Friday 3 November 2017

Alison Uttley, Mary Webb, Henry Williamson

This week I bought a Peacock Edition from 1963 of Alison Uttley's The Country Child. The writer and her book are one in my memory, in the same cloth bag as Henry Williamson and his Tarka the Otter, and Salar the Salmon. I was a country child too, a generation later than Alison Uttley. As she read Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson, I read Alison Uttley, Henry Williamson, and Mary Webb's Gone to Earth and Precious Bane. My rural life was coloured by theirs. They deepened the view, lived in the thickets, trod the corn, knew the lairs, named the animals and the birds and lengthened my childhood.

Alison Uttley's country child is nine. Was that the age of romance in literary children then? The age when you might want to hide in a glade or join the circus? The age, too, that her country child started school. Helping on the farm, lying out on the fields on sunny days, counting stars at night, reading two or three books over and over, is school enough till then and possibly for ever.

Talk about the last child in the wood.

Now Alison Uttley feels like a stilted read. I shouldn't have read her Wikipedia entry, which was enough to stilt the most resilient writer. She was a controlling woman, not at all charming, it seems, one of a covey of children's writers that included Enid Blyton and Beatrix Potter. I don't think Enid Blyton was charming either. Alison Uttley was only the second female graduate from Manchester university. That's what going to school was for.

I try to read her as I would have when I was nine. Talk about walking with ghosts. The walk, as I think of it now, begins at the end of Downs Road where our hairdresser, the daughter of Henry Williamson, lived. That was already ghostly and thrilling, the daughter of a writer whose books I had read. She, the hairdresser, paid it no heed. I was already miles away along the river bank.

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