South Riding and Winifred Holtby

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South Riding

An edition of Winifred Holtby’s Yorkshire novel from 1938.

Testament of Friendship

And the memoir by Vera Brittain from 1940. The Observer said at the time: “The tale of a life which combined a candle’s briefness with a beacon’s challenging flame has its own strong fire, and is itself a challenge to posterity, lest it forget”.

There was a fairly recent BBC version of South Riding, but the 1974 version, albeit epic and long-winded, is more authentic. Dorothy Tutin is headmistress Sarah Burton, and there is one particularly effective episode with Joan Hickson as a ‘difficult’ member of staff.

South Riding, Dorothy Tutin, Joan Hickson

“Have you never thought of getting a post in the south of England?”: Joan Hickson as Agnes Sigglesthwaite (left) with Dorothy Tutin as Sarah Burton

There used to be lots of such ‘character’ actors – and some of these TV dramas feature top-notch acting in the briefest roles. I think back then TV was an extension of the stage, because most actors had a long history there. In a theatre you aren’t expecting slick editing to hold the attention, simply the skill of the cast.

I’m fascinated by these DVDs of things being screened when I was just old enough for Tom and Jerry. Perhaps it’s because they once belonged to what seemed a privileged and unknown world of adults, who once children had gone to bed, could safely indulge in secreted stashes of chocolate in peace and quiet, have a drink and talk freely. A friend told me that when he was small, every Sunday night two Walnut Whips would appear on his parents’ sideboard in readiness. Perfect.

Post-war wilderness, 1950

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The World My Wilderness

A view of St Paul’s through wasteland, cover artwork published in 1950 for Rose Macaulay’s story of a girl who is sent to live in London after years in occupied France (jacket design by Barbara Jones). I’ve yet to read it. The inside wrap reads:

“London and the ordered formality of English life seemed to her after the wild maquis society of France more than strange, repellent even, a totally unintelligible confusion. She was bewildered, not merely by the ordinary rules of what is called civilised life, but also by the ambiguity of her personal relationships within that framework… the only escape from it she found in a real but fantastic world which she created for herself in the wrecked and flowering wastes around St Paul’s, which became her physical and spiritual home.”

Here’s an image from 2013.

Hemmed in 7

December’s magick: when the wolves are running…

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It’s heartening to see that at least some of the debt British fantasists of children’s literature owe to John Masefield’s The Box of Delights is being repaid. Perhaps it was not the first work of this type to weave ancient strands of British folklore into childhood imaginations – you might say it grew from Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies – but surely it is one of the most influential on successive writers.

Its lasting legacy is also due to the BBC TV adaptation from 1985. Nothing seems to dim the appeal of this series: google anywhere and you’ll find the deep affection with which it is held. There’s the perfect casting of Patrick Troughton as Cole Hawlings, and the mesmerising use of Hely-Hutchinson’s A Carol Symphony: III Andante quasi lento e contabile (yes, I did copy and paste that). There are running wolves, a lurid Punch, and magickal phrases such as…

The wolf pack hunts him through the snow, where shall the ‘nighted showman go?

Box of Delights Folio edition 2012

The latest edition from the Folio Society is perfectly, beautifully designed. And it even features the Punch dog on the spine (trust me, I didn’t know it was there yesterday, not owning a copy – but it will have to be mine…). Whoever designed this book is completely, shiningly brilliant.

Midnight Folk Folio edition 2012

There is a similarly great cover for the less absorbing prequel The Midnight Folk.

Box of Delights Folio illustration

Here’s Herne the Hunter by Sara Ogilvie from the Folio edition. The original illustrations by Pauline Masefield were used in the New York Book Review edition from 2007. I must have been about nine when I first found The Box of Delights in the school library. I remember the librarian (or perhaps someone’s parent ‘without much idea’) saying ‘That’s an old-fashioned looking book, what do you want that for?’. I should have unfolded the brief Bic-penned school report that said of me ‘doesn’t suffer fools gladly’ but clearly I was too keen to get home and look at the trails of strangely wild animals…

Pauline Masefield

Box of Delights New York Book Review 2008

Box of Delights endpaper

The 1965 edition reminds of the 1960s series The Prisoner for some reason.

Box of Delights 1965

The 1982 edition could be at home with Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising.

Box of Delights 1982

And finally, I found the first episode of the series on YouTube. Loyal grown-up fans have no trouble suspending disbelief at the crude special effects – think of the power of a mummers’ play, despite the hobby horses, tinsel and balsa wood swords. And if you don’t have time, the opening titles at least should open the portal to Solstice magick.

Dustwrappers from the 30s and 50s – the Joy of Text

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Some perfect ‘text only’ dustwrappers, two from the 1950s (The Hireling and Four Plays by Tennessee Williams) and two from the 1930s. Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza is particularly dramatic – a lot of care has gone into the arrangement of that text. Such is the impact, it asks to be writ large on a film screen. I could stare at this font for hours (well, maybe a good few minutes from time to time…)

The Murder in the Cathedral dustwrapper does something quite subtle: it suggests a cathedral with a simple serif font reminiscent of stone lettering on a monument, but the diagonal slash of red shouts of scandal like a newspaper headline.

Fear in the fifties – John Wyndham and The Day of the Triffids

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John Wyndham’s science fiction appeared throughout the 1950s into a world gaining perspective on the second world war and the epic destruction of the atom bomb.

Many of the novels take place in a recognisable England of leafy villages with a rooted capital. The previous decade had seen the certainties of this world swept away forever – whole streets and communities could be removed overnight. Now the world could be a toxic wasteland at the press of a button.

Science was no longer just paving the way to a brighter, cleaner place. It could be a dangerous future, beyond control. Fears became epic – what if the universe turned against us with alien invasions? What if we doctored nature and unleashed wraths we couldn’t imagine? What if this life-force mutated and fought back?

Wyndham might be criticised for a ‘cosy’ setting, but this everyday, unchallenging backdrop makes his disasters literally strike home. Shattering domestic comfort is a speedy device to make human catastrophe individual. It’s universal: everyone recognises a base that feeds immediate needs of food, rest, respite – whatever the form. But placing a storm in a teacup, far from sanitising it, exaggerates the impact.

Here are great examples of mid-century illustration for editions of The Day of the Triffids, and one from the 21st century (click to enlarge).

The Dolphin version (middle, bottom row) reflects atomic design, and suggests a nature modified, alien and scientific. It’s aeons away from the lush and dependable Romantic restorative.

Wyndham’s Englishness is signalled often. There’s the Tower of London (bottom left), turrets echoed in the forest of triffids massed in front, a bulwark of old England smothered in a threatening future. Elsewhere it’s Piccadilly Circus, with citizens scattering under eerie skies – let down only by the representation of the triffid as a friendly, furry diplodocus. The mass-market paperback (top left) is more direct – we perish in tendrils, the triffid humanised with demonic face.

Most interesting is the 21st century issue from Penguin (bottom, far right). Here is proof that some of the best examples of book cover art are coming out in the present, just as we’re appreciating what we could or will lose to the digital book. Visual representations of content speak more directly than the sharpest caption, but far more deeply.

This edition says as much about our own time as it does about the fifties. It’s a much more subtle image than the others that encapsulates the vulnerability of the human race. The body is oddly stilled, neither dead nor alive; the tendrils are neither benign or malicious, but the power over man is tangible. The eyes are accepting something inevitable, with infinite sadness and hindsight, in paralysis – echoing the stylised postures of any Renaissance sculpture.

The illustration is by Brian Cronin: more of his work is here.

PS: Looking around at other John Wyndham covers I found this beautiful example of The Midwich Cuckoos here from the blog Inkspills Inc.

David Gentleman’s storms and tempests

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Some of David Gentleman’s most striking illustration appeared during the 1970s, though as a child I never connected the images to an artist. Now I know his work was everywhere in my world – not only in books, but on stamps, plates and even on the London Underground at Charing Cross. Maybe that’s why I love woodcuts so much now.

At one time his covers for Penguin Shakespeare were everywhere too (and they took ten years to complete, so quite a long time to be the face of Shakespeare). It’s a bit Rip van Winkle to realise that now they’re mostly dog-eared and lost in secondhand shops, and that there are people collecting them to make sure they’re safe forever somewhere.

As a tribute to the beautiful English summer of 2012, here are some of his windiest, wettest images, guaranteed to make the anti-summer a thing of pleasure…

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