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: http://eprints.worc.ac.uk/236 for a detailed description of his books.