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Charles Keeping, Dawn Wind - David Gilmour on Rosemary Sutcliff, The Lantern Bearers - Slightly Foxed Issue 4

Ancient Worlds

Almost all the books I read as a child had belonged to my parents; some had even come from the bookcases of my grandmother’s library. Thus the publication boundaries of my childhood reading stretched from about 1880 to the 1940s, from Stevenson and Rider Haggard to Arthur Ransome and C. S. Forester. Even books given to me had usually been written in ancestral childhoods rather than in my own: Peter Pan, first performed in 1904 when my grandmother was 2; Swallows and Amazons, published in 1930 when my mother was 3.

Both my parents are Anglo-Scots, but my mother’s library was more Scottish, more romantic, more sentimental, more Jacobite. I still have Chatto’s elegant volumes of Margaret Irwin, who wrote novels about Montrose and Mary Queen of Scots, as well as Heinemann’s more austere edition of D. K. Broster’s The Flight of the Heron and other tales of Ewen Cameron which affected me so strongly that even now, on hearing the names, I am instinctively pro-Cameron and anti-Campbell. My father’s books tended to be sturdier and more southern, burly beige tomes of Sapper and A. E. W. Mason, though his library did include Murray’s exquisite leather pocket edition of Arthur Conan Doyle.

Looking at them now, books that I inherited and which now stand on my children’s shelves, I recall years of happy reading and rereading. The pleasure was innocent and so – mostly – were the effects. One could enjoy The Wind in the Willows without knowing it was an allegory of Edwardian England, a tale of how the rise of socialism and plutocracy was threatening the ancient rural values of the riverbank.

Similarly one could go through the whole of Jean de Brunhoff ’s Babar series without realizing that the protagonist was an agent of la mission civilisatrice française, an orphan magnanimously educated by the French who returns to his ravaged country and rules as an enlightened despot, defeating his foes, creating prosperity, encouraging the arts and building a model city. When I was very small I was puzzled by Babar’s status as an orphan because my mother used to turn over two pages together to prevent me seeing the picture of his mother being shot by a white hunter (probably an Englishman). But she did not spare me a more disturbing – and more fascinating – page in the next volume showing a savage sinking his spear into Babar’s bottom.

Yet however innocent the pleasure, all these books were bound to influence the ideas of the child reading them. They naturally and rightly reflected the times in which they were written, the ideas, beliefs and assumptions of eras that had ended long before I was born. All of them had been published when the British Empire still covered a quarter of the globe. I read them in the 1960s when even the African colonies were being given up. By the end of my childhood Britain governed little more than itself, just one per cent of the imperial landmass it had possessed at the same stage of my father’s life.

The late Sixties were of course good years in which to shed assumptions picked up by reading too many adventure stories by Rider Haggard and John Buchan. An enthusiasm for Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen did not go easily with the view that foreigners were funny or that the British Empire was almost a synonym for civilization and enlightenment.

But children who were too young (or too old) for the Sixties could miss out on the corrective. One of my brothers, a devotee of Sapper and Baroness Orczy, thought of himself as a cross between Bulldog Drummond and Sir Percy Blakeney (the Scarlet Pimpernel) – with a dash of James Bond thrown in. Observing that the Bulldog and the Pimpernel got on very well without speaking French – or, in the Pimpernel’s case, pretending not to speak it – he felt he need go no further than match Drummond’s best effort, ‘Nous avons crashé dans un field de rognons.’ Unlike Sir Percy, he did not talk about the French as ‘demned frog-eaters’ but, like my other brothers, he conceived a dislike of garlic and thought it comic and pretentious to try to pronounce a foreign name correctly.

Victorian assumptions can even take hold in the minds of contemporary children who read books of the era. I have a nephew (not the son of Bulldog Blakeney 007) whose eleven years on earth have been divided between Asia, Africa and America. He is as international as a child of British parents can be; in both Jerusalem and Dakar he has distinguished himself at the local French lycée. But he is rather old-fashioned – he devours books not computer games – and proud of his roots. In typical expatriate mode his father encouraged him as a small boy to march about in a kilt and tingle at the skirl of a bagpipe.

Not long ago the boy became enraptured by G. A. Henty, the author of such novels as Under Drake’s Flag and With Kitchener in the Soudan. Although Henty was barely in fashion even when my grandfathers were children, his books still teach an important lesson: that the British beat the French in battles, in India (With Clive in India) and Canada (With Wolfe in Canada) as well as in Spain and at Waterloo, the battle Wellington allegedly claimed was won on the playing-fields of Eton.

Of course Wellington did not make such a silly claim: the college did not have playing-fields in his day. But even clever children believe what they read in books, and Henty’s view of the world has influenced my nephew. He now wants to abandon the lycée and go to Eton. A curious omission of my childhood reading was Kipling. I used to think his absence from my father’s shelves was the conscious decision of a decolonizing admirer of Iain Macleod, the Tory minister who persuaded Macmillan that Britain should pull out of Africa. In fact the reason was far more banal: my aunt had simply appropriated his collection of The Jungle Books and The Just So Stories. The result was that I did not read a lot of Kipling until I was writing a biography of him in my forties; I was reading about Mowgli for the first time while, on the other side of the fireplace, my son was working on a dissertation about Henry James and Thomas Hardy. My late acquaintanceship did convince me, however, that he would be a better influence on children than Sapper or Buchan or Baroness Orczy. Despite his reputation, Kipling was no jingoist, no chronicler of Homeric British victories and heroic island defeats. For that kind of thing one should go to Tennyson.

One of the few contemporary writers I read as a child was the wonderful Rosemary Sutcliff, Kipling’s only real disciple as a writer of pre-medieval stories about Britain. Any book token I received between 1962 and 1966 was spent on those delightful volumes, with their powerful and distorted illustrations by Charles Keeping, which the Oxford University Press used to publish for 12s 6d.

Our favourite childhood books, like our favourite childhood places, are dangerous to return to as adults. The desecration of landscapes has its counterpart in the disenchantment our grown-up eyes find with the shallow, sentimental over-writing of our early heroes. I have since cringed at the dialogues of Orczy, at the violence of Sapper, at the smugness and tedium of Buchan (how boring The Thirty-Nine Steps is compared to its film versions; no wonder directors feel the need to add characters and rewrite the plot).

I was thus apprehensive, for my sake as well as my children’s, when I encouraged them to read Rosemary Sutcliff. I wondered whether I would still be drawn to her ancient worlds, her vanished races among the Caledonian Forest, her harpers and her war hosts, her bonfire festivals of Lammas and Beltane, her mead horns at Saxon feastings, her evocations of the last of Roman Britain.

I need not have worried. The magic was still there. In his pantheon of literary heroes and heroines, Giuseppe di Lampedusa reserved the highest places for the authors he called creatori di mondi. Rosemary Sutcliff was such a writer, a creator of worlds, lost worlds, often worlds of lost causes, of the departing legions, of Arthurian Britain, of the last stand of the Lakeland Norsemen against the knights of William Rufus. But they are not simply worlds of battle-axes and war horns. Her imagination encompassed the natural world, a feeling for its rites and a knowledge of its workings. Some of her most beautiful passages describe the changing of seasons, the ways of wolf packs, the flights of wild geese, the solitudes of the east coast marshes. And no one (except perhaps Kipling) has handled the death of a devoted dog better than she did in Dawn Wind.

Rereading Sutcliff was not merely a pleasure. It made me understand how much her writing had influenced me – without my realizing it. Her way of looking at a landscape, her feel for the forces that fashioned it, her understanding of the people who were its inhabitants – all these, I can see now, have influenced the way I look at landscapes and perhaps the way I have described them.

Writing about Kipling in 1960, Rosemary Sutcliff lamented the fact that his Puck stories, Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies, were ‘in almost total eclipse’. So alas are her own tales, the best of them stretching back from 1066 through the Saxon invasions to the Bronze Age. They are under-read and under-regarded, and the OUP editions have been replaced by meagre unillustrated paperbacks.

Learning history by rote, memorizing the order of kings and queens, has mercifully been abolished, but it has been replaced by something worse: history taught on an unstructured basis of unconnected themes that leaves children recognizing only two epochs divided by the railway age, their own and ‘the olden days’.

Children would have a far better idea of history if they read Kipling and Sutcliff, whose writings give a magical sense of a multi-layered past that any intelligent child can understand. They would not learn that the British are the best, that languages are unimportant or that you can defeat the greatest general in the world if you learn to play the Field Game at Eton. But they would acquire a real sense of the past, of its intricacies and connections, of the way one small island has been able to renew itself generation after generation.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 4 © David Gilmour 2004

Rosemary Sutcliff once admitted that she could not get inside ‘the medieval mind’. She was at her best writing about Roman Britain and Saxon England, two worlds combined in The Lantern Bearers. Other fine novels of this era still in print include The Eagle of the Ninth and its sequel The Silver Branch. ‘The Builder of Roads and Drainer of Marshes’ in Outcast is clearly inspired by Kipling’s Roman centurion who pleads with the Legate not to send him to Rome ‘where laurel crowns are won’:

Let me work here for Britain’s sake – at any task you will –
A marsh to drain, a road to make or native troops to drill.

About the contributor

At the age of 14 David Gilmour abandoned Rosemary Sutcliff and embraced – in adolescent dialectical confusion – Hermann Hesse and Ernest Hemingway. He did not, however, read this humourless pair to his children.

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