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.

Running with the deer – 1971 in children’s literature

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.

The easy listening sounds of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

He went, like one that hath been stunne’d

And is of sense forlorn:

A sadder and a wiser man

He rose the morrow morn.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Here’s a small cinematic gem of a music video – an autumn afternoon of pale sunlight, the air perhaps smoky with bonfires, and the trees open up onto some easterly, estuaried coast… where some bloke sits absorbed in his copy of the Ancient Mariner, studiously ignoring the society beauty in a ballgown to his left, singing away by herself to the rocks. This is not rocks and roll.

Described by the band themselves as a cross between the theme from Midnight Cowboy and the signature tune from Last of the Summer Wine, ‘Forever Blue’ could have been written by Burt Bacharach and scored by Jimmy Webb (of Wichita Lineman fame and various easy listening favourites) to make it a hit from 1968 that never was.

It’s actually from 1989, and was scored by Jimmy Webb, for Swing Out Sister’s LP Kaleidoscope World, a defiant reclamation of easy listening that echoed the panoramic split-screen world of the film The Thomas Crown Affair and vintage Martini adverts. Back then I used to think it sat uneasily next to my Smiths and New Order records but recently Swing Out Sister performed Morrissey’s ‘This Charming Man’, in French, and seem perfect bedfellows.

Swing Out Sister are playing at this year’s Vintage Festival at Boughton House, Northamptonshire, alongside Nouvelle Vague and Saint Etienne on July 15th.

Oh, just discovered someone’s already blogged a bit of an appreciation of Swing Out Sister, and this song in particular.

It turns out this video was filmed in the Quantocks, another path on this blog that by accident ends up towards Somerset and Exmoor – so nothing easterly or estuaried about it… The church is All Saints at Aisholt; the pub is the Carew Arms at Crowcombe; and the road at the beginning is at Holford Combe. And that explains the Coleridge connection too, as he lived nearby. The coastal scenes may be around Kilve.