Some days, the longing to re-experience childhood is so strong I imagine it might actually happen. My longing is not whimsical nostalgia: childhood happiness was shot through with anxiety about upsetting nanny, my father or God. So while sometimes I would like to be a child again, my real longing is to re-experience first readings of now familiar books. I’d willingly trade a week of old age to recapture first encounters with Heathcliff, Mr Rochester, Mary Poppins, Ken McLaughlin and Flicka; first glimpses of Narnia, Gormenghast and Malory Towers. I’d trade more than an hour to open, with no fore-knowledge, The Once and Future King. I’d trade nothing, though, to re-experience the delight of discovering Violet Needham’s The Black Riders (1939). No need. The delight has never left me.
The first in Violet Needham’s Ruritanian, or Stormy Petrel, sequence, The Black Riders is set in a fictional Central European empire. Though I’d never been to Austria, I imagined it to be similar; friendlier and tidier than my bleak familiar Lancashire moors. Where we had dishevelled farmyards, derelict gates and rusting baths as water troughs, in ‘the Empire’ farms were cosy, gates swung briskly and baths were found indoors. It was discouraging to realize that though I longed to be wild as Emily Brontë’s Catherine Earnshaw, I was actually more like Needham’s Antoinette, Countess of Valsarnia, alias Wych Hazel, whose nerves undermine her best conspiratorial intentions. I didn’t like the discovery, but I kept reading.
The Black Riders of the title form part of the imperial army. ‘Magnificent men they were,’ Needham writes, ‘in black uniforms, riding magnificent black horses; not a speck of colour anywhere about them, black tunics and breeches, black saddle-cloths and bridles, black astrakhan busbies with black aigrettes; only the steel of bit and stirrup shone like silver.’ Magnificence and threat are a potent mix and,
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