ROBIN CARMODY on 1950s middle-English children's literature in excelsis. But, you know, actually very good indeed.
Sometimes, smug early-20-something of the post-Bannister era that I am, I look back to the days of Gary Davies's Bit in the Middle on Radio 1 - Gary with his broad grin, his ridiculous mid-Atlantic accent, his propensity for judging wet T-shirt contests while doing roadshows on Weymouth beach, his indescribably patronising "Battle of the Sexes" quiz - and imagine that I'm casting my gaze over a gaping chasm into an untouchably distant era. Then I read Minnow on the Say and realise that, in context, Gary might as well still be on Radio 1 today.
My mental connection has its roots in the fact that when I first read Minnow on the Say, 10 years ago this spring, I'd sit down - often reading the book - at 12.45 pm every day and have my lunch while listening to Gary's pop and prattle (I was being educated at home back then, so didn't have to go through the tiresome rituals of primary school lunchbreak), so much so that I now closely and instinctively mentally connect them. Frances Nero's "Footsteps Following Me" fades into and out of those blissfully sunlit moments in the canoe, David Moss suddenly bedecked with orchids, camellias and maidenhair fern suddenly falling from a train window high above him; the KLF's "Last Train To Trancentral" slides briefly into the moonlit search for treasure, then slides away again.
And my opening paragraph relates to the fact that Minnow on the Say evokes a world as far from anything I have ever experienced, and the entire nature of Britain today, as I can imagine. Right from the start, where David Moss (one of the two boys around whom the story is centred, from a rural "respectable working-class" family of a type widely perceived nowadays to be extinct) is smacked and denounced in harsh terms by his mother, and Adam Codling (the other boy, from a once-affluent family who have fallen on hard times and whose ancestral home, Codlings', is for sale) is held by the scruff of his neck by his aged, confused, dying grandfather, we're aware we're in a time of intense discipline and rigid rules to which the whole population felt forced to conform. Family documents from the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588 confirm a relationship with such a distant past from which we have gradually become so incredibly removed over the last half-century, while the utterly neo-Arcadian nature of this countryside, very obviously evoked before concepts like decay, uncertainty and globalisation seriously came into play, is defined by passages like this: "It was the sleepy end of a hot afternoon. The foliage of the trees seemed to shimmer in the heat; the flowers - wild flowers and cultivated tangling together in the neglected borders - breathed their scents heavily. There was something dream-like about the garden that, with the house, was so soon to disappear at Mr Smith's command ... All the sweet summers that David had ever known came drifting into his mind, and last came this one - the best of them all, that he had shared with Adam. He heard the swish of the Minnow as they paddled her along the Say; he saw again the moonlight silvering the water meadows by Jonathan Codling's bridge; he smelt - yes, he really smelt - the delicious scents that follow in their order the summer through - only these were mixed together all at once - hawthorn and cowslips in the meadows; in the garden, apple-mint and clary, honeysuckle and roses. A wave of summer sweetness moved over David as Squeak Wilson passed, singing."
The consciously "timeless" nature of this story is confirmed when we get onto its main subject, a search for ancestral treasure in the Minnow itself, a canoe, and here we're onto a whole set of boyhood rituals which themselves seem irrecoverably of the past (the treasure hunt retained its resonance as a cultural motif as late as the mid-80s, when Treasure Hunt itself was Channel 4's top-rated show, and when Steve Wright and Simon Bates could still travel up the coast of England in search of some supposed "lost treasure" in - gulp - a Radio 1 Boatshow, but already by 1991 such things would have been unimaginable). The recurring song, sung by the elderly Squeak Wilson - "Heigh-ho! Heigh-ho! Heigh-ho! Sweet summer!" - also links the book with the oft-mocked language of a certain type of English folk song.
If the treasure is not found, the Codlings' family home must be sold, and they must move to Birmingham - in 1954, still dominated by heavy industry, and perceived as a perpetually grey, dirty, grimy place (its city centre was still Victorian austere rather than 60s brutalist). This is what relates Minnow on the Say to the entire cultural battle that has been so recurrent in Britain ever since the Industrial Revolution; it evokes and distills a rural idyll and sets up an industrial city as its unseen, undescribed antithesis, and that to which one of the book's two main protagonists will be confined if the hunt for lost treasure (itself a very obvious symbol of some ancient, mythical past) is lost. What is being fought is nothing short of a battle to retain your place in Arcady, and to be consigned to the industrial world is presented as a sad, bleak fate.
In this respect, the book seems to have more in common with the conservatism of John Betjeman than the practical vision of his closest liberal counterpart, Nicolaus Pevsner - certainly Birmingham, for much of the book, is invoked not so much as a mere name, but as a symbol of the other, aggressive, harsh world to which Adam Codling is so obviously deeply ill-suited. Birmingham may as well be on another planet from this Cambridgeshire erstwhile; it was certainly exposed to commercial television in the middle of the 50s rather than having to wait until the very end of the decade, as East Anglia did, and no wonder David refers privately to a mood of melancholia and inertia and sadness as "the Birmingham mood". But it doesn't seem nasty or exclusive or conservative; rather it seems piquant and poignant and all part of the book's atmosphere.
Of course, the Arcadians get their wish. The sustaining myth of this sort of book - the reassurance of the rural status quo that it needs to conclude with - could not be carried through if Minnow on the Say ended with Adam and the Codlings exiled to Birmingham and David alone and depressed and me thinking about the effects of the coming mass suburbanisation of the Macmillan era (for more on which, sort of, see http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/skylarking.htm). Of course the treasure is found, and the house is saved, and a celebratory tea is held with the drinking of the summer's Flower Wine. And then David confides in Miss Codling - a classic gentle middle-aged spinster of a kind now more or less extinct apart from among the elderly, and therefore on its way to total extinction - that he had known about the treasure all along. She realises instantly that, in this world, this is the kind of thing that has to remain a secret forever (as she says: "Never tell, Davy, never tell") and it is fitting that she speaks the last line of the book, one which defines its Arcadian vision: "Hush, David! Hush - hush and listen: there's a nightingale singing in the trees by the river."
And there we are. Awoken from a dream, a reverie, a glorious drowning in a very specific, hazy, rose-tinted, sun-dappled atmosphere masquerading as a children's novel. As Philippa Pearce herself admitted in 1989 when she added an afterword to Minnow on the Say, the plot was more or less an afterthought, and not the main point of the book; the theme of an old family home in danger of being sold up, a hunt for a lost treasure, a wicked villain racing to get the treasure first, an ancient family likeness, and lots of tricky clues was already an old chestnut at the time (and it was reused wonderfully by Richard Carpenter in 1970 at the climax to the second series of Catweazle - http://offthetelly.users.btopenworld.com/childrens/catweazle.htm). What is really important about Minnow on the Say, and what elevates it from a good 1950s middle-class English children's book into a minor classic, is the smell of it, the way the description and absorption into fiction of specific details from the villages of Great and Little Shelford (here masquerading as Great and Little Barley) fills the entire mind, makes me totally forget everything that is around me, and affecting me from other sources, at the moment I am reading it. I'm still aware of all the unpleasantness that surrounded and backed up the apparent state of contentment evoked here - fear of Europe and retreat into reassuring memories of the Second World War, resentment towards immigrants, domination of the national media by one, overridingly Home Counties and middle-class, worldview - but all that momentarily fades from my mind. All I can feel towards the English countryside of the 1950s while reading Minnow on the Say is love and affection, tempered by an awareness that, for once, Peter Hitchens was not wildly exaggerating when he wrote that, reading books like this, you are "looking at the inner life of a wholly foreign country".
Sometimes I reflect on - perhaps subconsciously mourn - the chasm that separates this book, this world - this entire universe, in fact - from us, here, now, today. And then I reflect on it again and go back and listen to Ludacris. The world needs its living contradictions. Someone shoot me the day I stop being one.
Robin Carmody, 4th May 2001
http://www.argonet.co.uk/users/skelly/letsbuzz/bookclub/p/piercep/minno.html - there's so little on the net about Minnow on the Say, unfortunately. This basically says in one sentence what I say at length in this piece.
http://prod.puffin.co.uk/Author/AuthorPage/1,1590,115491_BIO,00.html - biography of Philippa Pearce, from the Puffin site.
http://www.ansible.demon.co.uk/cc/cc97.html - Minnow on the Say gets a very brief mention here.
http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0192717782/qid=988947492/sr=1-12/202-6509417-4590248 - if you're in the UK, this seems like a pretty good way of buying it.
http://tv.cream.org/arkt2.htm - Anonymously, I wrote the entry here which seems to be the only acknowledgement anywhere online of the BBC's long-forgotten 1972 TV serialisation of Minnow on the Say under the title Treasure Over The Water. Nearly four years on, and still I have failed to encounter anyone who remembers it. Heigh-ho :).
http://www.film.queensu.ca/CBC/Med.html - and here's the lowdown on the slightly improbable Canadian TV version of the book from 1960.