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 an 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 inhabited 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 belies 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, embodied 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.