This is a Guest Post by Ami
Last weekend I finally got round to fulfilling a childhood ambition of exploring Rye and Winchelsea, the scene of a much loved children’s thriller about a search for smuggler’s treasure. I won a copy of The Gay Dolphin Adventure by Malcolm Saville in a colouring competition in Sunny Stories magazine. Usually I would skip descriptive passages in adventures to cut to the chase, but I was enthralled by Saville’s evocative descriptions of a sinister, bleak, mist -swirled landscape. This contributed to the colonising of the landscape of my imagination, for, growing up in South Africa, there was scant local children’s literature to reflect the arid red earth and koppie outside my window. Our inner geography and mind’s eye were filled with glades and blueberry dells and blackberry woods. A friend still living in SA came recently to London and went on a pilgimage to Marylbone to seek out the rooks whose description in that part of London transfixed her as a child, when she read about them – in Sunny Stories.
When it came to the people, though, children’s literature of the time afforded me little insight into the English. There were jarring clues which I did not pick up on until rereading the books in my late teens.
When I first visited London in the sixties aged 14, I wrote in my travel diary that London seemed compeletely familiar, but the people scared me. “They are quick to take offence, and you can’t anticipate what will offend them.”
Sojourning in Cambridgeshire in student years brought a familiarity with the countryside which finally united the rupture between the inner and outer eye, but I still hadn’t entirely sussed the people. Boarding a train at Harwich, my companion opened a window. It was only when getting off in London that a man nodded towards the offending window as he stood up and hissed out 2 hours of pent up resentment: “You should have asked!”
The Rye trip was a success, despite the absence of swirling mists, and finding that marshes were just flat tracts of green, not shining expanses of swampy sand as I had imagined. I was directed by an an enthusiastic museum curator to all the landmarks in the book in Winchelsea as well as to the plaque outside Saville’s house, whose unveiling had been attended by 100 members of his fan club a couple of years ago.
The Inn of the title is actually the Mermaid Inn in Rye, which was too extravagant to stay at, but I had a drink there and it still enchants. We stayed at a B&B which was fine, and apart from the breakfast room silence broken only by click of knife on plate, was nothing like the last one I stayed at in Broadstairs 15 years ago, where I timidly asked Basil Fawlty’s cousin for another sliver of lemon for my kipper. Wherupon he snatched the lemon off another diner’s plate snapping “you’re not using that” and flung it on my plate.
I realised I still hadn’t sussed the locals when I did the guest post recently on my train adventure. I had always assumed the position of conscientous objector when invited to join the class war here, as it formed no part of my experience growing up in SA. Our divisions were of language and race. My grandparents’ thick eastern European accents notwithstanding, we were English and looked down on all Afrikaners, whatever their occupation. Jewishness was not really an issue, as I was too late for the 40’s with its Afrikaner Nazi sympathies. The planes of existence between us and black people were so far apart that there was not much scope for visible friction or confrontation.
It was when I adopted a tongue in cheek voice for the guest post, that the furious resentment and attempt to categorise me by some of the commenters seemed to belie the possibility of my unilaterally opting out of the struggle.
The mockery of the petit bourgoisie and nouveau riche in the William books had gone straight over my head, as had the xenophobia. There was the amusing incident where William mistook the Jewish sweet shop man for a German spy. The Jane books, (William’s female counterpart, by Evadne Price) were a greater favourite. I must have found the story where Jane plots to get rid of their incompetent German Jewish refugee cook as hilarious as the rest. “Mrs Turpin had never till now realized how determined Hitler must be if he could persecute such determined people as Fritzi Wasservogel and get away with it.” There is another, Nazi cook in the neighbourhood and Fritzi ends up chasing her with a carving knife, while they scream Yude and Nazi at each other.
The Foreign Correspondence Clerk warns Fritzi that unless she goes back quietly to work at the vicarage, she would be imprisoned for the knife incident in a cell full of rats, cruelly beaten and starved, and then sent back to Germany.
Then there is the sullen handyman Arnie, who says thing like:
“If on’y I was in Russia an’ not the wage slave of the Idle Rich. When I do save me fare I’ll join Lenin’s Air Squad an’ bomb this ‘ouse first of any ‘ouse I bomb.” Needless to say, he gets his comeuppance to the amusement of all.
And so to my beloved Gay Dolphin Adventure: I bought a copy to reread in Rye. (2/6 original price, £7.00 used on the internet.) No Jews or Communists, thank goodness, just this:
Here is the girl heroine, describing her first sighting of the villain: “He wore a most sinister black hat- the sort of hat that nobody who isn’t sinister wears.” So far quite postmodern. And then:
‘”He had very black sloping eyebrows, if you know what I mean, and a very small sloping black moustache thing on his lip..I tell you what I think he is Jon.. I think he’s in a band somewhere and I don’t think he’s English either. .. I think if he hadn’t been carrying her bags he’d have been waving his arms about. That’s the sort of man he was,” she finished triumphantly.’
Anthony Horowitz has just bemoaned the difficulty of creating villains in a politically correct age.
The Lebanese villain in an Alex Rider adventure morphed into Califorian trailer trash in the film. Horowitz claims he cannot have a black, disabled and definitely not a Muslim villain. “In the UK edition, he’s the son of a failed hairdresser, but in the American edition that had to be changed when I was accused of homophobia – because to some people hairdressing would seem a gay profession.”
“So, in Snakehead, Alex will be facing up to Major Winston Yu, a Hong Kong Chinese gang leader with such a love of Britain that he even drinks English wine.
He also suffers from osteoporosis, so I dare say I’ll be upsetting two minority groups, albeit ones who have not been known for the violence of their protests.” Hmm, regarding the propensity for violence of the latter, he clearly has not read my Train Brawl post.
Now, what are your favourite children’s books whose imagery captured your imagination? Would they bear rereading these days, pace Horowitz, with some of the attitudes they espouse? We can start by excluding the obvious, like Noddy and the golliwogs, and the adult problem authors such as G.K Chesterton and the like.