Archive for the ‘children’s literature’ Category

“For love of unforgotten times”: “A Child’s Garden of Verses” by Robert Louis Stevenson

I think I must have been seven or eight, no more – a child who had been acquainted with the English language for not more than three years – when I first encountered Stevenson’s  A Child’s Garden of Verses. Our teacher at our primary school in Kirkcaldy used each week to write a poem in chalk on the blackboard, and we used to copy them into our jotters; and our homework would be to memorise that poem. And if modern sensibilities think of that as quaintly old-fashioned, or even as an imposition, then so much the worse for modern sensibilities. Memories are vague, of course, but from what I remember, I did enjoy those poems, and I cannot remember any complaints from any of the other children. And those poems have stuck in my mind ever since, for the general betterment, I think, of that mind. I look through the poems in this collection now, and there are so many I remember memorising at home and reciting in class … That one about the speeding train, for instance:

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches…

And I remember our teacher telling us how, when you read it out loud, it sounds like a train rattling along. I think that was possibly the first indication I had of poetry communicating through sound as much as through anything else. I remember my imagination being stirred on windy nights by the idea of a horseman galloping by:

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?

I was only going to give the first verse here, but now that I have done that, I can’t help giving the other verse too:

Whenever the trees are crying aloud,
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop goes he.
By at the gallop he goes, and then,
By he comes back at the gallop again.

Yes, reading these poems at my age is tremendously nostalgic, but it seems to me that there was as at least as much nostalgia in Stevenson’s writing of these poems as there is in my reading. For, although I enjoyed these poems as a child, I am not sure that they strike me, reading them now, as poems written specifically for children. Rather, they are very much, and, I think, very consciously, poems about an adult looking back: nostalgia is not merely what these poems evoke – it is the central theme of this collection; and, inevitably, since nostalgia literally means “the ache for home”, there is, under the charm and the whimsicality, an ache, a sorrow.

The sorrow is partly for the lonely, sickly child Stevenson remembered himself to have been. There is the famous poem in which he, lying sick in bed, imagines in the patches of his bedquilt a new land on which his toy soldiers may manoeuvre; or the one where he remembers his imaginary friend; or the one where he remembers sitting on his own at the window every evening, waiting for Leerie the lamplighter stopping to light the streetlamp in front of his house; and how he wished to become a lamplighter himself once he grows up, and do the rounds each night with Leerie. Occasionally, Stevenson mentions playing with other children, but only occasionally: in most of the poems, he is on his own, imagining friends, imagining new, exotic worlds.

But these poems are not self-pitying: Stevenson grew up in a comfortable family, and he knew his background was privileged. The greater part of the sadness in these poems comes from that sense of loss we all feel when we look back on our childhoods, even though that sense of loss is for something that, for the most part, exists only in our imaginations. For our imaginations harden too, along with our arteries, and the new lands we used to conjure out of the patches in our counterpane are, in our adult years, well beyond our reach.

In the last poem in the collection, Stevenson drops the pretence that he is writing for children. This last poem is called “To Any Reader”, but actually, it is addressed to the adult reader. Here, he bids his adult reader picture “another child, far, far away”, playing in “another garden”.

But do not think you can at all,
By knocking on the window, call
That child to hear you…

And Stevenson knows the loss is not his alone. In one poignant verse, addressed to his mother, he writes:

You too, my mother, read my rhymes
For love of unforgotten times,
And you may chance to hear once more
The little feet along the floor.

This is a loss, and a sorrow, the expression of which we rarely encounter – the sorrow of losing a child not through anything so dramatic as death, but simply by the fact that the child grows up. I imagine we rarely hear of it because such a grief seems self-centred: if the parent and the grown-up child are on good terms, it seems like an unjust rebuke to the grown up child; and if not, it is, inevitably, more than tinged with bitterness. But it remains a potent grief nonetheless: the child that had delighted us so by the very fact of being a child may well have become the most splendid of adults, but some sadness inevitably remains that that delight is no more.

Another writer who captured this particular sense of loss is Bibhutibhushan Banerji, in the novel Aparajito (a follow-up to the better known Pather Panchali, and equally wondrous and moving). In this novel, Apu’s mother, Sarbojaya, dies on her own in her remote village, while the last remaining member of her family, Apu, now an adolescent, and unaware of the state of his mother’s health, is in far distant Kolkata. In Satyajit Ray’s famous film, Sarbojaya, as she approaches her end, imagines she hears her son’s voice, and she hobbles to the door and opens it; and outside, there is only emptiness: all she can see are fireflies glowing in the dark. As with so many images in this trilogy of films, that image of the glowing fireflies affects the viewer – well, this viewer at least – with an intensity that no amount of analysis can quite account for. But, marvellous though this sequence is, Bibhutibhushan, in his novel treats the scene differently. Here, Sarbojaya, at the point of death, hallucinates her son Apu has come to see her; but it is not Apu the young man as he is now: it is Apu as he had been as a ten year-old.

I remember when I first read that, I was so moved, I had to put the book down for a while to collect myself. For this is the Apu his mother had lost. Her daughter she had lost to the brute fact that all that lives must die; but her son she had lost to the equally brute fact that all that lives must change. Worldly wisdom tells us not to look back, and to keep up with the changes; but our worldly minds often cannot. And the grown-up Stevenson understands the sorrow felt by all those who share that “love of unforgotten times”.

There is nothing in these poems quite as heart-tugging as that scene in Aparajito, but neither did Stevenson intend there to be. Instead, there is charm, there is delight; and there is, it seems to me, a lingering sadness underpinning it all, a sadness that seems to me more than the consequence of my own nostalgia for those far-off days at North Primary School, Kirkcaldy.

I have never sat at my window to see Leerie the lamplighter pass by. Indeed, I have never even seen a lamplighter. But reading Stevenson’s evocation, it seems as if I have. Leerie the lamplighter has become part of my own nostalgia as well.

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.


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.