“The sound of the drums was like the beating of a great, slow heart. Muffled drums they were, with black cloth over them. Everything was muffled that day, even the grey, clouded sky. All of England was mourning the death of one man…”
How far back do you have to go to find one person bringing the entire country together in both gratitude and grief? Around two hundred years, it seems, to the state funeral of Admiral Nelson – not only the brilliant leader staving off the real terror of a French invasion, but the commander loved by his men for his fairness and genuine care for them at a time when the Navy was a notoriously brutal living, and many sailors little better than kidnapped into service through the hated press gangs.
One such is Sam Robbins, a farm boy from Kent, who takes the chance of skilled work with his uncle in the Chatham dockyards, working around the clock (yes, even in 1803) to build and fit the ships needed for the Napoleonic wars. Chatham certainly offers a better life than being a labourer’s child in a damp cottage with never enough to eat, even if Sam is blistered and bone-tired at the end of his first day. He doesn’t have the chance at a second: on his way from work, he is ambushed by the press gang and finds himself aboard one of the Navy’s great ships, the Victory. (Not that it is so very great for Sam, as the newest and youngest recruit and with no knowledge of the sea, assigned to the half-light world below decks, and to drudge duty for the drunken ship’s cook.) As a novice, Sam is an excellent guide to the strange lore and ritual of the Navy in its golden age: the hardships, the terrible and arbitrary punishments, but also the close comradeship and the exhilaration of a great ship in full sail.
Around Sam’s story is woven Molly Jennings’ one – contemporary, as it turns out, although the pull back to Sam’s experience becomes stronger and stronger. Molly is a London girl, unhappily relocated to Connecticut with her American stepfamily. A secondhand book, a secret relic and a surprise visit to England lead her to Portsmouth and the Victory, a mystery to be solved. Molly’s story, for me, was something of a distraction: I’d have preferred Sam’s unframed, it is so vivid and true with its horror and glory. Even so, Victory stands far above its history-for-children competitors as a powerful, truthful and beautiful book.
This is one of Susan Cooper’s (many) great gifts: being able to conjure up the whole experience of another age – the sounds, the smells, the real sense of it without that urgent “I’ve done my research, now you pay attention” feeling that you get from less skilled writers. King of Shadows finds a contemporary American boy inexplicably, terrifyingly, gloriously time-slipping to Shakespeare’s newly-built Globe. What surprises does he find there? That Elizabethan London is not just dirty and smelly, but unimaginably noisy with buskers and hawkers plying every street; that his contemporary Carolina accent passes almost unnoticed; that with all his superior future knowledge, he can’t even think how to make and explain a toothbush to his new companions. Modern-day Nat Field is spellbound by Will Shakespeare and his theatre, and Will gently uncovers and starts to heal a modern-day trauma; but Nat can’t help wondering, why is he even here in Shakespeare’s time, and will he ever get back to his own? A wonderful introduction and companion to Shakespeare’s plays, especially as a way to understanding them not as chilly classics, but brilliantly contrived around the strengths and weaknesses of popular theatre in dangerous times.
More dangerous times in Dawn of Fear, one of the best Second World War books by that group of authors who properly remember it (see also Nina Bawden and Jill Paton Walsh). Eleven-year-old Derek lives in Slough – just close enough to London to be thrilled by air raids and occasional bombs, but not to undergo the relentless nightly battering of the East End. Instead, Derek and his friends collect shrapnel, build a den and are beyond delighted when a near-miss closes their school. Without quite intending it, they are drawn into hostilities with an older, meaner gang. Older family members and friends put themselves in the way of death, with or without knowing – Tom Hicks signs up in the vulnerable Merchant Navy because the recruiting age is younger; Geoffrey’s uncle proudly serves and most likely dies on HMS Hood; but Derek, at the time, feels immortal. Then, shockingly, the den is destroyed, and a close and heavy air raid brings the war home to Derek in a way that he could never have imagined.
I’m saving until last the famous five-book sequence, Tbe Dark is Rising. Susan Cooper is one of several children’s authors – Lucy Boston, Alan Garner and Penelope Lively among them – who made children’s books immeasurably richer, stranger and stronger by opening them up to the dark and light and wonder and peculiarity of English folklore. Over Sea, Under Stone provides a gripping start, with three children plunged into a modern-day grail quest in Cornwall, but it’s with the second book, The Dark is Rising that the series finds its real voice and distinction. Will Stanton, just turned eleven, is the youngest of a large and hearty country family; but his birthday brings a gradual understanding of his otherness, as the familiar world disappears under a blanket of snow, and ancient forces of preservation and destruction reassert themselves. Greenwitch returns to the Drew family in Cornwall: bossy Simon, precocious Barney but most importantly, dreamy and thoughtful Jane with her uncanny connection to the age-old Greenwitch figure. The Grey King finds Will convalescing in Wales, discovering the gaunt landscape and deep-rooted myth of the mountains, as well as the eerie golden-eyed boy Bran Davies; and Silver on the Tree brings together these five with the mesmerising figure of Merryman Lyon, sometime Professor, mentor, great uncle and Old One, in a gripping and trance-like (yes, it can be both at once) last battle.
These were some of the great books of my childhood, and it’s a treat to rediscover them, fresh and real and gripping as ever (I’d have written this post a whole lot faster if I hadn’t been drawn back into Cornwall or snowy Buckinghamshire or North Wales for pages at a time). My one caution would be: look out the individual volumes if you possibly can: Puffin and Bodley Head’s combined five-volume editions are handsome but reduce the text to eye-strain size, and I don’t know many children who’d prefer to peer though one closely-printed volume over five more easily readable ones.