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.

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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.

Running with the deer – 1971 in children’s literature

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Image includes elements of Michael Heslop’s design for the cover of William Rayner’s novel ‘Stag Boy’

Stag Boy by William Rayner (1971)

Billy Buck by Josephine Poole (1972)

The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy by Penelope Lively (1971)

The invasion of ancient folklore and myth into the present is a feature of many novels for ‘young adults’ of the late sixties and early seventies. There had been, of course, the Alan Garner effect: in 1967 The Owl Service redefined the remit of this type of writing, beyond ‘writing for children’, ambitious in the way it dealt with human emotions against an older, wiser and more powerful landscape. The stories were different because they were as rooted in everyday realism as the kitchen-sink dramas of British film.

It may or may not be true, but for me these books spring from a time when genres were undefined and inspiration was not moulded to the market. They existed against a particular sense of modernity at the time: heritage culture hadn’t really begun; things were either ‘old-fashioned’, or they were ‘modern’. Myth and folklore had yet to be plundered and Disney-fied in ersatz Celtic script (usually metallic and embossed).

The three titles here were published within a year of each other in 1971/2, and have much in common besides their mythic associations with deer. They share the setting of Exmoor and the Devon/Somerset border, where a deeply-buried folk heritage rises from the landscape – a Horn Dance of the type still enacted today at Abbots Bromley, a Wild Hunt, an ancient antlered helmet.

The protagonists are all perceived as ‘different’ in some way – they are weak and ailing, like severely asthmatic Jim in Stag Boy and Harry recovering from polio in Billy Buck; or intellect has isolated them – like Kester in The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, who goes to the grammar school (‘Brainy people aren’t always the nicest people, are they?’ says the strident village busybody to her daughters).

Of the three, it is Penelope Lively whose legacy is mentioned alongside Garner in critical studies. Josephine Poole’s and William Rayner’s out-of-print contributions are in danger of passing out of sight, although Poole is still writing today.

Like The Owl Service, Rayner’s Stag Boy deals with a relationship triangle. Jim returns to his childhood home from the urban sprawl of Wolverhampton and, by way of the helmet he finds in an undisturbed burial chamber, ‘shares a pulse with a stag’. His strength is restored as the mental and physical prowess of deer and human overlap, and he taunts both his rival and the pursuing hunt in shifting form. Jim as stag is hyper-aware of wild nature tamed and twisted: ‘What kind of world was this that made such cruel judgments on its creatures?’

At publication, The Guardian called Stag Boy ‘fine and powerful’ and others said ‘perhaps one day we shall see it on an enlightened GCE syllabus’.

Josephine Poole’s trump card is a deft hand with suspense and atmosphere and she is almost Wicker Man-esque in Billy Buck. Mr Bogle (‘His body was the shape of a fly’) arrives as tutor to the recovering Harry in a decaying, centuries-old family house. Soon he is driving the village to hysteria by way of bonfire night revels and a ritual dance, before exploiting the community’s appetite for persecution to destroy the remains of the ancient family.

Poole uses the marriage of Harry’s sister to a local landowner as a counterpoint of light; her dress will be sprigged with green, the garb of a May Queen, and the planned Christmas wedding suggests a Solstice-like triumph of light over dark in the depths of winter. In the United States the book was published as ‘The Visitor’ and the insidious presence of an unwanted guest is chillingly portrayed.

Penelope Lively’s Wild Hunt of Hagworthy also deals with persecution, seen through the eyes of the visiting Lucy. Like Jim in Stag Boy, Kester appears to goad and taunt, and won’t temper what sets him apart. When the vicar resurrects the Horn Dance, the rest of the village boys become malevolent beneath their antler masks, and over a lush and heat-hazed summer an inevitable storm gathers, and Kester becomes the quarry.

So why are these books worthwhile?

For one, it’s the deep sense of place that mark them out: both Poole and Rayner lived around Exmoor and they recreate a rich, sensory experience.

Here’s a genre that explores individuality and the search for identity. As such, characters are given a freedom that adults have only briefly, with parents and responsibilities elsewhere, replaced with relations who aren’t proprietary and whose homes are in wild spaces: urban, institutional lifestyles are removed, leaving ‘holiday’ spaces to explore.

All the books can be said to be ‘anti’ something repressive. Kester won’t hide his contempt for the blinkered outlook of the horsey Mrs Norton-Smith, a caricature of the rural guiding light; Jim (and there’s just a bit of Kes in there I think) is surly at the arrogance of humans setting themselves apart from nature; while a theme of Billy Buck is crowd manipulation.

It’s no wonder that there is much for adults in these books that can still resonate today. Don’t we all often need a space to explore, away from these things? Here the authorial voices aren’t hectoring; they create a world where nothing is yet set in stone, and possibility is king.