Monday, 13 May 2019

'A Yorkshire childhood?' - Alex Marchant


Last weekend I was asked to join a fellow author in an event at a local library. I’m a member of a group called Promoting Yorkshire Authors (PYA, https://www.promotingyorkshireauthors.com/), which is exactly what its name suggests: an organization of authors working together to promote their books. The ‘Yorkshire’ part covers both authors born in the English county of Yorkshire and those who currently live there. The event in question was to be two children’s authors talking about and reading from their books. And the theme was ‘A Yorkshire Childhood’.
It has to be said I was a little uncertain whether this was really an event for me. I come under the latter category of membership of the PYA – I wasn’t born in what the locals call ‘God’s Own County’, although I recently realized I have now lived here something more than half my lifetime. (I was once told I could qualify for my Yorkshire passport after about fifteen years, but I’m still waiting…) But that ‘half a lifetime’ has been the latter half – not a moment of my childhood was spent here, unless one counts the single day on which I visited the city of York for a university interview at the age of seventeen. So I felt a bit of a fraud. Am I in any way qualified to speak about ‘a Yorkshire childhood’?
My fellow author undoubtedly is. Maggie Cobbett, author of Workhouse Orphan
Maggie Cobbett reading from Workhouse Orphan
among other books, may be the daughter of a Kentish-born father, but her mother was born, and she herself grew up, in what was once known as the West Riding (and still is in true Yorkshire circles, although now known officially as West Yorkshire). Workhouse Orphan draws upon that heritage in various ways, from basing its central character on a distant family member from the early 1900s to its setting in a fictionalized coal-mining (or ‘pit’) village in the West Riding. In addition, much of the dialogue is in local dialect, which Maggie is of course able to render brilliantly on the page. 
Interestingly, though, the title character of the book, David, isn’t himself from Yorkshire at all. He is as much an ‘off-cumden’ (an outsider, ‘not from round here’) as I am myself. Until the age of twelve, he lived in London – could in fact have been neighbour to my own forebears, all of whom at the turn of the twentieth century lived in England’s capital city. And most of whom, like David’s father until his early death, were dock labourers or similar – very much from the lower classes, living in some of the worst slums in the world at that time.
But as in many of the best children’s books (and perhaps adult books too), the drama stems from someone being uprooted from all that is familiar to them and shipping up somewhere very different, alien even, and seeing that place (and the people who inhabit it) from the point of view of an outsider. And having to deal with life in that strange place and the events that unfold there. In David’s case, this means adapting to life two hundred miles away from his brothers and sister still in the London workhouse, toiling long hours in the dark depths of a coal mine and living among the family of strangers to whom he was sent by the workhouse authorities so they no longer had to pay for his keep. 
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In some ways, David has in fact left his childhood behind – such as it was. There is of course some debate over what constituted ‘childhood’ in the past – was it really a concept at all before the Victorian period? And even then, for youngsters such as David – forced into a life of hard labour and looking after his younger siblings – in what way was it so very different from the toils of adulthood?
My own books provide a sharp contrast. Set four hundred years before Maggie’s, in
the medieval world of the Wars of the Roses, they show a very different childhood, albeit one that’s also gradually eroded by events out of my characters’ control. And it occurred to me while writing my talk that it’s perhaps not so much the era (early twentieth century vs. late fifteenth) or the area (Yorkshire vs. London) that dictates a young person’s experience as their class and access to wealth and power. The young characters in my books are from what would today be called the middle and upper classes – Matthew, the lead character, being a merchant’s son, most of the others being the offspring of noblemen. And in my first book, The Order of the White Boar, we see them leading a relatively carefree existence in
The Yorkshire Dales, through which The Order roam
the Yorkshire Dales, just a few miles from the West Riding. They go to school, studying very similar things to children today (albeit in a castle), make friends, play together and roam about the surrounding countryside in much the same way as I did when I was a kid – albeit my horse and those of my friends were make-believe, and the ‘countryside’ was a suburban park in Surrey. 

My own childhood games in that parkland often involved forming gangs or secret clubs with my friends – like the Famous Five or ‘Secret Seven’ of Enid Blyton, or Malcom Saville’s ‘Lone Pine Club’ – or perhaps today, Harry Potter’s ‘Dumbledore’s Army’ – with secret dens, oaths of loyalty, codes, messages written in invisible ink, and covert signals (once upon a time I could passably hoot like an owl). And these childhood pleasures of course found their way into The Order of the White Boar. Its very title is that of the ‘gang’ (in this case, a secret order of chivalry) that the child characters form.
When I spoke about all this at Harrogate Library, I saw our audience nodding and smiling with recognition. And as Maggie and I answered questions after our individual talks, and discussed our books together, the more it became clear that, despite the differences dictated by class, many aspects of childhood are very similarly experienced across space and time. In our books, two boys of the same age, although with very different backgrounds, are plucked from their families and relocated in the depths of Yorkshire, and each feels the same insecurities and vulnerability, each makes firm friends among welcoming people, each faces bullies against whom he must stand firm or go under, and each takes what simple pleasures he can, wherever he finds them – among those friends, in those games. And my conclusion? That there are sufficient common experiences in childhood – whether in Yorkshire, in Surrey or in the working-class slums of London – in the nineteenth, twentieth or fifteenth century – for me to be able to speak about at least one version of ‘a Yorkshire childhood’. But for all that, I still don’t expect to receive my Yorkshire passport any time soon…
Maggie and Alex at Harrogate Library
 Alex is author of two books telling the story of the real King Richard III for children aged 10+, the first set largely in Yorkshire, and editor of Grant Me the Carving of My Name, an anthology of short fiction inspired by the king, sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK). A further anthology, Right Trusty and Well Beloved..., is planned for later this year and submissions are welcomed from published and unpublished authors. Details can be found at https://alexmarchantblog.wordpress.com/2019/02/24/call-for-submissions-to-new-richardiii-anthology/ Deadline 19 May 2019.


Alex's books can be found on Amazon at:



3 comments:

julia jones said...

Left a longish comment, then got chucked out by the system. Sorry. Message was appreciation for your post and also for the historical fiction genre generally. (Trying again now!)

Ann Turnbull said...

What a lovely, supportive group this sounds, Alex! And I know what you mean about wondering if you are qualified to write about a Yorkshire childhood, as I'm in a similar situation in Shropshire. However I think there is something to be said for a fresh eye and a certain detachment.

authors electric said...

Thank you, both Julia and Ann. And yes, PYA is an excellent group - the brainchild of one of our other Authors Electric authors, Edwin Rydberg (himself also an off-cumden!) along with Paul Smith and a core of dedicated authors. It's gone from strength to strength in the past year or so, and I'd urge anyone with a Yorkshire connection to join.