If there were teenage novels in the 1950s, I never found them. Instead the gap between Last Term at Malory Towers and the foothills of serious literature was plugged, most enjoyably, by period adventure stories. Two types appealed. In the first, fair-haired young Englishmen, armed only with a first-class degree from Cambridge and ‘a little Hindustani’, became unwilling players in the Great Game on the North West Frontier. In the second, a rail journey across between-the-wars Europe plunged ordinary men, often from Haslemere, into a maelstrom of violence and treachery.
These tales were the logical next step from Enid Blyton and followed a similar pattern. After danger and uncertainty, and the demonstration of some personal courage, the status quo is firmly reinstated. Blyton’s triumphal ginger-beer moment becomes the whisky-and-soda conclusion in a Pall Mall club or back in Haslemere. (‘Good trip, darling?’ enquires his wife. ‘Oh, pretty average,’ her spouse somewhat evasively replies.)
I first read Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train when I was 12, and the set-up was instantly recognizable – a disparate group of English people thrown together on a rail journey across a snowy Europe in the early 1930s. Their characters are trenchantly and vividly described. The hero appears to be Carleton Myatt, a young Jewish businessman through whose eyes the narrative first unfolds. There is potential romance in the person of 17-year-old Coral Musker, who is on her way to join a cabaret in Istanbul. Though inexperienced sexually she is not naïve – in her world the price of a virtuous woman is not above rubies, it’s round about the price of a fur coat. There is stooped and grey-faced Richard John, ostensibly an English prep-school master but in reality a Yugoslav patriot called Czinner who is returning to Belgrade in the hope of leading a revolution. Other notable passengers include Quin Savory, a popular Cockney novelist. This thinl
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