A trip back to childhood: “Smith” by Leon Garfield

Given how prone I am to bouts of misty-eyed nostalgia, it’s a bit odd that I tend not to revisit favourite books from childhood. That’s because, I think, much of the stuff I used to read as a child was pretty poor material, and that for every Treasure Island or The Hound of the Baskervilles there were reams and reams of unmitigated rubbish that not even the cosy glow of nostalgia could dignify. However, there were a few exceptions, and when I saw in the bookshop recently a copy of Leon Garfield’s Smith, I couldn’t help myself. It was a school reader: we read it in the English class when we were about 12 or so, and although one is not supposed to enjoy what one read at school, and certainly not supposed to admit to enjoying it even if one did, I remember thinking even at the time that it was terrific stuff. Reading it again over 40 years later, it struck me that maybe my childhood taste wasn’t perhaps quite so bad after all – that amidst all the trashy mystery stories and Enid Blyton romps I used to gobble down in preference to those worthier books my parents thought I should be reading, I could, even then, take in and enjoy a bit of quality.

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I didn’t remember the plot very well, but I did remember the atmosphere, and the tension, and the sense of excitement. What I didn’t remember at all – presumably because it passed me by at that age – was the sheer delight the author took in the language. It is, after all, hard to imagine a book aimed for children nowadays starting like this:

He was called Smith and was twelve years old. Which, in itself, was a marvel; for it seemed as if the smallpox, the consumption, brain-fever, gaol-fever and even the hangman’s rope had given him a wide berth for fear of catching something. Or else they weren’t quick enough.

It continues:

Smith had a turn of speed that was remarkable, and a neatness in nipping down an alley or vanishing down a court that had to be seen to be believed. Not that it was often seen, for Smith was a rather sooty spirit of the violent and ramshackle Town, and inhabited the tumbledown mazes about fat St Paul’s like the subtle air itself. A rat was like a snail beside Smith, and the most his thousand victims ever got of him was the powerful whiff of his passing and a cold draught in their dexterously emptied pockets.

This is the writing of an author who loves words, and who relishes putting them together in ways that they delight for their own sake. This is, of course, a children’s book, and there is a strong narrative, but Garfield has no thought of patronising his young readers: language for him is more than a mere means to an end, children’s book or not.

Of course, no-one writing for children would write like this now, and no publisher, one suspects, would publish it. Yet, this book was published only in 1967, and was aimed for the children’s market. How quickly things change!

The setting is London in the 18th century, and Smith, the child pickpocket, resides in the underworld. Inevitably, there are echoes of Dickens – although the protagonist Smith is more Artful Dodger than innocent Oliver Twist – and there are echoes as well of the picture of the London underworld that Defoe depicts in Moll Flanders, or Fielding in Jonathan Wild. The sense of place – of the streets and the alleyways, the inns, Newgate prison – is always strongly projected. And the story too is splendid. Smith has picked a man’s pocket, but all he has for his troubles is a document; soon afterwards, he sees this man killed for the very document that he has stolen; but unfortunately, Smith cannot read, and has no way of finding out what it is about this piece of paper that has cost a man his life.

As an adventure story, it can’t be faulted. It is superbly paced, with expert tightenings and loosenings of tension; the plot is full of twists and turns; and, despite the dark milieu, its heart is warm – as I think it should be in a children’s story. (Or am I too old-fashioned in thinking that?) Smith forms an unlikely companionship with a blind retired magistrate, who later comes to think – wrongly, as it happens – that Smith is a murderer; however, when Smith is faced with a choice between leaving this helpless blind man to fend for himself in the cold and snow, with murderous villains circling close at hand, or revealing himself, and taking the risk that the magistrate may later turn him in to the authorities, Smith makes the correct moral choice: even if it costs him a hanging at Newgate, he cannot leave this man to his fate. There’s certainly more than a touch of the Huckleberryfinns here, and the book is none the worse for it.

I suppose it could be said that the story is derivative, but perhaps we place too great a weight on the concept of originality: so intent are we on searching out novelty, and praising that which is new for no better reason than it is new, we sometimes forget to ask ourselves whether what we are praising is any good. There’s much to be said, I think, for doing established things well, and Garfield more than does that. And throughout, the language is a delight – although, rather predictably I suppose, one of the Amazon reviews complains about this book, aimed specifically at children, being too hard to read. O tempora! O mores!

Reading this book for me was a surprisingly poignant trip back into my childhood, and I found it quite delightful. I thrilled again to the adventure, puzzled again to the mystery, and enjoyed again the journey – both literal and moral – that Smith takes through the course of the story. The blind magistrate too makes a journey, as Garfield tells us at one point: he makes a journey from justice to compassion. For the author to point it out explicitly in an adult novel would certainly have been heavy-handed, but in a children’s book it seemed just fine. There are a few other children’s books by Leon Garfield that I don’t think I read as a child: I think I may enjoy reading them now.

And I discovered also that Garfield had also written a completion of Dickens’ Mystery of Edwin Drood. I can’t imagine any writer better equipped to complete this work, and I’d be very keen to get hold of a copy.

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jonathan on October 24, 2015 at 8:54 pm

    It does sound like a good kids’ book. I used to read a lot of fantasy and sci-fi as a child and really enjoyed reading Robert E. Howard’s books. I was recently thinking about re-reading a book or two to see what I make of them now. I suspect, as with your experience, I’ll still like them even if they’re not what I’d specifically choose these days.

    Reply

  2. I look forward to finding Smith, hopefully, and reading it for the first time!

    Reply

  3. I re-read this a few years back and enjoyed it a good deal. The story was a little simpler than I was expecting (having long since forgotten the details over the 30+years since my first reading), but that’s no bad thing in a children’s book. I must have been a naive 12-year-old, because I think the implied occupation of Smith’s sisters went right over my head back then! I also think I didn’t fully appreciate the flawed nature of Lord Tom, the highwayman, who seemed to me something of a glamorous hero back then. Like I say, a naive 12-year-old!

    Reply

  4. Posted by Michael Harvey on October 25, 2015 at 12:03 pm

    I read Garfield’s completion of Drood a few years ago, and remember liking it.

    Reply

  5. Posted by alan on October 27, 2015 at 12:01 am

    I think I must have read it when 8 or 9, over 40 years ago.
    I have a dim memory of Smith having to take a bath for the first time and it becoming clear that his various layers of clothing that had never previously been removed but had been worn thin before another layer had been added over the top…

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  6. I agree: lowering the bar so we can “reach” the children is a tricky, and often, dangerous trend. I remember reading books when I was a kid that would be considered “slow-going” or dense nowadays. Always a pleasure to read your reviews.

    Reply

    • Thank you for that, and sorry for the belated reply. I must admit that, looking through modern children’s books, I have never encountered prose that is anything other than functional. It’s a shame, as a love for language for its own sake is rather a good thing to communicate to young readers! I know that it is easy to look back on the past with rose-tinted spectacles, but I do think it is true that few, if any, 12-year-olds today would be capable of taking in what my generation, at that age, were expected to read and understand as a matter of course.

      Reply

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