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Monday, 22 February 2010

David Severn - obituary

David Unwin died in 11th February 2010 after a brief illness, aged 91, and was cremated in Golders Green Crematorium. The son of the publisher Stanley Unwin, he was born on 3.12.1918. It was as the writer for children, David Severn, that he earned early fame, his first book, Rick Afire coming out in 1942, the first of his 'Crusoe Books' featuring children's friendship with a young accountant called Robinson (hence 'Crusoe') who was escaping the office for a holiday in the open air. The writer and critic Geoffrey Trease once wrote (1964:141) that David Severn was an outstanding pioneer of the holiday themes after Arthur Ransome. These early books were outstanding, examples of outdoor adventure by resourceful and independent children with positive descriptions of a Romany group. His next series with the Warner family shows a similar free spirit, with more of an interest in gymkhanas and the country set. A journey through Africa produced My Foreign Correspondent through Africa in 1951, 20 illustrated news-sheets which were part of a wider series. He began to experiment with a number of different ideas. Dream Gold (1949) is a psychological thriller. Two boys begin to dream of events 300 years ago, connected to a wrecked ship in Cornwall. They begin to dream together in a way that transports them to a desert island where sailors are coming to blows. Each takes on the personality of their ancestor and fights out the dispute again. This risks the lives of both, and only one survives. In Drumbeats! pupils find a magic drum which they discover had been stolen by an ill-fated expedition to Africa in 1935. When Oliver beats it, the children are transported back to 1935 Africa and witness the lost expedition. The timeslip presents deadly dangers for the present, causing a fire in school. In The Future Took Us (1957) a time slip into 3000AD, a religious dictatorship (actually the headmaster's alter ego) whose holy book was a maths primer and who thought up mathematical executions ruled the land. He and his henchmen were overcome. Then came a story of a boy brought up by foxes and behaved like a fox. His young girl saviour did not seem to mind his nakedness. This sense of psycho-magic never left him, and two of his last books concerned a ghost girl, and a magic toy castle that became real.
David Unwin's early books were a much loved part of children's series fiction. His more challenging works featured in the school curriculum for a while. As tastes and publishers ambitions changed in the 1970s, he found less opportunities to be published and his last work was his autobiography, in 1982, Fifty Years With Father. Earlier, in the 1950s, he had tried his hand at adult fiction. These focused on wives who ruled the roust, influencing politics (The Governor's Wife) as well as domestic life (A View of the Heath).

David Severn was involved in the early days of writing about ghosts, magic and the supernatural in a naturalistic way. Magic is presented as part of life. We can all slip into other times and other worlds, and many writers have done this since. But David Severn concentrated on the psychology of this. Dream walking out of the body experiences, reliving deep obsessions which continue to damage the lives of descendants. Treachery sticking to objects (the drum) and needing to be resolved and avenged. The totalitarian power of teachers and headteachers. The savagery shown to animals (foxes) highlighted only by making the fox cub a human. These titles from his middle period were thought provoking indeed. His last two children's books highlighted magic or the supernatural. A boy's obsession with a dead girl is described as giving strength to her ghost, to the extent that others saw her as a real girl. The Girl in the Grove is deeply psychological, with a brilliant twist at the end - the earlier family history in the effective management of slaves (a euphemism for working the slaves to death). The Grove, which typified the moneyed class, had blood on their family hands so could not rest in peace. His last book, The Wishing Bone, is great fun - what to do with three wishes. The wishes go wrong because of careless speech, but in the end making the wish is seem as itself the first step towards fulfilment. To wish to be friends with enemies is the first step towards repairing bridges. Story-book wishes have horrendous consequences, as the children get embroiled in siege and battle. But real-life wishes are a healing mechanism important in creating a harmonious world.

David Unwin leaves me with happy memories both of reading his work as an academic and corresponding with him. It is time for some of his titles to be resurrected.

See further: for a detailed description of his books.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Golding, Lord of the Flies.

Readers of Lord of the Flies or viewers of the film, will remember the twins. They were real kids in Golding's class in Bishop Wordsworth School in Salisbury in the late 1940 to early 1950s. One twin is my neighbour; the other's funeral took place on Friday. Rest in peace and love to the family.

See also

Friday, 12 February 2010

Escaping Wartorn Europe

This post describes three books written between 1940 and 1945 which describes children fleeing through France in the early years of the war. They are: Olive C Dougan, Schoolgirls in Peril (1944); Agnes M. Miall, The Schoolgirl Fugitives (1942); and Nevil Chute, Pied Piper (1942).
Olive Dougan also wrote The Schoolgirl Refugees in 1940. Very scarce. I am still looking.

Dougan tells the story of a school in a Flemish speaking area just before 1939. The Nazis were pressing into Holland and Belgium. The school moves to Brussels and is soon closed down, and the Head arrested. The main character Sally overhears a traitor's plot to allow the Nazi army to invade. Sally is thereafter a marked girl and sent to her fascist uncles in Brittany with her young sister Betty. Their father is a journalist collecting sensitive evidence, a target for the Nazis. There they are abused and miserable. Escape routes exist in the area and all goes well until an airman is helped to escape and his clothes and parachute are found. The sisters have to flee on foot or with local help to Vichy France and towards the Spanish border. A bete noir is Tilda Weil, a German girl with serious Nazi relatives. She boasts of victory, and spies against her school and against a Jewish fellow pupil with links to the resistance. Tilde is emotionally fond of little Betty, and after her new husband is killed by the SS for protesting, she crosses over to help the girls to escape to Spain. The Headmistress is already there. They make it back to England for a grand reunion, after the Americans hand entered the war but before D day. Oh, and the girls are reunited also with their parents.

The detail of anti-Nazi feeling is outstanding - the little things ordinary people will do to undermine the enemy. The Nazis are painted as a powerful elite who rule by fear and repression. Ordinary Germans are decent, especially when they understand the reality of what is going on. This is propaganda; most ordinary Germans did not cross the road to defend victims since their own lives were endangered by doing so.

Then endgame is disappointing. Prolonged struggle happens until the last few chapters, then, all of a rush they make it to Spain, find a boat, and arrive in England. This part is very much a 'happy ever after' epilogue.
Unfortunately my copy was bound without pages 97-112. I will be grateful if anyone can send me photocopies.

Agnes M Miall. The Schoolgirl Fugitives.
Kay, aged 14, and elder cousin Reba, 19, in school in southern France, is faced, as the German army takes over Belgium, to set out on a 360 mile walk to Bordeaux. "Happy go lucky" parents were away working in Canada, not believing that a war was in the offing. French relatives lived in the thick of the fighting, so Bordeaux gave them a chance to find a boat to England. They would have to go alone, unescorted, and travel light, leaving most of their possessions behind. The first leg was in an ambulance: the roads are crowded with refugees, so main roads had to be avoided and slow progress made on back roads. The refugees included children in tatters, with blisters, looking after babies. It was a vast line of mainly women and children. For Kay it was fun, different. They decide to keep off the main roads because German planes were machine gunning the refugees. They are fed at a farm, who lets them have the address of relatives further on. There is a strong theme of French kindness to the English, probably, the book thinks, because they were ashamed of letting their allies down. Unable to board a train (really cattle wagons) they took possession of two bicycles that had to be abandoned by people getting on the train. The train was machine-gunned so they had a narrow escape. Nazi planes machine gunning the trains and main roads become a significant theme, making the girls keep to the side roads. They were encouraged to avoid Bordeaux by what seemed to them later as a fifth columnist, spreading despair around. They almost ran into a German outpost, managing to pick up a German map which helped them. They find little Francoise, separated from her mother; and Kay gets lost. However, within a particularly surly group, Rebe was accused of being a German spy and locked up. Meanwhile Kay had stumbled over a man dressed as a German soldier, which after a nail-biting time turned out to be Eric, an escaping English soldier. They travel together, find Reba again, now imprisoned, and let her out and they all escape from that hateful town. Bordeaux is now closed, so there destination is a port near the Spanish border. Francoise's mother has left a letter indicating where to find her. The French government has meanwhile capitulated to the Germans, so there is no time to lose. On the coast, out swimming, they rescue a woman drowning after an attach of cramp, who Francoise soon identifies, of course, as her mother. Her mother's friends have a yacht and they manage to leave safely.

Nevil Shute, Pied Piper.
Shute, an aircraft engineer and founder/owner of Airspeed, wrote a novel a year throughout the 1930a to 1950s, and his war efforts reflect the anxieties of those days. Pied Piper tells the story of an elderly unpreposessing and unheroic man, Mr Howard, who decides to return to England from the French alps, but finds the trains disrupted and roads clogged. A simple journey takes on nightmare proportions. Moreover, he is persuaded to take two young children with him, Ronnie and Sheila, to relatives in England. This is a book for adults about children, not a story for children. The children are incumbrances, dependants, not young heroes as they would be in stories for children. At Dijon, 10 year old is added, Rose, trying to reach her father in London. Howard comes across as a man doing what he has to in times of trouble, a hero indeed but not heroic, often anxious, obsessed with the safety of his fishing tackle. On the road, Pierre joins them, a 7 year old being stoned by villagers as a German spy. (The French are described as an unpleasant rabble, for the most part). Then comes Willem a little Dutch boy, whose parents are blown to pieces when a Nazi Stuka bombs refugees on the road, the rear gunner laughing as he machine-gunned the hoards of women and children. Nicole joins the group in Chatres, the fiance of his dead son John, then a kitten. They eventually make it to the coast. A 10 year old Polish Jewish boy joins them, Marjan, to keep him from becoming a slave. There is a sticky moment near Brest when Mr Howard is arrested as a spy after a British success, and taken out to be shot (but we readers know from page 1 that he survived). The theme of the book is that the British take care of children even if they are not related, to the utter astonishment of the French and Germans. He is a Pied Piper in reverse, taking a group of children to safety - oh, and he makes them whistles from hazel twigs to represent the piper's pipes. Finally there is Anna, but for the twist at the end of the story that brought Anna into the group you will have to read the book for yourself.

The representations of Germans are mixed - the typical soldier is tired and grey faced. No one laughed light-heartedly. The rear gunner shooting civilians is cock-a-hoop, laughing and excited. The Gestapo officer is brutal, harsh, cynical, not believing that a man would risk his own life for strangers, or that his daughter in America would willingly look after the waifs and strays. His son the tank commander, now dead, was annoyed that the road was clogged with refugees and happily shot at them to clear the road. There is no humanity, no fellow feeling or empathy. They were convinced of their own invincibility, sure they would be in London in six weeks. The representations of the British were that they are strong-minded and eccentric, moral to the point of self-sacrifice, ensuring that others are not implicated even if it was to their disadvantage. The French are self-seeking and short sighted for the most part, willing to stone a small boy as a spy, and to give away a Jewish labourer to the authorities. Helpful acts such as sailing them home had to be paid for, and to serve other selfish interests.

Postscript: in 1940, households in Britain received a government circular on a flimsy piece of thin A5 paper, What to do if the invasion happens. They are told to stay at home and wait for guidance, do not clog the roads so the army cannot get around to fight the enemy. The French example is given: if you become refugees on the road, you will be shot at by Nazi aircraft and tanks.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Malcolm Saville, 1901-1982. Children's Writer.

A collection of the following papers by Stephen Bigger can be found on Some letter can be found on
These are revisions of orginals published by the Malcolm Saville Society. Copyright: Stephen Bigger, 2010.

Part 1. The Emerging Author
1. D J Desmond: the Anonymous Author. 2005
Malcolm Saville wrote occasionally under this name, and these works are discussed.
2. Malcolm Saville at My Garden Magazine. 2005
3. Apprenticeship: Malcolm Saville and David Severn 2003 The literary relationship between two beginning writers.
4. The Influence of J M Barrie on Malcolm Saville 2004 Malcolm Saville was fond of Dear Brutus by J M Barrie and this influenced his characterisation. 2004.
5. Did Malcolm Saville know W.E. Johns, author of Biggles? 2009.

Part 2. Values
6. Families in Difficulties
7. Romany Secrets: The depiction of Romanies in the writings of Malcolm Saville. 2002
8. Children Coping - Welcome the Jillies. 1998
9. Yellow Peril? The Depiction of the Chinese in the Fiction of Malcolm Saville 2002
Malcolm Saville's depiction of Chinese residents of Docklands.
10. Good People Working Together: The Lesson of Sea Witch Comes Home

Part 3. Locations
11. Why Choose Blakeney? Birds, Artists and Holidays in Digs. 2002 Post-war holidays and Malcolm Saville’s Jillies series.
12. Coping in dangerous waters: defining gender roles in the Ely Floods 2003 Relationships in The Luck of Sallowby (1952), Malcolm Saville’s fifth Jillies book, set in Ely floods.
13. Romanticised Landscape: Malcolm Saville’s Cornwall Real and fictional topography in Malcolm Saville’s Flying Fish Adventure 2003
14. Sea Watch at Southwold. 2004
Comparison of historical detail of the 1953 North Sea ‘great storm’ with Malcolm Saville’s Sea Witch Comes Home. Easter 2004.
15. Dartmoor, Flying Saucers and Military Secrecy 2005.
Links between flying saucers in two Saville stories, and other science fiction literature.
16. Muker, North Yorkshire: The Mysteries of Muker: Or Which Steps, Which Barn and Which Crackpot?

Part 4. Life in the 1940s
17. Spirit of the Place: Writing about England.
18. Small Creatures, and the Truth in a Tale Series. Nature writing.
19. Railways of Adventure. The place of railways in Malcolm Saville’s fiction. 2004 and 2007.
20. Harvest Holiday: A Happy Return to Townsend Farm. 2008
21. A Death in Normandy. The background to Mary and Michael’s father. 2009.