A Connecticut Yankee in an Old Comic

This is not who this is about

Though you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise, Eagle was not the only boy’s comic I used to devour in my personal Golden Age of the Sixties. It’s just the one of which I had the most clear and comprehensive memories, spurring me to pursue it, even to the extent of a dozen years worth of issues before I ever read my first.

Everything else exists in just brief flashes, odd, generic scenes of old but exciting series: Kelly’s Eye, The Steel Claw, Robot Archie, The Spider… ah, the Spider! I am still in awe at the discovery that some of those stories I relished back then, in 1965 or so, when we still lived at Brigham Street, were being written by Jerry Seigel, the Jerry Seigel, creator of Superman. Writing for _Lion_. I would love to grab hold of those old comics, to read them and try to see in them the work of the man who created American comics.

What comics did I read? The ones of my real childhood are unimportant to me: Robin, of course, and TV Comic are the ones I do remember, not that I would want to re-read any of these, except for the extraordinarily anarchic ‘Goon Show’ series, which really ought to be reprinted for us fans.

But of the older titles? Though I remember several recurring series from Victor and Hornet, and enjoying them then, I have curiously little attachment to their memories, and no idea which title housed which character I recall. The D.C.Thompson titles looked and felt cheap: slim, brittle, regimented in even rectangular panels in static tiers, and that permeates my recollections.

There’s only one story I would like to re-read, and that was one of which I never reached the end. This was a Wilson story, William Wilson, the mystery recluse and super-sportsman, and it involved cricket. The plane carrying the England Test party to Australia had crashed, injuring everyone. Mysteriously, a second plane with a replacement party also crashed, leaving no viable Test team. Wlison, the marvelous eccentric, put together a team of amateurs and eccentrics and weirdos who, under his unorthodox tutelage, played entertaining games and won them. Despite official MCC opposition, there was talk of offering the Tests to Wilson’s XI…

And then I gave up Victor or Hornet, whichever one it was, and never read the rest of the story. It wasn’t the only story left uncompleted by changes in my allegiances but, like my once-unfinished ‘High Quest’, it is still in my memory fifty years later.

If anyone did read that story to the end and remembers its outcome, please write!

I’m hazy on what comics I did get and which I only read when swapping with my mates. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember which comic Sergeant Hurricane (Valiant) featured in, only that it was never one of mine, but I remember getting Hurricane from its first issue, but not its contents, with the exception of its cover strip, a football series featuring the career of up and coming striker, Harry Kane (would you believe it?), nick-named ‘Hurry’, which for some reason I tried to pronounce mentally as Huhry.

But with very few exceptions, it’s the serious stories that provide me with these flashes of memory, the adventure series, the ones with a consistent, ongoing lead character. Just as with Eagle‘s features, the comedy has not worn well, and why should it? Just because I can still appreciate Laurel & Hardy as much as I did fifty years ago doesn’t mean that I am going to be in tune with cartoons and comics aimed at a ten year old’s mind and imagination.

Except that what’s caused this burst of nostalgia is a sudden recollection of a comic series that I haven’t thought of in decades.

I hold Ursula Le Guin responsible: since her death earlier this year, I have been engaged in a private re-read of all her books that I have collected, which is about 90% of her portfolio. I’m up to the non-fiction, and today, sitting in the sun with a bag of chicken nuggets, idling before my shift, I found myself reading an essay about Mark Twain, listing various of his books.

There was a reference, and a slighting one at that (with which I am in accord) to Connecticut Yankee (or A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court). Now this has been filmed, quite successfully, with Bing Crosby playing a smoothed down version of the character – you may remember the song ‘Busy Doing Nothing’ which comes from this film, but suddenly I remembered that one of my comics did a serial adaptation of the book – updating its central character to a 1960’s motor mechanic, and having a great deal of fun with it.

I seem to remember that titular Yankee having the name Huck, or maybe it was Hiram – utterly American names I was familiar with from TV – Huckleberry Hound and The Adventures of Hiram Holliday (hell’s bells, that’s another old memory springing out at me without warning!). It’s Hank in the original, and most likely in this version, I suppose. Probably, Twain’s satire, and the stinging snipes at Arthurian times and Kings in general, were removed and the series may well have taken nothing bit the basic set-up and played with it, but the point is that it’s arrived back into my head, and I want to know. I want to read it again, to test it against fifty years, to see how much of it, if any, still hits me. Because I have this irrational belief that I would remember this the way I don’t remember most of its contemporaries.

I did read the book, once. I’d read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, of course – at that age, the first was practically compulsory – but I tackled Yankee precisely because of the comic strip version I remembered so well. Like Ursula Le Guin, I didn’t particularly like it, and indeed resented it in places. This was substantially down to a kind of nationalism, as opposed to patriotism, an early sense of being British and being formed from the attitudes, beliefs and experiences of my country, and instinctively opposed to having our ancient past criticised by some damned upstart Yankee. I couldn’t then see that Twain was using the mythical times of Arthur to criticise contemporary Britain.

There was none of that in the strip version, or if there was it was softened for so young an audience. That this was being produced in Britain, and in an age when many of the differences between the nations in the back half of the 19th Century had decreased, it was more purely a modern versus ancient theme.

Of course, Connecticut Yankee has been adapted to comics many times, mostly straight, and apart from my memories, there’s no evidence of this version ever existing. It would have dropped out of copyright in England fifty years after Twain’s death in 1910, so the series could have used the proper title. But I can almost see actual panels in my mind, images of Hank (if they did follow the book), his wide open brash grin, his lankiness and his motor-goggles.

The chances of confirming any of this would seem to be slim. But thank you the late Ursula for triggering this rush, and your patience for reading this, especially you younger readers for whom this might as well have been in a foreign language!



When you’re a writer – and it doesn’t matter if you’re published, it’s down to the internal obligation to yourself to write (being any good at it is not a factor, either) – the worst moments come when you’re blocked. When there’s a great gaping whole in your head that’s usually filled with words, only now it’s just an absence. A very palpable absence. Something has been removed, and it’s that instinctive drive to think about what you’re writing, about things you can and should be working on, the ongoing mental activity that’s part of the iceberg whose tip is the words you put on paper or pixel.

You can always tell: when else are you driven to write about Block than when it’s the only thing in your head?

Somewhere in my pokey little flat is a book about Writer’s Block. It was the first book by Donald E Westlake that I ever read, it’s still my favourite of all his works, the Dortmunder Gang series notwithstanding, and it’s one of the few works I have ever read/seen that balances laughter and pain so completely. It’s called ‘Adios Scheherezade’.

The book, which appeared in 1967, is being told, or rather typed, by Ed Topliss. It is told in a series of chapters, each of fifteen pages in length, the majority of which are headed Chapter 1. Ed is a writer, officially, that is. Actually, Ed is a schlub.

You see, for the last thirty months, Ed has written dirty books for a living. Real, honest-to-god, cheap soft porn paperbacks, under the pen-name of Dirk Smuff (which encapsulates the entire, low-rent, cheesy milieu of the whole endeavour). To be frank, Dirk Smuff isn’t even Ed’s pen-name, it belongs to and was established by his college friend Paul. Now Paul is a writer. He wrote the first ten Dirk Smuffs for the money, to keep himself afloat whilst he pursued serious options, and now Paul has a career.

Ed, on the other hand, has no options open to him. He majored in English at college, emerged with no plans, no career, and married to Betty, his long-term girlfriend at college who never went all the way until it was nearly the end, and, guess what, she went and got pregnant. So Paul offered Ed an opportunity: take over the Dirk Smuff name, write a dirty book each month, collect $900 every month (Paul keeps 10%). And bear in mind: nobody can write this shit forever.

Ed wasn’t listening to that bit. Ed had his mind on Paul’s shit-hot girlfriend, or rather the thighs being unconcealed by her mini-skirt. As far as Ed’s concerned, it’s easy money, something to keep him going whilst he sorts out a real career for himself.

You see, there’s a formula to these things. There’s a limited number of plots, which you rotate, the books are 150 pages long, and consist of ten chapters, each fifteen pages long, one sex scene per chapter. Oh, and no dirty words: no f’s or c’s. Or even v’s.

And it’s easy work for easy money. One chapter a day for ten days, hammer it out, first draft only, you wouldn’t want to re-read this crap and then nearly three weeks to hang around. Once you learn the tricks of the trade to spin out those pages – and Westlake knows them all, having been in Paul’s position in the Fifties, when he was building his own career – the conveyor belt can roll.

So what if you’re just wasting those days off each month? So what if your wife and daughter are spending about 10% more than you’re bringing in every months? Ed’ll get down to doing something serious. Sometime soon.

But there was that thing Paul said, that Ed wasn’t listening to then. You can’t write this shit forever. Ed’s last three books have been delivered late. Progressively later each month. Ed daren’t deliver the next one late or he’ll be out on his ear. No income, no way of getting an income. Only, Ed needs those days off between writing sex scenes. And he’s ony just delivered the last one. He’s got something like twelve days to write the next one, or the house of cards collapses, not just himself but for his wife and his daughter too.

And Ed can’t do it.

All he can do is sit down at his typewriter and type, hoping to god that something, anything, will unlock that block, will turn into a publishable soft porn novel. And we’re reading what he is writing, as everything goes down the pan.

Because the first half of the book is funny but not yet tragic. Ed’s floundering around, splashing the water, equal parts telling us his life-story and spilling the secrets to writing cheap softcore porn, even to the extent of managing a complete opening chapter so we can tick off all the little tricks and tropes for ourselves.

But following Chapter 1 with Chapter 2 proves impossible, even before a casual lie cuts Ed’s life out from underneath himself, and there is a moment of extreme anguish as everything breaks down, as Ed tries to write a simple line but cannot get through it to the next set of words beyond, but it’s no longer possible.

And from that point on, we are following the tragedy, second-rate though it may be, of a man’s life spiraling out of all control, in which the only possible structure he has left is his compulsion to record things in chapters exactly fifteen pages long, though the need to supply a sex scene in every chapter has disappeared, along with the life he’s been leading all the time he could still write this shit.

There isn’t really an ending. Schlubs like Ed don’t get endings. His last chapter is typed in sections, fifteen pages built up on different typewriters in different places, before he vanishes, on something that you could maybe characterise as a quest. His last words are a variation on the title, adios and a word he can’t use in his books and that I don’t intend to use here. And he’s gone, and his story is essentially incomplete, we have to make up the ending for ourselves, and I don’t think any of us imagine good endings.

Adios Scheherezade is a fabulous formal experiment, and an incredibly successful one, despite its lack of any defined ending. Indeed, the nebulousness of it is a part of the book’s artistic success. It’s also virtually impossible to get hold of now.

It’s a book about Block, and doing what you can to get out of it, and it’s exactly what I’ve done: to write I’ve found something to write about, and the muscles are eased up, and the cavern inside feels less cavernous. I think I’m ahead of Ed right now. The proof will come later.

Bannermere or Lone Pine?

Geoffrey Trease and Malcolm Saville were friends, as well as fellow writers. They both wrote children’s fiction, in country settings, for an audience of boys and girls, but beyond that, in terms of style, preoccupation and even prolificity, there is little basis on which to compare them. The Lone Pine series comes with profound built-in nostalgia, the Bannermere series is pretty much virgin territory.
Comparisons are invidious, but after comparing the two series, I am surprised to find that it is Trease who comes out ahead for me. His avoidance of the formula of children’s adventure series, his concern for less overtly exciting but somehow more mature tales, his greater naturalism and his subtlety in indicating his principal relationship between the lines, requiring the reader to tease it out from the clues left to decipher is ultimately far better than Saville’s improbably extended series of strait-jacketed adventures that outlive his own understanding of his creations.
By saying that, I feel as if I am being disloyal to Saville, not to mention David and Peter, and if I were suddenly to be transported to the classic desert island with only one book from the two series to accompany, it would still be Not Scarlet But Gold. But overall, I think I get more from Trease’s band than I do the Lone Piners. Perhaps, overall, it’s that despite the Bannermere gang’s middle-class backgrounds, they are all of them closer to me in their social setting – as well as being solidly West Cumbrian in birth or adoption – and their world is correspondingly more real. Especially from having so few adventures.
It’s been fun experiencing Trease’s work, even as an adult so far removed that only the final book of the series was published when I had been born, and even then long before I was up to as much as Janet and John Book 1.
What I’d like to do now is discover someone else, comparable to Trease and/or Saville, whose work has been republished by GirlsGoneBy, whose books I can discover or rediscover as the case may be. Saville’s ‘Jillies’ series, all but one of which I read when young, would be an ideal case, but I’d prefer to discover another author to take me back into those times. Any suggestions?

New Novel: Final Cover

I’d like to express my thanks to my work colleague Lee Thompson for designing such a fantastic cover for my new novel, Love Goes to Building on Sand.

A revised version of the book has been created incorporating this superb work, which incorporates a lot of subtleties about the contents that Lee was unaware of when creating this piece.

And as none of you have yet got out and bought it from Lulu.com (hint, hint), you can now get the final version.

Thank you, Lee

In the Shadow of Black Banner: Geoffrey Trease’s ‘Black Banner Abroad’

Like Black Banner Players, Black Banner Abroad builds on the situation achieved by its predecessor, but this time it has a very different story in mind. This is immediately signified by the opening chapter, in which Bill Melbury is completely absent, being a meeting between Mr Kingsford, Miss Florey, and the latter’s French teacher, on a year’s secondment, Mademoiselle Labruyere.
This meeting of adults, reconstructed by Bill from a very successful second chapter eavesdropping, sets out what will be a dramatic departure from the series thus far, taking our little group of friends beyond the quiet confines of Bannermere, and out of England, to the South of France.
The impetus for everything lies in the successful Grammar School performance of Romeo and Juliet foreshadowed at the end of Black Banner Players. The County High girls have taken the female roles, the performance has been a success and Kingsford is in a good, but still suspicious mood when Miss Florey requests a meeting.
Mademoiselle is full of praise for the performance, which she wishes the girls of her home lycee could see. It would help them tremendously in their studies to see Shakespeare actually performed, and for a play such as Romeo and Juliet, young players would be so much better than professionals.
She and Miss Florey are here to persuade Kingsford to agree a joint School Visit, to enable the Black Banner Players to perform, in an ancient, open air stadium of great historic depth. The families of the girls will provide accommodation, and when Kingsford uses his line of defence about his boys, the trap is sprung: the boys’ lycee will be equally enthusiastic, and welcoming, and Mademoiselle can guarantee that as her father is its director.
But it’s when Kingsford learns that this will all take place in Provence, with its ancient Roman history, he not only consents, but appoints himself leader for the Grammar School.
For our quartet, it’s a fantastic opportunity. Only Sue demurs, feeling her loyalty towards Johnny Nelson, and regarding her position as Wardrobe Mistress as inessential, but it takes little persuasion from Mrs Melbury to draw her into the trip.
The visit to France, the sights and experiences, these would be enough for a book written in 1954 when foreign travel was such a foreign thing for so many Britons, not to mention children from a poorish area of West Cumberland. But Trease adds another element, a curious angle that underpins the gang’s holiday, a quest, not to find treasure but, in a curious way, return it.
This is the story of Willy the Waller, a relative newcomer to Bannerdale, a simple man and a dry stone waller. In the War, Willy was in France, before the retreat, cut off from Dunkirk and, following his platoon-leader, Mr Briggs, attempting to get out of France into Spain. The pair were sheltered for a time by a peasant woman, Mme Leblanc, who was to help them contact assistance. But by a misunderstanding, Willy and Mr Briggs were separated, and Willy got the idea, wrongly as it turned out, that Mme Leblanc had betrayed them. So he had stolen her nest egg, worth about £50, with which to get away.
It’s been on his mind for years, troubling him that he stole from a woman who had trusted him, who was his ally. As our gang are going to the South of France, he wants them to find Mme Leblanc and pay her back: over the years he has saved over £50 with which to repay her.
It’s an impossible task, and our friends react with differing degrees of interest. Bill, for once, is exasperated and wants to ignore it. But they come around and, recognising what it means to Willy, promise to do their best. Especially as practically the only thing Willy can remember, out of Mr Briggs’ accounts of French legends, suggests they are going to the right area!
The party adds up to twenty boys, seventeen girls and a Head and a teacher from each school. For travelling the party organises itself into four groups of nine, each attached to a specific leader. Bill and Sue, Penny Morchard and Tim Darren all want to travel together, which means in practice the new Grammar School teacher, ‘Cracker’ Crawford. Their set is completed by two inconsequential Grammar School boys, and the Infernal Triangle. These latter are three Lower Fifth girls from the County High, members of the pipe band, Anne, Betty and Carol (or A, B and C as they are quickly dubbed), who prove to be a pleasant addition to the story.
It’s a long journey, and Trease explores every aspect of it, as do the little band under Cracker. Train from Bannerdale to Carnforth, where their reserved carriage(s) are hooked up to a London train. Train from London to the Channel ports, not stopping for this is the service for people going to France. The Cross-Channel Ferry, with everyone tired but excited to see their first sight of a foreign land (like me, en route to Barcelona, for the Champions League Final, on a plane to Spain but nevertheless eager for that first aerial view of land on the other side). Train to Paris, and a chance to explore some of that city, if not the famous sights, as the group walks some of the streets, looks in the shop windows (remember too, that in 1954, Britain was still slowly recovering from the years of post-War rationing: portions were small, and food limited in imagination). A trip on the Metro, from Gare to Gare, with the practical Tim taking charge when Cracker gets left behind at the barrier. And the long, tired, tiring journey to Provence, with Bill in the middle as first Carol of the Triangle, then Penny falls asleep with their heads on his shoulders.
And a last and amusing complication, in Provence itself, when the driver and engineer of the train go on a lightning strike, walking off and leaving the train in the middle of nowhere. Needless to say, it’s Bill and Tim who accompany Cracker to the nearest, small town, where a lovingly funny fat Frenchman hires out an autobus to drive the party to Rivacelles, only for the train to be on the move again, without three of the party!
But at last everyone, tired and feeling sticky, arrive in Rivecalles, where Mademoiselle and her father, and the whole town awaits the English visitors (the French welcoming the English? This really is less than a decade since the War).
Everyone is divided up among different families, and the book changes at this point.
Bill and Tim are billeted with the Garniers, and their son, Etienne. Etienne is already prolific in English, and is into photography. He’s as anxious to practice his English as Tim is eager to not practice his French, and the two get along famously, rather leaving Bill outside things.
Penny and Sue are separated, but wind up next door to one another. Though at first, Bill is eager to connect with Penny, and share their impressions of Rivecalles, the girls slip into the deep background, and not necessarily for creditable reasons on Bill’s part.
Because the Garnier’s are also giving a home to Mme’s nephew, Gigi, who is just a little bit older than Bill, who is very blonde and very chic, and who is eager to practice her English and his French.
For all Bill’s bursts of jealousy when it appears Penny’s attentions are being directed to another boy, he is singularly blind to the fact that he is acting exactly the same way.
Gigi fascinates Bill, to the extent that he loses his enthusiasm for how Penny is enjoying her time, to the extent that she, with a burst of understandable cattiness, refers to his new friend as Gee-Gee. And, as Bill starts insisting on dragging Gigi into everything, whether she’s wanted or not, Penny shows what she thinks by diverting herself, Sue and their hosts, Simone and Marcelle, onto an entirely different bus when it comes to a group outing.
Even so, it’s remarkably restrained for the volatile Penny, and Bill doesn’t entirely dismiss her from his thoughts: Sunday evening, everyone gathers in the square, for talk, drinks, boules and dancing. After accidentally asking Mme Garnier to dance, and fortuitously fulfilling etiquette, Bill is free to dance with Gigi. Which involves him explaining why Penny sits there and doesn’t dance.
But even when he’s besotted with another young, exotic, attractive girl, Bill cannot help but project himself, imaginatively, into Penny Morchard’s head, and think about the mask of indifference she wears at such times, and whether that is to protect herself from disappointment, or to protect her friends from seeing it.
Black Banner Players are still, more or less, neutral territory. Rehearsals, preparations, adaptation to the vastly different conditions of an open-air theatre, under the evening/night sky, requires a vast amount of work on everybody’s part, and on the night, in front of an audience that half fills the arena but which is vastly larger than anything the Players have faced before, they are at risk of failure.
Into this, Penny, as the Nurse, is the saviour. Instinctively aware of the required technique, she sets an example that captures the audience and puts heart back into her fellow actors, whose roles are more important than hers. At the end, everything has been a marvellous success. Bill wants to tell her how good she was, and we know what that will mean to her, but he can’t get near enough.
All the more selfish then that, within a couple of pages, Bill is kissing Gigi in the kitchen.
Trease doesn’t tell us that. Bill is much too modest to be open about such things, but it doesn’t take the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes to work it out: even Inspector Lestrade can see through this one.
It’s a betrayal, but a betrayal of something Bill is still far from recognising. He may admire Penny, both for her appearance and her spirit, but he doesn’t for a moment understand what lies beneath that admiration, nor is he in the least aware that Penny is growing to see him as more than her best friend’s brother, and a very loyal, very thoughtful friend in his own respect.
The Players play their second performance, unhindered this time by any early nerves. The trip has been a success on all fronts, but there is still one front that needs to be completed.
Despite all that is there to absorb them, Bill and Co. haven’t forgotten Willy the Waller. The set-up precludes much input from Sue and Penny, and there’s an early false start based on information from Etienne that looks promising before bombing. But a combination of unlikely events brings it through triumphantly. Bill realises that the ‘ruined’ viaduct of Willy’s story must be the ancient and famous Pont du Nord, a mad Birmingham artist (who might be a pre-incarnation of Tony Hancock’s character in The Rebel) catches Sue’s eyes with a painting of Mme Leblanc’s cottage, and finally, and unfairly, it is Gigi who sees it from the coach back to Rivacelles.
Only one day remains, and Bill has to dodge through a cycle race to avoid Cracker, but our friends, with Etienne and Gigi, find the cottage, and Mme Leblanc, luckily returning from hospital after a fall. Willy’s debt is repaid in full: more than full because inflation means that £50 in 1954 is vastly more in Francs than it was in 1940.
Most importantly though, the debt is paid. Even more, Mme Leblanc had long since understood, and forgiven and her forgiveness will go back to West Cumberland.
And the Black Banner Players’ have been a success on all levels, even down to the romantic, for Cracker Crawford has proposed to, and been accepted by Mademoiselle, who will after all return to Bannerdale and the girls of the County High.
Even Bill is let down gently, though some of us may feel he doesn’t quite deserve it. On the train, he overhears the teachers talking about how Gigi had been sent to her aunt’s to keep her away from a most unsuitable young man, leaving him to wonder if he was just the rebound guy. Being Bill, he moves out of earshot, not to hear more.
And who is on hand but Penny, forgiving with a bag of peaches, reminding him of what is secure, and rather more important in life. The juice of the pear runs down her chin and Bill offers his handkerchief to wipe it off. If she doesn’t mind it being his, he adds, recognising his fault. Penny smiles and agrees that it probably won’t be for the last time.
Black Banner Abroad was the first of the series that I acquired when I went looking for them, and I read it in isolation. Coming into a series so late, so near its end, was an odd experience for me, but in its way appropriate, for this was how I would experience new children’s series when I was at the age for reading them. In fact, I think the Lone Pine series was unique in being the only one where I began with the first book.
It was enjoyable, and entertaining, even though it was a departure for the series, in setting so small a part of it in the Lake District environment I was looking forward to visiting. The book is, of course, even better once you are aware of all the relationships between the different characters, adult as well as child!
This book, more or less, was the end for Sue and Tim. The next book, the last in the series, will belong to Bill and Penny alone, as young adults, in a world as removed from West Cumberland as is Provence, though considerably nearer to home. And it is the end of the series, though I think a lot of us would have enjoyed a book or two more between first and last. But Trease kept things, and people fresh, and this was our allotment. Enjoy it as it was, and don’t be greedy for too much more.

In the Shadow of Black Banner: Geoffrey Trease’s ‘Black Banner Players’

The third Bannerdale book is the last of the series to be set wholly in West Cumberland. It’s an absolute delight, even more so than its predecessors, drifting gently in its final quarter towards the foiling of a low key but personally significant crime, whilst spending much of its time dealing with the parallel ambitions of its two most important characters, Bill and Penny.
As is the pattern, as opposed to a formula, Trease keeps his intentions close to his chest whilst dealing with naturalistic scenes from the lives of our little gang. It’s almost Xmas, and the book starts on the last night of the Grammar School Shakespeare play, which this year is The Merchant of Venice. Bill Melbury, a new member of the Dramatic Society this year, is playing a small part, the performance of which is not made easier by the fact that this is an all boys School and, in accordance with headmaster Mr Kingsford’s firmly held beliefs, it is being performed with an all-boy cast, with Tubby Taylor as Jessica, with whom Bill is supposed to elope.
With his mother and sister Sue in the audience, not to mention Penny Morchard, and the girls’ Headmistress, Miss Florey, Bill has a lot on his mind but things go decently well. But the year after next, the play will be Romeo and Juliet, and Kingsford is adamantly opposed to any suggestion that the Schools join forces!
Typically, having established that, Trease lets it go for Xmas. For once, he inserts a clever bit of foreshadowing, with Bill doing some part-time work in Mr Morchard’s bookshop to earn Xmas money. He has a difficult encounter with a youngish woman who he suspects has helped herself to a particular new book. Though she tries to bluster out his challenge, Bill bluffs her into handing the book back, establishing her guilt.
More importantly, in the longest run, he is seeing a bit more of Penny, whose uncertain cookery cues up the next chapter. In the meantime, he’s asked to deliver an envelope to her secret Xmas stash in her bedroom, and takes the opportunity for a good look round, reassuring himself that it’s only the writer observing what the room tells him about her character. As if.
And Bill is nursing a secret with regard to his writerly ambitions, for he has submitted a book of poems to a London-based publisher who is always open to new writers…
This initial phase leads to an invitation from Mrs Melbury for Penny and her father to come to Beckfoot for Xmas. It’s out of character for Mr Morchard to agree to go away from home at all, but it is Bill who silently recognises his concern for Penny and his willingness to disrupt his own preferences to provide her with some joy. And it leads to one of the most delightful scenes in the entire series when Bill, playing Father Christmas and distributing gifts to everybody’s stockings, gets trapped in his sister’s bedroom as the two girls wickedly start a conversation pretending no-one else is there, forcing him to remain hidden at the foot of their bed. His revenge is subtle.
And Xmas Day is signified by a letter from London, offering Bill his dream of publication. Subject, that is, to his paying £100 to defray printing costs…
You and I and we, not to mention Mrs Melbury and Mr Morchard, instantly recognise it for what it is: a scam (one that the young Trease fell for, in real life). But Bill, who is still only a Lower Fifth schoolboy, facing the gratification of a dream with which I can identify absolutely wants to take the chance, before it may be withdrawn.
In this, Penny is his biggest booster, spreading the word around and securing Bill’s fame amongst everyone. And she plays an even more important role, once Mr Morchard’s friend in publishing gently but thoroughly explodes Bill’s naivete, by clearing the way for him, so that nobody compounds his embarrassment.
This is even more impressive from the girl who cannot always conceal her own bitterness at the denial of her own dreams. Bill has his writing, Sue her future as a farmer’s wife (and we already know who will be her partner), Tim his Police career. But she’s the girl with the most natural ability amongst all of them, and her path has been pretty comprehensively barred to her.
All of these pieces go together to create the springboard for the book. The freezing winter has made Black Banner Tarn a popular place for ice-skating, sledging and even some nascent skiing. Penny can’t do any of these either, but she can plant an idea that will be fun of itself and also be the thin end of a wedge that might just get that future Romeo and Juliet to become a joint production.
Penny’s notion is an impromptu show for Twelfth Night, boys and girls from both schools coming together of their own volition to do a show.
Everyone gets involved: Penny directs, Tim is lighting and electrics, Sue Wardrobe Mistress, and Bill’s recent shame is overcome when Penny quite easily talks him into writing a revue. It’s a success, and fun for everyone and in seeking a way to make it go on, Penny comes up with the ingenious idea of the Black Banner Players, that is, a mini-troupe of those enthusiasts, putting on shows in the local villages and hamlets, where entertainment is hard to come by.
The first ‘engagement’ is in Gowderdale, across the ridge on the other side of Black Banner Tarn, in the Village Hall. Miss Florey attends, to witness proceedings, and to give our four principals a lift home afterwards, though that plan is thrown into disarray by torrential rain that sends the beck flooding over the bridge.
There are, before this, two big surprises, one each of unpleasant and pleasant. The first comes when Bill recognises a member of the Gowderdale audience as the woman from Mr Morchard’s shop, whose name transpires to be Gloria Minworth. The other consists of Mr and Mrs Drake, two elderly actors of the old school, who’ve loved every minute of the show. They invite our friends, with Miss Florey, back to their cottage, where they obviously live in deep poverty, though they’re both spry and happy, and provide hospitality to the benighted travellers.
In the morning, Bill is shocked to find their nearest neighbour, in the cottage opposite, is Miss Minworth.
Trease now develops two interweaving storylines, both with Bill at their centre, both relating to his writing.
On the one hand, which he’s determined to keep to himself after his experience in publishing, Bill has sent a short story to the BBC Children’s Department for consideration on Children’s Hour. The response, from Celia Bridgewater, North-West Organiser, states frankly that it’s too long, but invites him to the BBC’s Castle Eden studios to discuss the matter further. Bill, once bitten, many time shy, is dubious until the other side of the story makes a trip to Castle Eden, and its much better-stocked library, an end in itself.
Because the Drakes have been clearing out ancient, historical papers and documents by burning them but Bill, fascinated by history, has bagged them for study. One is written in a code that Tim is getting nowhere cracking until the pair realise is actually an historical form of shorthand.
Bill’s accompanied on the train by Penny, looking at her most attractive, meeting her Manchester aunt to go clothes shopping, or so she says. There’s no-one he’s more likely to confide in, but he’s only prepared to talk about the library trip. Still, the thought of being seen, and assumed to be with Penny is pleasing, for now.
And the trip is successful in more respects than one. Bill comes back with the key to translate the journal, which he will soon realise is a pungent, elegant account of life in Cumberland during the Jacobite Rebellion, and full of publishable interest. And Celia Bridgewater has encouraged him to turn his story into a radio play, and given him several very practical pointers on how to do so. Though Bill, being Bill and unable to help himself, fears he’s blotted his copybook by suggesting an actress to play one of the roles: Penny, of course.
It is therefore all the more crushing to find, on the return to the station, Penny laughing and joking with a handsome young man from a Castle Eden school, who looks nothing like a Manchester clothes-shopping aunt!
Even more so than in Under Black Banner, Bill is gripped by the green-eyed monster. His mother tries to reasonably point this out, including the fact that Bill wasn’t being honest with Penny over his reasons for travelling, but even this doesn’t make him realise what’s going on inside himself.
Time and preoccupation – with school, with the tea garden, with the Black Banner Players and a new resolution to work hard for the Oxford Scholarship Kingsford believes him capable of – forces Bill to put his upset at Penny out of mind, especially as, when he finally gets round to translating the Jonathan Ashton Journal, he realises its significance. And if it could indeed be published, and provide even a little income for the Drakes, that could make a big difference to their lives. Everything looks possible – until the Journal goes missing!
Bill is convinced it’s been stolen, and by Gloria Minworth, an opinion Tim echoes, and one the Drakes would like to share if only Miss Minworth hadn’t got a watertight alibi: she was staying in a different village on the night of the ‘theft’. But Bill remains suspicious, especially as the self-centred Gloria has now been unveiled as a writer herself. Tim steps up to the plate, and with Bill as his Watson, quickly establishes that Miss Minworth’s ‘alibi’ is by no means unshakeable.
With Penny added to the mix, and the Drakes deploying their old skills, a trap is laid, the word dropped of another notebook, containing the key, and with all the gang bar Sue lying in wait, Gloria walks straight into it.
In a funny way, Bill relates to her more when she says it wasn’t just the money, but they wouldn’t understand. He does. It’s the boost to the literary reputation that she wanted, as much as anything. Instead, that goes to him, as translator and, but for his youth, editor of the book. Despite all the Drakes’ efforts, he refuses any share of the proceeds, but he does accept becoming their heir in the copyright, after they have gone. It’s a fitting reward for his literary efforts, and his honesty and faithfulness.
And besides, Bill has a double reward all of his own. The BBC commission his play and, what’s better, even before he can recommend his loyal friend, Penny is commissioned to act in it: her trip to Castle Eden was to audition for Celia Bridgewater, her only realistic prospect of an acting career, and like Bill she wanted to keep it to herself to avoid pity in the event of failure.
Indeed, for a moment there’s trouble brewing, when she thinks she’s only got the part on Bill’s influence, but his delight for her is as much as his for himself. The last night of the Black Banner Players’ first season has come to a glorious conclusion!
Though Trease would use this book as a stepping stone to the fourth in the series, and the Black Banner players would, in effect, be the bridge, the twin successes of Bill and Penny would not lead anywhere. Indeed, though Bill will offhandedly mention difficulties over a second play, and then lead us to assume his school commitments, and that mentioned Scholarship, put the advancement of that career into suspension, the only other reference to Penny’s radio acting is a lament that even this becomes impossible, once television begins to dominate.
But the next Bannermere book would leave West Cumberland behind, and take our gang of friends sur le continent.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Pandora By Holly Hollander

Gene Wolfe’s second novel of 1990 was probably the least characteristic book he has ever written, if that can be said of a writer with the chameleon-like quality of changing style and subject so frequently. On the surface, Pandora, By Holly Hollander appears to be what we would now call a YA story, a murder mystery related by a bright, bubbly seventeen year old girl. The title, invoking Pandora’s Box – a key element in the murder – hints that underneath the Illinois mainstream of the setting is a world of mystery, fantasy and confusion.
But what’s on the surface is all that this book contains. Even though the ‘detective’ in the story is, highly implausibly, named Aladdin Blue, Wolfe produces no genies. Blue, and Pandora are false trails, or they are trails so obscure and subtle that no-one in nearly thirty years had discovered a hint of where they lead.
What Pandora is about is a gentle spoof of Nancy Drew, in the voice of a teenage girl (carried off, for the most part successfully), who assists the ‘detective’ to solve a violent and brutal crime. Holly is chatty, bright but unfocussed, and plays a large part in exposing the real killer, at her own expense, though this latter aspect is something that is largely overshadowed by Holly’s relentless cheerfulness.
Holly is the only child of Harry and Elaine, the latter a very attractive woman much younger than her husband, the Chief Executive of a very successful locksmiths business in Barton, 65 miles from Chicago (though Harry is a 48% minority shareholder who runs the company in trust for his older brother Bert, who is in an asylum after killing his wife). As chairwoman of the local Social Committee for this year’s fair, Elaine has procured a Pandora’s Box, a locked, antique box with something in it, for raffling off. The box will be publicly opened by Vietnam vet and locksmith, Larry Lief, brother to Holly’s best friend, Megan, and lover to Elaine.
The ceremony is marred when a bomb goes off, killing Larry and a couple of innocent bystanders, injuring hundreds, including Holly, who is left on crutches for the rest of the story, just as Aladdin Blue walks with a cane (characteristically, the majority of Wolfe’s heroes wind up lame, a thematic note echoing Wolfe’s own limp from a childhood brush with polio). Uncle Bert, who’s already escaped) is found shot outside the hospital where she’s been taken, the following day.
The Police connect the deaths of Larry and Uncle Bert and come up with a strong case pointing the finger at Holly’s Dad. Blue persuades a second person to confess, setting out an equally strong and convincing explanation, but this is a blind to tempt the real culprit out into the open to claim to have additional information turning the crime back onto Harry Hollander. The real killer, if we can be certain of that, given our residual suspicion that Wolfe has at least another three arms up his sleeve, is Elaine, plotting too get her hands on the Hollander fortune.
The outcome is that, as soon as Holly is fit, she moves out to go live with Blue, his two housemates Muddy and Tick, at a dilapidated old house way out in the woods, where everyone lives in poverty. Elaine faces trial, Harry’s left Illinois and is dating an even younger woman, only a couple of years older than Holly, and can’t even remember Holly’s birthday. Meanwhile, her friendship with Megan has been broken, Larry’s wife Molly has lost her husband, in two ways, and even Blue has let down a woman, an ex-girlfriend who wants him back but in whom he’s not interested.
That’s what I mean about the personal cost to Holly that her manner draws a blanket over. I mean, there’s not a lot nice happens to women in this book. There’s even a breach with Holly’s other best friend, Les, with whom she goes to live for a time before coming to Blue’s: Les is a shadowy figure, never given a description, not allowed a line, even in the one scene where she’s present in the flesh and indeed only once referred to as a girl.
Now Holly is seventeen, a teenage girl who would normally be in something of a hormonal state. She’s not unattractive, but she doesn’t have a boyfriend, doesn’t seem to be interested in a boyfriend, has no sexual thoughts except for the odd ‘swooniness’ about remote male figures on TV but is a constant commentator about other women’s bodies, especially her own mother, who has ‘creamy big ones’.
Except that Holly never describes Les, which can be short for Leslie (male), or Lesley (female) but can also be short for Lesbian.
So I’m beginning to wonder at how all these pieces seem to point in one particular direction, and how Gene Wolfe is a writer who buries things with very oblique pointers and leaves us to ferret them out ourselves.
Then there’s the structure of the story. Other critics have set the events of the book in the early Eighties, though it wasn’t published until 1990. Holly herself, in her foreword, claims that this is not a historical story (now, why would she say that?) though it has taken a year to get published, and she’s had to have the help of a professional writer to lick it into shape, which immediately places Wolfe in the same position of ‘translator’ as he has been for ‘The Book of the New Sun’ and the ‘Soldier’ books.
That imposes a degree of artificiality on what Holly is saying and doing. Her youth and general naivete makes her the traditional Wolfean Unreliable Narrator to begin with, but to know that what we’re reading has been reshaped by Wolfe himself casts doubt on everything.
After that, how can we see Aladdin Blue – that name is so off – as anything but Wolfe himself? After all, he provides the answers, in a comprehensive manner that typifies the Wolfean Analytical Man, who will recur, over and over, forging theories from disparate and seemingly disconnected facts.
And Blue has two live-in friends whose presence is simply presented, with no explanation of how they come to know him or to be pat of his menage, neither do they play any part in the story. Nor do they have real names either. Now presumably they do have names, John Hancocks, but to us they are Muddy and Tick. Muddy cooks, procures food, smokes dope. Tick is fat but doesn’t eat much.
Once again there is this sense that Wolfe is providing us with something symbolic that we’re just not seeing. Or is it all a giant sham? Are we being teased into looking for something on another level that really isn’t there, in a book that really is what it seems, when all the writer is doing is to create a colossal spoof on us?
I don’t know, I really don’t know.
Finally, and this is probably another aspect of the joke, Pandora By Holly Hollander reads like the first book in a series that never existed. It introduces the characters, it creates a set-up, it is the left hand book on a ghost shelf of Holly Hollander Mystery Books, Starring Aladdin Blue. And it’s a one-off that was never intended to be more than this one story.
People don’t tend to take much notice of Pandora By Holly Hollander. Maybe they should start to look into it a lot deeper.