‘Over the last few weeks I’ve been rediscovering an almost forgotten aspect of childhood in the company of two very exciting young men: Phillip D’Aubigny, Knight Crusader and soldier in the company of Richard Coeur de Lion, and Harry Carey, Lieutenant on the newly-built sailing ship the Hawk, bound for the Bermuda coast in pursuit of Brazilmen (galleons laden with Spanish goods). I’ve trudged across unforgiving deserts, my mouth parched, pulled down by the weight of my battle gear, and swarmed aloft with the younkers to scan the horizon for a trace of land; I’ve braved the wrath of Saladin and earned the approval of Sir Francis Drake. That I’ve done all this from the comfort of my armchair has done nothing to prevent the bated breath, or the late nights on watch . . . oh no, sorry, the late nights when I have to read just one more chapter before turning off the light . . .
The wonderful Slightly Foxed have recently branched out into publishing children’s classics, starting with Ronald Welch’s series which follows the fortunes of the Carey family of Llanstephan in Wales from the twelfth century to the twentieth, a dozen novels written between 1954 and 1972. The publishers very kindly sent me both the first and the most recent, to make sure that I got the best taste of the series. I begin to suspect they did so with every intention of hooking me so firmly that I will buy the rest – because, of course, I will, I’m dying to know how the family fares through the different periods.
They are in some ways books of their time – for instance, I can’t imagine a modern author who would dare to exclude women so totally from the adventures of his young heroes. They are also, in the age of the doorstop novel, comparatively short, at around 250 pages, so the action is intense and some of the incidental character development fairly thin. What this allows is lots of action, ably supported by excellent period detail – the books are packed with information about the sort of things which traditionally interested boys growing up in the 1950s: armour and armoury, casting cannon, duelling techniques, sailing ships and piracy on the high seas. Happily, these are all things I embraced enthusiastically in my own ’50s childhood, and I’ll forgive the lack of female characters and the occasional, and perfectly realistic, bit of racism, and just enjoy what’s on offer:
The Spaniards favoured the cannon; they stood in close to their enemy if they could, and battered him to pieces with their heavy round shot. The English, under the influence of Hawkins, preferred the culverin. His new galleons were handier than the Spanish ships. They could gain and hold the weather gauge, stand out of range of the cannon, and yet hit the enemy with their long-range culverins. There was one possible flaw to this argument. It was said that the culverin shot was too light to inflict sufficient damage at long range. (The Hawk, p.52)
Doesn’t that make your heart race? Don’t you long to crouch behind a bunker while the new culverins are tested with a double load of powder, fired twice in quick succession to show any weakness in the barrel? Or to stand on the walls of the awe-inspiring Krak des Chevaliers or to face the ruthless Old Man of the Mountains, legendary leader of the Assassins? Later books in the series promise just as many thrills, with titles like Mohawk Valley and Tank Commander.
Slightly Foxed Cubs are exquisitely produced, buckram-bound and joy of joys, lie flat when open, which makes them a pleasure to handle and read. The illustrations are as much of a pleasure as the text – there is a double-page spread of Harry’s galleon the Hawk that I’ve fallen in love with, it’s so redolent of the qualities that I’m raving about here, all that is best of the Boys’ Own adventure story. I’ve admired the detail in the illustrations, too – they are very muscular and bold (reminding me rather of Charles Keeping’s work) and do much to convey the nature of the characters and settings, whether the decadence of a Spanish port official in The Hawk or the massive bulk of Krak in Knight Crusader. If you have a budding explorer in the family, this series (and so far, there are six available) will make perfect Christmas presents, the kind that the owners will still be treasuring when they are 90.’