Tuesday, 31 December 2019

'Things Aren't Untrue Just Because They Never Happened.' by Dennis Hamley

The Hare Trilogy by Dennis Hamley

At last I’ve managed to republish three novels, Hare’s Choice, Badger’s Fate and Hawk’s Vision, in the form they should have been years ago, as a single volume, The Hare Trilogy.

These books were published as children’s books and children remain their primary intended audience. But is it still a relevant one? Can present-day children identify with these fictional children living in a sort of vanished Neverland, with their unfashionable names and their eighties, smartphoneless preoccupations? I don’t know. And perhaps it doesn’t matter so much. Because I always had a different purpose. These are books for children. But they are also books about children. The difference is significant. They become books for adults as well.


They are also about something else, which provides the whole impetus. They are about stories: how they work, how they are composed, how their composition embodies the whole creative process, what they mean, what they are for. And even more importantly, what sort of truth do they embody?

The three stories together can be seen as a meditation on the nature of truth. ‘Things aren’t untrue just because they never happened,’ the overseer tells Hare after she is dead. Elsewhere, I have described my first example for this. Let us take a place which many people know about and have marvelled at – the Cob at Lyme Regis, that probably medieval stone harbour quay which juts out of Lyme Bay and gives marvellous views of the Jurassic Coast. In all the centuries of harbour activity there, what do we really know about it? What actually happened on it? Unless we’re long-term natives of Lyme or local historians, we have no idea. But we all know of two ‘facts’ about it. First. a girl called Louisa once fell off it. Second, another girl called Sara Woodruff once stood at the end day after day looking out to sea waiting for her lover to return. They stand in our minds like myth, with a real sense of actuality and significance. So though they never happened to us they are in a real sense true. It’s a fictional truth, yet real to us, which we can have real-seeming memories of. And yet Sara Woodruff’s long wait is founded ironically on a lie – so that subtilizes this concept of truth even further. 


I have considered this concept now for many years. And now I found a way of examining it properly. Hare’s Choice is about children in a  school making a story about a dead hare found by the road. In their story, the hare is personified, lives, performs great deeds. And in the afterlife she is presented with a choice. Does she enter the limitless place where all living creatures, from insects to eagles, go after death – or is she admitted to a tiny exclusive Heaven inhabited by story characters – Peter Rabbit, Hazel, Fiver, Mr Toad? She has had two lives, one as a real hare, one as a Story Hare. Which is she to choose?

You can have no idea what a relief final publication of this book is to me. These three short children’s books were published in 1988, 1992 and 1993 respectively. The long gap between Hare and Badger is significant. When I wrote Hare’s Choice I intended it to be a stand-alone. Hare makes her choice but I could not, would not, even attempt to say what it was because I couldn’t presume to speak on behalf of this wonderful, inscrutable animal. For three years, I stubbornly refused even to speculate on it whenever I was asked.
 

Meg Rutherford's hare
Then two things happened. A primary school head wrote to me saying her pupils loved the book but were ‘very distressed’ not to know where Hare went.  There was more than a hint in the letter that to tell them was my duty.  Then, the wonderful and much lamented Meg Rutherford, who did the marvellous illustrations, rang me to say that there were badgers digging in her garden and she wanted to draw them. I said ‘Great, can I have one of the pictures?’ and she said ‘No, I want you to write about them so I can make an illustration.’


So I wrote her a pretty awful poem about a badger, which compared shamefully with the poems of the real poets who contributed to her book. It was published as Meg Rutherford’s Book of Animal Poems  (Simon and Schuster). To think this comparison was laid bare for the public to see was really quite embarrassing!

But it made me realise that a Hare sequel was necessary because a different possibility in the nature of the Choice had occurred to me and perhaps I might eventually have some idea of what it really meant. Meg had given me a clue: I had to consider what the Choice involved for different creatures and what stories involved for the people who heard them and composed them. This new book would have to be about Badgers, animals which have fascinated me for many years, almost as much as hares have.

So I set about writing Badger’s Fate.  This is a much darker book than Hare’s Choice. The first book is about the ‘truth’ of stories. The second deals with the paradox that if stories have ‘truth’ which is validated by our own experience and empathy then it follows that they must be true to themselves, even if what we find out when their logic is unveiled is not what we want to hear – or even think about.
 
Badger by Meg Rutherford
To my mind, there is a great difference between ‘ending’ (or ‘conclusion’) and ‘closure’.  Stories, as we know, never really end: there  always seems more to say. Yes, the badger-baiters should be caught, stand trial, be sentenced. This  is a logical consequence which might seem to settle the whole thing once and for all. But it is not really part of the story. Emma alone knows this – because she  discovered the badger and so has seen the real conclusion for herself. So the story-teller, as well as being  the creator of artifice, is also the truthteller. The story is about the badger: after the badger is dead, all which follows is irrelevant, even the attainment of justice.
 

Which led to another consideration of the nature and necessity of stories. In Badger’s Fate, Kirsty and Derek both provide their own endings. One, more typical of boys, leads to a fightback  by the animals armed to the teeth and the death of the evil leader of the human invaders. The other had a more obviously feminine emphasis. The badgers escape and find safety beyond the range of the humans. Then each child points out the fatal flaw in the other’s version. One ending has had the class standing up and cheering, the other brought out sighs of relief and satisfaction. But we know that neither is sufficient for logic or truth. Emma alone is the truthteller.

But under what circumstances can all the children be the truthtellers? This leads on to another aspect of stories: why can they be not so much important as necessary for people? Perhaps it is when the subject is close  – even vital - to the tellers and they have to work the ending  out for themselves in an intimate and personal way – in the face of a crisis, perhaps.  The closure of their little school, perhaps, and the break-up of a little society, self-renewing each year, which stood almost like a collective character in its own right?

Well, these stories sprang from real-life situations in schools in which I was closely involved. I wrote them soon after I was, as County English Adviser for Hertfordshire, taking part in an inspection of all the really small primary schools in the county. Those who don’t know Hertfordshire tend to think of it as an extension of London, full of motorways and railways and far too many people. Not so. After all, it stretches from London’s suburbs in the south to Cambridgeshire and nearly to the Fens in the north. There are great tracts of countryside full of lovely villages, farms and gentle and sometimes almost spectacular, scenery. And nestling in between them are, or were,  dozens of tiny schools. In 1984, their future, in an atmosphere of value for money and economy of scale, was being questioned. Our task was to test if they really justified their continuing existence.


Our answer was pretty well unanimous. We felt they offered pupils a unique and precious experience which was not necessarily qualitatively different from  children’s normal experience in schools, but certainly unique, different and worthy to be perpetuated. And, in those now far-off days of wisdom in education, our opinion was accepted. Later on, after I had left the County, a colder wind was blowing and, one by one, the little schools were being closed and their organic, self-sufficient groups were being scattered to the winds

Now I realised  where my stories should be set. One such tiny school with barely fifty children on the roll, with just two teachers and the whole natural world round them as a constant stimulus.

The stories have a similar form and structure. I didn’t have to work this out; it was there already in the very concept. I didn’t have formal plans before I started. I knew the sequence of events but their consequences and implications almost formed themselves. I don’t think I have even felt such satisfaction in writing as I did with these.

Hawk, by Meg Rutherford
So the end of the trilogy is the end of the school. And the children’s group story is about the possible destruction of the animals’ home and their escape to a new home – which means adaptation and, if possible, acceptance. So in this story, Hawk’s Vision,  the main creature, in this case a hawk, is not the victim but the enabler and is still flying at the end.  Shiva, both creator and destroyer.  The class itself is now the main character and the actual destroyer and creator are both embedded within it and between them provide the story’s central conflict. 


In some ways, the ending of Hawk’s Vision is simple - sadness, regret and loss, especially for the teachers. In others, it is deeply ambiguous – not from design but from inevitability, because the children’s futures, though superficially destined, are not emotionally settled in what might yet turn out to be hostile environments. The use of the word ‘ separate’ in the very last sentence seemed suitable at the time. Only later did I find it contained several implications  which I hadn’t considered  or even realised but which gave it an extra resonance.

So there we were. Three separate but linked novels, published in 1988, 1992 and 1993 respectively. And I longed for an omnibus edition. But four years had elapsed between Hare and Badger and by then Hare, which had caused quite a stir in its first year or so, and picked up an American publisher and even a translation into Spanish, had lost its immediate audience who would have expected sequels. Scholastic did say they would publish a single-volume version – but it was pulled because of some rigmarole which seemed to involve money in some form or another!  When Hare was republished by Barn Owl my hopes were renewed – but  Ann Jungman’s Barn Owl was a tiny, though influential, publisher and did  a beautiful reissue of Hare in 2006, but couldn’t begin to even think about an omnibus.

So my ambition seemed gone for ever. Until of course Createspace and then KDP came along. But there were obviously two main obstacles. Getting Meg’s beautiful illustrations in was not going to be easy. But worse than that, there were no digital versions of the books. Hare was typed out laboriously on a fairly antique electric typewriter and the finished MS had pages which were like thin solid slabs of white slate because of the layers of Tipp-ex  - and is anyway now in the archives of Seven Stories in Newcastle. The other two were done on an ancient Atari computer given to me by my son after his university paid half the cost of an Apple Mac for all its graduate students, using a long -defunct word processing program onto floppy disks which I’ve lost anyway. So I needed them digitised. Who by? I asked around, and David Penney of ALLI gave me the answer. Digitise my Books (www.digitisemybooks.co.uk). Marvellous. I contacted Philip, who provided me with Word docs and PDFs out of original editions of all three books separately and then as an omnibus, very quickly and far more cheaply than I had expected.

So shouldn’t everything now be easy? I soon found that trying to bond pictures and text in a publishable form was as elusive and slippery as trying to write with mercury as ink. Months passed and I was still no nearer. I nearly gave up and turned to professional help. But this was a labour of love and a matter of pride and I had to do it myself. One last effort. And in the end I managed it.  The paperback was published in September.

Even so, I had doubts. To publish books which first appeared thirty years ago set in an obsolete situation could be damningly interpreted as  VANITY PROJECT!  However, a critical remark I’ve always cherished, first said, I think, by WH Auden in respect of Thomas Hardy’s poetry – ‘If you think you have found a work’s greatest weakness, please consider for a moment that it may instead be its greatest strength.’ And the more I thought about it, the more sure I was that this very obsolescence was the best reason of all to republish the books.

In his School Librarian review of the 2006 reissue of Hare, Chris Brown, himself a former primary headteacher, wrote  ‘…it is a timely testimony to the power and possibilities of a curriculum driven entirely by empathetic encouragement and above all from first-hand stimuli.’ Perfectly put. And in his article on the Hare trilogy in The Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books in English, Victor Watson says ‘For adult readers aware of recent changes  in British primary schools , the trilogy will read a little like an elegy.’ Dead right again, because I realized that this wasn’t just a reissue  of three little books. It was a howl of rage at what has been allowed – nay, forced - to happen in primary schools – a rigid, top-down, tick-box mentality which values only memory to recall disparate pieces of sometimes doubtful knowledge  which won’t help anyone to live a more fulfilled life (’fronted adverbials’, anybody?). There is no particular educational rationale behind it, being mainly intended, so it would seem, to determine school league-table placings.

And I realized that reissuing these books might be a tiny broadside against the mighty oaken hulls of these monstrous leviathans, so that whole generations of children are not stunted by having their creative and imaginative qualities developed or even recognized.

And in that spirit I offer them again.

As I was writing this, I read Sue Price’s marvellous review  of the trilogy in her Christmas Day blog.  Thanks so much, Sue. And thank you, Bill Kirton, for your lovely Hare review back in 2017 on Eclectic Electric.

These books are published under my Joslin Books imprint for my own books, with its companion list, Joslin Specials, for books by writers I have mentored and edited, mainly for The Oxford Editors. They are at present only on Amazon, though I intend to put them with Ingram Spark as well, for wider availability – when I find out how to do it!

Not yet an ebook. More  trouble with pictures. Soon, I hope.

I‘ve also printed a booket, About the Hare Trilogy, which ends with an angry rant about present-day education. If you’d like a printed copy, send me your address (to dennishamley@yahoo.co.uk) and it’s yours for £1 and £1 postage. Or you can have a pdf for nothing! 

 
Hawk, by Meg Rutherford
Have a look also at all six volumes of The Long Journey of Joslin de Lay as well as Ellen’s People and Divided Loyalties, all in paperback and also on Kindle.