End of the road? by Dennis Hamley
However, I won't give in to the temptation to write a final blog of maudlin reminiscence. Instead, my subject this month, before I get on to the goodbyes, will be about something in the future - although, as so often with me it has its roots in the past. Some of you - though, judging by sales and reviews, not nearly enough! - know that I've published all the books I've put on Createspace under the imprint JOSLIN BOOKS. Three books are collections of short stories written over the years plus a few new ones and two books are new novels, the first two in my projected Nelson's Navy trilogy Bright Sea, Dark Graves, (Patrick O'Brian for kids). So far I've used the free ISBNs provided by Createspace, which ties me entirely to the Amazon and Createspace outlets. There's a note in each of the books - JOSLIN BOOKS is the imprint under which Dennis Hamley's new compilations of short stories, previously published books and new work not intended for other publishers will appear.
I'm going to change my tactics for Joslin Books in future. Being tied to the Amazon set-up is not very satisfactory. If the ISBN is theirs then they are the publishers, I have no leeway with them and JOSLIN BOOKS is just my silly indulgence. I shall stick with Createspace because it's easy. But I am buying just ten ISBNs from Nielsen's so that future books will be entirely mine and when the ISBNs are used up, then that's the end of Joslin Books. I know what the books will be - first, paperback reissues of the six novels in The Long Journey of Joslin de Lay, then, with luck, the third in Bright Sea, Dark Graves and finally - to me the most precious of all - the Hare Trilogy: Hare's Choice, Badger's Fate and Hawk's Vision.
The most precious indeed. Hare's Choice is the best single book I have ever written and am ever likely to and so, before I finally sign off, I really want to tell you about it. As soon as the image of the Hare presented itself in my mind, connected with the experience of helping children write their stories, the whole structure stood clear, whole and entire before me. And when the wonderful Meg Rutherford produced those stunning illustrations I realised that this was going to be something special.
When I look back over my five years of blogs I realise that I've often talked about the nature and philosophy of stories and narrative and it seemed fitting to end them on the same theme. Hare's Choice was first published in hardback by Andre Deutsch in 1988, paperbacked by Collins in 1990, printed in the USA by Delacorte in 1989 and as a Dell Yearling paperback in 1991. It was also translated into Spanish. It was reissued in 2006 in Barn Owl Books, Ann Jungman's venture to reissue books which should never have gone out of print (ironically, Barn Owl seemed safe for ever when Frances Lincoln took them over, but sadly two years later Quarto took over Frances Lincoln and immediately axed all their fiction, thus ending the writing career of at least one good friend). So, if I can get my finger out, Hare's last resting place, together with Badger and Hawk, will be with Joslin Books.
Before the Barn Owl edition was published, I wrote an article about the trilogy to support Ann's successful application for a grant from the Arts Council. And, because in it are embedded my deepest feelings about the essentialness of narrative I shall quote from it here.
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Hare’s Choice is a children’s story and must be judged as such. For most young readers the important section is the communal story and the process which creates it. The story springs from the disparate suggestions thrown in by the children, each of which is consistent with the character of the child who makes it. The final story is in part a fusion, a synthesis, of these elements into a unity and the whole progression is intended as a dramatisation of the process which underlines all art. Each episode, however, tries to show how the child who makes it thinks, so there is room for the individuality of each one to be expressed. Nevertheless, I have tried to depict how the sheer act of creation - and pride in that act - not only identifies the children individually but also unites them so at the end they become almost a single character.
It’s true that most readers and reviewers, have seen the novel in this light. However, I meant more than this, and to express it I must go back to how the novel started. In 1984, when I was County English Adviser for Hertfordshire, our primary colleagues set up an in-service day to discuss pre-11 education. This was before the days of Key Stages and SATs. During the day, several headteachers addressed us on aspects of work in their schools. One headteacher, talking about writing in his rural and rather isolated school, told how one morning some children brought in a dead fox which they found by the road. This excited great interest in these country children inured to such sights. At first, they did the sorts of things primary schools do - weighed it, measured it and drew it. Then the headteacher suggested they each write a story about the fox’s probable life before a car hit it. He brought some of the results in: they were very, very good and I was deeply impressed.
A question came to me which I couldn’t get out of my head. In future, to these children, which of these foxes was the real fox? Was it the dead creature they only knew after its death or the make-believe fox they had written about? After all, they were separate entities even though they were meant to be the same? The twenty or so imaginative creations could not be identified with the one real fox even though an object of the stories was to do just that – and, of course, in a sense did.
This led me to consider the notion of truth both in fiction and real life and a paradox which has always intrigued and even amused me. Let’s take the Cobb at Lyme Regis, a famous enough landmark. We all know what it is. But what specifically happened there? Unless we’re local, we have no idea. But if we’re not, there are two significant events. A girl called Louisa once fell off it and a woman called Sara Woodruff once waited on it in vain for her lover to return. That’s what the Cobb means to me and, I suspect, to many people. But these events never happened. The first is from Jane Austen’s Persuasion: the second from John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Yet they stick in my mind – and in other people’s - as actual events because they are so persuasive and archetypal, like myth. They become, in a real sense, true.
So the first motivation to write Hare’s Choice was to make a meditation on the nature of truth, both actual and fictional, to try to answer the question thus posed. The image of the children composing a story around the fox seemed a good starting point. I had some years before been given The Leaping Hare by David Thomson, a remarkable book which told me everything there is to know about hares, including some things I’d rather not, and brought this wonderful, fascinating animal to life in a way which occasional sightings of it could never do. A version of the incident of the fox, with a hare instead, seemed the best vehicle for my meditation, but I was not at all clear how I could use it.
It was then that I remembered a short story by EM Forster which had made a great impression on me, The Celestial Omnibus. In this story, the boy one evening catches a horse-drawn omnibus driven by an ominous driver to a destination he does not know, but is told it is Heaven. The journey takes him high into the clouds to a strange and wonderful place inhabited by fascinating people, Tom Jones, Mrs Gamp, Ulysses. The bus driver that night was Sir Thomas Browne. The boy is so sorry to leave, but soon is catching the bus every night. The drivers change. One night it’s Jane Austen. But Mr Septimus Bons, a stern man who keeps such characters locked between covers of bound vellum on his library shelves, has no truck with such nonsense. One night he goes with the boy to show him such things do not exist. But this time the driver is a man with a fierce, gaunt, lined face. Mr Bons recognizes him as Dante and cries out in terror. Next morning his body is found on the local common, seemingly having fallen from a great height. This notion of a heaven inhabited by characters from literature appealed to me. But what about another heaven inhabited by animal story characters?
Soon after the in-service day, we Advisers were called upon to make a full inspection of all the small schools in the county, those with rolls less than 100. We knew there was a hidden agenda to this: the County Council wanted to close them and send the pupils to big schools in nearby towns. So we made our inspection and came to a completely different conclusion. Our final report, far from recommending closure, insisted on their retention and even wanted money put into them because they offered children a unique and remarkable educational experience. It’s a measure of the wisdom of those now far-off days that the Education Committee accepted our report and no more was heard about closing these schools, at least, not in my time in the county. And as I was moving from tiny school to tiny school, the conviction grew that one like it had to be the setting of the book forming in my mind.
The book’s structure seemed to develop without any need for thought because it seemed so natural. A section about the hare as a hare, giving the reader a privileged view of its animal life denied to anyone-else in the book, secured Hare’s actual life. The children finding her body and taking it to school and then the way the children moved towards putting together the elements in the sort of story they wanted to tell followed naturally, as did the story itself. But the final part was difficult. The differences between actual and fictional truth meant that Hare had existed on two planes, both equally real to the children. However, the fictional truth was what affected them more because it was a truth they had given her and, when they buried her, their sorrow was more for their creation than the actual animal they never knew. That’s why their memorial said R.I.P. THE QUEEN OF THE HARES.
As it seemed to me though, the real question was not simply which of the two truths was more valid, but which one was truer to the hare, who now possessed two different sorts of knowledge.‘Things aren’t untrue just because they never happened,’ says the Overseer. This is where the idea of the Choice came in. The concept of the limbo in which Hare meets the Overseer was a hard one to make, but the views she is given of the two possible destinations present her with an almost impossible choice. Nevertheless, she has to make it.
So she does, but only she and the Overseer know what it is. I did not, and could not presume to, make the choice for her (not then, anyway), so we leave the story on a question mark, which seemed the only conclusion possible. This story, it seemed, had an ending but no closure. Nor did I have an answer to my question.
After Hare’s Choice was finished I had no intention whatever of writing anything like it again. When asked, I stubbornly replied, for three years, that the choice Hare made was unknowable. Then I received a letter from a headteacher. She told me that her pupils had loved the book but were 'very distressed' at not knowing where Hare finally went. Well, I thought, I’m certainly not in the business of distressing children, so I'd better do something about it. But what?
Not long afterwards, Meg Rutherford, who did the superb illustrations, rang me up and said, 'Dennis, I’ve got badgers digging in the garden.' I asked her what she thought I could do about it, shouldn’t she get in touch with DEFRA or someone, but she said, 'No, I want to draw them.' 'Great.' I replied. 'Can I have one of the drawings?' 'No,' she answered. 'I want you to write something about badgers for me to illustrate.'
Well, I wrote her a badger poem, which went in Meg Rutherford’s Book of Animal Poems (Simon and Schuster) and then wished I had a story about badgers for her. It was then that the idea, in fact the need, for a trilogy first appeared because the glimmerings of an answer to the question of the choice was dawning on me.
So I started Badger’s Fate, in which, a year later, the children tell a new story, once again brought about by an animal found by a pupil, this time a badger. Badger’s Fate is a much darker story in which I consider another aspect of the first question, not the nature of the two truths but what the two truths actually are, whether one must be 'true' to the other and whether telling stories, far from bringing us to truth, can take us away from it. This demanded examination of the nature of endings, of closure.
The children’s story here has three endings, one true to the whole thrust of the story and the others not. Two endings are made by all the children in the school, except for one. These endings are just what a band of children would think of and spring naturally from the story's previous events. But Emma, who found the badger, is profoundly disturbed by these endings because she knows they are not right. She intuits that they destroy the story's integrity. Composing the ending she wants is a hard process for her, but she must do it. I remembered Hardy’s tart footnote in The Return of the Native saying that the published ending was what the publishers wanted, not what he intended, and he wanted readers with 'a more austere aesthetic code' to supply the real one for themselves. For myself, I wish that the ending of Hardy’s novel as we have it - a happy rural wedding and some peasants' merrymaking - was 'true' because it’s really 'feel-good.' But I know Hardy’s preferred tragic ending is truer to the story.
For Badger though, the choice truly is impossible, however much Hare tries to persuade him, and the book ends on an even more pressing question-mark than the first.
The emphasis in the third, Hawk’s Vision, is different again. This time Hawk is not dead at the start and is still flying at the end, untroubled by any such doubts. The story now is more about the children. Things in the educational world had changed since the days of our report, there was a cold wind blowing and our small schools were now fast being closed. So I decided the school in the story must close as well: the prospect for the children was imminent upheaval and the end of their tight-knit group. The story - though the children talking about the hawk start it, after Jamila, who is Asian, has seen it and been deeply affected by the sight – is really about the children and the problem they are grappling with.
In a sense, the choice between their two possible lives (though this choice has already been made for them) is the same as the animals’ choice between the two heavens. Badger and Hare are waiting for Hawk to join them one day, but for now there is their own choice to consider – or at least, Badger’s, for we left him undecided. But now the choice is finally made and what it really is should have been obvious all the time. I cursed myself for not having thought of it at once because then the three parts of the trilogy could have been written together instead of with a three-year gap between Hare and Badger.
In Hawk’s Vision, the last section is about the children, not the animals. The children have moved on, their own choice is made, their stories have helped them make it by enacting it for them and - I hope - the whole trilogy now can have final closure.
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So there we are: the most completely immersive writing experience I think I have ever experienced. Preparing the books for publication will take some time: I need professional help because Meg's marvellous illustrations need to show at their best.
Victor Watson, in his entry on The Hare Trilogy in The Cambridge Guide to Children's Books in English expresses exactly what I aimed for: 'a surface simplicity with a deeply felt complexity.' I hope that's what all children's authors try for. He also says something with which I profoundly agree: 'For adult readers aware of recent changes in British primary schools the trilogy will read a little like an elegy.'
Well, he's right. Composing group stories beats memorising what a 'fronted adverbial' is any day.
Anyway, that's all I have to say, except to thank you all for reading and sometimes commenting on my blogs. And also to thank all the other Electric Authors, past and present, for all their support, encouragement, expertise, professionalism and sheer untrammelled friendship. I'm not leaving you - how could anybody say goodbye to a company of such wonderful people?
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Here's a little story. Look well at this pic because you'll never see it again. It shows Hare with Peter Rabbit in the animal heaven. Penguin got wind of this, demanded PR's removal and threatened to stop the publication of the whole book unless I rewrote it. I said that Richard Adams was pleased that I'd included Hazel and Bigwig in the animal heaven and had even gently corrected my inaccurate description of Bigwig's head. If my using copyright characters was good enough for him it should be good enough for them. So they asked merely that this illustration be removed, which seemed fair enough. Hare is now flanked by Black Beauty and Ginger cavorting in the background, safe in the knowledge that they are firmly in the public domain.