If Sunday morning is for some a time for peace, and quiet reflection, with a space which allows hope in, this was certainly true for those of us at the FCBG conference before Easter.
Although the ground was covered in white, and the air was thick with snowflakes, we were bathed in blue haze as Kevin Crossley-Holland opened his session with Ted Hughes’ poem, ‘March Morning Unlike Others’. It was a powerful example in action of the power of the page; no longer were we shivering and sleepy, but suddenly we could feel warmth on our cheeks.
After letting the vision in our minds settle, Kevin began his speech proper.
“When William Blake’s Nurse sings:
I think at once of my own mother and my sister Sally’s and my own childhood:
‘Well, well, go & play till the light fades away
And then go home to bed.
The little ones leaped and shouted and laugh’d
And all the hills ecchoed.’”
Kevin talked about his joyous childhood in the Chilterns, “an outdoors life, largely in beech woods, and largely with Bruce our bull-terrier”, punctuated with sporting moments including the London Olympics of 1948, legendary cricket matches at Lords, and tennis at Wimbledon. However, it “was a childhood scarcely bothered or enhanced by books.”
Kevin did have his ‘museum’ though, a small shed eventually cleared by his father of rusty bikes and broken garden pots, with shelves made from rough planks and bricks where he kept fossils and other favourite finds. Although eager to research the objects in his collection, Kevin “had little sense of the joy of stories, or the joy of poetry.”
“In fact, I did have a couple of rather dismal bookshelves at home, inhabited by the sort of books Marilyn Brocklehurst would have pulled and chucked out as second-rate or just plain dismal, but also containing Andre Maurois’ Fattypuffs and Thinifers, and the other books I’ve listed in my memoir of childhood The Hidden Roads.”
“But as much as anything I suspect it was my mother’s enthusiasms that enthused me, and especially her vibrant sense of humour: she loved Three Men in a Boat and 1066 and All That. But she also had a great fondness for Walter de la Mare’s anthology Peacock Pie and used to read verse to Sally and me from it.”
And so it was that Kevin “started to read in my late teens.. and no, of course I’ve never stopped. So when I was asked to speak about “the power of the page” – the felicitous title of this conference – the power of the page not only in my childhood but also in my adulthood, I was mightily relieved, and I knew this was something I’d really like to do!”
“When I think of the books that really ‘counted’ when I was a boy, I’d have to begin with the sundry collections of folk-tales on my father’s shelves – documentation, as it were, of the tales he told Sally and me as we lay, enchanted, mesmerised almost, as he said and sang them to us, to the accompaniments of his Welsh harp. Tales from Grimm and the related quite dark and cruel verses of Hoffmann’s Stuwwelpeter (1845)”
The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb
One day Mamma said “Conrad dear,
I must go out and leave you here.
But mind now, Conrad, what I say,
Don’t suck your thumb while I’m away.
The great tall tailor always comes
To little boys who suck their thumbs;
And ere they dream what he’s about,
He takes his great sharp scissors out,
And cuts their thumbs clean off–and then,
You know, they never grow again.”
Mamma had scarcely turned her back,
The thumb was in, Alack! Alack!
The door flew open, in he ran,
The great, long, red-legged scissor-man.
Oh! children, see! the tailor’s come
And caught out little Suck-a-Thumb.
Snip! Snap! Snip! the scissors go;
And Conrad cries out “Oh! Oh! Oh!”
Snip! Snap! Snip! They go so fast,
That both his thumbs are off at last.
Mamma comes home: there Conrad stands,
And looks quite sad, and shows his hands;
“Ah!” said Mamma, “I knew he’d come
To naughty little Suck-a-Thumb.”
“Tales above all from the Celtic tradition, Irish and Welsh and Scottish and Manx and Cornish tales of fairy folk, written down by Thomas Crofton Croker and Sir Walter Scott, and John Rhys and Joseph Jacobs. But one of these tales my father said – and sang – was the Suffolk story of the green children, first written down by Ralph of Coggeshall in early 13th century, and this haunting story has kept reappearing through my life.”
“These wonderful tales ghosted through my childhood; they’ve ghosted through my whole life. But the cornerstone book of my boyhood was without question Henrietta Marshall’s Our Island Story. True I read and enjoyed Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth, published in 1954 when I was thirteen (I must say I liked it a great deal more when I reread it and introduced it for the Folio Society a few years ago), and I also liked historical novels by Rhoda Power and Cynthia Harnett.”
“But Our Island Story! This jingoistic book conforms, of course, to Michael Gove’s dubious prescription of the way in which history should be taught – chronologically, that’s to say – and it wasn’t long before it inspired me to start writing myself. Whilst my mother conducted social surveys to earn a little cash, I used to sit in the back of the car – a Morris 10 with the registration BTM812 – and get down to work. This, incidentally is something I still do: get into the back of the car in order to write! It’s what I did, at 6am, before giving my first address as President of the School Library Association!”
Initially, aged 11, Kevin decided to write a history of the world! However, he quickly felt out of his depth and set his sights instead on a History of the British Isles; his first completed manuscript was ‘A History of the Church Brasses of Buckinghamshire’, which is included in his papers now at home in the archives at Leeds University.
Kevin continued, “In my early teens, I was much taken with the first of T.H.White’s Arthurian novels, The Sword in the Stone (and especially the relationship of Wart – King Arthur-in-Waiting, that’s to say – and Merlin, his mentor). This is another book I’ve quite recently introduced for the Folio Society and, with Karen Cushman’s wonderful Catherine, Called Birdy, one of two books that were springboards for my own Arthur trilogy.”
Kevin began to write poetry when he was 16. “The first poem to devastate me was Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘Pied Beauty‘. Its condensed language, and the alliteration and sprung rhythm had a powerful effect on me.”
Kevin went up to Oxford to read English, but was surprised to find the first half of his first year was spent studying Latin, with the rest of the year devoted to Anglo Saxon. At this point Kevin quoted some Anglo-Saxon poetry, and it was, quite simply, electrifying.
Rather meekly Kevin shared how if he “had one claim to fame” it was that he was perhaps responsible of Charles Causley writing his first poem for children. Causley was the godfather of one of Kevin’s sons, Dom, and wrote Timothy Winters for him.
Running out of time Kevin didn’t have a chance to talk about Russell Hoban, or Leo Leonni although he wished he could have. He finished his session with some very exciting news:
“For the author and artist, though, it’s the empty page, the dream-page, that has the most power. Jane Ray and I have long said we’d do one book together, and it’s the empty page of our shared book that I’ve been facing during the past few months: empty, then pencilled, then inked and crossed out, rewritten and crossed out again. For I’m prehistoric, I’m Neanderthal and still use a Waterman pen and a publisher’s dummy and I seem to need to see words written down wrong before I can get them right! We’re making a book about the Ospedale della Pieta in Venice, where there were eight hundred orphans (700 of them girls) and where Antonio Vivaldi was the music master.”
The very first public reading of the opening passage of this book drew Kevin’s session to a close. It was a magical, moving and masterful session, an inspiration and much appreciated insight for everyone present.
If this has whetted your appetite for more, Kevin’s memoir of his childhood, The Hidden Roads (Quercus), puts flesh on the bones of his talk. You can also find out more about Kevin and his books on his website, www.kevincrossley-holland.com.