Entertaining Josephine Poole

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When I first discovered Josephine Poole, it was through Billy Buck (published as The Visitor in the US) and Moon Eyes which I wrote about here and here. Not long after reading those two ‘books for young adults’ I found Yokeham, which I’d read was her ‘first novel for adults’ (it’s not, that was The Lilywhite Boys, which needs a post of its own). Published in 1970, it’s set around the house of the title, ‘a brave attempt at a Palladian Mansion’, and, in another good sign, the cover illustration is by David Gentleman…

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It’s a couple of years since reading, but I still have the atmosphere it left. This includes shades of Harold Pinter and Accident, and an incidental pair of sisters marooned in a hardly-visited Haversham-esque suite adorned with French sofas and pigeon droppings. The characters, if I attempt to explain the awkwardness of their situation and not the treatment, are akin to players in a rural episode of The Avengers – ones starved of any light from the swinging sixties, and cast by the local amateur dramatic group. Poole’s great skill is in exploring the dread of their predicament.

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Like Billy Buck, this book’s all about a Trojan horse visitor with the power to undo. Except, this time, Poole might be echoing Terence Stamp and Theorem (minus anything racy and Italian). It’s a gradual unravelling, under skies that are leaden, in air that’s damp and peaty.

There’s a bleak and frankly unsympathetic portrait of a portly gay gallery owner, yet in this lies part of Poole’s talent – a grisly dark humour in certain situations, not a million miles from Joe Orton. Maybe she’d enjoyed Entertaining Mr Sloane too:

The door opened and Mrs Horner steered a trolley of coffee and unwontedly elaborate biscuits into the room. When she had negotiated the tapestry pouffe and a nest of tables, she turned to him with moist cheeks, and rolling up her eyes exclaimed: ‘Oh, Mr Dando, you’ve made my Frankie such a happy girl! Mr Dando? Hark at me! Compton, I must call you now; and Compton, call me Mother!’

After this novel, Poole went back to young adult fiction, a part of her talent publishers chose to focus on and perhaps at times pushed her into a particular remit, but she has continued to write until recently. In the late 90s and 2000s there was a string of acclaimed stories alongside Angela Barrett’s beautiful illustrations: non-fiction with Joan of Arc, and Anne Frank, besides a retelling of Snow White.

In 2003 she produced Scorched, a return to her trademark setting deep in the Somerset landscape, rich with folklore, the heat of summer harvest and the cool harbour of ancient houses. She certainly hadn’t lost her touch, for this is a richly atmospheric, unsettling novel for young adults, with the indecipherable haunting effect of M R James and an almost Patricia Highsmith-like exploration of duality.

On the dustwrapper of Yokeham, Josephine Poole was asked to write about herself. Later in Scorched, she explains how the idea for the story came to her ‘as we were planting spring bulbs at the far end of the garden’, a perfect image.

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Anyone searching for Yokeham, which is long out of print, must be warned that the ISBN number seems to have at some point become muddled with something inexplicable but which seems to exist, being the autobiography of Gyles Brandreth. You have been warned. Check carefully first.

Folk art and Clarke Hutton, 1945

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Illustrations by Clarke Hutton from Popular English Art, published in 1945 by Penguin, as a ‘King Penguin’ format (which looks and feels like an early Ladybird book).

The colours are really vibrant and un-natural – it may be to do with the printing processes rather than intentional, I’m not sure. Nevertheless, that seems perfect for these images of a more rough-hewn past. I’ve a feeling that we’re so used to seeing tastefully-hued recreations of Victorian life in film and TV that it gets forgotten that the colours they used were in reality not that different from the 1960s/1970s favourites: strong voices, not polite chatter.

If there’s something these pictures evoke for me, it’s the children’s TV series Bagpuss. There was an odd, warmly melancholic air about that programme, like sun on a rainy afternoon. And of course the shop was full of washed-up bric-a-brac…

The Punch and Judy man gets me thinking of Cole Hawlins from John Masefield’s The Box of Delights.

All these images seem to swim around in the headspace of children’s literature from 30 or 40 years ago: they’re all about a particular type of adventure, unstuffiness and freedom…


Appreciating Josephine Poole – Moon Eyes

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First we’ll wait, then we’ll whistle, then we’ll dance together…

The original dust-jacket for Moon Eyes from 1965 – as artfully composed as a movie poster and bursting with Josephine Poole’s imagination

For three days wind filled the valley, running wild like an animal. It hunted down over the blue meadows, that were striped across and across with long black shadows, as if they had bones humping up under the grass; it entered the woods, making them flap in brown and green flags; it whisked the whole landscape into movement, and it made the earth race with reflections of the clouds it pelted through gun-grey sky. Those nights the house nearest the woods seemed balanced in a giant pair of hands, rocking and knocking, with a tapping and drumming of finger-ends against doors and windows, so that every board creaked and loose bricks tumbled down inside the huge old chimneys…

Both ‘Billy Buck’ and ‘Moon Eyes’ feature an L-shaped stone house: this image appears in Poole’s 1977 title ‘When Fishes Flew’, which weaves together a series of Westcountry folk myths into a family’s move to an old farm

I’ve already talked about Josephine Poole’s Billy Buck, where an Exmoor village is exploited by way of revels and ancient folk dances to a disturbing hysteria by the sinister Mr Bogle. Moon Eyes is an earlier title from 1965, also set around Exmoor. It begins with cryptic phrases scratched on a stone urn in the grounds of a country house called Hurst Camber: First we’ll wait, then we’ll whistle, then we’ll dance together. Poole excels at creating tension, and details such as telling the story in three parts: ‘Whistling’, ‘Waiting’ and ‘Dancing’ are smart.

I need a name for this type of story – ‘British Ancient Landscape Hauntological Domestic Realist Wilderness’ anyone? There are plenty of requisite details here  regardless: Widowed artist grieves wife and leaves eldest daughter in charge of mute son while he recovers (absent parental figure); Mrs Beer, a comfortable housekeeper from nearby cottage (salt-of-the-earth figure steeped in local history who dispenses tea, cake and common sense); rambling old house (gothic architectural landscape)… into which steps the enigmatic, beguiling Rhoda Cantrip (spark for age-old battle of light and dark) and her canine companion.

A reprint from the early seventies – and a striking sci-fi makeover…

It’s all a little more than the standard mythic battle though – although conventional in its telling, Moon Eyes bristles with metaphors of fear of the alien stepmother figure, and all the fairy tale associations – but at the stage of what might be called a preventative cure.

Poole dedicates the book ‘To all children with a battle to fight’ and young Kate’s plight is well-drawn to address issues around defining identity and independence: when does unease become manifest and how is it faced? Who do we trust? How do we achieve control of what happens to us? How do we deal with responsibility?

Once again Poole uses folklore and myth intelligently and authentically – rarely does she fall into Disney’s traps and her cooking pot (or cauldron) of prose simmers with full summer in all its moods and herbs such as St John’s Wort.

Minor characters are neatly sketched with depth too, such as Kate’s tutor Miss Bybegone:

It has been said that Miss Bybegone hated the country. As a protection against any rustic scent or sound that might assail her, she went about on an automatic bicycle, very old, very noisy, very smelly, that enveloped her genie-like in a cloud of blue smoke. Seated upright on it, every hair miraculously in place, she sped about at breakneck speed, a hazard to the countryside.

So far so Bedknobs and Broomsticks – but even this minor character is developed with pathos, for later we are told:

She hurried from the room in an agitation of mauve artificial silk. In fact she was a devoted daughter, and nobly supported her mother, a rather short-tempered old lady who found her infinitely ridiculous.

The author from the cover of Billy Buck (1971). Ms Poole, we salute you. Someone else who could mend a nuclear power station and still look cool while the rest of us are ineffectually fiddling with our phones

Josephine Poole has written widely and successfully, including a lyrical picture-book story of Joan of Arc and a retelling of Anne Frank’s life, both beautifully and sensitively illustrated by Angela Barrett. In the early eighties she contributed scripts to a low-budget but intriguing collection of supernatural Westcountry folk tales called – unsurprisingly – Westcountry Tales – which is well-known to anyone of a certain age from the viewing region. Her later novels I haven’t read – I imagine they’re just as good but were victim to dull and lazy marketing.

The two books here really should be in print and as oft-mentioned as Penelope Lively in this field.