For Children, About Children, By Children: Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock’s ‘The Far-Distant Oxus’

‘For children, about children, and by children’ was the tag-line Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock came up with for themselves, and one doesn’t have to read too much of The Far-Distant Oxus to know that the last part of that almost-too-good-to-be-true piece of self-promotion is certainly correct.
By that, I don’t mean to be dismissive of the book, and certainly not of the achievement it is: a marvel of clear-headed thinking, instinctive sense, innate professionalism and an energy and directness that could not have come from any but teenagers themselves.
But the book, for all its plentiful merits, does contain more than a few things that show the authors’ naivete, and despite Arthur Ransome’s disclaimer of it being any kind of pastiche of his Swallows & Amazons books, it can’t have escaped his notice that the story structure bears a clear resemblance to Swallowdale.
But we’ll look closer at such carping when we’ve got the story established.
There are six children of differing ages in Swallows & Amazons, split among two families, and there are six children in the Oxus series, also divided between two families, allowing, that is, for the cuckoo child in the nest, Maurice.
We’re first introduced to the Hunterlys, Bridget, Anthony and Frances in descending order of age. Ages are not given but left to be guessed at from behaviour, which is difficult as there’s not that much difference between Bridget (14?) and Frances (10?). As to appearance, the two sisters are cut from the same cloth, both with long dark hair falling in sweeps either side of their faces, Bridget with long legs and Frances much sturdier. Anthony in contrast is never described, and we can only infer that he is different in looks and hair-colour.
The Hunterlys are staying at Cloud Farm, in a small Exmoor valley, for the summer, under the care of the elderly Mr and Mrs Fradd. Like Penny Warrender they are the children of parents who are something overseas. They used to live in Borneo, where they had native servants, but the children were sent back to England whilst the parents are now in Africa. And that’s all we get of background, negligible as it is. Where they live, who they live with in England, is irrelevant to the summer holiday this pony-loving trio will share. Note that the influence of parents, and any check that they may place on their children’s gallivanting, is wholly absent.
The second family are the Clevertons. Peter and Jennifer are fair and slight, but no less pony-freaks. They live across the valley from Cloud Farm. Unlike the Hunterlys, they have a parent in stock, a father (wot, no mother?). And Mr Cleverton is an unbelievably complaisant father, who makes not the slightest attempt to regulate his children’s activities, who trusts them to be as responsible as the next grown-up: not him, the next one, since he shows no sign of understanding responsibility at all, he’s even prepared to write a letter that’s a complete lie because his children ask him to, without questioning the purpose of the lie. No, Mr Cleverton is one big signpost as to the tender ages of the writers.
And then there’s Maurice. Maurice the Marvel boy. Maurice without a name, without a background, Maurice the Cuckoo Superboy. Maurice is something of which there is not a trace in a Swallows & Amazons book, because Arthur Ransome was not a pair of teenage girls. Can you tell what Maurice is, yet?
Maurice is the drive, like Captain Nancy. But he’s much more than that. He provides the imaginative structure of Persia, taken from Arnold’s ‘Sohrab and Rustum’, on this Exmoor valley, the valley of the River Oxus, bordered on one side by Siestan (the Cleverton’s home) and on the other by Aderbaijan (Cloud Farm), and the watersmeet that becomes the children’s private place, is Peran-Wisa, home to the log cabin that six children build in a single afternoon, from base to roof including sawing out space to fit a window exactly, AND with time left over to build a three-hammock treehouse.
And Maurice is the inspiration, the brains, the genius. He’s the best rider in the world, he can knock out a seventeen year old village boy with a single blow, He can learn a part in minutes and act everyone else offstage. He brings the two families together and binds them to his will, which is appropriate for a worshipper of Ahura-Mazda. He goes to the same school as Peter but even in this single point of contact with reality, he’s an enigma. He loses his temper with Frances when she asks him a direct question about his name and where he’s really from, screaming that no-one must ever know.
Maurice has dark hair and dark eyes. He’s here on Exmoor alone for the whole summer, camping out with his pony, Dragonfly, who is black, and his faithful Labrador, Ellita, who is black, and he couldn’t be a bigger symbol of the enigma of burgeoning female sexuality if the young ladies had written from here until they were both twenty.
None of this is overt but on the other hand it’s obvious, never more so than in the depiction of Jennifer Cleverton. We can only guess at her age, but she’s a shy, quiet girl, with less confidence in herself and what she can do than everyone else, which means that her besottedness with Maurice goes unremarked. It’s a real indication of Hull and Whitlock’s abilities that they present several scenes of Jennifer just looking at Maurice without drawing attention to it.
As for Bridget, the only girl who is the same or similar age to Maurice, her attentions are divided between Maurice and her treasured pony, Talisman, the only pony to come close to Dragonfly. Perhaps because of her height, she comes closest to being an equal to the boy wonder, which gives her a level-headedness around him that doesn’t conceal that she quite clearly fancies him.
But in all of this, don’t think for a moment that there is anything remotely overt or sexual. These are two teenage girls, writing for children like them, in the mid-1930s. Despite Ransome’s injunction not to allow anyone older than themselves to interfere, anything too clear of that nature would, I’m sure, have been ruthlessly purged from the book.
I mentioned above that The Far-Distant Oxus has a similar structure to Swallowdale, by which I don’t mean to say that they’re identical. The second (and longest) Swallows & Amazons book is a mainly land-based story in which Swallow is ship-wrecked and the Walkers have to make a new camp in the eponymous secret valley. There’s no melodrama such as the stealing of Captain Flint’s trunk, or any of the later, and much better handled climaxes, just the building up of the expedition to climb Kanchenjunga (commonly agreed to be Coniston Old Man), a secret from the adults.
In the same manner, the first half of the book is a succession of episodes, light, insignificant, taking place not just against the natural background but entirely of and within it, mini adventures. The creation of the camp in Swallowdale is paralleled by the building of the log cabin they name Peran-Wisa, their secret headquarters. And for the second half of the book, the sextet take off, unknown to all the grown-ups, to follow the course of their far-distant Oxus down to the Aral Sea, or the English Channel to you and I.
It’s a lovely demonstration of the fact that this group of children are full of common sense and practical skills to go with their Arnoldian fantasy. And in case that seems too good to be true, it’s alleviated by the realisation, when it’s far too late to do anything about it, that poling a raft downstream is one thing, but poling it back against the current is another entirely.
To get out of it, the girls fall back on improbable, but convenient coincidence. Down at the Devon coast, the children happen to bump into Mr Harold Fradd, brother and near-twin of the owner of Cloud Farm, who happens to be sending his donkey and trap to his brother, making it available to Maurice and Co. to ride it up there for him.
So everyone gets home, albeit very wet from incessant rain over the last day, and whilst Mrs Fradd is displeased at the Hunterlys sneaking off like that, there’s no comeback on them and, quite unfairly, it’s Jennifer who ends up catching a cold.
The only comeback is that the holiday is almost over, and packing is beginning for the return to School. There’s one final flourish, the gathering of brushwood and it’s piling on ‘Mount Elbruz’, highest peak in the ‘Indian Caucasus’, guarded by an impenetrable bog that only Maurice (of course) knows the secret way through. So the story ends with the lighting of the beacon at the coming of night, followed by the sudden and flurried departure of Maurice on horseback, crossing the moors and setting other beacons on other tops, all across the moor and into the night, like that brilliant scene in The Return of the King, as the flames leap forward across the wild mountains, until the summons arrives in Rohan.
And the Hunterlys and the Clevertons wait for their leader’s return but this is Maurice’s farewell, an enigma to the last.
It’s easy to nitpick about certain aspects of this book, those points at which the writers most clearly reveal their age. An adult knows that six children, none older than fourteen, can’t build a log cabin in four hours, even without the other things they do in the same time. An adult wouldn’t make Mr Cleverton into so conveniently complaisant. An adult would have foreshadowed Mr Herbert Fradd instead of making him so complete a rabbit out of a hat.
I’m on less secure ground in suggesting that maybe an adult author wouldn’t have made Maurice into so complete a fantasy figure, so superior to everyone around him, especially in modesty, but that’s to suggest a change that might possibly go against the girls’ intention. It’s quite certain that in all other aspects, this story is controlled by them, and completed according to their deliberate intentions, plotted in full before a word of Chapter One is penned.
Beyond these matters, and in the context of The Far-Distant Oxus as a whole they are nit-picking, Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock produced a book for which they can only be applauded. The concentration, the focus, the energy and the naturalism of their writing, and their ability to invoke the thoughts and impulses of youngsters their age, not to mention their ability to shape a story that, for any similar pony-enthusiast, would make a brilliant summer holiday, gives them the right to have all the good things they did emblazened.
Of course there had to be a sequel. Thirty odd years after first reading this book, I can now discover what happened next…


Obscure Corners – Miterdale Head

MiterdaleThat in this day and age, almost sixty years since the publication of The Southern Fells, it is still possible to call Miterdale Head an Obscure Corner is a telling comment on the vast majority of Lakeland visitors in that time. Miterdale is a shy, overlooked side valley with no obvious features, save for its unusual dale head, yet it borders upon and is easily accessible from the ever-popular Eskdale, its whole length being possible to walk in little more than an hour, and sweet in every yard. It’s been talked about continually. And still they do not come.
Isn’t that absolutely brilliant?
I first visited the valley in the late Sixties, a brief, evening excursion before the long drive back to Broughton-in-Furness. Wainwright describes there being two ‘roads’ into the valley, neither of them sign-posted. We parked in Eskdale Green, at a corner in the road, where what looked like a private road, between walls, led uphill. In reality, this was a rough track, climbing up and down across the low ridge guarding the valley mouth.
Once in Miterdale, we followed the path about half way down the valley, until the way grew wet underfoot and the sky began to dull.
All my later visits have been under my own steam, by car, using the actual road into the valley, which looks equally private (may it never acquire a signpost or, if it ever does, let it be torn down instantly), which leads to a rough car park at the road end, just short of the first farm.
The path is, initially, a tractor track on the north of the beck – or rather, the River Mite, one of the three rivers coming together to form the Ravenglass Estuary, once the busiest port in England. Further up, the way becomes a track, crossing back to the south of the beck, bordered by a wall, sometimes crossing wet ground, mostly under the shade of trees.
It’s a level walk without difficulties, though there is still an air of sadness about the middle valley, in the form of abandoned farms, working establishments in the most recent century, now empty.
The character of Miterdale changes abruptly at the end of the middle valley. The enclosing fells close in, the Mite is a winding beck carving a bubbling channel through a narrow, grassy divide, impossible to discern ahead for more than twenty yards or so at a time. The path is narrow and sporty, hugging the beck, dancing up and down.
Slowly, a low line of grassy bluffs forms a horizon, growing nearer, until this shy ravine broadens out into the wide, flat cirque of Miterdale Head.
It’s a completely unexpected sight, a grassy bowl, flat and wide, terminating in miniature grass cliffs down which a waterfall really ought to decently tumble. It is silent, even the rush of the wind diminished. There is the immediate urge, even in those who only ever sleep in beds, to start a camp here. It is a place to be alone, where it feels as if you will never be disturbed.
Several people have suggested that Miterdale Head forms part of the inspiration for Arthur Ransome’s Swallowdale, in the book of the same name. It’s a romantic notion, and the valley head supports the suggestion, but it is far and away from the Furness features that Ransome built upon to create the fictional landscape of his sailing children, and the honour more properly lies in the environs of Beacon Tarn, on the moorlands west of Coniston Water’s lower reach.
But to find a neat row of tents here, and a very practical 12 year old girl boiling a kettle over a fire between two stones and cutting slices of pemmican would seem very appropriate.
Miterdale Head’s unique structure can be explained by a simple climb out of the valley, up the slopes on the south side of the cirque, to gain the lip of the valley. Ahead, a half mile distant, the flat and uninteresting waters of Burnmoor Tarn lie, invariably looking miserable. Only a low, green swell of land prevents Burnmoor from doing the geographically orthodox thing of draining into Miterdale (instead, its outflow is at the north-eastern end of the tarn, side-by-side with its main infiller).
But if nature had done what it ‘should’ have done, we would not have Miterdale Head, which would be a real loss.
It’s difficult to incorporate Miterdale into a larger expedition, the only feasible approach being to ascend to Whin Rigg from the foot of Miterdale, walk the ridge of the Screes and, descend from Illgill Head, either to the Wasdale Corpse Road or else avoiding the complete circuit of Burnmoor Tarm by taking a short cut across trackless and dull grasses to make your way to the lip of Miterdale and back from its wonderful Head.
May the millions never decide to get out of their cars!