Musty Books: “Marianne Dreams” by Catherine Storr (1958)

What happens when a recurring dream becomes so lucid and involving that it feels more like reality than the everyday? Does the dream – unsettling as it is – become a more valid state of existence than the dreamer’s waking life?

Such is the quandary at the heart of Marianne Dreams. When the lively, imaginative Marianne falls suddenly ill on her tenth birthday with a curiously unspecified malady, she is confined to bed: potentially for several months. And her freewheeling lifestyle of riding lessons and slap-up feasts is transformed instantly into a claustrophobic existence of inactive misery; her world reduced to the toys and books that surround her, and the visits of three central adults: her mother, her doctor, and hired-in private tutor Miss Chesterfield.

After three weeks of this torpor, and understandably desperate for distraction, Marianne pokes around in an ornamental mahogany workbox, passed down through the family from her great-grandmother, and finds a stumpy, knife-sharpened pencil with which she draws that staple of every 10-year-old’s artistic repertoire: a slightly wonky house, with a curl of smoke rising from the chimney. It has a door, four windows and a surrounding fence, with some clumsily oversized flowers and a small army of harmless rocks in the garden. So far, so typical of a myriad of idle childhood drawings made in crinkly sketchpads on listless, mid-20th century afternoons.

Until, that is, Marianne visits the house in her dreams.

And the lop-sided house, with its blank windows and towering, misproportioned flowers, becomes a disquieting reality, bathed in an eerie, unrelenting half-light. A reality that impinges further on her everyday existence when the dream repeatedly recurs, becoming a staple feature of Marianne’s sickly, hallucinogenic slumbers. And the dividing lines between her waking life and her dream state crumble completely when, in an empty bedroom of the house, she finds Mark, a similarly unwell pyjama-clad boy with the thin, immobile legs of a polio victim. A boy that, in the real world, is another of Miss Chesterfield’s private pupils.

The true nature of Mark’s presence in Marianne’s dream is left deliciously ambiguous. In their waking lives, they never meet, or even communicate – everything that Marianne knows about Mark and his deteriorating condition comes second-hand, from the anecdotes of Miss Chesterfield. But in the dream, they become allies; and Marianne, realising that a flourish of her great-grandmother’s pencil during waking hours can create new additions to the dream, draws food, books and other distractions for her new-found companion. For unlike her, Mark appears to be a permanent resident of the house, unable to return to a waking world of which he has little memory or awareness. So is the real-life Mark, subsumed by serious illness and increasingly unable to stay conscious, actually sharing a dream with Marianne, or is he merely her constructed interpretation of Miss Chesterfield’s shared stories? We never find out for certain.

What is certain is the impact of these dreamed encounters on Marianne’s real-life outlook, especially as events take a darker turn. At one point becoming understandably angry and frustrated with her ongoing illness, and jealous of sharing the attention of Miss Chesterfield with the real-life Mark, she viciously defaces her original drawing: blanking out Mark’s window with furious scribbles, and turning the rocks into terrifying sentinels with blinking eyes, “keeping him prisoner under constant surveillance.” When she discovers the inevitable repercussions of this passing tantrum in their shared dream state, she begins to realise the sense of responsibility that she must now bear for the helpless Mark, and – indeed – the true nightmarish qualities of the world she has created.

What follows is a masterclass of claustrophobic, deeply unsettling fantasy fiction: the most unsettling aspect of all being Marianne’s consumption by said fantasy, and her detachment from a real world that now feels utterly irrelevant compared to her and Mark’s desperate attempts to escape the house. The encroaching terror of the barely-sentient rocks (re-christened, chillingly as “THEM” or “THEY”) becomes a more pressing concern than their real-life illnesses, especially when THEY begin to transmit their malevolent, monosyllabic thoughts to the children via the crackly transistor radio that Marianne has drawn into existence.

Sleep is the portal here. When Marianne falls asleep in real life, she “awakes” in the dream; and – indeed – vice versa. And her descent into the dream state is depicted with the utmost poetry: “She didn’t just go to sleep – she dropped thousands of feet into sleep, with the rapidity and soundless perfect of a gannet’s dive.” So is Mark’s permanent presence in the house, constantly waiting for Marianne’s return, a reflection of his more serious illness and his own steep descent into long-term unconsciousness? Does his loss of everyday wakefulness result in a sleepless dream existence? Again, the ambiguity is left hanging in the pale, oppressive half-light of the nightmare.

And it’s the distinctly unsaid that makes the story so potent: if the features of the nightmare world are dependent entirely on the drawings in Marianne’s sketchbook, then what exists beyond that? When Mark and Marianne escape the house, and set up a John Wyndham-esque “cosy apocalypse” homestead, barricaded into a lighthouse of her creation, what lies across the ocean that they wistfully gaze out upon? It’s a book filled with questions, and lesser authors might have unwisely attempted to provide logical, join-the-dots answers.

Nevertheless, it’s possible to draw a rational conclusion here: that the dream is a metaphorical reflection of Marianne’s feelings about her own illness – a nightmarish, sickly, twilit prison that mirrors her bedridden frustration – and that her escape from the house reflects her desire to return to the normal, carefree childhood that feels increasingly as though it belongs to a distant, impossible past. Catherine Storr’s achievement is in writing a story that leaves all interpretations open and valid, veering back and forth between the ennui of the humdrum everyday and the surreal, logic-twisting intensity of the nightmare with a dizzying aplomb that almost leaves us questioning our own sense of reality.

POINT OF ORDER: In 1972, ATV adapted Marianne Dreams into a six-part children’s series, Escape Into Night. It’s very good, and stars Patricia Maynard as Miss Chesterfield – she later married Dennis Waterman, and wrote the lyrics to the theme from Minder. It’s available here:

https://networkonair.com/all-products/858-escape-into-night-the-complete-series

The book was also adapted into a 1988 film, Paperhouse, which takes a few more liberties than the TV series, but I rather liked it. It’s here:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Paperhouse-DVD-Charlotte-Burke/dp/B000H8RW1K

MUSTINESS REPORT: My copy is a 1981 paperback reprint with pages the colour of a ripening tangerine. At some stage, it has been withdrawn (or liberated) from service in a West Yorkshire school, because the inside page boasts faded stamps boldly proclaiming “CENTRAL SCHOOLS SERVICES” and “BRADFORD MULTIPLE COPIES SCHEME”. And, on the back cover, someone has written, in pencil, “BIO”… presumably either a reminder to buy washing powder on the way home, or a misguided attempt to place the book in the “Biography” section of whichever library or bookshop it was residing in at the time. Although this in itself further blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality, so feels entirely in keeping with the spirit of Marianne’s nightmares.

Musty Books: “Carrie’s War” by Nina Bawden (1973)

As a very small child in the 1970s, I was vaguely uncertain as to whether the Second World War was still ongoing. It seemed to be referenced everywhere: on TV, we watched Dad’s Army, Secret Army, Danger UXB and The World At War. The shelves of Mr Murray’s newsagents were stocked with Commando and Victor comics, and my Mum – only in her mid-thirties at this point – often recounted her childhood memories of Anderson shelters, and tanks rolling through Middlesbrough town centre. The war seemed tangible and “of the now”; a vivid scar on both the psychology of the nation and its still-recovering landscapes. We all knew the derelict buildings, the wastelands and water-filled craters, the everyday reminders of where the bombs had left their mark.

The war left its mark on Carrie Willow, too. A wistful, recently widowed fortysomething at the beginning of this book, holidaying in Wales with her three young children, she finds herself revisiting both the overgrown valley that provided respite during a traumatic spell as a wartime evacuee, and the feelings of grief and guilt that have dogged her ever since. Nervously, Carrie begins to tell her children the story that forms the main body of the book: how, thirty years earlier, she and her younger brother Nick had been evacuated to a rather down-at-heel (and curiously unnamed) Welsh mining town, becoming inextricably embroiled in the fortunes of two very contrasting households.

And those two feuding families are at the heart of the story. Carrie and Nick find themselves living with dour grocer Samuel Evans and his meek, put-upon sister Lou… and oh, is there any more archaic a 20th century domestic arrangement than two adult siblings sharing a house? Evans aggressively dominates his younger sister, his devout Christian faith manifesting itself as doctrine of extreme austerity that extends to any who cross the threshold. “Dirt and sloppy habits are an insult to the Lord,” the children are told, forbidden from visiting their bedrooms during the daytime for fear of wearing out the stair carpet.

As Christmas approaches, however, Carrie and Nick find respite. Dispatched to fetch a goose from Druid’s Bottom, the woodland valley farm occupied by the Evans’ ailing (and ostracised) older sister Mrs Gotobed, they find themselves almost passing through a theological and ideological portal. As they descend the valley at dusk, Carrie even feels it: “Deep in the trees or deep in the earth… something old and huge and nameless.” She hears the landscape sigh – “a slow, dry whisper” – and there are later suggestions that Druid’s Bottom still bears vestiges of the “old religion”. This manifests itself in the form of Mrs Gotobed’s housekeeper Hepzibah Green, a warm-hearted “wise woman” who welcomes the children into a haven of warmth, food and hospitality.

Mrs Gotobed herself, disowned by Mr Evans for marrying into the wealthy mine-owning family that he blames for their father’s death, is magnificently languid and indulgent. Terminally ill, and largely confined to her bedroom in Druid’s Bottom, her dying mission is to wear, in turn, each of the 29 opulent ballgowns that her late husband bought for her throughout their marriage. A distant cousin, Mr Johnny, is also resident in the house: a young man with severe learning difficulties, barely able to speak, dismissed an as “idiot” by Mr Evans but cared for at Druid’s Bottom by a surrogate family keen to keep him secluded from an uncaring 1940s society that would otherwise have him “locked up.”

Druid’s Bottom’s has its own resident evacuee, too: the bookish, iconoclastic (and magnificently-named) Albert Sandwich. Hints of deeper feelings begin to flourish between Albert and Carrie, further pulling her and the increasingly rebellious Nick away from their official adopted carers, and creating increased tension between the households. Tensions exacerbated when Lou finds romance with a billeted American soldier, leaving her “as good as damned” – at least according to her furious elder brother. Who, by this stage, is actually beginning to elicit our sympathy as an increasingly isolated figure: convinced that his frugality and over-protectiveness is for the benefit of all, he is unable to comprehend the hostility it provokes in those nearest to him.

And if the book has a central theme, it is indeed the influence of our respective belief systems on our lives, and – indeed – the lives of those closest to us. Recurring bereavements (his parents, his wife, effectively his older sister and even his faith in the local mining community) have left Mr Evans dependent on his Christian beliefs for both support and reassurance… but equally, a curious superstition attached to Druid’s Bottom proves to be a lynchpin of the more ethereal and arcane beliefs pervading the Gotobed household – and, indeed, the source of a lifetime’s worth of guilt for Carrie. For the house plays host to a human skull, reputed to be that of an African slave who cursed Druid’s Bottom to destruction should his mortal remains ever be removed. And when a furious and confused Carrie, her spirit broken by the tempestuous feuding that follows Mrs Gotobed’s death, does just that – and in a pretty permanent way – she departs the valley convinced that her rash actions have had a devastating effect on both households.

And so, Carrie’s war stays with her. And so did the events of this book on me. Written with elegant sparseness, it’s a supremely touching depiction of childhood trauma during an tumultuous period of history, and the book’s conclusion is both redemptive and utterly, utterly heartbreaking. There is no more destructive and lingering an emotion than guilt, and the lifting of Carrie’s needlessly prolonged self-torment as her story snaps back to the contemporary 1970s provides tangible, tear-jerking relief – while leaving us unbearably sad at the wasted decades that her wartime experiences have instigated. An extraordinary book.

POINT OF ORDER: Carrie’s War has been adapted twice for TV by the BBC… once in 1974, available on DVD here:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Carries-War-BBC-Juliet-Waley/dp/B010B6BGH8/ref=sr_1_4?dchild=1&keywords=carrie%27s+war&qid=1592840556&sr=8-4

And again in 2004, as a one-off TV movie broadcast on New Year’s Day. It’s available here:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Carries-War-DVD-Keeley-Fawcett/dp/B0000Z0I2U/ref=sr_1_7?dchild=1&keywords=carrie%27s+war&qid=1592840594&sr=8-7

Predictably, I’ve only seen the 1974 series, but it’s a very faithful and beautifully-made adaptation of the book, and well worth investigating.

FURTHER POINT OF ORDER: How many 20th century children’s books begin, like Carrie’s War, with the main protagonists arriving at the story’s primary location on a steam train? There are bonus points available for further examples.

MUSTINESS REPORT: My 1976 paperback edition has a truly classy waft of vintage must, and also a wonderful relic on the inside cover. Here, a sticker proudly declares that, in June 1977, the book was awarded by Carlisle Road Presbyterian Church’s Morning Sabbath School to Wendy Rutherford, for winning First Prize in their “Answering” competition. Exactly 43 years on… Wendy, are you out there? Get in touch.

Musty Books: “The Weathermonger” by Peter Dickinson (1968)

BBC1’s disturbing 1975 teatime drama The Changes has become something of a set text for those of us keen to explore our collective childhood disquiet. Introduced by typically understated continuity announcers as a “serial for older children”, it depicts a bleak, dystopian Britain in the throes of a sudden and inexplicable revolution against machinery and technology. The merest presence of a car, telephone or TV set drives the bulk of the populace to blind fury, and the tiny pockets of humanity immune to this outbreak of mass hysteria are persecuted (and frequently executed) as witches in a late 20th century Britain that has reverted en masse to medieval beliefs and practices.

The series was based on a trilogy of novels by Peter Dickinson (who had previously developed Mandog for BBC1’s teatime strand) although, curiously, the novels tell the story of The Changes in reverse order. The final book, The Devil’s Children (1972), chronicles the events that kick off the TV series. The Weathermonger, despite being published first, essentially finishes the story and provides an intriguingly mythic and mystical explanation for the “Changes” themselves. An explanation impossible not to reveal when discussing the merits of the book itself, so anyone fearful of spoilers (for either book or TV series) should consider this ample warning to immediately smash up whatever device they’re using to read this article and revert to a basic agrarian lifestyle instead. Or, failing that, abandon Musty Books for the Felt Trips section of this website, which has some lovely drawings of 1970s Daleks and a friendly village policeman.

The Weathermonger begins in characteristically bleak fashion. Stranded on a tiny island in the middle of Weymouth Bay, 16-year-old Geoffrey – suffering from amnesia – and his 12-year-old sister Sally are awaiting execution by drowning, imprisoned there by the baying, spear-jabbing mob watching gleefully from the beach. Their crime? They are amongst the tiny minority immune to the “Changes”, and Geoffrey has been discovered attempting to restore the engine of his uncle’s boat Quern to working order. Giving a strong hint that this national outbreak of mass Luddism has a distinctly magical origin, he uses his acquired powers as a “Weathermonger” to engineer their escape. Each town, it seems, has a highly-paid resident capable of controlling the weather by the powers of thought alone, and – until his fall from grace – this has been Geoffrey’s exalted position in Weymouth. Using his ability to create a diversionary sea fog, Geoffrey takes Sally on a desperate swim to safety, miraculously reaching the boat unscathed and setting sail for the unaffected safe haven of France.

Here, they are persuaded by the French authorities that their unique position (young, wealthy, immune to the “Changes” and able to control the weather) makes them the perfect candidates to investigate once and for all the source of the British revolt against modernity. French satellites have detected concentrations of outlandish weather in specific areas of the UK*, one of which – on the Welsh border – corresponds with a note from the siblings’ Uncle Jacob urging them to investigate rumours that the whole strange kit and kaboodle has its origins in that area, down “Radnor Way”.

And, so to Powys! Sailing up the Solent, Geoffrey and Sally return to Britain, steal a 1909 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost from the Montagu Motor Museum at Beaulieu Abbey, and embark on what is essentially an action-packed road caper, across 223 miles of British countryside teeming with witch-hunting mobs, wolves and freak weather conditions. All of which are irresponsibly omitted from the AA Route Planner guide that I used to calculate the distance. There are, predictably, moments of great peril along the way, and also – interestingly – suggestions that Sally is less keen than her older brother on restoring the technological and industrial status quo. She remains immune to the “Changes”, but is scared and disturbed by the whizzing traffic that she encounters in France, and her doubts even begin to make the stolid Geoffrey wonder whether their mission is merely an act of child exploitation on the part of the French authorities.

But the book’s most affecting aspect is an ingenious reversal of the premise of so many children’s books of the era. Instead of presenting a contemporary Britain haunted by elements of a forgotten past, The Weathermonger depicts a medieval Britain haunted by elements of forgotten modernity. The ruined carriageway leading to the “Necromancer’s Castle” now identified as the source of the “Changes” is the overgrown remains of the M5 motorway, charred by magical thunderbolts. Elsewhere, there are mentions of both fishfingers and a pivotal character’s 1959 holiday on the Costa Brava; and I was both jolted and delighted by a passing reference to the Reader’s Digest. There are some folk memories that even a darkly magical anti-technological apocalypse is unable to effectively erase.

This combination of the magical and the mundane reaches its apotheosis at the book’s climax, and spoilerphobes still recklessly ploughing through these ramblings despite my earlier warnings really should choose this moment to chuckle at the charming 1970s Dalek featured elsewhere on this website. For the unwitting source of Britain’s reversal to medieval mores is revealed to be the Arthurian wizard Merlin, accidentally awakened in a long-buried chamber by one-time Abergavenny chemists shop owner Mr Furbelow, who now acts as “seneschal” to his mythical master: guardian, steward and – effectively – drug-dealer.

The well-meaning Mr Furbelow, we discover, is keeping Merlin deliberately hooked on morphine to dampen his senses, a process he began in the hope of steering the mercurial wizard’s limitless powers towards goodness: intending to use his magic, for example, to “stop these wicked wars in the Far East” and – touchingly – to bring the late Mrs Furbelow back to life. Instead, the half-awake and hopelessly addicted magician has merely created, from the magical ether, a strange, medieval haven in which he feels comfortable; with both Merlin and Mr Furbelow unaware that the effects of the spell have spread beyond the remote valley in which they have set up surreal, dysfunctional home.

The revelations are audacious but touching; fantastical and yet affectingly mundane. Geoffrey and Sally’s attempts to explain the trauma of morphine withdrawal – in Latin – to the grateful eight-foot Merlin, thoughtfully turning over a hypodermic syringe in his gigantic hands, make for one of the strangest and loveliest scenes in children’s literature, and provide a fitting conclusion to a book that thrives on both both disorientating contrast and a delightful sense of the contrary.

*They should try living on Teesside for a fortnight.

Mustiness Report: My 1970 paperback edition has pages the colour of a moderately healthy urine sample, and in the opening chapter a previous owner has crossed out in pencil some of the more challenging words. “Piffle”, “dratted” and “defenceless” have all met with disapproval, as has an entire section comparing Geoffrey’s shaky legs to “those toy animals with zippers that women keep nighties in”. Nighties, clearly, are works of wickedness that must be destroyed. The book is unscathed from Chapter 2 onward though, so maybe our disgusted reader gave up at that point and looked at some nice drawings of Daleks instead.

Musty Books: “Fish” by Alison Morgan (1971)

In a remote Welsh farming community, a young outsider boy finds himself unexpectedly empowered by a the arrival of a sensationally talented stray dog, and the subsequent chain reaction of events that threatens to plunge him and his friends into tragedy. That’s the crux of this starkly affecting debut novel, but the joy is in the detail: and the details of life in the hills and farmland around the hamlet of Llandewi-fach are depicted with unflinching bleakness.

This is not the idealised 1970s childhood of spacehoppers and endless summers. This is the dark flipside of the 1970 childhood: tumbledown housing, drowned litters and aimless kickabouts in ankle-deep mud. The latter occurrence is the grim sporting occasion that opens the book, introducing us to narrator Jimmy Price, friend Pete and brothers Tom and Gary as they hammer a leaden ball around a molehill-strewn field on rain-swept local farmland. Characteristically watching from the sidelines is the vaguely unwelcome figure of “Fish”, a recent “townie” arrival in the village, and a boy initially treated with suspicion by this close-knit group of friends.

The son of almost equally disinterested parents (although his birth mother, we learn, “just went off with someone else” and “couldn’t be bothered” to take him with her), Fish nevertheless begins to attract attention from adults and children alike when, on the way back from the match, he is followed by a curious-looking and very friendly stray dog (“A leggy, mongrelly sort of animal” according to Jimmy) that – by means of a whopping, bare-faced lie to his father – he is allowed to keep in a shed. Named Floss, the dog transpires to be a talented and intelligent animal that will perform tricks and run errands, even fetching Fish’s favourite comic from the local newsagents. Tickled by this novelty, Jimmy begins to forge an unlikely friendship with Fish.

Events spiral out of control, however, after a bizarrely thoughtless prank by Pete and Tom. Their moving of the reflector plates on a dangerous corner of a remote local road leads to a serious accident with a visiting grocer’s van. Local policeman Sam Morgan, suspecting the duo from the off, issues an ultimatum to a gathering of the local lads: if the reflector plates are put back in their original positions by the following evening, then he will exercise discreet leniency. Largely, it is implied, because Pete is Sam’s nephew, and Tom is the son of a County Councillor. Provincial political skulduggery feeling like another typical trope of the bleaker side of 1970s British life.

Pete and Tom, unconvinced that they can sneak away from their homes during the hours of darkness, beg for help. Fish, still desperate for further acceptance, offers to do the job, accompanied by Jimmy and – of course – Floss. In a wonderfully tense and atmospheric sequence, the trio slip from their homes at midnight and travel the lonely roads, screwdriver in hand, amid an increasingly dangerous snowstorm. PC Morgan, of course, has set a trap and is on his way too, leading to a desperate escape attempt through pitch-black woodland, and – critically – the temporary loss of Floss.

The dog’s absence coincides with the killing of moorland sheep – not the first time that such slaughter has occurred when Floss’s whereabouts have been unaccounted for. Drawing the obvious conclusion, amid a family argument that spirals into never-shredding anger and grim helplessness, Fish’s father instructs his son to take the dog himself to be euthanased. At which point, both Fish and Floss go missing completely – and the ensuing investigations result in Fish’s father being questioned on suspicion of murder.

Steering clear of the details of the novel’s touching conclusion, I’ll offer merely the insight that the climax of the story was the book’s highlight for me: a genuine celebration of friendship and of young people overcoming extraordinary odds to fight for what they believe to be right in the face of adult hostility. Fish’s faith in Floss sends him to extremes, as does Jimmy’s freshly-nurtured friendship with Fish. Both are driven by intense adversity to find literal respite from the cruelties and injustices of an adult world that, again, is depicted in uncompromising detail – and yet, ultimately, is tempered by their plight.

And, crucially, there’s another huge snowstorm. And I love a book with a really good snowstorm.

Point Of Order: In January 1973, a four-part adapation of Fish was broadcast on BBC1 in the post-Blue Peter 5.15pm slot. Unfortunately, I can’t find a single trace of it anywhere. Can anyone help… or confirm that it even exists in the archives? I’d also be interested in finding out more about Alison Morgan, as – muddying the waters – there appear to be a number of writers with the same name. This forum post has a list of her books, and suggests she turned 80 in 2010. Can anyone shed any more light on her work?

https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/rec.arts.books.childrens/XsFrTIsY2X4

Mustiness Report: A satisfying 7/10. Mine is a 1971 paperback edition with pages the colour of Butterscotch Angel Delight.

Musty Books: “Forty Days of Tucker J.” by Robert Leeson (1983)

Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence, the writers of the rather wonderful Scarred For Life book, have a pet theory. Essentially: if our 1970s childhood fears were instigated by the ghosts, folklore and all-round strangeness of the era’s typically otherworldly TV serials, then the 1980s was the decade when – to put it bluntly – shit got real. Set aside those creepy stone circles and haunted vicarages, kids… it’s time to worry about AIDS, nuclear armageddon and the spectre of long-term unemployment.

In the early part of the decade, this latter concern in particular seemed to create almost a new sub-genre of realist entertainment for older children and teenagers. It’s “Fatcher’s Britain” as seen through the eyes of a very specific strata of working class, post-punk youth; the Adidas-sporting school-leavers of the Job Centre generation. A Britain of snaking dole queues and Space Invader machines, of urban wasteland, simmering racial tension, glue-sniffing and football terrace kickings. Already politically-charged screenwriters clambered to depict this new disaffection in a cavalcade of powerfully affecting TV series: the nascent Channel 4 screened One Summer, written by Willy Russell and broadcast almost concurrently with the big-screen release of his Educating Rita film adaptation. And then there was Scully, whose writer Alan Bleasdale had already pretty much defined the “adult” end of the genre with the extraordinary Boys From The Blackstuff.

Meanwhile, over on the BBC, there was Nigel Williams’s bleakly existential Johnny Jarvis and – perhaps the most overlooked and underrated of them all – Tucker’s Luck.

It was certainly no surprise that Grange Hill‘s Tucker Jenkins was afforded his own dedicated spin-off show. Since debuting in February 1978, Phil Redmond’s teatime depiction of inner city comprehensive school strife had become a TV institution, groundbreaking and controversial in equal measure, and Todd Carty’s portrayal of the impudent but lovable leather-jacketed Jenkins had become the show’s cheeky calling card. Everyone knew Tucker. Tucker’s Luck was first broadcast on BBC2 in March 1983… exactly five weeks after the British unemployment statistic had reached an all-time record high of 3,224,715. Its depiction of a downtrodden, 16-year-old Jenkins being reluctantly shunted between dole queue, Job Centre and prospect-free, cash-in-hand labour couldn’t have been more apposite.

Robert Leeson‘s book is, perhaps surprisingly, not an adaption of the TV series. That book exists, was written by Jan Needle, and published in 1984. Forty Days of Tucker J. acts as a precursor to the events of Tucker’s Luck, kicking off on 6th September (presumably 1982 – overly-diligent research reveals that date was, appropriate to the book’s events, a Monday), a day that officially marks the end of the school summer holidays, and the beginning of Jenkins’ new life as an unemployed school-leaver. Living with his parents in a bedroom filled with spare motorbike parts, and drifting into a torpor of late-morning sleeping and creeping depression, he is given an ultimatum by his father. Tucker must prove, within the next six weeks, that he is capable of earning an independent living… or his parents will insist he return to Grange Hill after the October half-term to study for further qualifications.

Determined to avoid the horrors of the latter option, Tucker – accompanied, as in the TV series, by lovelorn pessimist Alan Humphries and sex-obsessed lounge lizard Tommy Watson – embarks on a frequently dispiriting quest to amass, in the titular forty days, the depressingly modest £25 capital that will keep his father satisfied. The book ticks off the days one-by-one in diary form, detailing the trio’s frustrations in compulsively low-octane fashion, and summing up with beautiful concision the mire of tangled bureaucracy faced by the teenage jobless. “I’ve been up the Labour three times, the Social Security twice, the Job Centre three times and the Careers Office twice,” grumbles Tucker, already a beaten figure by Day Seven. “I’m sick of the sight of the bleeding places.”

He takes a succession of unenviable, short-term jobs; “shovelling pig shit” among the “grey, oblong blocks” of a dismally industrial farm complex, and whitewashing, for £1.50 an hour, the racist and obscene graffiti (“Dogger has a ten-inch…”) daubed along a dank underpass with an “all-over aroma of damp and cat piss.” Tellingly, the trio’s sole encounter with upwardly-mobile Thatcherite entrepreneurship, the offer of a door-to-door job selling soft drinks on behalf of the sharp-suited, cut-glass accented Charles Barraclough, transpires to be an elaborate con trick. It is Day Thirteen, appropriately, when their paltry savings from a fortnight’s worth of casual labour and signing-on are all but wiped out by the smoke-and-mirrors illusion of a commission-only fortune.

Tucker finds temporary respite in the company of his old Grange Hill nemesis Trisha Yates, now working part-time in a pub while attempting to study: a combination that, ultimately, leads to her own entanglement in “screaming at the walls” red tape. But ultimately salvation comes in the unlikely form of those scattered motorbike parts: Tucker is offered £25 for the painstaking, two-week job of clearing “two inches of shit” from a Yamaha XJ650 belonging to a friend of his older brother. And also – on a test ride of his own spluttering bike around an abandoned, padlocked yard – stumbles upon a respray business operated by a gang of local black kids, facing both idle harassment from the local police and brutal racist violence from unreformed Grange Hill boot boy Booga Benson. Among their number is another former schoolmate, Hughes, who persuades gang leader Roller to offer Tucker a loose alliance as their resident motorbike mechanic.

I actually first read this book in 1983, as a ten-year-old, and felt like I’d taken a bold step into a very adult world. It was probably the first novel I’d read that seemed to inhabit the same Britain as my own struggling family, battling to stay afloat in the unemployment wastelands of the North-East, and as such it perfectly epitomised that early 1980s rites-of-passage graduation from “ghost and goblins” fantasy to brutal, “shit got real” reality. I’m still unsure whether that transition was a genuine cultural shift, or merely the perception of one from a generation of children reaching adolescence at the same time, but either way both Tucker’s Luck and Forty Days of Tucker J. evoke it perfectly, and Leeson – whose 1975 novel The Third Class Genie was a previous Musty Book – deserves far more credit as a writer of brilliantly downbeat and socially realistic fiction for young people.

Mustiness Report: An an entirely appropriate 8/10. After kicking aimelessly around countless bookshelves since I paid £1 for it from the Middlesbrough branch of WH Smiths in late 1983, it now has pages the exact colour of an early 1980s Job Centre frontage.

Musty Books: “Nobody’s House” by Martin Hall (1976)

Sure, the victims of hauntings get scared. But won’t somebody think of the poor, lonely ghost?

It’s a theme perhaps under-explored in children’s literature, and Nobody’s House goes a little way towards redressing that balance. The ghost in question is indeed called “Nobody”, thus flinging open the portals for an unearthly infestation of groanworthy puns (“Nobody’s perfect!”), but also reinforcing the tragic backstory of this melancholy spook. He is the mischievous spirit of a Victorian orphan who died, alone and unnamed, in the basement of a rural, 19th century workhouse. The subterranean site of his deathbed still remains, complete with Nobody’s “mark” on the wall, but the rest of the building has long since burned down and been rebuilt as “Cornerstones”, a now rather ramshackle shop unit with accompanying family home that proves predictably difficult to sell.

Nevertheless, the none-more-nuclear Sinclair family move into this desirable, deceptively haunted residence, with grumbling children Tom and Gilly (and equally unenthusiastic Mum) dragged in the wake of their stolid accountant father, a man determined to quit the London rat-race and establish Cornerstones as the hub of a family antiques business. Nobody, understandably, is uncertain about having “his” home invaded. “This is my house,” he fumes, stamping down an insubstantial foot at the end of the opening chapter. “And nobody, just nobody, lives here unless I say so! And I ain’t sure about you lot one little bit!” And predictable spooky high-jinks ensue: Nobody has boundless fun swapping afternoon cuppas for opened paint pots in a vain attempt to prevent the sale. But, once the family are settled, he begins to forge an unlikely alliance with the children, a friendship initiated when Nobody assumes corporeal form to alert the sleeping children to a fire started by Mr Sinclair’s unattended soldering iron.

The book’s format betrays its status as a TV tie-in. Developed by former Z-Cars writer Hall and one-time Doctor Who producer Derrick Sherwin for (swoon) Tyne Tees Television, the screen version of Nobody’s House ran for seven episodes in late 1976. So the novel is essentially episodic too, without a strong connecting narrative, but what does bind the stories together is the relationship between the two children and their adopted, spectral housemate. Establishing that only one ghost can occupy a property at any given time, Nobody feels a duty to stay attached to Cornerstones to protect Tom and Gilly, fearing that – if he moves on – a more malevolent spirit may sweep into the house in his stead.

But he also feels a need to be accepted by the children, and – ultimately – their parents. Tom and Gilly are the first residents of Cornerstones not to be terrified by Nobody’s antics, and as such offer him the prospect of genuine friendship and the semblance of a family life, something he has never experienced before, not even in his own earthly lifetime. And so when Mr Sinclair’s antiques business struggles to establish itself, Nobody steps in – fearful that, if the shop fails, then the family will be replaced by a less receptive and welcoming bunch. If only every nascent antiques business could be aided by a silent spook who, suspecting a dubious costumer is offering the proprietor a forged painting, zips invisibly across to the local stately home to confirm that the genuine article is indeed still hanging, undisturbed, on the wall.

It’s this relationship that really gives the book its heart and soul, and it maybe could have been explored in a little more depth to add extra layers to stories that are essentially rather fun and frothy. But fun and frothy was clearly the intention, in a book intended for younger readers, so perhaps I’m expecting too much. And certainly there are giggles to be had, the most fun chapter involving the manifestation of the wonderfully-named Jack Treadful. This outlandish spook was Nobody’s Victorian rapscallion mentor, the Fagin to his Artful Dodger, a “friend to them who has no friends, and burglar extraordinary!”. Jack is a large, loud, bluff and breezy braggart, and there are no prizes for guessing which former Z-Cars regular was drafted into the TV version to bring him to life.

Point of Order: The entire series of Nobody’s House (complete with Tyne Tees TV idents that make my heart melt) was released on DVD by Network in 2016. The rather wonderful William Gaunt plays Mr Sinclair, and Nobody is played by Kevin Moreton who, having achieved a spooky 1970s double whammy by also appearing in The Ghosts of Motley Hall, appears to have given up acting completely by the time of his eighteenth birthday. Which is a shame, as he’s really rather good. Last of the Summer Wine fans note: there are also guest appearances from Joe Gladwin and Brian Wilde.

It’s available here:

https://networkonair.com/all-products/2450-nobody-s-house-the-complete-series

Mustiness Report: A light and frothy 5/10. No more than the vaguest waft of olfactory must, but my original 1976 edition has pages the colour of a workhouse ceiling.

Musty Books: “The Diddakoi” by Rumer Godden (1972)

Identity is at the heart of The Diddakoi. Is there an intrinsic aspect of all of our personalities, forged by a combination of background, upbringing and cultural heritage, that is essentially non-negotiable? A core part of our beings so immutable, even from a tender age, that no degree of outside influence can alter it – and neither should it try? The plight of six-year-old Kizzy Lovell, a troubled gypsy girl marooned in a snooty, resolutely middle-class English village, suggests so.

And the touching irony at the centre of Kizzy’s plight is that the Romany heritage so integral to her identity is not enough to win the full acceptance of her own community. As a “Diddakoi”, she’s actually a half-gypsy, the daughter of a traveller father and an Irish mother; and as such finds herself an outcast from both her own extended family and from the population of the village that she is reluctantly forced to call home. Living in a traditional gypsy wagon, and spending the winter in the orchard belonging to kindly local toff Admiral Sir Archibald Cunningham-Twiss, she is effectively marooned in this rural bolthole when her guardian, actually her 100-year-old great-great grandmother, suddenly dies. In accordance with gypsy tradition, the wagon is burned to the ground by a small legion of unfeeling cousins that arrive to oversee the matter, and Kizzy’s only other companion – her beloved elderly horse, Joe – is decreed ready for the knacker’s yard, where “they’ll sell him for the hounds… he’ll be torn up.”

Understandably terrified, Kizzy takes Joe and attempts to escape, making it as far as Admiral Twiss’ ancestral home, Amberhurst House. Struck down with pneumonia after a freezing, sobbing night on the doorstep, she is slowly and touchingly nursed back to health by the Admiral himself, assisted by his old Navy batman Peters, and Nat, the “bow-legged groom” who runs the Amberhurst stables. The latter gleefully providing Joe with a loving and secure home, too. For a time, being cared for by three unlikely adopted guardians who never attempt to question or compromise her gypsy heritage, Kizzy finds blissful happiness. But once her recovery is complete, she finds the weight of village opinion – fuelled by racism, bureaucracy and occasional outbreaks of sheer brutality – to be heartbreakingly overwhelming.

And the book is brutal. When Kizzy is forced to attend the village primary school, typically cruel childhood teasings – instigated by Prudence, the stuck-up daughter of vile local busybody Mrs Cuthbert – escalate into a truly shocking scene in which she is ambushed by fourteen of her classmates and beaten to unconsciousness in a deserted alleyway. This is after a local magistrates court, with Mrs Cuthbert sniping from the sidelines, has decreed that Admiral Twiss, Peters and Nat (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary) are unsuitable candidates to look after a small girl, and that an alternate foster family – or, indeed a children’s home – must be found.

Luckily for Kizzy, she finds herself living with one of the more tolerant villagers, Oliva Brooke: a vaguely bohemian singleton with a possibly romanticized view of the traveller lifestyle, but nevertheless a woman with boundless reserves of the patience and understanding required to look after a child who is understandably traumatised by grief, culture shock and her appalling treatment by the village at large. And she’s more understanding than most of Kizzy’s offbeat behaviour – as she pragmatically points out to the court hearing, “You can’t expect to have table manners when you haven’t a table.”

For as long as children’s literature has existed, what so few books have successfully captured is the sheer anger of being a child. Even those of us lucky enough to have enjoyed stable home lives have experienced it: the frustrating powerlessness of childhood – fuelled by the rigid boundaries of both family and school life – can easily spill over into blind, incoherent fury. Rumer Godden captures brilliantly those heart-thumping, head-swimming moments when the red mist descends, while tempering them touchingly with every child’s longing for the comfortably familiar. In Kizzy’s case, the waft of woodsmoke, the feel of her old clothes and – most moving of all – the touch and smell of her beloved horse, Joe. This noble, elderly beast is effectively her comfort blanket, and is the subject of a scene that unexpectedly reduced me to tears. It’s always the animals that get me right there.

I’m utterly unqualified to comment on the depiction of 1970s traveller communities in the book, but it felt – to this outsider – like it walked a commendable line between respecting the culture while steadfastly refusing to sentimentalize. But the depiction of Kizzy – her pride, her longing to be independent, and indeed her loyalty to that non-negotiable Romany identity, all that she has left of the life she once loved – is universal, and brilliant. And while the book’s conclusion is perhaps a little too pat and perfect, it would be hard to deprive such a vividly-drawn character of the happiness she deserves.

Point of Order: 33 years before writing The Diddakoi, Rumer Godden penned Black Narcissus, the inspiration behind Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s controversial 1947 film of the same title. And, in early 1976, The Diddakoi was adapted by the BBC into a six-part children’s serial, retitled as Kizzy. It’s a fine and faithful dramatisation, with a young Miriam Margolyes as a member of Kizzy’s extended family:

Mustiness Report: 8/10. Perfect. My copy has ripe, yellowed pages that smell reassuringly of woodsmoke and horses.

Musty Books: “Ghost in the Water” by Edward Chitham (1973)

Like many a traditional ghost story, it begins in a graveyard on a dark and stormy night. Teresa “Tess” Willetts and David Ray, teenage classmates in an early 1970s Black Country comprehensive, have been drawn together by an unlikely coincidence while working on a local history project. Bespectacled, Bach-loving, academically-minded David has noted an interesting inscription while on a previous recce to the churchyard: In Memory of Abigail Parkes, Departed This Life, 10th December 1860. The sparkier Tess points out that – hanging in her hallway at home – is a “sampler”, a square of Victorian embroidery with a religious motto, adorned with the same name. Together, on a filthy late November journey home from school, they return to the gravestone for a closer inspection, and find a chilling addendum, hidden by the long grass: Aged 17. Innocent of All Harm.

So begins a ghost story with a fascinating twist: the immortal soul of Abigail Parkes is certainly influential, but equally relevant to the story is the living soul of Tess Willetts, who narrates the book in the first person. She is seized by an all-encompassing compulsion to investigate Abigail’s death, teaming up with David to discover that – on a similarly foul and freezing winter’s evening – Abigail drowned in the local canal, and the subsequent inquest recorded a verdict of suicide. Profoundly affected by this, to even her own surprise, Tess sets out to disprove the official version of events.

Abigail, it transpires, was the daughter of wealthy local mineworks owner Henry Parkes, and – at the time of her death – was in the midst of a torrid class-divide romance with grimy-faced collier David Caddick, much to the predictable fury of her father. And, as connections between Abigail and Tess’ lives begin to emerge in chilling fashion (not only were they distantly related, but the abandoned “Fiery Holes” mine itself is responsible for the dangerous subsidence of the Willetts’ council house… and so on), Tess is faced with a terrible revelation: if, as Abigail’s fate suggests, love leads to suicide, then what implications does that have for the increasingly strong feelings she holds for her own David?

The extent to which Abigail’s spirit presses and manipulates Tess is left, as with so many books of the era, delightfully ambiguous. But the dilemma in which Tess is placed is clear-cut, and sees her typically teenage worries (essentially, finding the new company of bookish David to have more depth than her long-standing “down the shops on a Saturday” friendship with schoolmate Val) transformed into much darker concerns. If, as seems apparent, her life is inextricably linked to that of the doomed Victorian girl, then proving that Abigail did not take her in life in the throes of a lovelorn depression becomes just as important for Tess’ future as it does for Abigail’s troubled spirit.

The book is bleak. Quite literally – the entire narrative is subsumed by the slate-grey oppression of winter, seemingly every scene soaked by perpetual torrents of Black Country rain. The “water” of the title is integral. In fact, you’ll probably never find a better literary evocation of the foul weeks before the respite of Christmas sparkle; those late November days of frozen, sodden-coated darkness on the silent walk home from school. Writer Edward Chitham is a Black Country man himself, and something of an authority on the area’s history and heritage; he peppers the book with local dialect (“Yourn looks a bit tatty to me”) and – brace yourselves – even passing references to West Bromwich Albion (“the best team out”, according to Tess). Although none are explicitly mentioned, I spent much of the story overcome by thoughts of the Three-Day Week, Slade singles and Jeff Astle with mutton-chop sideburns. It wasn’t an unpleasant experience.

Added to which, there’s a lovely sub-plot in which Tess begins to appreciate the difference between academic and empirical thinking: the head versus the heart, if you like. It’s struggling classmate Tracy Dobbs who provides the unexpected profundity. “Clever folk don’t like ghosts, dreams, anything,” she says. “See them seagulls up here… I bet if I asked at school this morning how many folk saw seagulls on their way to school, the whole lot’d say no. They know seagulls are what you see at Weston or Rhyl. They don’t believe in seagulls inland, and they’m not able to see ’em…”

So Tess’ more soulful, intuitive approach to life (and the detective work required to uncover Abigail’s date) contrasts with David’s, and causes tensions, but the two are eventually able to reconcile their differences and work together as a charmingly unlikely double act. The reveal of Abigail’s actual fate is heartbreaking, and the book’s final chapters are shocking… but with a poignant and hopeful conclusion. It all makes for another rich, intelligent and touching children’s book from a golden age of fiction for young readers.

Point of Order: Ghost In The Water was adapted into a one-off BBC drama for children, first broadcast at 4.40pm on New Year’s Eve 1982, and released on DVD by Simply Media in 2018. It works as a nice, creepy ghost story for TV, but perhaps inevitably loses some of the rich character detail that makes the book so affecting. It does have a nicely unlikely bit of casting for a Black Country drama, though: playing the part of Tess’ mother is Jane “Ivy from the cafe” Freeman, of Last of the Summer Wine fame.

Mustiness Report: 3/10. Mine is a fragrant 1982 reprint with a cover that ties into the BBC adaptation. The pages are nicely yellow, but a quick dip in a Black Country canal would add a welcome extra level of must.

Musty Books: “Jackanory Stories: Lizzie Dripping” by Helen Cresswell (1973)

The experience of watching the TV incarnation of Lizzie Dripping, following its 2017 DVD release, resulted in possibly the broadest gap between my expectations of a previously unseen TV programme and the nature of the show itself. What I imagined: a goofy, knockabout comedy in which a young girl befriends a funny witch, pitched somewhere between Catweazle and Rentaghost. What I watched: a beautifully melancholy meditation on the passing of childhood, and an anxious teenager’s fear of the future. This book, an adaptation of the series (or possibly vice-versa: the publications and broadcasts were pretty much concurrent, and the chronology is a little confusing) develops the latter themes in delightfully downbeat style.

Lizzie is an imaginative, rather wistful girl whose name, we swiftly discover, is actually Penelope Arbuckle – “Lizzie Dripping” being a common, affectionate Nottinghamshire nickname for a girl who is “dreamy and daring at the same time”. Her home village, Little Hemlock, is caught on that very 1970s cusp between traditional rural life and encroaching modernity, evoked perfectly by her father’s recent career switch from traditional blacksmithery to modern plumbing. This telling leap from shodding carthorses to installing central heating almost epitomises Lizzie’s worried state-of-mind: she finds the changes in both family and village life, and her own increasing maturity, to be the source of simmering anxiety, and turns to a mysteriously-materialising witch for respite and advice.

Yes, indeed – a bona fide witch, who literally appears from nowhere in the autumnal village churchyard, and whose relationship with Lizzie is mercurial to say the least. She is by no means malevolent, but neither is she entirely friendly, and the spells she casts at Lizzie’s behest have frequently unexpected consequences. Her nature is left deliciously ambiguous – there is no evidence that the witch doesn’t exist in physical form, but the fact that she interacts with Lizzie alone throughout the course of these stories suggests the real sadness at the heart of these tales: Lizzie has invented an imaginary, supernatural friend as a funny, whimsical coping mechanism, one last blast of childhood fun before the adult world sweeps her away forever.

The book draws together five loosely-linked short stories, most of which are infused with Lizzie’s reluctance to make the leap into adolescence. In ‘Lizzie Dripping and the Orphans’, she is overwhelmed with sadness at the prospect of surrendering her battered toys (“the one-eared rabbit called Loppy… the beautiful tin teapot with painted sunflowers”) for a local jumble sale, torn between losing the precious memories attached to them all, and helping the “ragged orphans” who run barefoot through her nightmares.

‘Lizzie Dripping’s Black Sunday’ sees her charged with the responsibility of looking after baby brother Toby; the “little fat lamb”, as their mother affectionately nicknames him. Dreamily pushing around him around Little Hemlock in his pram, she ponders the nature of adulthood (“What if I was grown-up, and married, and Toby was mine?”) before leaving him alone, in a barn, impulsively deciding to join the village kids on an afternoon blackberrying expedition. The witch is nominated as unlikely child-minder (“If he was to yell, I could spell him off again”) as Lizzie unthinkingly abandons her grown-up responsibilities.

And in the following story, ‘Lizzie Dripping Runs Away’, she goes a step further: attempting to desert Little Hemlock herself on the advice of the internal monologue that peppers the book, an always-unspoken diatribe against the adults that she feels treat her unjustly. Including, sometimes, her own parents. “She doesn’t really love me at all, you can see that” thinks Lizzie, after a ticking-off from her mother. “Toby’s all she cares about. Wouldn’t care two pins if it was me that was lost.”

But it isn’t the people themselves that really concern Lizzie: it’s change. They are a loving family, in a beautiful village with a gentle, supportive community, but Lizzie is simply overwhelmed by the arrival of her baby brother, her parents subsequent shift in focus, and the responsibility that Toby’s presence has introduced into her own life. “This is my childhood,” she ponders, in ‘Black Sunday’. “And soon it won’t be my childhood any more.” And for a moment, the book tells us, “the world seemed unbearably empty and sad”. Lizzie, we are left to assume, conjures the witch from her overactive imagination as a desperate measure to stave off this emptiness, and the book and TV series alike capture this quintessentially teenage uncertainty with a sensitive and affecting lightness of touch.

Point of Order: Initially commissioned as a one-off Jackanory Playhouse drama broadcast on 15th December 1972, Lizzie Dripping returned to BBC1 for a a further four episodes in March 1973, and another five in February 1975. Six years before she joined Blue Peter as regular presenter, Tina Heath played the title role, and rather marvellous she is, too. The witch was played by Sonia Dresdel, who had been a hugely acclaimed stage actress in the 1940s, and all location work was filmed in Helen Cresswell’s home village of Eakring, Nottinghamshire.

Mustiness Report: A nicely mature 5/10. My copy is a 1979 hardback reprint, with pages the colour of straw and a nicely battered dust jacket. Also: the vintage BBC logo on the front cover makes my heart sing.

Musty Books: “Astercote” by Penelope Lively (1970)

The past, bleeding into the present. It’s a staple premise of countless classic childrens’ tales, from the simplest of goofy ghost stories to the rich, folkloric intrusions of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper. Penelope Lively’s beautifully lyrical debut novel includes a fascinating twist: when subsumed by the echoes of its own traumatic history, the isolated Cotswold village of Charlton Underwood also finds itself overwhelmed by the unwelcome encroachment of 1970s modernity.

Hemmed into the centre of this cultural pincer movement are practically-minded Welsh schoolboy Peter Jenkins and his more whimsical sister, Mair. Freshly arrived in the village, where their father has been installed as the new headmaster, they swiftly find themselves straddling the social (and literal) boundaries between the archaic ways of the “old village” (“Looks as though it’s been asleep for a couple of hundred years” muses Mr Jenkins Snr, with typical parental naivety) and the patios and sprinklers of their own, freshly-built housing estate, pointedly located on the other side of a dividing main road.

One drowsy summers afternoon – and Lively’s descriptions of the weather and landscape are poetry in themselves – Peter and Mair learn of the village’s grim history when their dog, Tar, vanishes into the tangled, off-limits woodland that borders the remote World’s End Farm. Here, they discover the ruins of an abandoned medieval village, Astercote, whose 14th century inhabitants were wiped out completely by the Black Death, and whose remains – and a mystical chalice, whose presence in the woods purportedly ensures the disease will never return – are guarded by the seemingly sinister figure of Goacher.

Despite giving the initial impression of having stepped out of the 14th century himself (he eyes Mair suspiciously as a potential witch, and is seemingly unfamiliar with the sound of a passing aeroplane), this is cunning sleight-of-hand: Goacher is, in fact, the eldest son of the local Tranter farming family, an unspecified childhood illness having left him with considerable learning difficulties. Befriending the children, he confides that he lives in morbid fear of the Black Death’s resurgence, a fear that itself – with delicious irony – becomes highly infectious when both Goacher and the protective chalice mysteriously disappear.

What follows is a remarkable depiction of the effects of mass hysteria. As word ripples through “old” Charlton Underwood of the chalice’s absence, isolated incidences of commonplace illnesses – beginning with the Tranters’ daughter Betsy contracting mumps – are seen as the inevitable return of medieval plague. The rational reassurances of the everyday are swiftly and terrifyingly swept away: accusative white crosses are soon painted on the doors of any resident with so much as a mild sniffle. And, once the news reaches the haughty pages of a local newspaper, the village finds itself beseiged by a deluge of rubbernecking visitors – media and general public alike – all intent on mockery and ridicule.

At which point, irrational health hysteria darkens into outright paranoia. An impromptu roadblock is erected overnight to further isolate the old village, and the inevitable, by-the-book reaction of both the local council and police force only serves to reignite the community’s deep-seated resentment of “outside” authority. “Half them’s really frightened of what they think’s happening, and the other half’s forgotten what all the fuss is about and are just enjoying having a go at Them… everyone who isn’t Us”, observes youthful district nurse Evadne; a woman caught, like the children, in the uncomfortable liminality between tradition and modernity; she is the daughter of a village woman and a visiting US serviceman, increasingly struggling to counter the scared superstition of her home village with the rational medical science of her chosen profession.

Everything about Astercote is beautifully judged, beautifully weighted, beautifully depicted. It captures the very real tipping point when an almost pre-industrialised way of rural life still extant in the mid-20th century (although the Tranters have a tractor, they have no electricity) was finally wiped out by the 1960s housing boom, the explosion of social mobility, and the march of the mass media. But it also evokes the freewheeling spirit of a very 1970s childhood (the children, of course, take it upon themselves to recover the missing chalice, largely unemcumbered by parental concern) and it captures with poetic detail a soothing sense of pastoralism. “The wood hummed and sang, life flickering and rustling at every level: insects underfoot and at knee-height, dappled moths, bees, butterflies, birds above and around…” Oh, my flinty heart has melted.

And although the ghosts of Astercote never literally materialise, the gentle hints of the otherworldly that breeze through the story are all the more haunting for their subtlety. Mair, when her conscious guard is down, experiences nebulous “memories” of the village’s medieval plight; she is subsumed by fleeting but overwhelming feelings of empathy with the doomed locals, and occasionally hears the sounds of marching cattle, and distant bells from the now-ruined church. These profound experiences deepen her sympathy for the fears of the 20th century villagers, and Evadne too claims to have picked up on these faint, psychic echoes of the village’s tragic past. But ultimately it’s the power of story that lends Astercote – both the village and the book itself – such potency. And good grief, what a story it is.

Point of Order: Astercote was adapted into a 50-minute drama for BBC1, broadcast at 4.50pm on 23rd December 1980. Tim Worthington writes about this, and other children’s Christmas ghost stories, here…

https://timworthington.org/2019/12/09/a-ghost-story-for-christmas-for-children

Mustiness Report: A reassuring 8/10. The pages of my copy boast a yellow pallor and a sulpherous tang impressive enough to grace the shelves of Astercote Central Library itself. It also has two library stamps from Wrenn School in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, boldly marking it as due for return on 2nd February and 18th August 1983. I hope whoever borrowed it on either occasion enjoyed it as much as I did, 37 years later.