a quite different kind struck home in 2002 when Mayne found himself pleading guilty in Middlesbrough Crown Court to charges relating to the abuse of young girls some thirty years previously. He was jailed for two-and-a-half years (less remission) and was vilified in the manner customary to our enlightened times. All his books were withdrawn from sale and circulation (only now to be revived by the admirable Faber Finds series) while nearly a dozen refusés, never-before-published manuscripts, have been lined up for production under the imprint Starrabeck. The first of these, Every Dog, has already been published (and will be reviewed in the first on-line issue of BfK). Decisions are to be made about the continuance of the imprint and the publication of work which, according to one advisor, shows no falling-off from past achievements.
Amongst other awards, William Mayne won the Carnegie Medal in 1957 for A Grass Rope and the Guardian Award in 1993 for Low Tide.