blackbirdonline journalSpring 2023  Vol. 21  No.3
an online journal of literature and the arts
 print preview

Children’s Books

I remember it as sunset: the dirigible soaring through a ripe pink sky as the taut sheets of rubberized cotton on its port side caught the orange sun and glowed like molten bronze. Then seeing it from the perspective of the reception committee, from below as it descended out of the fleecy clouds toward the hangar like a shepherd abandoning his flock. My memory is fuzzy after this. There was something about a stranger who crash-landed in a balloon, a request, an enticing promise, and then a long trek through the jungle, everyone harbouring secrets. The next thing I see clearly is the City of Constant Night, the black sky, and the giant lamp the scientists had constructed that made all the limestone buildings gleam like teeth; all, except the Wolf Tower that seemed to generate its own hazy shadow, always cloaking the upper reaches where the sayers worked, casting their predictions and issuing their proclamations . . .

But maybe it was nothing like this. So many books from my childhood are half-remembered fragments, suggestive scenes like the memory I have of a young man walking with a lantern through a storm at night, trying to reach the pub in this off-season seaside town, and shielding the lantern with his arm as if it held something more even than its light, as if its flame were somehow tied to the beating of his heart; or conjured by the potency of feelings like the discomfort I felt reading a book about a long-lost brother returning on a flying horse to take his siblings into outer space where they encountered a race of interstellar sirens whose language the brother could speak but found impossible to translate; or vague moods suggested by nothing more than the cover, like the islands on the back of The Pirates Mixed-Up Voyage that were populated by strangely arching trees, crooked houses, and brightly coloured balloons, a funhouse dream of the Caribbean.

I don’t think I’d want to reread any of these books now: the memories are mine and no longer have much relation to the texts that inspired them. Like particularly emotional dreams, the details are long faded but the mood is still as strong and still as strange. I don’t take chances with books nowadays in the way I did then. As a child, judging a book by its cover was serious business and I let myself be swayed by pictures of wizards, robots, or goblins, and titles like Mercedes Ice or Tales from the Wyrd Museum. Never reading the blurb, I’d launch into these peculiar, sometimes scary worlds in search of the endless inflections of intrigue, delight, and excitement fiction gives you as a child when the future seems to stretch ahead as infinitely as the library shelves. It is only as we get older and start measuring our time that we realise the full extent of these shelves stretches farther than we could ever walk, let alone read. In my late teens, first in the essays of T.S. Eliot, then with the books of Harold Bloom, I taught myself to manage this awareness of mortality with the vast reading list known variously as the Greats, the Classics, or the Canon.

Nowadays my reading is a bit like maintaining a small art gallery: while I’m constantly looking for new acquisitions, the old masters often need to be restored. One reason I think scholars have grown sceptical of the Canon over the last forty years is that its books refuse to serve our purposes: they demand to be treated as an end in themselves rather than a means. Indeed, there are times when the thought of packing in the whole endeavour is appealing. When I’m listening to Open Book or Front Row on BBC Radio 4, sometimes the possibility of returning to that state where reading was an adventure into unchartered strangeness and beauty stirs in me again like hearing travellers’ tales or seeing the gentle rocking of masts in the harbour. The tens of thousands of novels published this year and the legions of writers behind them is an exciting prospect, but also frightening. In our visions of plenitude we are always equal to the foison, but in reality this multiplicity zeroes down into the one page you are reading right now in one book, and it is worth bearing in mind that critics can be just as guilty of hyperbole as advertisers. The reason my little gallery is still running after ten years and I haven’t run off to stowaway on the HMS Unknown is that, on balance, I would rather burn once again with Heathcliff at the death of Cathy than try and parse out Scott Aylett’s bizarre anti-literature.

One consequence of this approach is that the books I read tend to have an aura of being public property rather than private treasures. I’m not suggesting for a moment that great works are monumental or impersonal: Hamlet knows the depths of all our grief no less intimately for having appeared on every stage. But sometimes a book, perhaps for its very lack of universality, feels like it was written just for us. When my grandmother died last year, it inevitably brought up a lot of memories from my childhood, of queasy car journeys down the M25, of dull hours spent in her oppressive front room, of midsummer twilight in her garden. And one of these memories, though vague, was attainable. It was the children’s book Black Maria by Diana Wynne Jones.

Jones’s story of dark power struggles, loss, and rejuvenation waspublished in 1991. The story starts, significantly, at the beginning of the Easter holidays as Mig and her older brother Chris are dragged off to the fictional seaside town of Cranbury by their mum in the wake of their father’s death. The family is going to Cranbury to visit Dad’s Aunt Maria which, a little unnervingly, is precisely the journey Dad had been on when he drove his car over a cliff. As soon as they arrive, Aunt Maria starts making demands on the family, using them like unpaid carers, virtually servants, absorbing them into her circle of friends and policing what they say and do through a kind of magical suggestion. As Maria’s hold on Mum grows stronger, Mig and Chris find themselves in a desperate search for ways to combat her powers and for allies in a town that seems totally under her control.

By the time Jones came to write Black Maria, she was already a celebrated children’s author, known for stories of witches and wizards battling across dimensions, unimaginable powers converging on children who are left to survive on their wits. Black Maria is no different in this respect—Aunt Maria and Anthony Green are magicians with a feud spanning decades that Mig and Chris have to unearth and resolve. But what is particularly interesting about Black Maria is the kind of magic Maria uses to manipulate; “more natural and ordinary,” as Mig describes it, than the terrific forces she once harnessed to turn people into wolves and to seal her enemies underground. Maria, we remember, is an elderly witch. Flinging spells around takes the energy of a younger wizard and so her modus operandi nowadays is manipulation with a dusting of magic to render her victims more cowed and compliant, but so low-grade as to be almost indistinguishable from a very quotidian, very British, passive aggression.

As an eleven-year-old, Black Maria chimed with me almost from the first page:

Mum said Aunt Maria had had quite as much of a shock as we had, and we were to be nice to her. So we were all far too nice to Aunt Maria. And suddenly we had gone too far to start being nasty. Aunt Maria kept ringing up. If we weren’t in, or if it was only Chris at home and he didn’t answer the phone, Aunt Maria telephoned all our friends . . . and told them that we’d disappeared now and she was ill with worry. She rang our doctor and our dentist and found out how to ring Mum’s boss when he was at home. It got so embarrassing that we had to make sure one of us was always in the house from four o’clock onwards to answer the phone.

It reminded me of Sunday mornings. Always, dead on nine o’clock, the phone would ring in a special, particularly alarmed way as if to announce it was Her. And then my mum would be stuck to the receiver (and it was a receiver—no traffic going the other way) for the next three hours, fiddling with the cord, doodling in the phone book, or simply drooping as Granny’s tinny witter sang on interminably down the line. A Homeric epic could be written about the false-friend Patsy, the evils of Cousin Diane, and the internecine politics of the Oxfam Charity shop, complete with epithets, type scenes, and flashbacks to Granny’s youth in the Blitz, were it not for the phenomenal levels of boredom attained by this narrative which would surely have struck any amanuensis dead. But Mum survived its slow unfolding every week, although Sunday afternoons were always devoted to recovery.

Other details about Aunt Maria’s manipulations were eerily reminiscent. The peremptory way she insists the things that have upset her “don’t matter,” her selective deafness, her endless chatter that drowns out one’s own thoughts, her cadre of sympathetic friends always in a pother about upsetting her and the terrible rows that occasionally explode, excommunicating someone from the group, are all things Jones could have been writing directly from my grandmother’s life. Most of all she captures the atmosphere of being with such a person, “a kind of daze of boredom”:

You end up feeling you are in a sort of bubble filled with that getting-a-cold smell, and inside that bubble is Cranbury and Aunt Maria, and that is the entire world. It is hard to remember there is any land outside Cranbury.

My mum remembers living with Granny deep in the countryside, so far out there were no streetlights, and the dark coming on, obliterating everything outside, until she felt the world inside that house with all its tedium and all its secrets was the only world left.

It feels good to know that Jones knew something very similar. I vaguely remember a radio programme where Jones’s son talked about the difficult relationship she had with her mother, Marjorie, but is Marjorie Maria? Biographical information is sparse and there is no persuasive evidence for my suspicion. I can only assume the similarities that strike me so forcibly have something to do with the yawning generation gap between children of the early and children of the mid-twentieth century. Having said this, Jones, born 1934, was actually much closer to my grandmother’s generation than my mum’s, but her work pulses with the energy of later decades, of the 1970s, the decade where she found her voice. I wonder if Jones’s most famous character, the wizard Howl, is a kind of tribute to the ’70s in whom the hippy fascination with pagan gods and magic melds with the flamboyant dandyism of glam? When we first meet Howl, he seems vain and irresponsible, but gradually we realise that, more than merely character flaws, these behaviours are defences against the women in his life, his sister, his former teacher, his former lover, all manipulators like Maria, trying to trap him in one way or another. Howl’s moving castle, with its doors that open onto different worlds, ranges between the places he likes and places he needs to go, but it will never force him to settle down, never let him get stuck.

This drive to escape the roles and the formalities of the past and move into the future liberated and equal runs deep in Jones’s fiction. Studying at Oxford in the 1950s, Jones was taught medieval literature by C.S. Lewis, but the spirit of her books couldn’t be more opposed to his conservatism. Reading Black Maria again I notice a number of echoes and allusions to That Hideous Strength, a sci-fi novel Lewis published in 1945. The novel is split between the perspectives of two newlyweds, Mark and Jane Studdock, who are moving to the town of Edgestow so that Mark can teach sociology at Edgestow University, formerly a polytechnic. In the middle of a serious row, the couple is separated by a strange phenomenon and find themselves adopted by two rival factions from the university, Mark by a thinktank of self-important bureaucrats who worship science and inevitably want to take over the world, and Jane by an eccentric group of humanists who want to bring modern science and Christianity into harmony. The novel’s denouement sees Edgestow University levelled by a magical earthquake with all the staff inside, but in the last moment the druid Merlin rescues Mark for Jane’s sake. “Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favour of the Lord.” The two are reunited and on the final page, all their incompatibilities are forgotten as they come together to finally consummate their marriage.

I like to imagine Jones howling with the rest of us at this patronising homily on the sanctity of marriage. The message of Black Maria is very different, tucked away, almost casually, somewhere near the middle:

[Mum] put her head up with her cheerful, brave look and said, “Just before you were born, Mig, I fell downstairs. All the way down. I was terrified in case you’d been harmed. I screamed for Greg. He came and he looked, and he said, ‘That was a stupid thing to do.’ and he went away again. I couldn’t believe it. But that’s what he’s like, Mig. It’s all right if things go the way he expects, but if they don’t he doesn’t want to know.”

Here we realise that Dad’s death and the subsequent mercy dash to Cranbury to care for his aunt has all been a distraction: neither Mum nor Mig had wanted to accept that Greg was a bad husband and a bad father, but here in the midst of these illusions and under the weight of his baggage they begin to see how things really are, something he was never capable of doing. The truth is, it was right for Mum and Dad to separate, and the pain of this realisation has driven them to seek absolution in the strange nowhere world of Cranbury. When the druid Merlin arrives in Jones’s novel, he does not bring buildings crumbling to the ground—he simply frees the characters we have grown to love from living in the fog of other people’s stories, frees them from what we might call codependency.


It was Easter when we had to go and stay with Granny for two whole weeks. My sister insists it wasn’t Easter, and that it wasn’t two whole weeks, so perhaps I’ve let memories of reading Black Maria become confused with reality, but the stay definitely swallowed up a long-awaited holiday and certainly felt like it lasted forever. Ted, my mother’s stepfather, had died. He was a corpulent sergeant major type who’d dominated the dingy house, grumbling about his bad back, arthritis, and The War for nearly thirty years, but now that he had died, we had no choice but to go down there to be with Granny and make funeral arrangements. Before we left, I barricaded my door, wedging a chair under the handle like I’d seen Tintin do in cartoons, but in my heart, I knew it was futile, that this was another attempt to escape into a fantasy, and grudgingly I came down to sit in the car.

I don’t remember doing much reading during those two weeks; at eleven the Playstation I’d recently acquired was a more immediate window into other worlds. I know my grandmother’s upstairs television was black and white, but I can see in vivid colours the sunset on the Aztec ruins as Crash Bandicoot climbed higher and higher up the perilous mountain to Dr. Cortex’s castle. Something else I found great solace in, for whatever reason, was Gary Larson cartoons. I pored over the panels sitting in my parents’ bed:

“You’re hogging the vine, Muriel!” he says, swinging over crocodile-infested waters.

“So, sue me, Harold!” The Hendersons of the Jungle. Things to get away from the feeling in that house. . . . That house, where the evening light seeped through the windows red and treacly as amber and a tepid smell like unaired laundry clung to your nostrils contributing to the feeling of being smothered under eiderdown.

For some reason I associate the house with clocks. The little gilded clock on feet standing on the mantelpiece with a panel you could open to wind it or to set the time. I used to love clicking it open and shut and was very put out when Granny glided into the room to lift it out of my grasp. The cuckoo clock my father found at the back of a wardrobe and persuaded her to take into town to be mended, a real black walnut cuckoo clock with wooden pendulums and Roman numerals in white: although I came to hate the mocking “Coo-koo!” of the little bird, it was nonetheless an infinitely fascinating artefact. And the faux regulator with something wrong inside that made it drawl its chimes like it was drunk, a clock I cannot help but associate with the cancer in my grandmother’s brain that made her, too, slur speech and lose track of time.

Most vividly of all, I remember the flower fairy curtains in the little room where I used to sleep, depicting the Elm Tree Fairy I think, which glowed an eerie blue on winter mornings and filled me with a deep melancholy as though the person who had drawn his little cap and grin had done so in a moment of deep sadness. This air of tragic, almost operatic melancholy hung over every object in the house: the coarse brown teddy, the bisque doll with a drooping eye, the lacquered jewellery box with its oriental scene: it was all almost unbearable.

Fifteen years later when we eventually persuaded Granny to move to Bromley, she was pleased to sell the house to a young family with two little preschool boys. “Like two little angels,” she said repeatedly. By then it was hard to know whether she was being passive-aggressive or if the tone of her voice had simply got stuck like that, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the comment had been barbed, meant to remind my mother, my sister, and myself of how we’d failed to remain angelic. She always preferred people she didn’t have to know. And this was how she slipped out of the story of that house, leaving it to a family who, in her mind, fulfilled the Victorian photograph of what families should be like: an impossible standard she insisted other people meet because she—a lonely only child in the midst of a large family, a single mother at a time when this was still a grave taboo, a woman working six days a week to support a deadbeat who had promised to marry her but never did—had never been able to meet that standard in her own mind.

But this is not the story of my grandmother’s life, or even the story of her time in that house. It is nothing more than a few shadows she and the house cast on my memory. I doubt she would recognise the house as I’ve portrayed it here, but she created it nonetheless. Denial may be blind, but it has definite creative powers. It shapes so much of life. In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust thinks of denial in terms of space: it is the condition of looking in toward the centre of one’s world, rather than out, and consequently letting that world be shaped by the forces one is trying to ignore. It is why Swann retreats to Combray, why Baron de Charlus hides out in the red light district of Paris, why Madame Verdurin excommunicates any intelligent person from her salon, and, ultimately, the only way Paris is able to deal with the First World War. As Proust’s narrator comes to realise somewhat ruefully, denial is a tendency we all fall into whenever we feel “at home.” Ruefully, because the fragile narrator who so craves order and familiar surroundings wishes to be an artist; and as artists cannot live in denial, so it follows he can never be “at home.” He must always be a wanderer peering in at lighted windows.

I remember a rare moment of candour when my Grandmother told me about a dream where she was standing on the threshold of her flat:

It was very dark outside, but I could see your mother in front of me by the light coming from my hall. I tried to look at her, but I couldn’t tell if she was grown up or a little girl. “Will you be alright out there?” I asked, and she said, “I think so,” and then went away, into the night.  

return to top