In most childhood games, the first thing you need to do is eliminate the parents. You can’t be an outlaw or have adventures if you have parents to spoil the excitement. My sisters and I were often on the run or in hiding, and for that we had to be orphans. Our best hideaway was a ratty loft floored with bantam droppings, where we constructed a den out of old packing cases and smoked pipes stuffed with the white pith from inside reed stalks. We would pull up the ladder, and our parents never came near us.
All the best children’s writers understand this and get rid of the parents as soon as possible. J. K. Rowling makes Harry Potter an orphan, housed in a cupboard under the stairs by the awful Dursleys. C. S. Lewis evacuates the Pevensey children from London during the Second World War to stay with an old Professor, whose spare-room wardrobe is the portal to Narnia; their parents never feature. The British Empire provided ample opportunities for such scenarios. Aged 6, Kipling was packed off from India to Southsea to board with a brutal foster family, as immortalized in his tragic story ‘Baa Baa, Black Sheep’ (1888). In Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (1905) and The Secret Garden (1911), the young heroines Sara Crew and Mary Lomax – both spoilt, and sickly from the climate – return from India to make their way in England, parentless and alone.
Another powerful motivation in my childhood was to get out of school. Anything to avoid watery fish on Fridays or being smacked over the head for making a mistake in maths. Later, as a boarding-school teenager regularly punished for ‘dumb insolence’, my aim was to get out of church, to which we went in crocodile, wearing green pill-box hats. One Sunday some friends and I answered the register, then sidled behind a curtain; while the rest of the school trudged off down the main road we spent a blissful hour or two roaming the woods.
The magic of such adventures is captured in one of the great children’s books, BB’s Brendon Chase, first published in 1944 but set thirty or so years earlier. It’s the end of the Easter holidays, and Robin, John and Harold Hensman can’t face returning to their boarding-school. Their ‘people’ are in India, and for years they’ve been entrusted to the care of their fussy maiden aunt, assisted by the vicar. Banchester isn’t bad as English public schools go, but they are country boys who dread being trapped in a classroom when summer approaches and the great outdoors calls. They hatch a plan. They will escape and hide out like Robin Hood and his merry men in the eleven-thousand-acre forest of Brendon Chase.
This they do for all of one summer, autumn and winter, living feral in a hollow oak, defying not only parents and school, but society generally – the national press, the police, the church, outraged locals, conformity, class and, above all, the superficial niceties of urban civi-lization. Like Henry Thoreau’s Walden, or Life in the Woods, theirs is a declaration of independence, a voyage of self-discovery, a satire and a sort of manual of self-sufficiency and bushcraft, as well as a rip-roaring tale of hide-and-seek. Above all it is a poetic evocation of the natural world, shot through with nostalgia for the freedom and simplicity of childhood, and for unwrecked pre-First World War rural England.
BB is famous for his tales of the last gnomes of England, particularly the Carnegie Medal-winning The Little Grey Men (see Slightly Foxed no. 55). In that book and its sequel, Down the Bright Stream, three brothers leave home and survive in the wild on luck, their wits and their hunting skills. While the mouse-size gnomes are immersed in nature, personally confronting its hazards, to me the reality of the Hensman brothers made Brendon Chase equally – if not more – compelling. I was too big and clumping to travel as the gnomes did up the Folly Brook by coracle, but I could imagine living like the brothers in a hollow oak, trapping rabbits and swimming in the Blind Pool.
My mother gave me Brendon Chase for my eighth birthday, and I reread it so often that the cover shredded. Even in 1968 its world seemed dated – the boys say ‘Rot!’ and ‘By Jove!’, and happily rob the nest of a rare honey buzzard. Their attitude towards ‘the fair sex’ is equally questionable: Aunt Ellen – who employs a cook, a governess, a gardener, a morning maid and a ‘tweeny’ – provides insufferable ‘petticoat’ government. But I accepted that the book was of its time, and its descriptions of the countryside are as vivid today as they ever were – more so, given how much of it is now buried under tarmac.
Brendon Chase is also full of memorable characters. ‘The Whiting’ is an absent-minded vicar so passionate about entomology that he forgets everything in pursuit of an elusive Wood White or a Purple Emperor. Then there’s old Smokoe Joe, a gruff charcoal-burner with a gargantuan nose who lives in the Chase; and the boys’ nemesis, the ponderous local bobby, Sergeant Bunting. In a wonderful scene Bunting, humiliated by his failure to catch the boys, cycles on a sweltering summer’s day into the Chase – convinced they are hiding there somewhere – and decides to cool off in the Blind Pool. He removes his helmet and frees his feet from their sweaty prisons, poses on the end of a log, naked, white and pot-bellied, and plunges in. He turns on his back and floats, staring into the summer blue. It’s heaven. He emerges to find . . . well, I won’t spoil it. But imagine a policeman cycling ten miles home in nothing but helmet, boots and white gloves.
Of course, the book’s main focus is on the fugitives themselves, their relationships with each other, and how they grow and change during their adventures. They overcome their own fears and discover things about themselves. They squabble and occasionally fight, but they share solid British values of fair play, honour and pluck. We follow them as they learn how to shoot and become skilled at fishing, tracking, snaring and skinning. They grow alert, sharp-eyed, almost subsumed in nature. But this is not over-idealized: times are hard when winter arrives, and they often miss the domestic world.
On a midnight foray back to the Dower House for supplies, Robin grabs Thoreau’s Walden, and Richard Jefferies’ The Amateur Poacher and Bevis: The Story of a Boy. Big John takes Huckleberry Finn, and Little John, aka Harold, the youngest at 12, Tom Sawyer. All these were BB’s favourites. In some ways Brendon Chase is a portrait of his own childhood, as described in his autobiography A Child Alone (1978). As a boy (born in 1905) he was considered too delicate to be sent away to boarding-school, so he grew up roaming around the Northamptonshire countryside alone with his BB wildfowling gun (hence his pseudonym), nesting, fishing and poaching. Robin, the eldest at 15, is most like him, a thoughtful, solitary boy who likes nothing more than to wander alone, lost in a kind of ecstatic stupor.
Like Thoreau and Jefferies, BB writes precisely and beautifully about nature, and nature lies at the core of the book. When the Reverend Whiting goes butterfly hunting in Brendon Chase, we share his excitement.
The meadow browns were hatching, they were bob, bobbing everywhere, nothing but meadow browns, drab meadow browns. They sat on the warm grass and seemed to look at him out of their cheeky painted eyes at the tips of their wings . . . And then . . . he saw it, quite suddenly he saw it, the glorious regal insect of his dreams!
The Purple Emperor is flying down a ride, then soaring heavenwards to the top of an oak. ‘There he watched it, flitting round one of the topmost sprays far out of reach, mocking him, the Unattainable, the Jewel, the King of butterflies!’ BB went on to be pivotal in the conservation of the Purple Emperor. Unlike the vegetarian Thoreau, he described himself as a ‘countryman’, by which he meant not just observing and exploring, but being active in country pursuits. He saw no contradiction between loving nature, conserving it and killing it, because the killing involved becoming like the creature he stalked, behaving like it, and steeping himself in its ways. He was a hunter-gatherer, killing only for the pot.
In Brendon Chase he unflinchingly portrays the gutting or ‘drawing’ of birds and rabbits, and when the boys kill and butcher a pig there is no horror or squeamishness. This is about survival, and expertise. You singe the pig’s hairs, grind down a salt lick you steal from a field, dig out a hollow trunk, fill it with water, dissolve the salt lick in it, and steep the pig for seven days. Then you dangle the hams over a fire and smoke them, taking care to do this at night so as not to reveal your location. The result is bacon more delicious than you have ever tasted. BB’s knowledge of flora and fauna is equally manifest. He never talks down to his readers, describing and naming each plant and animal in detail. Although as a child I didn’t understand it all, I was bewitched by the smells and sounds, the intricate details and the sense of being steeped in a place, watchful and alive, full of wonder.
One of the book’s highlights are its illustrations. So few book illustrations capture what the reader imagines, but in this case we trust them because they are by Denys Watkins-Pitchford, who was of course BB himself. After training at Northampton School of Art and the Royal Academy, and briefly in Paris, he was for seventeen years the assistant art master at Rugby, until he took up writing and illustrating full-time. For Brendon Chase he used black-and-white scraperboard, a delicate form in which to convey the dappled light and shade of the forest. We see the sun shafting across the trunk of the hollow oak and glancing off the Blind Pool with a tree reflected in its depths. A few deft scratches outline the hirsute pig and John standing over it with his gun, looking both triumphant and sorry. The most dramatic illustration is of Robin climbing a Scots pine in search of the honey buzzard’s egg. We look skywards to glimpse him as a tiny figure high in the branches, the nest a bundle of sticks overhead, and we can imagine his vertiginous horror as he surveys the world below him.
The scraperboard is also a perfect medium for the monochrome worlds of night and snow, creating a mysterious, even mystical quality. In fact BB’s images are as lively as his text: each feeds the other, and both express his exceptional powers of observation and his bond with the natural world. His father was a vicar, but it was in nature, it seems, that he put his own faith, even when, poignantly, he saw that world diminishing under his gaze.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 59 © Helena Drysdale 2018