Come Back, Lucy: Pamela Sykes’ forgotten classic

Victorian visions take a sinister turn in a study of childhood grief set in the progressive 1970s

“She swished the curtain as she spoke in order to see better, and for the peering Lucy the light was suddenly changed so that instead of the dark garden she saw only a reflection of the room behind her and her own face. It had to be. But even as she reasoned, the owner of the face raised a pale hand that beckoned. Lucy, with a thrill of fear, shook her head. But the other head nodded. The lights in the room swung, the lights in the reflection swung, wild half-formed ideas swung in Lucy’s head. She saw the mouth on the other side of the window frame the words, ‘Come with me!’”

First published in the UK 1973, and in the US as Mirror of Danger

Adapted for ITV television in 1978 by Gail Renard and Colin Shindler, directed by Paul Harrison

Emma Barkhle as Lucy and Bernadette Windsor as Alice in ITV’s adaptation (1978)

Both Come Back, Lucy and Tom’s Midnight Garden use houses to represent modernisation or obliteration of the past, and both feature a grandmotherly figure. These characters have a familiar function that fits a standard trope: gentleness, order, routine. A ‘grandmother’ in these cases represents a calm space, the one who will listen when parental figures are rattled and who pass on a picture of life in a past that is fascinating in its noticeable, physical difference. Here, the stuff of everyday life can wear gently and comfortably and be respected for it, not constantly replenished, renewed or hidden once age settles in.

Aunt Olive has been such a figure to Lucy, having brought her up as an orphan, but with the ways and routines of the turn of the century.

Come Back, Lucy belongs to a familiar genre in children’s literature where the lead character is removed to a new environment, separated from family temporarily or permanently, somehow adrift. New-found independence is then tested when the familiar world is set askew by the supernatural, myth or superstition.

It would seem writers also use this genre (particularly time travel) as a device to articulate an older person’s sense of alienation from the present, using a young person to demonstrate it. They create a retreat into a distant past which is effectively a grandmother’s childhood (we see this in Phillipa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden and Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time).

Fish out of water

Lucy has been raised with a mindset from a fast fading world. When Aunt Olive dies, she is sent to live with distant cousins. Her present day peers are contemporary, confident and without boundaries, invading Lucy’s reflective and reserved nature.

To bring her back to a sense of self, Pamela Sykes creates an ideal peer in the form of a ghost. Alice replaces Aunt Olive – at last, a companion of similar age – but this compatibility can only really exist in a Victorian past that reflects the aunt’s legacy to Lucy: alienation from her own place in time.

Duality like this had been explored earlier in Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes (1968).

To her new cousins Lucy is cold, judgemental and visibly horrified by a modern household of the 1970s. Gwen, the mother, is a powerhouse of progressive energy, keen to educate Lucy away from her immediate attraction to a domestic sphere of cake-making and ironing. Her children are shambolic and irreverent with their parents and each other, held together by affection and a high regard for ethics. Uncle Peter modernises old houses.

Characteristically, Lucy particularly treasures some game counters made from mother of pearl, a memento of her guardian and a link with her past, but she’s loath to bring such fragile things into her new, alien world and her cousin Rachel’s scrutiny. The rocking horse, the clothes in the trunk, the huge oval mirrors are Victorian relics swept away from 1973 and chased by Uncle Peter into the attic ready for annihilation.

Against this alarming backdrop (through Lucy’s eyes) time travel is an alluring retreat from modernity, an escape from the contemporary world. However, Pamela Sykes uses this device to tackle the danger of retreat into the past, where it has a tenacious and suffocating hold.

Fading summers

Lucy sets up her defences against 1973 and is eager to accept forays into Alice’s world. There, in the nineteeth century, she finds ‘everything as it should be’ and ‘just like Aunt Olive would like it’. However, the administered comforts and oppressive, cocoon-like interiors bring shades of darkness that don’t really synch with Lucy’s recollections of her aunt:

“She had thought herself back to an evening in the summer when she and Aunt Olive had played croquet… late orange sunlight, filled with birdsong, lit the crimson antirrhinums and drew long shadows across the neat lawn.”

“Together they studied the faded brown photographs of young gentlemen escorting young ladies in long tight uncomfortable dresses, as they picnicked by the river… or merely sat about stiffly in drawing rooms.”

Yet Alice’s world is a refuge for grieving, away from the brash and easy engagement of 1973. When her cousins are wigging out to glam rock in flared jeans at their Christmas party, Lucy’s panicked discomfort leads her to another timeslip into the Victorian past. Gentle carolling in the snow and festive parlour games bring comfort, but Alice is becoming increasingly possessive and controlling: she wants Lucy to stay. (Of course, she has to be named for Alice in Wonderland – ‘Mirror of Danger’, the book’s US title, reflects Through the Looking Glass).

“But when Alice turned, as it were, her weapons against Lucy, it could be very frightening indeed. There was something so ruthless about her that Lucy trembled deep inside herself when even she thought of those intently glittering eyes, the clutching fingers, “I’ll make something awful happen to you”. Could she? Would she?”

Alice Sometimes

To an extent Alice is the face in the mirror held up to scrutiny: Lucy’s Victorian, haughty disapproval made grotesque in Alice’s entitlement and disregarding privilege. Yet Lucy’s legacy from her aunt is a love of gentle ways and pastimes, reserve, and time-worn things. Torn between grief in an uncompromising present and the clutching, pulling of the claustrophobic past, she is suspended in time.

This dislocation makes Alice’s compulsion for Lucy to remain in the past represent something much darker, that Lucy might do herself real harm. Complying with Alice’s wishes to turn her back on the present is the equivalent of extinction in the present, the crisis in Lucy’s grieving coming when she hovers by the icy lake.

Pamela Sykes handles all this with great subtlety, neither heavy-handed or didactic. Yes, Lucy has to recognise the threat and bring herself back to the present, but far from being a freakish antiquity who is cured, the Lucy who emerges brings her ‘old fashioned-ness’ with her, tempered by the reality of her experiences.

Little is written about Pamela Sykes – brief biographies from her dustwrappers say she lived ‘in a rambling farmhouse in Somerset’, was accomplished at flying, and other interests included ice skating, the supernatural and painting – alongside a busy family life. I hope she managed to visit the United States, which is listed as an ambition.

She finds warmth and welcome in the present, but is engaging with it on her own terms, as she is entitled, in a world that is not polarising but accepting of her difference. Her new family has had to tune in to her sensitivity, and her grief at her bereavement. They needed a little self-discovery to understand Lucy’s disposition, just as she needed to see them.

Like Tolly at Green Knowe, Lucy brings her inherited sense of the past into the present, and like Mrs Oldknow, finds her ‘belonging’ in the now. There is no need to reject the passing of time, it can be carried into her future.

The haunted TV

There were some hauntingly unsettling touches in the TV adaptation: the opening titles echo the infamous horror of the faceless apparition in the same year’s Armchair Thriller TV adaptation of Antonia Fraser’s Quiet as a Nun; the dread vibe of The Amazing Mr Blunden; The Railway Children with bad spirit. It also has the most beautiful and haunting theme tune, all harpsichord and flute, just a touch of a big screen musical motif from The Exorcist or The Omen.

Of course, this is a TV production from 1978, but as a drama of the time it has really aged rather well, due to the astute and intelligent actors playing the mirror twins.

Bernadette Windsor would have been at home in any BBC Ghost Story for Christmas, though has much more to work with here, capriciously sinister, and uncanny in whatever intuition found her Victorian ‘presence’ for Alice. Emma Barkhle demonstrates great diligence in echoing a grandmother whose sensibilities are heartbroken by time’s changes, layering this into a really sensitive portrait of a troubled and grieving girl torn between worlds.

With the addition of Phyllida Law’s progressive and caring aunt, Come Back, Lucy becomes one of the era’s most effective children’s dramas, capturing a specific cultural point in time, and an eery, hauntological example of the intelligent kind of TV drama some of us were lucky to be raised on. (It was nominated in 1979’s BAFTA TV awards and led to similar series such as The Haunting of Cassie Palmer and Echoes of Louisa.) The Puffin edition says ‘girls especially will enjoy this sensitive and highly readable story’ but I can report this boy and many others were definitely drawn in and decidedly unnerved too.

“There’s no such word as can’t. Step onto the ice…”

More information

Come Back, Lucy has been out of print for decades and the DVD of the 1978 series is currently only available as a European import, but at the time of writing can be found online at the usual sources.

Again, if anyway has memories or information to share, do please comment.

A door to Green Knowe: Lucy Boston, Mrs Oldknow and the past in the present

“His memory he had about him like a scarf; his thoughts a flight of starlings.”

Lucy Boston quotes Rabelais on the title page of Memory in a House (1973)

“…already I had realized and accepted my destiny, which was to be the temporary vessel of the consciousness of the long, unremembered life of the house.”

Lucy Boston, Yew Hall

“It should go on the bookshelf alongside The Wind in the Willows.”

Contemporary review of The Children of Green Knowe, Times Literary Supplement

The Children of Green Knowe features a series of tableaux, three key points in the lives of the children of a 17th century family: Toby, Alexander and Linnet. As the stories unfold, a lonely boy and elderly woman encounter their spirits in the present day, gentle ripples disturbing everyday life in the manner of an M R James story.

Lucy Boston in 1973, from Memory in a House

I was still very young when I discovered Green Knowe via the TV series from 1986, but it made a deep impression by bringing together things I loved: an ancient house full of stories, the 17th century, an undefined gothic presence neither real or imagined, a fireplace shedding amber light, all set for making toast, drinking tea and hearing about was and what might have been.

Thinking about it again in the early 2000s, I read the entire Green Knowe series for the first time (there are five other books which all vary in tone). However, it was Lucy Boston herself that drew me in and the house she bought and restored, The Manor at Hemingford Grey. Both of her memoirs, Memory in a House and Perverse and Foolish had been reissued together in one volume, and I found her first novel Yew Hall (1954).

Green Knowe soon became a concept rather than just a story: a distillation of centuries, from which tapestry birds sip and needlework flowers grow and become flesh. Returning to Lucy’s book of memoirs and Yew Hall recently revealed it’s all an invitation to ‘Lucy’s world’, to enter a sacred space, invisibly shielded from the pressing discord and destruction of the outer world, but poised for uncertainty, idyllic but not anodyne.

The green man and the wise-woman

It’s not explicit but you can sense a pagan thread in The Children of Green Knowe: that nature is harsh as it is nurturing and that we walk the middle of it. There is loss in Mrs Oldknow’s stories as well as spiritual joy, through nature, birds and their song, or Alexander’s heavenward music.

A yew tree is central as Green Noah the cursed demon tree:

Snippet snappet

Shapen yew

Devil’s image

Take on you.

And we know the yew tree is famous for being found in churchyards, as a symbol of regeneration and protection, a continuation from druidic to Christian times. The Yuletide hymn is The Holly and the Ivy, when ‘the holly bears the crown’. Alexander sings for the restored monarch, King Charles II – who’s a potent symbol of the Green Man cut down and reborn.

We must remember that all these old traditions were part of folk memory in the 20th century: handed down from generation to generation, a country’s folklore, myths, legend and superstition were a key source of inspiration everywhere, in street and pub names, municipal art, adult and children’s fiction, in the burgeoning TV and cinema.

A scene from the 1986 BBC adaptation of The Children of Green Knowe

It’s clear from Lucy’s memoirs that she played with the idea that the village might look on her in the tradition of the wise-woman in a lonely house, rather like tabloids once painting Kate Bush as a gothic recluse: ‘She’s a witch!’. The story for younger readers Guardians of the House addressed this:

“My hairdresser said she is thought to be a witch. She talks to the birds. I’ve heard her. But they say she talks to mice and hedgehogs as well.”

Far from charming the birds with magic, we read in The Children of Greene Knowe how Mrs Oldknow smears Tolly’s fingers with margarine to bring robins, chaffinches and hedge-sparrows to his hands. Birds are everywhere in Lucy’s writing, reflecting her love of music and her music room out into the natural world. Linnets, chaffinches, blackbirds – all are tipping or tapping to come in or fill the air.

If only it could speak…

‘Time, change, memory and continuity are her recurring themes’ writes Jill Paton Walsh in her introduction to the memoirs. Perhaps I’m a disciple, but her writing is quite anchoring, which is probably how we all feel when we come across a feeling of affinity, however misguided or extrapolated from few indications.

The house and garden she nurtured and cared for – which Jill Paton Walsh calls her ‘crucible for the imagination’ – forged those themes into a wholly unique sense of place as Lucy explored the nature of her home and how it was inspiring her. Certainly it is in the tradition of Alan Garner’s theme that the past is contained around us, with energies that replay over the years.

“It was not that I was living an escapist dream. The house was there. It was dominating. It was, and I hope still is, haunted and itself a haunter. It has a power felt by almost everybody who comes here. But what? And how? My psychic antennae are useless. Perhaps it is the unusual density of lives lived in it, superimposed and at length forming a sort of discernable sediment.”

Memory in a House (1973)

It’s worth pointing out that Lucy’s attachment to her home doesn’t belong to a tradition of feudal land ownership and inherited wealth. She does not write with a sense of personal tradition or with entitlement, even though the invented Oldknow family faces ‘return’ over the generations. Green Knowe was borne from a love of a building, a garden, and of histories. You might call her a custodian. I’m again reminded of Alan Garner, who moved a medieval building 20 miles to his home when it was threatened by a road-widening scheme in the 1970s. It’s all part of that fascinated lament, ‘If only it could speak, what stories would it tell!’.

Ancient wisdoms

What is it about these houses and their inhabitants, homes returned to life in fiction when the past breaks into the present? Is it a finding of empathy in the ancient wisdom of past generations, using time-travel to create a sense of idealised ‘belonging’?

We have reached such a level of complexity in the 21st century that a book from the 19th or 20th century allows us to access time-old basics of human existence. Free from the contrivance and self-consciousness of our current place in time, we can consider life and death, love and loss, melancholy and content, strife and ease. There is for many a great comfort in knowing we share unchanging elements with generations before our time, further and further into the ancient past, the simplest needs of shelter, food and warmth.

In the strange way that synchronicity starts to link thought trails, I came across this, again in Yew Hall, first published in 1954:

“Every year that I live here it is as though another of my personalities is left behind, like a variation in a Passacaglia, leaving me nearer the first and last plain theme. It is not only as one grows older the passions and vanities fade, nor that the pressure of the present day obliges one to live an ever simpler life, to make and do with one’s hands whatever is necessary, to be forever saying goodbye to civilisation. It is rather that civilisation has turned to shoddy, plastic and sham, has become a cage with bars of cliché, so that one must get out.”

Jill Paton Walsh also speaks of Lucy’s “indignant sympathy for all subordinates, for all whose personality is assailed, for whom the world is pressurising into being other than what they are”. Which is perhaps part of Lucy’s thinking in Yew Hall in talking of escaping the ‘bars of cliché’.

‘One of the old ones’

Returning to Mrs Oldknow, it’s fair to say that Lucy Boston is quite frank in her memoirs, and dispels any notion a casual observer might have that Green Knowe’s fictional mistress is a reflection of anything woolly or lavender-scented. Just dipping in, I come across “I had a lonely lunch, and finally in tears a lonely supper under the suspicious eye of the landlady who obviously thought that if my man was dropping me I should not be able to pay the bill and so must not be allowed out of sight”.

Mrs Oldknow, however, is introduced thus:

“His great grandmother was sitting by a huge open fireplace where logs and peat were burning. The room smelled of woods and wood-smoke. He forgot about her being frighteningly old. She had short silver curls and her face had so many wrinkles it looked as if someone had been trying to draw her for a very long time and every line put in had made the face look more like her. She was wearing a soft dress of folded velvet that was as black as a hole in darkness. The room was full of candles in glass candlesticks, and there was candlelight in her ring when she held her hand out to him.”

Mrs Oldknow looks far into the past to bring life to her house; and you can see Lucy in her, searching the present for those whose spirit empathises with its history and atmosphere. Her home is a sentient creature, breathing in the lives that pass through it and exhaling their presence over the centuries.

Daphne Oxenford as Mrs Oldknow in the 1986 BBC adaptation of The Children of Green Knowe

There is loss in The Children of Green Knowe, and there is melancholy. Tolly is grieving for a parental figure: his mother has died, he is ‘miserably shy’ of his stepmother, on the journey to Green Knowe he is ‘alone as usual’ and apprehensive of what he might find there. He is introduced gradually to the Oldknow family of the 1660s by his great-grandmother, and looks for connections in a century far distant.

But what of Mrs Oldknow? She talks as intimately and fondly of the 1660s Oldknows as she would her own family, but she mourns them at the same time: perhaps an allegory underlining a sense that ‘belonging’ among the spirits of Green Knowe is not satisfying. Their 17th century lives exist in memory (or invention that has become memory, thus ‘a presence’), if not as ghosts.

We have both the adult yearning for past bonds (perhaps childhood family and that formative sense of belonging), and the child seeking to establish them in order to become a contented, engaged adult. Tolly is not so much scared by the ghostliness but taunted and un-nerved by the Oldknow children and their elusive offer to ‘belong’.

But you might say also that Tolly is a conduit to facilitate Mrs Oldknow’s escape from a retreat into the past and entrapment there (Doris Lessing’s ‘poison ache’ of nostalgia, or parallels with Pamela Sykes’ Come Back, Lucy where a spirit offers a retreat to the comfort of her grandmother’s Victorian past, but with the intention of keeping the heroine there forever).

A ritual of understanding

At the conclusion of the story Mrs Oldknow has handed her history-memory of the Oldknows to Tolly, and with his acceptance of it, her great grandson represents her own sense of ‘belonging’ in the here and now. He understands these long-dead names as living people: Toby and his love for his horse Feste, Alexander and his music, the sadness of their grandmother. So too the building. It might be that Tolly is being tested by his great grandmother: can he see the house for what it is, can he read its atmosphere? Would Green Knowe be safe in his hands?

Mrs Oldknow and the Oldknows of the 1660s (1986 BBC adaptation)

Against the world’s pressing regard for only what is new and contemporary, these histories are alive in Tolly’s time, the house and its garden become a pocket of concentrated spots of time within the present day cycle of the year: continuity, and affinity with those who went before.

Again, from Yew Hall:

“Here on my island the years have opened like a rose in the sun, the fury of standardisation has missed one little by-way, and events have remained in their real dimension as reactions of the human heart, limitless, let dependent on its fleeting pulse.”

There is much evidence that Lucy wanted to protect not a personal paradise, but to share her love of place and help others to see and feel the magic she experienced; a legacy which continues through her writing, where everyone can access her ‘island’, and the house where the ghosts of the past can never be sealed with plastic windows and perfect render.

More information

All the Green Knowe books are available from the online shop for Green Knowe here. You can also find Memories, the two collected memoirs of Lucy Boston including Memory in a House which deals with the restoration and life at the house that became Green Knowe.

Yew Hall is not in print and barely available secondhand. It’s surely a prime contender for someone like Persephone Books to republish? First published in 1954, it was republished in the early 1970s.

Magic of the House is a short 15-minute BBC programme from 1983 which includes readings from The Children of Green Knowe and Yew Hall, and interviews Lucy Boston at her home, available here on YouTube.

A Mind for Magick Pt 3: ‘A Traveller in Time’ on screen

Alison Uttley’s 1938 novel ‘A Traveller in Time’, adapted for TV in 1978 by Diana De Vere Cole and directed by Dorothea Brooking

This adaptation brought the setting into the present day: Diana De Vere Cole did a neat job, focusing on Penelope’s emotions as she slips in and out of a Tudor world (cutting out the brother and sister detaches her from a peer group, isolating her further in ‘real’ life, which heightens the sense of disorientation); retaining Alison Uttley’s inheritance of deep traditions of rural domesticity; and letting the obvious dramatic irony heighten the air of doom around the Babington family with their efforts to rescue Mary Queen of Scots.

It also records the timeless Derbyshire farm-scape which Uttley loved and honoured in her nature writing. The non-studio scenes at Thackers are a natural, unposed time-capsule of a farmhouse that hasn’t changed use for centuries, yet to be curated or restored, the detritus of generations clinging to its walls. And this isn’t just good location scouting – A Traveller in Time was filmed at the actual scene of the Babington plot, in the same building, at the same church in which the family worshipped.

The studio-bound scenes do less well, as does a tendency of the Tudor characters to audition for the RSC with varying results. There’s a poignancy to this as a reflection of a different time and its clearly delineated hierarchy of perceived dramatic worth. Yet Simon Gipps-Kent manages to recreate the familiar ‘unknown young gentleman’ of many an Elizabethan portrait miniature, appropriately mannered and earnest. An actor who appeared in many dramas like this at the time, he didn’t make it to the age of 30, which adds an unsettling dimension to his ghostly Greensleeves vocal when Penelope has to leave the past behind.

It’s starting to snow…

Elizabeth Bradley (later a Coronation Street stalwart as Maud Grimes) links past and present as Aunt Tissie with an expert hand. Clearly she knew the North and instinctively balances directness with warmth, and hews her Tudor ancestor just a little more roughly. You can see an immediate affinity with her niece Penelope (and I assume between actresses) which effectively carries the series between the time zones where less attuned performers would struggle.

Sophie Thompson’s empathy for the lead character Penelope really does shine. In one scene she has to wander the ruined castle that once acted as the Scottish queen’s prison: she’s like a young Tracey Thorn in an Everything But the Girl video, emoting indie melancholy in her anorak.

There’s another where she has to sing ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ while suspicious Tudor cousin Arabella is asked to accompany her on a harpsichord. Rather like her humiliated character in the 1996 film of Jane Austen’s Emma, in just a moment or two of screen time she encapsulates a whole movie about awkwardness, embarrassment and persecution before we realise Arabella has stopped playing and is storming off in a petulant storm of jealousy. It’s everyone’s bad Christmas in a nutshell.

And there I was thinking, we’ve got the dinner out of the way, it will all go smoothly, she won’t kick off now…”

A Traveller in Time requires a little forgiveness from the viewer in places, but this is part of its charm. To compensate there are some lovely moments (Michele Copsey as Arabella does a wonderful turn with a wax doll and a needle) and you can’t really fault its key players.

There are memories which stayed with contemporary viewers at the time: Penelope’s distress at being given a last link to the past as she has to leave Thackers, the locket in the church, and indeed her 1970s nylon dressing gown which, if one has to be transported to the 1580s, makes quite a passable Tudor kirtle (I’m sure this unique selling point was overlooked by nightwear manufacturers at the time).

A sort of hokey re-hash of ‘Tudoralia’ was consistent in the twentieth century, so at the time of broadcast viewers would know the tune of Greensleeves as a rather hackneyed period shorthand, as they would a lot of thee-ing and thou-ing in the script, but which today seems more like a feel for the past as a different country.

Director Dorothea Brooking was a key and influential player in children’s television for decades. Her Guardian obituary (3/05/99) writes that she ‘loved actors and they loved her’, citing an article from The Times in 1975 which said:

‘One recognises in Dorothea that same, sometimes devastating directness one finds in children, and the same contemptuous rejection of the sham and the pretentious, and one would guess, the same vulnerability.’

I think this goes some way to explaining why the adaptation works in the way it does. It is of its time production-wise, but adds further dimensions to the book through authentic settings and Sophie Thompson’s intelligent and intuitive grasp of what it’s all about.

The series is currently available on DVD.

If anyone has any thoughts or reminiscences, or indeed anyone can shed further light on the production, do leave a comment.

A Mind for Magick – part 2

Midwinter reading and children’s classics: four homes that house the veil between the past and the present

Four books and four houses: all involve travel into past centuries and immersion in history. They do so from a setting which represents ‘home’, albeit a temporary one: the protagonists are all visitors, but the issue of belonging is key.

Before exploring the themes in later posts I’m going to summarise the houses which are featured, and how they might affect the authors’ treatment of ‘time that has passed’. The illustrations are from the TV adaptations from 1978-1989, except for Green Knowe, which is from Lucy Boston’s book Memories.

All the books feature yule celebrations or midwinter scenes.

Come Back, Lucy by Pamela Sykes (1973)

There are two houses: one belonging to Lucy’s grandmother, which is called The Shrubbery, and then the home in the large town where Lucy is sent to live with distant relations, the focus of events. Both are Victorian, one firmly placed in the gentle past of the owner’s Edwardian youth. The other, while a grand, oppressively imposing house – the sort of suburban villa with elements impersonating a castle rendered in red brick – is embracing change.

This 1973 title emerged at a key moment in time for our aesthetic relationship to the past. On TV, Upstairs Downstairs was in full swing. A fashionable side of the 60s had eschewed what we now call mid-century modern and taken to restoring Victorian homes and the more understated, democratic furniture and folky Victoriana: at first blending it with 60s reinvention before the 80s ushered in a more Merchant Ivory-esque attention to period detail and restoration.

In Lucy’s new home, there is no such empathy with the past. She is faced with modernisation and eradication in favour of light, modification, modular shapes and stylised pattern of the 1970s. Both approaches, however, were cultural forces.

The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy Boston (1954)

Probably the most romantic and evocative of all houses in children’s literature. Lucy Boston restored the ‘oldest home in England’, which dated from Norman times, in the 1940s. She later set about bringing its history to life with a series of novels in which the house is the main character.

The charm also comes from the building’s relative simplicity: this is not an elaborate, grand monument to wealth but a solid stone building much added to and taken away from over the centuries. It is a real home, not a fiction.

Within it live many original artefacts, talismans whose stories unlock the secrets of its past. The garden is equally important, cultivated with ancient topiary, as is the riverside setting in the flat Cambridgeshire landscape.

A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley (1939)

“A stone-built farm, with gables and doorways in unexpected places, with barns and cowhouses across the green grassplat and old ivy-covered buildings where fowls roosted and calves sheltered.”

Alison Uttley grew up immersed in the Derbyshire countryside, on a farm across the hill from the small manor house she here calls Thackers. Like Green Knowe, it has been added to and taken from over time, but was once the home of the Babington family, key figures in plots to rescue Mary Queen of Scots from captivity during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Penelope is drawn to the ancient past which almost speaks to her through the carved wood that has travelled through time in the furniture and handed-down belongings from Thackers. Aunt Tissie even carries a folk memory of the plot to rescue Mary Queen of Scots (just like Uttley’s father), which suggests something even more ancient and deeply-rooted than Lucy Boston’s reconstructions of history at Green Knowe.

Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce (1958)

Tom’s Midnight Garden reflects Philippa Pearce’s fear of what was most likely to happen to her childhood home in Cambridgeshire. It’s a most poignant house because, in the book, its idyllic landscape and walled garden has been ignored by town planners and built over.

“A big house now converted into flats… crowded round with newer, smaller houses that beat up to its very confines in a broken sea of bay-windows and gable-ends and pinnacles… it was the only big house among them, oblong, plain, grave… a pillared front door.”

Ironically, it is a real house that still exists with the garden, and the façade at least, still intact, and which sold for millions a few years ago.

The unnamed house has parallels with Come Back, Lucy as a building updated and altered so that the contrast with the past is a stark sense of modernity and the passage of time. The urban setting of these titles is much more a product of the changed landscape of the later twentieth century, in that the authors are engaging with contemporary reality versus the escapism from modern life offered by Green Knowe and Thackers.

A Mind for Magick

Why we look to classics of midwinter literature in the dark months

One genre of children’s literature is master of ceremonies at this time of year: those books we turn to in the hope they will throw wintry sunlight and lazy candle-flame on the mind. Christmas is traditionally a time for ghost stories, but these are not tales to chill or disturb, although a varying amount of potential peril is key.

There are two titles which have had plenty of oxygen in the past few years: Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising (1973) and John Masefield’s The Box of Delights (1935). Indeed, the latter has carved itself further into folklore through memories of the beloved TV adaptation from 1984, with a book devoted to its history and cult, a gatefold vinyl album of the series’ soundtrack, a text for the theatre, merchandise on Etsy. This is only fitting for a work whose influence has fed into the imagination of every writer attempting similar territory since – Masefield in turn owing a little debt to Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill (1905) .

There are other titles for midwinter however, less concerned with archetypes of folklore and battles of light and dark than our place in time and relationship to memory and sense of belonging.

Winter’s passing ghosts

Legions of us return to these favourites around the winter solstice because they allow free, uninhibited access to the comforts of inherited wisdom, exploration of memory, spirits of the past and the present made magickal.

It’s probably born of actual need, when the idea of coming together with loved ones and belonging is especially poignant. As we get older, the bedrock figures of our lives pass, and formative memories are ghosts. It’s also relevant when the pandemic has revealed new things to us about the nature of the bonds we have, and where we belong.

The qualifying feature of these classics of the 20th century is an interaction with the past, at first through the contemporary setting of the events, which are of course today decades away, and a further ‘deep past’ of time travel in one direction or the other, which begs the question of what role nostalgia has to play in adults turning to them year after year.

‘The poisoned itch…’

Part of the coming thoughts rose from thinking about Memoirs of a Survivor in the previous post, and how we approach times that have gone in contrast to our present. Doris Lessing writes:

“At any rate, the past, looked back on in this frame of mind, seems steeped in a substance that had seemed foreign to it, was extraneous to the experiencing of it. Is it possible that this is the stuff of real memory? Nostalgia, no; I’m not talking of that, the craving, the regret – not that poisoned itch.”

Nostalgia is an over-used, lazy word, particularly today when the internet means little is covered in Miss Havisham’s cobwebs of chilly melancholy. I think it was Douglas Coupland who said something like ‘How can I be nostalgic for a past I never lived?’ Three of the books I’m going to talk about later I didn’t even read until adulthood, so my enjoyment hasn’t arisen from a reconnection, triggered by recalling the atmosphere of my life when I first encountered them, like hearing a song from years ago might do.

(Also, things that are part of your life on a regular basis, even songs, have multi-layered connections from different points in time: something really has to be dug up afresh to connect with a formative memory. Perhaps people who tend to use and dispose are more prone to nostalgia, as opposed to those who take things with them like talismans as they journey through the years.)

‘The ache to be back inside the pages…’

There is, of course, the fact that books read and films seen in childhood recall a total immersion in the fictional world which is less likely as adults. For one thing, we’ve experienced repetitive tropes, and so they have to be in really talented hands to renew. As another, we have varied opacity in seeing, the inability to suspend disbelief that years of adult cares bring about. The artist Jackie Morris talked in a Backlisted podcast of the reader’s ‘ache to be back inside the pages’ of The Dark is Rising, leading other guests to extrapolate the idea of ‘exile from childhood’.

There is also the author’s perspective however. The idea of the author living in/escaping into childhood perception clouds their examination of the cares of adulthood, which is more clearly delineated in the books I want to consider. The experience of childish perception (as in ‘without cynicism’) is a facet of the appeal, but is too limited to explain why these books have such a hold long past youth.

I’m also going to bring in TV adaptations as integral to experiencing these titles. If The Box of Delights is now so intrinsically linked with the 1984 series that it has become a cult, does that not suggest a good adaptation will amplify our experience? With its symbiotic relation to the text in our minds, it’s a necromancy which yields the yule drug we return to year after year. There is no 1970s BBC series of The Dark is Rising, but Backlisted pointed out that a soundtrack has been written as if it did.

What we are in search of is atmosphere, that nebulous, evasive substance of the mind which casts a magical light on everyday experience. We are less concerned with sophisticated plot structures and character development, but a collusion of light and dark, time and ancient truths in the spirits of place.

When in Memoirs of a Survivor the protagonist first ‘sees’ through the wall in her apartment to the rooms of her imagination, she describes it thus:

“I felt the most vivid expectancy, a longing; this place held what I needed, knew was there, had been waiting for…”

I’m not equating my point with Doris Lessing’s use, but those words do appear to shed some light on what I’m talking about.

In the next post I hope to explore some overlooked ‘midwinter titles’ of twentieth century children’s literature, because there has to be a deeper resonance in the appeal of turning to these books. It’s when you look closer that you realise just how complex and multi-layered they are, using their creator’s adult wisdom that stretches far beyond the marketed audience.

Frosty winds made moan

Contexts for chaos, imagination past and present: “Memoirs of a Survivor” (1981)

Somewhere in this blog I wrote about trying to capture the things I responded to as a child, the things which grew and developed into the portals of the imagination that have stayed with me, and how they shapeshifted over time, with different guises and perspectives, but generally constant. It’s more than the imagination, it’s a place of faith: constant unchanging things to return to that nourish, revive the senses and the experience of living and ruminating as we grow older.

I know it is the same for many others. Yet it exists always under threat from the prosaic, unforgiving tarmac of life, which can spill over the paths through the trees, sending us on blinkered to the shafts of light that transform the most mundane of things into beauty and solace.

I’m starting to accept that while things are always subsumed into our being (a dog will lose a leg and continue well enough), the lives of people on earth really have been knocked off kilter. Things have changed and our histories are back in the pattern of millenia, chaos in the wider world, while we potter on with everyday life and Rome burns (or ‘keeping on keeping on’ as Alan Bennett would put it).

Or indeed, more people are being exposed to harsher life experiences, and being unused to it, make more noise.

Often (mostly) I think in atmospheres, and with these thoughts in mind, I got to thinking of the Julie Christie film Memoirs of a Survivor. (I should of course say ‘the 1981 screen adaptation of Nobel prize-winning Doris Lessing’s dystopian 1974 novel’, but pah! I grew up with films delineated by the actors who cast their own special magic on screen, hence it’s a Julie Christie film.) It’s years since I watched it, and retrieved the trailer from YouTube.


I’m talking here of atmosphere. There’s no need to ache looking for meaning, just savour that representation of memory. Wordsworth’s ‘spots of time’ – all senses awake to joy/nature, woven with pasts of plenty (and all its awkwardness and errors) – walked to the edge of the abyss, Cassandra-esque, the chill.

The imagery might be intense and portentous, characteristic to how British films responded to the world in the early 80s, but you can also see that as powerful. Eye of the beholder.

There are those of us old enough to have lived through our current response to the wider world before, who might not have forgotten how a context of cultural acceptance (want of a better phrase here) made us, somehow, not despairing… if naïve.

To bring it all back to our personal lives rather than the wider world, I’m sure Charlotte Bronte was not that surprised to lose so many close to her over a very short period. She was alive in 19th century England. Life was much closer to tooth and claw then than it has been for a good number of people for many a while now.

Is this bleak? I don’t think so. I use the word ‘pottering’ for all its connotations of what would be termed ‘parochial’ and un-dynamic. We keep on, we potter, because the ability to do that is really precious, even if we have to stay in the kitchen because it’s the only room we can economically heat.

And we keep on, and in our minds pass through wallpaper, and look back and forth between rooms, and past and present, and we modify and shapeshift and adapt, and somewhere there’s an egg.

(There’s an enormous egg in the film, just saying.)

Elgar’s bear: woodcuts from 1964

Unicorns and lawyers from BBC schools

Found in the attic squashed between the Skippy the Kangaroo TV annual and Amateur Gardening 1972. Illustrations by John Griffiths.

Above: Reclaiming the unicorn as a proud, kick-ass beast of legend as opposed to the My Little Pony makeover of recent years.
From ‘Mowing the Barley’ – lawyer spies a ‘handsome and clever’ maid, stalks her, then places her on his horse. Apparently they now live ‘in a happy content of life, and well in the station above her’. I take issue with this. If you were kidnapped on a horse and expected to live in a bus station you wouldn’t be happy at all.
Rather crestfallen lion who was hoping to reinvent himself as My Little Lion and got stuck with toxic masculinity again.