Entertaining Josephine Poole

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…

Poole 3

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.


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.


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.

A Mummer’s Play for Yule

Woodcuts by David Gentleman from Saint George and the Dragon – a mummer’s play by John Langstaff, published in 1973 in the United States and Canada. It contains the script of a typical mummer’s play which explores the death of Winter through the symbolic figure of Saint George:

First comes Christmas,
Then comes Spring.
Like Winter I must die,
Then to life again in Spring!

Saint George - David Gentleman

The Hobby Horse - David Gentleman

The Hobby Horse (above) ‘a symbolic life-giving figure’. A sprig of holly from the Hobby Horse restores Saint George to life.

Fool - David Gentleman

Room (above), the presenter of the play, decked in paper ribbons with ‘a noisemaker’.

Jonny Jack - David Gentleman

Jonny Jack (above) carries his family on his back – his role is to sweep the area of the performance. I was hoping for a convoluted fairy tale to explain this image, so a little disappointed by the explanation of his character… some investigation probably worthwhile!

David Gentleman’s storms and tempests

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…