Patricia Miles. Another good writer gone by Dennis Hamly

I don't want to get the reputation of being Authors Electric's old miseryguts but over the last three years I really do seem to have been at a lot of funerals of writers uncomfortably close to my generation who have been my friends and colleagues over many years and whose passing will diminish me. However, I'm writing to celebrate as much as mourn. To be able to look back at high achievement and mark out unique talent is in itself a privilege.

Last Friday (May 10th)) I attended the funeral of an author whose name may be familiar to our older contemporaries as a colleague and rival and to younger writers as a really good read and an understanding companion. Patricia Miles was a remarkable children's novelist and short story writer, in my opinion hugely underrated, whose main work was done in the 70s and 80s. Her work seemed to fall out of favour as the 90s got under way, an early victim of publisher fickleness. The independent revolution came too late for her.She was also a very fine teacher and a regular tutor  - in football parlance, 'first on the team sheet' - on my Lending Our Minds Out creative writing courses for children which lasted for over twenty years.

I knew her work before I first met her. Her first novel, Nobody's Child, (Hamish Hamilton 1975) is set in the eighteenth century. Fanny begins to question whether she really belongs in the family she seems part of. If I Survive (1976) is is something of a gothic bodice-ripper, as the evil Captain Maguire keeps his wife captive in a County Fermanagh ruin. 

I first met Pat in 1979. She was giving a talk to a big audience of rapt children in the Mid-Herts Teachers' Centre in Hatfield (long-since closed by political nincompoops) about how she wrote her then most recent book, The Gods In Winter.  Like many others in the room, I hadn't read it then either. But, after that talk, I very soon had. And I found that The Gods in Winter (published by Hamish Hamilton in 1978) was a page-turning, often very funny novel by an author with something I felt at home with at once - a fine sense of the Gothic. 

Still just about available, though sadly this isn't the original cover by Gavin Rowe, which was six times as good!

The novel brings together a number of ideas, often rather disturbing. Landscape is not neutral nor is it necessarily friendly and comforting. It is peopled by prowling, uncomfortable spirits perpetually re-enacting ancient but eternal themes. Landscape is dangerous and can bite back. It contains portals to alternative, unimaginable (except by novelists!) world and who knows what may emerge through them? We live in a knowing age when it sometimes seems as though there isn't a great deal of knowledge left to find and, at the rate we're going, finding it shouldn't take too long. But ancient and forgotten knowledge can suddenly erupt and, once abroad, it is hard to stop it invading everything. 

Something like this network of ideas lies behind much gothic and neo-gothic literature. Several of us AEs write it. Pat's talent was to bring such insights without diluting or rationalising them and putting them right at the heart of a classically structured drama acted out by a family normal enough to hide their own  personal weirdnesses in the face of the odd ways in which the deeper powers manifest themselves.

Pat read Classics at university. She became very interested in classical myth, especially that of Demeter and Proserpine. Well, the myth says the gods caused the cycle of the seasons in the first place. But what if, just to make sure it always arrives, they have to do it every year? The story is told by Adam Bramble.  The Bramble family, in the coldest winter for years, has just moved.  Dad is a scientist who's been appointed to a new job in a big research station in an ancient but vast house in Derbyshire. The estate is a wilderness. Underneath is a network of old mine shafts and the whole place has a tendency to collapse under your feet. Unannounced, a strange woman appears in the Bramble household,. She looks more like a refugee than the regular home help she claims to be. Her name is Mrs Korngold. The alert reader with just a little pre-knowledge will translate this right away. Many even weirder personages visit the Bramble house over the next months, all pleading for Mrs Korngold to go away with them. But she won't - until, suddenly her daughter arrives. More chaos ensues and now we know who Mr Underwood, the man with the owl, really is.

There are quite a number of books I wish I'd written - and many many more which I'm thankful that I didn't. The Gods in Winter is one of the former. It gave me huge pleasure then and, now I've just reread it, has given me pleasure again. I'd like to get hold of a copy of A Disturbing Influence to reread as well. Sixteen year-old Andrew's scary encounters with rock festivals, forged money and an absconding neighbour and a deserted farmhouse made a racy narrative. Louther Hall (1981), when Charlotte gets a job as an au pair  in what looks like a castle complete moat and then endures a series of half-real, inexplicable events, and The Mind Pirates (1983), an ingenious piece of science fiction, were Pat's last novels for Hamish Hamilton.

(NB. I wanted to put pics of the covers of these books up but Amazon only allows me notices saying PRODUCT DETAILS so that's no good. Sorry for the acres of bald print)

Pat subsequently wrote some romantic novels for Dragon Books and then turned her attention to the history of Knebworth House - she lived nearby and  for some years worked as a guide and also wrote monographs on some of the Lytton family's  more exotic members, notably Lady Constance.

house flowers foregr

Knebworth House. Looks great, but there may be some vicious bits in this landscape too.

A really good writer with a loyal band of readers. Never a huge seller though her books were superbly written with flair and imagination. Very much a product of the great flowering of children's books in the 60s and 70s, pioneered by such as Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Leon Garfield and Diana Wynne Jones. Perhaps her genre found itself slightly marooned as the twentieth century came to its close. If it did, the loss was ours.

She wrote some great short stories, including one which I still regard as one of the best ever written for children. Its 1500 words make a construct which is  formally perfect and gently humorous with a twist at the end which is truly shocking. Exit was first published in The Methuen book of Sinister Stories in 1982. Its background has something of the vicious qualities of landscape which power The Gods in Winter. On an evening when a storm was near, thunder rolled and 'fat drops of rain fell from a yellowish sky' Hawkins has persuaded Carter to go with him on a short expedition after school because the weather is 'ideal' for proof of his theory.

'What exactly are you hoping to see?' said Carter. 'If hoping is the right word.'
'I'm not sure. Monks, white ladies, something like that.'
'What about the old nameless dread, eh?'
'That too.'

They continue on their way and Hawkins explains further. 

'...  either something in the past leaves a sort of photograph or film of itself: or - this is my other theory' - he paused impressively - 'beings from another world reach through to us here. Whichever it is, it's connected with these special places, and storms.'
'Other worlds?'
'Yes, you know, out of deep space, or another time - what do you call it? - an alternative universe. You see if people here happened to see something like that they'd naturally interpret it as a ghost, or the devil, or something supernatural, wouldn't they?'.
Carter stood still, apparently to get his breath back.

They came to the remains of an old chapel

'Well, this is it.' There was a quaver in Hawkins's voice and he jumped when a spatter of rain fell on him. A raindrop ran like a tear down his glasses. And then...'

Well, I'll have to leave it there, just words away from a twist which for a moment seems in tune with the light banter of the story so far and yet with the most shocking implications possibly imaginable, carried out with consummate simplicity. Which is exactly what Pat was best atIt's virtually unobtainable now. I have a scanned copy. If I knew how, I'd put a link to it here. If anyone wants to read it properly I'll happily send it to them.

Goodbye, Pat. I won't easily forget you and nor will several others we both knew.


Jan Needle said…
interesting stuff, dennis, thanks. but do you know you spelled your name wrong? time for another pint!
Mari Biella said…
Wonderful and moving tribute, Dennis. I haven't read any of Patricia Miles's books, but I'd certainly like to now. And I'd like to read Exit, so if you could send the file that would be wonderful.
Lydia Bennet said…
Yes a lovely tribute, an opportunity to introduce some new readers to her books too.
Susan Price said…
It's certainly got me hopping over to Amazon, to see what's available by her. And please, Dennis, add me to the list of people for the Exit file.
Dennis Hamley said…
Mari and Sue, you shall have it. Jan, I've been spelling my name right for a very long time now. Surely I'm allowed just one little variation?
Jan Needle said…
you can call me noodle any time, old friend....
Ann Evans said…
What a lovely tribute to this admirable writer, Dennis.
Excellent tribute to Patricia (Pat) Miles, Dennis. Thank you! (And, thank you, also, for your own fine books!)
I have only just found this Authors Electric blog while searching online for information about "The Gods in Winter", which, as you note, belongs in that eerie genre of a story set in our modern era, into which ancient forces erupt: Alan Garner was not the first, with "The Weirdstone of Brisingamen", but I believe this was extremely influential on later writers, and something Garner himself brought to intense perfection with "The Owl Service".
I would be delighted if you could send me that scanned copy of Pat's short story "Exit" from the Methuen collection you mention.
(I am a retired Australian academic with a life-long interest in children's books.) Thanks again, and best wishes for your current projects!

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