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May 2019



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Words and Music, William Mayne

I’ve only just got my mitts on Words and Music after many years of looking for it. I wanted the complete Choir School set but wasn’t prepared to pay the high going rates for a scarce book. At last a very nice copy came up on ebay at what I considered a reasonable price. I snapped it up and read it straight away.

It’s scarce for the reason that it’s generally considered the weakest book in the series. It certainly is an oddity as it’s a book in which almost nothing happens. The boys wake up. The boys get up. The boys wash. The boys go to breakfast. The boys go to lessons, singing practice or whatever is in their very complicated schedule for that day. We learn about whether A or B choir is singing, which boys are in the opera and which in the play. It’s a fictionalised timetable. Yet for me, it works.

The chief characters are Owen (who featured in A Swarm in May, then faded out of the picture), Iddingley and Dubnet. They are now the youngest of the senior boys and share a dormitory with Crew. It’s Crew who provides the psychological interest in this story. He’s missed a lot of the term due to illness and is now suffering, according to Iddingley, from ‘weakness’. He’s always homesick and tearful on the return to school but this term it’s worse than ever and his behaviour becomes increasingly mysterious to his dorm-mates. They set themselves the task of following him about in order to save him from himself.

That’s it, really, apart from some details about the opera which some of the boys are singing in. The conclusion, as ever, is that a choir (a school, society?) is not a group of soloists but a body which only functions when every member is fully engaged. The whole is greater than the parts.

Mayne’s distinctive style (the very short sentences, for instance) can irritate at first but soon seems absolutely right. What he gives us here is a short documentary (it’s very visual) about school life which is completely convincing. There’s an excellent analysis of Mayne’s style and what makes it so original and perfect by Victor Watson in his Reading Series Fiction, a book I wouldn’t be without.

I’ve written previously about Mayne here.
The Choir School books:
A Swarm in May (1955)
Choristers’ Cake (1956)
Cathedral Wednesday (1960)
Words and Music (1963)
The first books in this series and most of his other early books were published by OUP yet Words and Music was published by Hamish Hamilton. The illustrations, by Lynton Lamb, are inferior to C Walter Hodges’ drawings for the other books. Did OUP consider it not up to the others? Did Mayne fall out with his publisher for some reason?


A fictionalised timetable is often exactly what I'm looking for in a book. I shall keep an eye out in case a library near me has a copy. I've only read A Swarm in May, but I remember liking it a lot.
A Swarm in May is wonderful. There may have been library purges because of Mayne's criminal conviction.

Ooh, Westminster has not purged - complete set! Ordering them in now. And I should search for other older children's books while I think of it. What's rare?
Wow, that's great!

Do you like Jane Shaw? House of the Glimmering Light and Highland Holiday both super rare, also Crooked Sixpence (the last Penny book) is hard to find.

Mary Gervaise's three Miranda books (school stories) especially Captain Miranda.

Have you read Jam Tomorrow, Monica Redlich? Lovely, and expensive.

There must be loads more I can't think of just now.
i like Words and Music, but my favourite in the series is Cathedral Wednesday, which I find the most interesting.

William Mayne / OUP

I've just logged in here for the first time in aeons (I already left a similar comment anonymously, but you can discard that).

The story goes that Mayne was dropped from the OUP in 1961 because a member of staff visited his home at the same time he had young girls visiting, and did not like what she saw. As so often at the time, many could guess, but few really understood. Certainly he always had to have a member of Puffin Club staff sitting between him and a child at the Puffin Club events he went to. This is in Nicholas Tucker's 'Independent' piece about Valerie Grove's Kaye Webb biography and the general children's literature culture of the time, which can be read here: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/theres-nuffin-like-a-puffin-the-highs-and-lows-of-childrens-publishing-in-a-sunnier-time-1990629.html

Re: William Mayne / OUP

Thanks for the interesting link. I've read Valerie Grove's book but don't remember the Mayne issue being mentioned. Nicholas Tucker is pretty sound, so almost certainly right.