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.

Musty Books: “Freaky Friday” by Mary Rodgers (1972)

More of a Wet Wednesday than a Freaky Friday, this familiar tale of a mother/daughter body-swap feels, appropriately, like an engaging, powerful story being forced to masquerade in the form of an ungainly knockabout comedy. Four (four!) feature-length screen adaptations to date, all produced by Disney, have given Mary Rodgers’ tale a genuine pan-generational appeal, but the book is very firmly rooted amid the middle-classes mores of Nixon-era New York, and is centered around a family whose reactions to a perspective-altering case of otherworldiness seem disappointingly glib.

Disappointing, because it’s a genuinely brilliant premise. 13-year-old Annabel Andrews wakes up to discover that she now inhabits her own mother’s body; and has therefore inherited a full gamut of family responsibilities: her busy executive father, her six-year-old brother Ben (or “Ape Face” as Annabel has nicknamed him), and – indeed – her own absent physical form, which she assumes to be now inhabited by her mother’s personality, although this supposition remains tantalisingly vague until the book’s final chapter.

Things predictably go awry: overwhelmed by the obligations of the adult world, Annabel – a typically scatty and wayward teenager – finds herself baffled by her mother’s vague diary appointments; out of her depth in a school meeting about her own underachievements; and – ultimately – not only concerned about the disappearance of her own physical form, but also that of her younger brother. Because Ben, we learn, has been inexplicably allowed to leave the house with a “beautiful chick” stranger who calls at the apartment, charming teenage babysitter Boris into letting the trusting infant wander the streets of New York in her company.

Boris, an adenoidal 14-year-old adored by Annabel – although, predictably, he himself is in love with the senior Mrs Andrews – does actually provide effective comic relief: I certainly laughed at the revelation, after an entire book’s worth of sleight-of-hand, that his name is actually Morris, but a cavalcade of sinus-troubling allergies render him unable to pronounce it correctly. It’s the 1970s New York equivalent of the “Decond Class Redurn Do Dottingham”. But elsewhere, it’s the humour that actually stymies the story. Which would be fine, if the book was intended as nothing more than light whimsy; but it clearly has pretentions to making a serious point about the responsibilities of adults towards children, and it occasionally veers into unexpectedly dark territory. At one stage, Annabel – in her mother’s body – fires the family housekeeper for using racist language; and in another scene fears that her own physical form may actually have abducted, raped and murdered.

This uneasy combination of the shocking and the lighthearted comes to a head in the book’s closing chapters, when Annabel eventually attempts to report both the disappearance of her own physical form and that of her younger brother to the police. What should be a moment of heart-pounding tension is depicted as high farce, and a serious of knockabout telephone misunderstandings (“I can’t figure out whether the dame is a fruitcake or for real!” chuckles Patrolman Plonchik to a colleague, as – no, really – a distressed woman attempts to report the abduction of her six-year-old son) fizzles away the tension into (very) sub-Mel Brooks wisecracking.

Unlike other readers whose reviews I’ve poked through, it doesn’t bother me that the exact method of the body-swap is left unexplained. In fact, I rather like weirdness that’s simply left there for us to deal with: that ambigious oddness is a staple of many of my favourite Twilight Zone episodes, and clearly Mary Rodgers was of the generation that took inspiration from some of Rod Serling’s finest TV work. But, unlike in the best Zones, the reaction of the characters in Freaky Friday never really convinces. Annabel responds fairly calmly to finding herself in her mother’s body, setting methodically about living Mrs Andrews’ life rather than responding in any believable way (my own response, I suspect, would be to scream obscenities at the mirror and pound the walls until my hands bled), and although she (and we) gain a few insights into the world her mother inhabits, it feels, frustratingly, like we barely scratch the surface.

But perhaps most disappointingly of all is Mrs Andrews’ response to spending the day in Annabel’s body, and any committed “Women’s Lib” advocates (to quote the book itself) might want to bite their lip and take a moment here. While it would have been fascinating to learn of the insight she gains from spending the day inside her teenage daughter’s body, she is absent from virtually the entire book, re-emerging only at the end to reveal that she has taken full advantage of the body-swap scenario to give her 13-year-old tomboy daughter a makeover, a new hairdo, a new wardrobe and a spot of dental work for good measure.

Boris – or Morris, if you will – is predictably delighted. But although there are some very funny and very thoughtful moments scattered throughout the book, I was a little less enamoured.

Update: Thanks to reader David Brunt for pointing out that “Collins Cascades” was a 1980s/90s series of reprints of childrens books, and did indeed seem to be geared towards schools. Other “Cascades” titles listed on Amazon include The Third Class Genie by Robert Leeson, and Alan Garner’s Stone Book Quartet, and there’s even a Coursework Folder available.

Mustiness Report: 1/10. My copy is as fragrant as a Spring morning, a 1987 hardback reprint that seems to be No 16 of a series called “Collins Cascades”. There’s no price tag and no bar code, so I’m wondering if this was a selection of childrens’ books reiussued specifically for British schools? The “Stokesley School” stamp on the first inner page of my copy suggests so.

Musty Books: “Rebecca’s World” by Terry Nation (1975)

It’s almost possible to play Terry Nation Bingo with many of the scripts that the debonair Dalek supremo turned in for Doctor Who during his 1960s and 1970s heydey. There will be a remote planet with a frighteningly hostile environment (check); there will be a futuristic citadel that provides fragile respite from the dangers present on the planet’s surface (check); there will be an eccentric scientist working alone on a secret project (check); and a sizeable chunk of the story will essentially consist of an “obstacle course” journey across a hazardous landscape populated by deadly beasties, with the eventual goal of reaching – literally – the story’s ultimate place of resolution. It’s usually on the other side of an acid lake, or a deadly, petrified forest.

Check. All of these elements are present in Rebecca’s World: it only really needs the lingering threat of radiation poisoning for the complete Terry Nation Full House.

What separates it from the bulk of his TV work, however, is the book’s ultimate strength – a delightfully surreal and clearly Goons-inspired sense of humour. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise given Nation’s background as a comedy writer: his first–ever professional credit was for a sketch sold to Spike Milligan in 1955, and he subsequently worked on hundreds of radio scripts for likes of Eric Sykes, Harry Worth and Frankie Howerd, before joining the long list of illustrious collaborators to have been fired by Tony Hancock.

For better and for worse, Rebecca’s World clearly draws heavily on these experiences. The titular lead character is a sparky young girl, bored to tears during a school holiday in her sprawling country home. She has an unmistakably Edwardian quality – clearly reinforced by the book’s interior illustrations – although there’s also a single, slightly surprising reference to her once watching television. Perhaps a leftover from a previous draft? Either way, after unwisely dabbling with her father’s gigantic astral telescope, she finds herself transported across the universe to a decidedly unusual – and curiously unnamed – “Forbidden Planet”.

At this stage, Nation’s influences become clearly apparent: we’re essentially thrown into a Milligan-esque reworking of The Wizard of Oz. Rebecca discovers that the planet is in thrall to the dastardly Mister Glister, a debonair tyrant with the sartorial tastes of Liberace. Glister keeps the population subjugated by controlling – and charging for – access to shelters that will protect them from the murderous GHOSTS that are roaming the planet’s surface; and yes, the capitals are Nation’s, and are used throughout. Keen to become an unlikely hero on her new home world, Rebecca teams up with three lovable local misfits and embarks on a lengthy quest across the planet’s surface to liberate the cowering populace.

So there’s Grisby, a fur-coated hangdog (in fact, almost a fur-coated Hancock) with the most painful feet in the world; Kovak, a hopeless spy and hilariously transparent “master of disguise”; and Captain K, a feeble, bespectacled superhero whose power lies in his possession of a “GHOST stick” – the last remnant of the forest of GHOST trees that kept these malevolent spirits at bay for generations. Until, that is, Mister Glister chopped the trees down to build said “GHOST shelters”, charging the public a small fortune to enter these tiny refuges, their only way to remain safe during the dangerous GHOST raids that frequently sweep the planet.

Pursued by Mister Glister and his hapless henchmen, the mis-matched foursome travel across land to reach the mythical “last GHOST tree”; encountering a succession of genuinely great characters along the way: my favourites being the creepy “Scarepeople” – a legion of giant, dark-robed screaming figures that line the rim of a desert canyon; and the “Bad Habits”, a initially genial elderly couple who transpire to be the originators of all the irksome peccadilloes picked up by children the world over; training tiny, furry creatures to whisper “Bite Your Nails” into the ears of sleeping infants at the dead of night.

The landscape too is the stuff of fairytales, all towering needles and bottomless feather wells. It’s genuinely terrific stuff. But Nation’s background as a sketch writer, and the influence of Milligan in particular – a strength when it comes to the book’s humour – is perhaps his downfall, too. The story is essentially a sequence of fairly unrelated incidents and set pieces, and never quite connects as an genuine journey, with character and consequence. Maybe I’m asking too much of a book clearly aimed at a very young audience, although it’s not a criticism I could level at – just thinking out loud here – The Wizard of Oz. Regardless, it’s never less than good fun, and shows an interesting flipside to Nation’s typically traditional TV science fiction scrips.

Point Of Order: This is the first “Musty Book” of which I can claim previous experience. In 1982, my primary school teacher Mr Hirst read the opening chapters to me and my fellow ten-year-olds, shuffling impatiently on the parquet floor of Levendale Primary School. I intended then to complete the rest of the book one day, so never let it be said that I don’t play a long game.

Update: Thanks to ‘Joe Dredd’ on the Roobarb’s TV forum for pointing out the Rebecca was, in fact, the name of Terry Nation’s daughter. And to Chris Orton, who added that she also lent her name to the character of Rebec in Nation’s 1983 Doctor Who story, Planet of the Daleks.

Update: Thanks to reader Mike Dickinson for pointing out that audio company Big Finish released a Paul Darrow-narrated adaptation of Rebecca’s World in 2010. It’s available here: https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/rebecca-s-world-journey-to-the-forbidden-planet-196

Mustiness Report: 1/10. My copy is a 1984 reprint, and smells inexplicably of vanilla blancmange.

Musty Books: “The Nature of the Beast” by Janni Howker (1985)

What is “The Nature of the Beast”? Literally speaking, it’s the identity of the mysterious animal that is slaughtering livestock on the hills above Haverston, a remote moorland town in North-West England. But it equally applies to the simmering fury that threatens to overwhelm the book’s central characters – teenage narrator Bill Coward and his father Ned – as well as being a remarkably philosophical dismissal of the whole sorry situation by Bill’s beer-sodden grandfather, Chunder.

Surely written during (and inspired by) the troubled fury of the 1984 miners’ strike, the book is a damning condemnation of the economic policy of the era. Haverston’s main employer, Stone Cross Mill, is closing down, forcing the bulk of the town’s working population – including Ned – into redundancy, and robbing an already-depressed area of its main identity. Bill, effectively sharing a home with both his father and grandfather, sets out his stall early on: confiding, with best friend Mick, that his long-term plan to escape a seemingly hopeless future is to live in a cave on the moors, shooting rabbits and grouse with his air rifle and raiding allotments during the winter months.

Into this situation comes “The Beast”, whose arrival – surprisingly late in the tale – at least gives Bill a sense of short-term purpose. Brutally slaughtering the hens that Chunder has acquired in a vague plan to build a lucrative cockfighting empire (yes, the book is that bleak) and picking off the sheep of windswept moorland farms, it naturally excites the headline-writers of the town’s sensationalist Gazette newspaper (“HAVERSTON BEAST STRIKES AGAIN!”), and the paper’s offer of £500 for a clear photo incites Bill and Mick to steal a camera from their well-meaning teacher “Oggy” Oglethorpe’s car and head to the moors, seeking both glory and brief financial respite for their families.

The exact setting of the novel might be left a little vague (there are mentions of Lancashire, but also of Border TV and seagulls, so my educated guess is somewhere close to the Lancashire/Cumbrian coastline… if I had a map, the pin would be hovering above Barrow-in-Furness) but the sense of place and landscape, and indeed of a very distinct and depressed era of social history, is almost overpowering. This a town seemingly permanently shrouded in darkness, with a strong community huddled into pubs and houses virtually unchanged since the 1940s. Indeed, the occasional intrusions of modernity – the TV crews, for example, that cover the Mill’s closure – seem starkly incongruous.

And the moor itself, a black deathtrap of peaty marshland and bare-boned sheepfarms, smothers the town and effectively as effectively as the prevailing economic climate. Bill – a perceptive and intelligent teenager – is trapped in Haverston in every conceivable sense, and his righteous fury at this situation threatens to increasingly overpower him. I was even a little disappointed when a rational, believable explanation for the presence of “The Beast” is ultimately offered: it works so well as a metaphor for Bill (and Haverston’s) anger, a physical manifestation of their rage, its nocturnal raids on livestock and livelihoods effectively an act of self-harm.

But nevertheless, what a book. It effortlessly weaves the desolation of its setting and situation with the charming internal monologue of a typical smalltown teenage boy. The friendship between Bill and Mick – hiding in ramshackle dens, adding to the pointless graffiti (‘MOOR MODS RULE OK’) in bus shelters – is touchingly and believably portrayed, and given an extra depth by the revelation that Mick’s father is Stone Cross Mill’s put-upon Union Rep, blamed by the community for not making a firm enough stand for their jobs, and himself bitter about what he perceives to be his own workforce’s apathetic lack of militancy.

The ending is shocking and heart-rending in so many ways. Bill finds personal vindication in his quest to uncover the identity of the moorland killer, but his story is characteristically written-off in favour of the local media’s preferred narrative. Even in triumph, he has no voice. And you may even find some sympathy for The Beast: I did. Janni Howker wrote only three books and a handful of short stories, and – as far as I can see – there’s been nothing since 1997. But she rightly earned the Whitbread Literary Prize for Childrens’ Books for this, her debut novel, and you’ll rarely find a book that reflects the anger and hopelessness of the 1980s Northern industrial experience in such a devastating fashion.

Update: Read the comments below for a wonderful development… regular blog reader Mark Holden was the boy who posed for the cover of this book, back in 1985. His family was a friend of artist Stephen Lavis, who often based used images of people he knew for his cover illustrations!

In April 2020, Mark kindly agreed to restage the cover picture 35 years on, with photos taken by his nine-year-old daughter… needless to say, I’m delighted with the outcome.

Mustiness Report: A fragrant 3/10. My copy is a 1987 reprint, so there’s time yet for for it to achieve its full Mustiness Potential. The pages, though, are the colours of an old-school pub ceiling, which is pleasing: for sake of argument, let’s say it’s the Hare and Hounds, in nearby Kirkby Haverston.

Musty Books: “Cora Ravenwing” by Gina Wilson (1980)

Grief, outsiderdom, friendship and prejudice: they’re all explored in this beautiful, poetic and perceptive book. It’s an extraordinary piece of children’s literature, and it haunted me throughout.

Untypically, the outsiderdom is not that of the classic “new girl” who narrates the story: she is Becky Stokes, a personable schoolgirl uprooted from her Birmingham roots to live in Okingham, a sleepy 1950s Buckinghamshire village; and she is quickly co-opted into the close-knit social circle of classmates Hermione, Barbara and Susan. However, she has to conceal from them a burgeoning – and arguably more intense and genuine – friendship with Cora Ravenwing, a lonely and morbidly troubled young girl who has become a pariah within this tiny community.

Cora is a fascinating character: the daughter of a free-spirited, proto-hippy mother who died during the birth, she was nursed as a baby by village busybody Mrs Briggs (whose own child has been a victim of cot death) before being returned into the care of her gravedigger father, whose grief is so absolute that he has played little part in her subsequent upbringing. Cora’s proximity to so many aspects of death and mortality has had a profound influence on her character, and a terrible impact on the community’s opinion of her. Spending her days obsessively tending her mother’s grave, she has gained a reputation as almost a harbinger of doom; even being described as a “devil child” by Mrs Briggs, now the chief instigator of the village’s unanimous policy to ostracise Cora from its everyday activities.

She is awkward, pale, detached and friendless… at least until she meets Becky, who is unsettled by Cora’s morbidity, but fascinated by her unaffected authenticity; an authenticity in stark contrast to the seemingly shallow, aspirational lifestyles of Hermione, Barbara and Susan. This contrast is epitomised, curiously, by poetry: Hermione’s “nature poetry” is lauded by teachers, pupils and parents alike… but despised by Cora, whose loss has given her a genuine connection with both the beauty and brutality of nature, and who sees Hermione’s verse as twee and superficial. Obsessed by her dead mother’s diaries and nature writing, Cora also possesses an impressive knowledge of traditional folk song, and a singing voice of remarkable purity. She reminded me a lot of Mina, the nature-obsessed teenager in David Almond‘s book Skellig (and its later prequel, My Name Is Mina), whose all-consuming relationship with the natural world, and her willingness to turn it into art, is equally profound and – indeed – has similar hints of the macabre.

Becky, of course, is tormented by a typically teenage dilemma: if she follows the advice of adults and fellow children alike, and abandons Cora, both children will be robbed of a friendship that has genuine depth and resonance. But maintaining the relationship will lead to Becky’s exclusion from virtually every other social group in the village, an impossible situation for someone so young. The book depicts this appalling quandary with incredible sensitivity and depth of character, and boldly offers little in the way of resolution: the ending, in particular, is both dramatic and unflinching. I was completely unaware of Cora Ravenwing until I found a copy recently, hidden in a used bookshop in a quiet North Yorkshire town, but I’m delighted to see that it was reiussed by Faber & Faber in 2013, and that Gina Wilson continues to gain praise and acclaim for her work as a poet.

Friendships at the turn of adolescence can be intense and profound, and often cast a long-standing shadow over our ensuing adult lives. That influence has rarely been more beautifully explored than in the story of Cora Ravenwing.

Point of Order: The back cover of my 1986 edition described the main protagonist as “Becky Schofield”, but in the text she is very definitely “Becky Stokes”. A late name change, perhaps? Can anyone with the 2013 reissue confirm whether poor Becky is now uniformly a member of the Stokes family?

(Update: thanks to Rachel Coverdale for pointing out that Becky is definitely a Stokes on the back cover of the 2013 edition!)

Mustiness Report: A delicate 3/10. My edition’s pages have the reassuring waft of an old, wooden wardrobe on a fresh summer’s morning.

Musty Books: “Jill Graham and the Secret of Druids Wood” by Lesley Chase (1974)

Perhaps the most intriguing mystery for intrepid teenage detective Jill Graham to investigate is this: who was Lesley Chase? And how does the author of six novels, all published within the living memory of anyone over the age of 50, vanish without a trace? It’s perhaps reassuring, in an age when the the internet has removed almost all of the mystique from our information-drenched lives, that the enigmatic Lesley has somehow managed to remain firmly off-grid. I can see that she (or he? Even the name is tantalisingly ambiguous) wrote half-a-dozen “Jill Graham” books between 1974 and 1980, but – as far as I can ascertain – no other work has ever been published under that name. And that’s it. Neither Google nor the books themselves offer any further clues as to the author’s identity.

Thankfully, I can tell you more about Jill Graham. She’s an endlessly optimistic 16-year-old school-leaver in the midst of a long, lazy summer holiday whose life, by anyone’s standards, appears to be nigh-on perfect. She lives in a rambling cottage in the tiny village of Shayle, tucked into the corner of some fairly non-specific rural English idyll. She has two loving parents; her father being the editor of the local newspaper, and her mother a cheery, stay-at-home mum seemingly happy to provide wholesome, home-cooked meals for anyone who passes through the house at any time of day or night. Her older brother John is an tousled trainee journalist, and his best friend Geoffrey is Jill’s dashing would-be suitor. And Jill has a best friend of her own, Susan, who lives in the neighbouring village of Fallowfield and works for a local estate agent.

Jill also rides a horse called Conker. Of course she rides a horse called Conker.

There’s something almost weirdly timeless about all of this: so much so that I have a nagging suspicion that the book might not actually have written in the 1970s at all. Jill, Susan, John and Geoffrey all seem to exist in a bubble entirely divorced from the experiences of ordinary 1970s teenagers: there are no mentions of TV, pop music, fashion, or films. And the escapades that follow feel more like 1950s derring-do than swinging 70s adventures, so it possible that the enigmatic Lesley Chase had been sitting on these stories for some time before finding a publisher?

Either way, it’s a gentle, straightforward ramble through a crime caper worthy of the Childrens Film Foundation. Jill, while cutting through the sun-dappled trees of the local Druids Wood, chances upon a red-bearded and vaguely untrustworthy-looking sort of chap (“He was a shabbily-dressed man, short and broad of chest”) acting suspiciously around a dilapidated woodland hut. As she peers from behind the bushes, he sinks a metal box of used lightbulbs into a dank pond, and arranges a midnight tryst at the same location with Susan’s creepy boss, Mr Mostyn.

Much to-and and fro-ing through the woods commences, as the intrepid Jill takes it upon herself to prevent the unspeakable crimes that she seems convinced are an inevitable consequence of these dastardly actions. After all, what good could ever come of a man with a lop-sided eyebrow sinking a tin of lightbulbs into a woodland pond? As it happens, she’s right – there is, of course, a murder plot to uncover, and an impromptu kidnap along the way, too. All of which Jill faces with the unshakable confidence and righteousness of… well, a well-heeled Home Counties girl who rides a horse called Conker. If there were hockey sticks involved here, they would – we can be assured – be far from sullen.

It’s interesting to read a story clearly targeted at a young female readership of the 1970s: the female characters are strong and undaunted (Jill is never afraid of the dangerous situations in which she is placed), and the males remain fairly peripheral. The pleasures of domesticity are heavily stressed too, and it has none of the “wyrd” trappings that I suspect might have been included had the publishers been attempting to attract an fanbase of teenage boys. It’s a perfectly pleasant read, concise and tightly-plotted with likeable characters, and left me with the nagging suspicion that teen fiction for female readers has been somewhat overlooked in the great 21st century audit of 1970s ephemera. I look forward to discovering, in some musty bookshop of the near future, the little-known seventh book in the series, Jill Graham and the Mystery of Lesley Chase.

Mustiness Report: A wholesome 4/10. A book with the odour of a fresh breeze, gently wafting across the Fallowfield meadows on a bright, August morning.

Musty Books: “The Third Class Genie” by Robert Leeson (1975)

At first, this feels like a curious slice of whimsy from a writer I associate with grittier fayre: Robert Leeson’s series of Grange Hill spin-off novels from the late 1970s and early 1980s perfectly captured the ‘Thatcher’s Britain’ grimness of the TV series. And his 1983 sequel Forty Days of Tucker J was a pivotal part of my pre-adolescent reading, with the eponymous Jenkins given the titular deadline by his impatient father: forty days to prove he can escape the spiralling dole queues before being forcibly marched back to school to gain further qualifications.

The Third Class Genie opens with a lighter touch. The hero is skinny, hangdog schoolboy Alec Bowden, who keeps a constant running score of the disasters and triumphs that mark his days in Bugletown, a fictional suburb of Manchester. Here, he lives in a crowded family terraced house between the railway line and the allotments (poor Granddad is even relegated to a caravan in the back yard), and spends his schooldays avoiding the attention of resident bully Ginger Wallace. Wallace, we learn, lives on nearby Boner’s Street (settle down at the back, there) and – as the story begins – is forbidding Alec from taking his usual shortcut home past the Wallace household, or “you’ll get a thump.”

Alec’s fortunes change when he discovers, in the grounds of derelict local factory “The Tank”, an abandoned beer can that plays host to the 975-year-old Abu Salem, “Genie of the Third Order of rank and merit in the courts of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo”. Initially, typical Genie-based hilarity ensues: Alec exploits a seemingly endless supply of wishes with flawed attempts to gain new plimsolls, clean schoolbooks and even an extension to the family home. But as the story progresses, Leeson’s clear interest in contemporary 1970s social issues comes more and more to the fore.

Events turn with Abu Salem’s desire to aid Alec’s school project on the Crusades, encouraging him to document a perspective on these historical events that has previously been eschewed by his school textbooks. A perspective from which King Richard I is seen as “chief of the Frankish bandits”, the leader of foreign “barbarians” who came to slaughter. This approach earns him a rebuke from traditional schoolmaster “Tweedy” Harris, but praise from schoolroom pin-up Miss Welch… inevitably nicknamed “Raquel” by her students.

And then the crux of the book is revealed: Ginger Wallace is part of a West Indian community on Boner Street, a community under threat from eviction by a racist coalition of local councillors keen to redevelop the area. There are bigoted slurs and misinformation being spread around the neighbourhood, including ludicrous rumours of poor hygiene (“they keep their coal in the bath”) and a fictional illness “brought into the area, perhaps by an illegal immigrant.” And when Abu Salem – previously a disembodied voice inside the beer can – assumes physical form, he is revealed to be a black African slave, in danger himself of being branded a dangerous outsider in a town where tensions are clearly running high.

At this point, Leeson – a Cheshire man himself, with a background in left-wing politics – shifts the book into a higher gear, and it becomes complex, thought-provoking and remarkably progressive for an era when the politics of race were frequently exploited for comic effect. Schoolyard differences are set aside, and the battle becomes convincingly real. As a white North-Easterner, I perhaps feel a little self-conscious commenting on the accuracy of the depiction of black communities in the North-West of England, but the story felt both heartwarming and well-intentioned to me, and I enjoyed it enormously.

Mustiness Report: A disappointingly fresh 1/10. Barely any must at all to disclose, although my copy appears to be a 1987 reprint, so perhaps another ten years of solid, damp neglect are required for the book’s full musty potential to be fulfilled. No names or addresses inscribed on the inner pages either; 1980s children were a trusting bunch.

Musty Books: “Mandog” by Lois Lamplugh & Peter Dickinson (1972)

A book with a curious title, and one taken from a relatively minor plot point in this 1972 hardback adaptation of a little-remembered BBC1 children’s series. In a nutshell: a family dog, Radnor, becomes the physical host for the mind of Justin, one of a group of revolutionaries who time-travel to 1970s Southampton from a dystopian Britain, 600 years in the future.

Hiding out beneath a nest of abandoned cars in a local scrapyard, “The Group” – as they are handily nicknamed throughout – are on the run from the 26th century secret police, “The Galas”. Here, I got a little lost in time myself: The Group – a team of scientists reluctantly working for a futuristic, totalitarian British government – appear to have travelled to 1972 specifically to spend a quiet fortnight in Southampton secretly perfecting a replacement time-travel device. Which will then “transmit” them straight back to the 26th century. Which begs the question – why did they bother in the first place? Perhaps the opportunity to see Mick Channon’s trademark windmill goal celebration in the flesh was just too tempting to resist.

Their plans are uncovered by three local children: Kate, her older brother Duncan, and her best friend Samantha “Sammy” Morris. And Sammy’s dog Radnor, of course, whose temporary mind-swap with The Group’s office junior Justin is the latter’s punishment for having followed his futuristic freedom-fighter friends to 1972, when his agreed job description was actually to stay behind in the 26th century and destroy their initial time machine before it fell into government hands. What none of them realise, of course, is that The Galas have also travelled to 1970s Hampshire, and are occupying the nearby flat of the girls’ schoolfriend, Mary Ndola.

What follows is a thoroughly enjoyable collision of 1970s kitchen-sink kids’ drama and downbeat science-fiction grittiness. Radnor the dog provides the comic relief, digging up next door’s sweet peas and developing – as his mind-swap incumbent Justin adjusts to 1970s life – a penchant for fried breakfasts that has Sammy’s parents swiftly tutting and muttering about the housekeeping. And there is an interesting dynamic between the girls: Kate is a wheelchair-user, frustrated with her mobility in the disability-unfriendly 1970s, but she is much more adept at her schoolwork than best friend Sammy, and there are subtle suggestions that each girl quietly craves the others’ advantages.

Meanwhile, Duncan is the textbook 1970s older teenage brother; awkwardly fancying Sammy (“a super girl”), and taking on odd jobs around town (at the book’s opening, he’s redecorating an entirely pink houseboat) to fill the aimless hinterland between school and full-time work. There is a lovely sequence in which he uses his apprenticeship as a TV repairman to infiltrate the Ndola household and “repair” a deliberately sabotaged TV… with the blessing of the occupying Gala forces, who are presumably keen not to miss a single episode of the Doctor Who story Day of the Daleks. A serial broadcast concurrently with the TV version of Mandog, and with a plotline also centered around a small group of futuristic revolutionaries travelling back in time to 1970s England. I’d love to read the BBC memos that flew around when that unfortunate scheduling clash became apparent.

As ever, it’s the intrusion of the otherworldly into ordinary 1970s life that appeals to me, and the prospect of rival futuristic factions let loose amidst the suburbs, schools and scrapyards of working class Southampton is a delicious one. Peter Dickinson had already made his name with his late 1960s novels The Weathermonger, Heartsease and The Devil’s Children, a trilogy he later adapted into the BBC’s acclaimed 1975 “series for slightly older children”, The Changes. As far as I can see from the book itself – and contrary to the show’s Wikipedia entry – Mandog was an original TV script by Dickinson then adapted into book form by Lois Lamplugh, but – as ever – I’m open to correction on that front.

POINT OF ORDER: Sammy’s mother, in the TV series, was played by a (just) pre-Slocombe Mollie Sugden.

MUSTINESS REPORT: My copy has a mild musty smell, a subtle 4/10. It has an inscription, too: it was once owned by Debbie Wilson, who wrote her address in Radcliffe, Lancashire on the back of the cover in black biro, along with the date… 18th October 1977, although she initially wrote this as 1976 before correcting it. October seems late in the year for this kind of confusion, so maybe Debbie too was involved in a bit of minor time-travelling? I’m certainly assuming she left Radcliffe at some later stage, as her entire address has since been crossed out in blue felt-tip.

UPDATE: I bought my copy of Mandog in The Book Emporium in Great Ayton, North Yorkshire, in February 2020. I wrote the above review at the end of that month, and – as mentioned – noticed that Debbie Wilson, a girl from Radcliffe in Lancashire, had written her full name and address on the inside cover in October 1977.

In July 2020, I received an e-mail via this website… from one Debbie Wilson, who grew up in Radcliffe in the 1970s, and was interested to know if the book might have once belonged to her! “I presume the address is Heber Street?” she asked… and indeed:

I can’t say how thrilled I was. For me, finding names, addresses, dedications and messages from previous owners are a huge part of the joy of collecting used books. These little snippets of lost family history echo through the decades, resounding from bookstall to jumble sale to charity shop, sometimes even hidden on dusty shelves for years, unnoticed. The thought of reuniting Debbie with her childhood book seemed such a touching idea, especially as – in subsequent e-mails – she told me that most her collection had been given away over the years. “Nice to hear at least one still survives,” she said. “I wish I’d kept some of them…”

We continued e-mailing, and Debbie told me that she was intending to travel to North Yorkshire in the near future to visit family. So, on 19th July 2020, I met Debbie and her sister Lesley outside Northallerton Town Hall… and returned my copy of Mandog to its original owner, 43 years after she’d written her name and childhood address on the inside cover.

We went for a coffee, and – inevitably – I couldn’t resist asking for a little chat for the website:

Bob: So tell us… how did you come to realise that I had your old childhood book?

Debbie: It was a Saturday, late at night, and I was bored – I’d just come back from furlough and there was nothing on the telly! So I’d been on my iPhone all evening, and just looked for my name, and my home town. And then I saw: “Debbie Wilson, Musty Books”. I clicked on it, saw the picture of Mandog and thought “You know what, I think I used to have that book…”

I read the review, and down at the bottom you’d mentioned Debbie Wilson and Radcliffe and the date… and I thought “Oh, my God”. [Laughs]. I didn’t know whether to own up to it or not! Did I reply straight away? It was really late on a Saturday night…

You did… at 2am! So how old were you in 1977, when you wrote your name and address on the cover?

I was thirteen.

(Debbie in 1977 – on the far right, with two of her sisters)

I loved the fact that you’d written 1976 originally, then crossed it out…

Yeah, 1977 must have been a better year!

So do you have any memories of actually buying Mandog?

I remember having it, but I can’t remember reading it. I don’t know where I got it from, but I wouldn’t have bought it. I wasn’t a science fiction fan. I think I must have been given it somewhere along the line, but not for a birthday or Christmas, anything like that. Although I remember it being in really good condition. It was a new book.

And did you write your name or address in all of your books?

After a certain age, I think I did – when I could spell it properly! It was either that, or that rhyme: “If this book should dare to roam, box its ears and send it home”.

So were you a big reader as a kid? You were telling me in an e-mail that you used to carry the shopping for an elderly neighbour, and that helped…

Yes… when I was at primary school, I used to walk down the old Coal Lane to get this lady’s shopping, then walk back to the village, and she’d give me one of the old sixpences. So then I’d walk back down to Radcliffe market, which at the time was really good, and really busy. And I’d go to the bookstall and buy Enid Blyton books: The Mystery Five, The Famous FiveThe Secret Seven I wasn’t so interested in, but I still got them! And then Mallory Towers as well. She must have been rubbing her hands together on that bookstall every time she saw me.

So any idea how it came to be in a used bookshop on the other side of the country? Do you know how it left your possession?

I think it probably got thrown out when I moved out, in 1984. I left a lot of books behind. And my brothers and sisters wanted the room, and they weren’t big readers.

And no idea where it would have gone from there? In my head, it just worked its way across the Pennines, through a string of used bookshops, each one just a bit further east…

I think my Mum might have taken it to a charity shop… she did work for one for a while, the Oxfam shop in Radcliffe. I wonder how many people have actually read it? I’ll read it again, and see if I suddenly start remembering it all, halfway through.

Honestly, I’m so delighted to return it to you. How does it feel to see your handwriting from when you were thirteen?

Isn’t it neat? I must have been trying my hardest! Now, it would just be a scribble. It’s a shame that people don’t do that any more, books don’t have any history to them. Thanks so much for letting me have it back… I did think you might think I was a bit strange if I replied to you!

Not at all, Debbie. Thanks so much for getting in touch – it’s been a genuine delight. And, indeed, huge thanks for donating a couple more Musty Books to my collection! I’ll keep reporting names, addresses and dedications that I find in any of the books that I’m reviewing, and if you think one of them may be yours… please get in touch.