April 1st, 2010


William Mayne

The children’s author William Mayne has died, aged eighty two. There’s a very brief report in The Times here and more detail on the Liberal England blog here. There’s rather a deafening silence from the obituary columns (please tell me if I’m wrong). This is probably because in 2004 he was sent to prison for sexually abusing under-age girls. No one could dislike child abuse more than I do; it gives me the horrors. But I don’t think it invalidates his work. Knowing what we do nowadays, would you let your daughter pose for Lewis Carroll? Almost certainly not but would you therefore stop your children reading Alice?

I’m the right age to have read many of his early books as they came out. They were exactly the kinds of books librarians liked so it was easy to borrow them. I loved them and I think it was the language that engaged me. The World Upside Down, The Member for the Marsh, A Grass Rope, Underground Alley,The Rolling Season: I read the lot. When I stopped going to the children’s library I stopped reading Mayne. As he wrote about 100 books that means a huge gap in my reading; I’ve never read any of the popular Hob stories, for instance. Years later, when I was grown up, I read Earthfasts (1966) for the first time and thought it was terrific; I still admire it very much.

My favourite of his books is still A Swarm in May (1955) the first in what is now known as the Choir School quartet. They are set in a school based on The King’s School, Canterbury, which Mayne himself attended. ETA Wrong Bong! Please see better-informed comment below. ASIM was followed by Choristers' Cake and Cathedral Wednesday. I have all these but the last book, Words and Music is almost impossible to find and I’m not prepared to fork out the necessary for what is generally considered the weakest book in the series. In her wonderful Intent upon Reading (1961), Margery Fisher includes these books in her chapter on school stories and devotes three pages to them. She writes: 'the dialogue is curiously formalized and yet so apposite that it gets nearer to the real talk of boys than anything I have read later thanTom Sawyer.'
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