“Are these our flames?” he asked. “I mean, are they our own?” “The blue ones are yours and the orange ones are mine.” “And the candle-flames?” “All yours.”
(Tolly and Mrs Oldknow before the fireside in The Children of Green Knowe)
It is odd seeing, for the first time, a place that you have visited many times before in imagination. As I stepped out of the taxi on a bright summer’s day, I was confronted with the familiar outline of a building apparently materialised from illustrations in old children’s books. There had been a certain amount of confusion in getting there. “The Manor House?” repeated the taxi-driver, with bafflement, when I gave the official address. “A children’s writer lived there,” I explained. “Oh! You wantLucy Boston’s house,” he said, as if the author of the Green Knowe series had not passed away in 1990 at the age of 97. Then the car trundled down a long green avenue to a garden brilliant with flowers and dotted with Boston’s famous topiary shapes, bordering the river Ouse.
Nowadays the house is open to the public for a fee, but it is not part of the National Trust. Tours are given by Boston’s daughter-in-law Diana Boston, widow of Peter Boston, the book’s illustrator, and this lends the experience an extraordinary intimacy. (Interestingly, the books were very successful in Japan, and for a while coachloads of Japanese tourists would arrive in the village to see the house and gardens, perhaps attracted by the novels’ focus on the lives of ancestors.)
The tours are roughly divided between three areas of interest. There is the house itself, in parts up to 900 years old and a case study in English architectural history, one of the oldest continuously inhabited homes in England. Then there are Boston’s extraordinarily beautiful, eccentric and largely ex tempore patchworks (also, incidentally, extremely popular in Japan, returning the compliment of Boston’s intense interest in Japanese culture), which give expression to the same imaginative interplay of light and dark that can be found in her first and most intriguing book, The Children of Green Knowe. (Boston brought the same unorthodox, fey creativity to everything she touched, as demonstrated even by the topiary shapes on the lawn. At first two rows of rather spiky circular bushes which looked for all the world as if they had escaped from Alice in Wonderland’s game of hedgehog croquet, they were then replaced, in the national tidal wave of Coronation fever, with the unusual, slightly lopsided crowns and orbs.) Finally, of course, there are the books themselves. The most interesting aspect of the tour for a lover of the novels is that the house seems to be frozen in time. Downstairs, notebooks in Boston’s careful longhand contain the first draft of the scene in which the protagonist Tolly arrives in the middle of a great flood, rowed by the family servant Boggis to the house --a glowing Ark in the midst of wild waters-- where Tolly is greeted by his great-grandmother Mrs Oldknow. The wooden cherubs that feature in the illustrations are still dotted over the same archways and doorways, one of them cradling a bird’s nest from sixty years ago.
This emphasis on tradition is all the more striking when one reflects on the fact that Boston did not inherit the house, but bought it and decorated it with her own belongings following the breakup of her marriage, then proceeded (perhaps significantly) to invest it in her novels with an all-enveloping sense of warm continuity, including the friendly shades of child inhabitants long since gone, fleeting laughter and music around corners and down passageways. In Tolly’s room upstairs, visitors can see the toy-chest which, in the book, belongs to the vanished children, containing Alexander’s flute, the dominoes, and Linnet’s book. Toby’s Japanese wooden mouse and the two china dogs guard the dresser. It is an eerie experience, made all the more intriguing by the information that the local villagers were scandalised when Boston bought the house in the 1940s, because it was rumoured to harbour a poltergeist. Mrs Oldknow’s occasional mistaking of Tolly for Toby is not, the book suggests, evidence of senility but an acknowledgment of a deeper truth.
Boston had a Quaker education, and its impact on her is suggested by the fact that the ‘former’ children’s Catholic religion is presented as a normality requiring no explanation or justification, a radical suggestion even for the 1950s. By contrast, The Children of Green Knowe contains a section (“The Story of Black Ferdie”) which revives some harmful clichés about English Romany. This may have been the prevailing attitude of the time, but it is surprising given Boston’s highly original and generous mind, and does not fit with the rest of the narrative. A similar disharmony is evident, sometimes, in The Chimneys of Green Knowe (recently filmed as From Time to Time) about the experiences of a West Indian child, Jacob, brought by a later Captain Oldknow to be his blind daughter’s companion. While the books usually portray the house as a haven for children displaced in one way or another (Tolly himself, and, in the later books, the refugees Oskar and Ping), Jacob seems to spend most of the novel being helplessly buffeted by cruelties both petty and horrific. For Jacob, the house is not a fire-lit refuge, and so the novel lacks the atmosphere of Boston’s best work and, indeed, the meaning. The explanation for this authorial decision may be that it is extremely difficult to sustain a focus on happiness as a narrative preoccupation, as Boston does so brilliantly in The Children of Green Knowe, despite its darker aspects.
This does not, however, detract in any way from the achievement of her first novel. It may be a ghost story, but The Children of Green Knowe is primarily about the discovery of familial love in a lonely childhood of boarding-school isolation: the instant bond between Tolly and the matriarch Mrs Oldknow, mirrored in the attachments that he sees in the ‘other’ family. It is an almost flawless marriage of warmth with the uncanny, evoking a very English haziness about the behaviour of time, the past unspooling again and again in the present, the affection of vanished centuries transcending death.
The novel also contains a fascinating treatment of space. The aspect that struck me on my visit to the house was how much smaller it was than I had imagined it, and I realised that this was because the book was written from a child’s eye-level perspective --a remarkable and rather difficult feat for an adult imagination. When I mentioned this to sometime Albion writer Peter Higgins (now himself a fantasy author), he kindly commented that I had hit on a very important idea, what he terms ‘little-bigness,’ as a phenomenon in fifties and sixties English children’s literature: the way small spaces are imaginatively expanded “for wide-feeling epic adventuring,” as he put it. The more I thought about it, the more I saw in his elaboration of my remark. Green Knowe is not simply a house set somewhat apart from the tiny Huntingdonshire village into which the Oldknow family occasionally venture. Rather, it is a world of its own, governed by the everlasting memory, loving-kindness and infinite wisdom of the godlike Mrs Oldknow --a geography of secret nooks and crannies where previous generations have left messages and gifts, communications which collapse the centuries like Linnet’s game of cascading dominoes. As Peter Higgins noted, Green Knowe is not the only tiny commonwealth in English literature of that period, which prompted me to think of Tom’s Midnight Garden, for example, or the same author’s Minnow on the Say, or perhaps even the wood- and river-settings of the ‘BB’ books. However, no novel realises such a setting more magically than The Children of Green Knowe.
As I sat in the hidden garden afterwards, the sound of boats floated from the river lapping against the meadow, while the wood pigeons cooed in the trees around me and dragonflies darted and winked in the sunlight. Time seemed to slow and then hang suspended in a way that, perhaps, Boston would have recognised.--Isabel Taylor
A dog-eared No. 62 edition of the Poetry Society Bulletin, printed in 1969, seems at first glance to be pretty near the mark when it describes the Terry Street poems of Douglas Dunn as treating “urban, working class life with a rare honesty, precision and compassion.” Yet, after reading even just a sample of these portraits of street life in a low-rent Hull terrace, their assessment of the work selected as the “Autumn Choice” of that year can feel just a touch prescribed, perhaps overly informed by the eventful ten years of literary and cinematic culture just gone by.
A pantheon of boots and overalls, But when you see them, home early from work, Or at their Sunday leisure, they are too tired And bored to look long at comfortably.
-- MEN OF TERRY STREET
Dunn was born in 1942 in Renfrewshire, Scotland. After an initial education north of the Border, he studied for and obtained a first class honours degree in English at the University of Hull. Here, he worked in the University library under Philip Larkin (his admirer and mentor, although Larkin grew disillusioned by the direction of Dunn’s later, far more politicised work). Dunn resided in Hull at the time of the publication of his Terry Street poems. As one would imagine, he spent time at the heart of the community about which he wrote (living for two years in a directly connecting terrace). “It was never my intention,” he said, “that the poems be read as social or any other kind of protest, nor was I recommending Terry Street as a better because simpler way of life. My experience of the place made it impossible for me to do either of these things. The poems are not slum-pastorals.”
All windows open, this hot night, And the sleepless, smoking in the dark, Making small red lights at their mouths, Count the years of their marriages.
-- FROM THE NIGHT WINDOW
Far removed from some ideal of an enchanting workers’ paradise, Terry Street to Dunn became a place of what he called “sad sanity”. It was a trap, in which a man’s poverty could make him appear foolish in addition to making his life uncomfortable. “I came to dislike Terry Street,” Dunn admitted, although he did remain in Hull. Detritus and carousing are observed in the Terry Street poems with an air of mild disapproval – and yet there are, here and there, daubs of beauty enough to reveal affection and a generosity of spirit. In After Closing Time Dunn portrays the “agents of rot,” singing, smoking, and laden down with bottles in a “staggered group ten minutes before snow.” There is, he lets us know, some magic in it all. Elsewhere there are shades of Aspidistra-era Orwell and the dreams of brand-name modernity that he depicted so well, particularly in The Patricians, which, with its visions of elongated underwear hanging in the yard from sagging clotheslines, informs us that “the other stuff they take in bundles to the Bendix.” Dunn did not view Terry Street as unique. Although he wanted more than anything to understand the familiar and the ordinary, at the same time he realised that place has little to do with it. This scene, from New Light on Terry Street, hardly screams “Hull”. It could have been staged in the East End of London, or just as easily in a row of Headingley back-to-backs:
Up terraces of slums, young gum-chewing mothers sit Outside on their thrones of light. Their radios, Inside or placed on window ledges, grow hot With sun and electricity.
Teetering into the realms of the pastoral, perhaps --even tweeness, as cats proceed to take a nap in the “furry shade” – until, in the jarring conclusion, Dunn positions himself as one of the men and can only reflect that “you hardly notice you have grown too old to cry out for change.” It’s an expression of remorse at that particular brand of self-defeating, this-is-the-way-it’s-always-been mentality that thankfully feels out of date in modern England. Nonetheless, this is what Dunn found in Terry Street: a locally-sanctioned disposition that had seeped into generations and infected everything, as reported via the lines of Incident in the Shop. “Her husband beats her. Old women/Talk of it behind her back, watching her.”
Things have moved on from Terry Street. Physically it is still there, now home, in fact, to a support centre for homeless people. Hull, meanwhile, is to be the UK City of Culture in 2017, an achievement that has resulted in an outbreak of mission statements and aggressively positive tag-lines. The past is ours; The future is ours; It’s our time. To browse the official website is to hurl oneself into a colourful bombardment of messages; it does not take long to happen upon a number of quotes from Larkin, who said a few usefully positive things about the place in his time. It seems highly unlikely, however, that the poems of his protégé Dunn will be resurrected. He’s not from Hull, is one thing. He seems to be around, though, floating in the ether of the first three lines of this extract from Days by Larkin – a poem currently employed in Hull’s 2017 publicity campaign. The rest of the verse seems to point at bright times ahead for one of England’s least understood cities.
Days are where we live. They come, they wake us Time and time over. They are to be happy in: Where can we live but days?