Page 6, 28th January 1983

28th January 1983
Page 6
Page 6, 28th January 1983 — Animal magic theme for modern children's fable

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Animal magic theme for modern children's fable

THE POET George MacBeth has written a splendid children's book, The Rectory Mice (Hutchinson, £5.95), which. like all the best books for children, works on several levels of understanding and speaks to adults as well.

Its story has a rich background ,of knowledge, understanding and feeling that, even though it isn't spelt out in great detail, must certainly enlarge and enrich the child's percept ion beyond the limitations of mouse-life.

Not that his mice in a Norfolk rectory during the First World War live narrow or even particularly mouse-like lives.

They are alert observers of the human scene around them — of objects and furniture, the topography of house and neighbourhood, human behaviour and the personality of all local humans: the rector and his wife, their ghastly young son, the servants — as well as knowing very well, from -their sharp ears and their perusal of any scrap of newsprint that comes their way, what is happening in the great world.

Their characters and presences are as distinct as those of human and (in the case of the humans in this particular story) much more sympathetic.

Michaelmas, the father, his son Tamberlaine who dies, the missing son Horatius who, after years presumed dead, turns up to take his brother's place, blind but still beloved: all these are breathing, credible, likeable characters who live, not at what one would usually consider mouse-level, but with a fullness that can suggest pathos, love, loss, almost tragedy. A fine book and a glorious read.

Colin Dann's Fox Feud (Hutchinson, £5.50) is also about humanised animals, those of two earlier books, The Animals of Farthing Wood, which won the Arts Council UI National Book Award for Children's Literature in 1980 (arousing a good deal of controversy in doing so, I must admit), and its sequel, In the Grip of Winter.

Here we are on a much lower level from George MacBeth's. The qualities needed for writing about humanised animals are (not surprisingly) those needed for writing about humans, since they are in fact humans in animal dress, with the same characteristics and even recognisable attitudes of class and culture.

There is all the difference in the world between an animal story that takes its main character as an animal — like Tarka the Otter, say — and one that simply has recognisable humans in animal situations and with animal names, like The Wind in the Willows.

Colin Dann's books come into the second category, and his treatment of Fox and Badger, Mole and Weasel, Tawny Owl and Rabbit. is not bad but not outstanding. Pleasant but prosy, a little uninspired, his community of Farthing Wood animals in its new home in White Deer Park seems closer to the Archers than to more inspired groups like the rabbits of Waters/tip Down.

Anne Digby's Into the Fourth at Trebizon (Granada, £4.95), the eighth in a series of novels about a smart girls' school, is something of a modern anachronism, a strange mixture of old and new which deserves a pat on the back for at least trying to revive the school story, and to marry the old certainties of school life with an overwhelmingly intrusive outside world.

To me, it seems strung uneasily between them and, as an example of the school story genre, a mere curiosity. But other Trebizon books have had high praise from reviewers whose opinion I value, so perhaps this one is just a bit below the usual standard.

Its 13-year-old fourth formers mix yesterday and today in their tastes and life-styles. They are mad about hockey and tennis and discuss hockey matches as wearisomely as any old-style schoolgirl in a 'twenties story; but they also have permanent boy-friends (the relationship is never spelt out, or what it involves) at the nearby boys' school, whose rugby matches they go by the coachload to cheer at weekends.

This sort of thing has a rather American flavour, I feel. Rebecca and Tish are the main girls, with three other cosy friends in a shared dormitory, till Swedish Ingrid, a "snow queen", beautiful, cold, narcissistic and nasty, arrives to disrupt things.

Then she leaves, and all's friendly and cheerful again. It all sounds weirdly familiar, from long-ago school stories, and just as weirdly contemporary, from something like the teenage magazines.

Anyone who knows Sheila Sancha's The Castle Story, a delightfully arranged book showing how lifc went on in a medieval castle, and how its romantic-looking architecture was in fact entirely functional, will greet The Luttrell Village (Collins, £5.95) with excitement.

And here it is again, lively, acceptable, almost recognisable medieval life, though quite differently treated from the way it was in the earlier books. Sir Geoffrey Lutterell -tiwned the

Lincolnshire village of Gerneham in the 14th century and commissioned a psalter (now in the British Mucsum) which, in a calendar of the seasons, shows him and his family and villagers throughout the year.

Mrs. Sancha spent three years reconstructing the country life of the lime from the Luttrell psaltar, the village, as is it now, and archaeological evidence, and has put her finds together to make a wonderfully interesting, attractive and instructive book, meant perhaps for children but suited to any age-group.

Here is the year's cycle of rural events, from sowing through harvest to threshing; and the other activities alongside, all those of a selfcontained community that must keep things going by its own efforts: the work of smith and wheelwright and carpenter, cooper and hedger and basketmaker; tree felling and all the work connected with timber — pollarding and coppicing choosing the right wood for particular building jobs; the care of sheep, goats and pigs, oxen and poultry, milking, shearing, building work, vegetable growing, slaughtering and preserving, clothes and shoemaking.

We also see life in manor and church, inside the poorer houses, at times of festival and rejoicing. It shows an enviably inter-locked community but if you were one of the villeins or cottars, owned in serf-like conditions by your lord, things can't have been so rosy.

But they were changing: only six generations, if I remember rightly, divided a villein of about this time from his descendant, Elizabeth I.

Text and drawings combine here to produce a clear and fascinating picture of late medieval English life, in a most imaginative and stimulating book.

In Jack and the Magic Stove (Hutchinson, £4.50) Elizabeth Beresford has retold a traditional story about the boy who catches a talking fish and is promised the fulfillment of all his wishes if only he will throw him back into the water

Jack throws him, and true enough all his bizarre wishes conic true, hc marries his princess and they live happily ever after with their seven children. The great point ahoet this simple tale is Rita van Bilsen's fascinating, detailed, warmly coloured and sometimes almost Breughel-like illustrations.

Fiona Moodie's The Sugar Prince (Hutchinson, £4.95) is a similar fairy tale, with rather more interesting psychological truths tucked away in it. The princess refuses her suitors and fashions a husband out of sugar.

He's as sweet as can be, never answers hack or contradicts her, and lets her play with him like a large, delicate doll. Pretending to be the sugar prince is her reallife lover, Prince Caspian, with whom, in the end, she faces unsugary real life.

This time the author illustrates, in a rather theatrical, or perhaps balletic, manner.

Ludwig Bechstein was a collector of traditional folktales in Germany and the publishers compare him with the Grimm brothers and Hans Anderson. His Three Fairy Tales (Hutchinson, £4.95) consists of three small books in a case, beautifully bound in green, blue and brown, with charming end

papers and extremely interesting, handsome illustrations by Jean Clavcric.

"The Giant Lottery Ticket", "The Hunchbacked Musician" and "The Horses in the Attic" make a delightful little set of really attractive books.

Of Jack Harvey's Gilbert anti the Bicycle (Hutchinson, £3.95) I cannot say the same. This is the story of a small frog called Gilbert and a hedgehog without prickles, both of whom feel depressed.

Gilbert puts the prickles back on the hedgehog and saves some other frogs from a predatory heron, thus becoming a hero and feeling less depressed. Ugly pictures and a very silly text make this my least favourite of the picture books.

Ray Wild's A car called Maurice (Collins, £2.95) is in a series of "Read and Explain Books". This one is clearly saying something about role reversal as well as car engines. since it's Mum who takes the engine out of the car and puts everything to rights, then puts it back again; Mum who lies under the car and tinkers with it, and cleans the tools and knows what's what, while Dad merely produces a meal for her.

It's quite a nicely produced little book but it doesn't say enough to explain (since that seems to be the object) what's gone wrong with the car.

Willard Price has written a large number of travel books for adults and fourteen adventure stories for boys, and My Own Life of Adventure (Cape, £5.95) is a combination of the two. "This is not my life story," he writes at the beginning. [It] gives you some of the exciting experiences, the thrills, that come now and then in a life of travel and adventure."

In other words, it gives the highlights, leaving out the slog that is much of a travel writer's life.

Willard Price is now 95 and since he decided, 90 years ago in Canada, to become an explorer, he has been to 148 countries and gone round the world three times, by camel, elephant and bicycle, by the more usual forms of transport, plane, train, car and innumerable ships and boats: junk and riverboat, canoe and coracle, Brixham trawler and Egyptian felucca.

lie crossed the Atlantic steerage with Italian immigrants for £8, was almost captured by pirates, visited Dr Schweitzer in Africa, saw head-shrinkers at work in the upper Amazon region, and was cheerfully involved with, wild and often dangerous animals and reptiles all over the place. "Now 1 am content to rest on my oars, or rather my paddle," says Mr Price, "and let the world go by."

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