Tuesday 22 December 2015

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Goodbye" to its most celebrated writer of children's stories, Peter Dickinson

Peter Dickinson celebrated author, who published almost 60 books and has been translated into 53 languages, won both the prestigious 'Carnegie Medal and the 'Crime Writer’s Golden Dagger' twice and was awarded the O.B.E in 2009 for 'Services to Literature' has died on his birthday at the age of 88.

Early years in Africa in the 1930s, followed by boyhood and adolescence in Second World War Britain and a diet of reading which shaped his imagination and left gave him the certainty of knowing that : "I had always been a writer in my own mind since I was five. This is what I was. I could never imagine being anything else."

He was born just before the Christmas of 1927 in Livingstone, Northern Rhodesia and christened 'Peter Malcolm de Brissac Dickinson', the second of the four sons of  May Lovemore, 'Nancy', the daughter of a South African ostrich farmer at Mount Melsetter, Middelburg, Eastern Cape and the Honourable Richard Sebastian Willoughby Dickinson who was in turn the son of 1st Baron Dickinson.
With the First World War only nine years over when he was born, as a boy, he must have known his father served in the Royal Naval Air Service and possibly that he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his 'meritorious or distinguished service as an officer', had been mentioned in dispatches in 1916 and from the French had been awarded 'Croix de Guerre' and for a year after the War served in the RAF and rose to the rank of Lieutenant, before transferring to the Colonial Diplomatic Service in the 1920s as Assistant Chief Secretary to the Government of Northern Rhodesia.

Peter recalled that he had wanted to be a writer from the age of five and his favourite childhood reading had been Rudyard Kipling : "We had this immense shelf of little, red, leather-bound Kiplings, which I read through uncomprehendingly from beginning to end. I think he's had more influence on the actual way my prose fits together" and of course, The Jungle Books "I read the lot. A truly great writer, despite his hideous opinions" and "I wouldn’t write the way I do if it weren’t for him."

In addition, he also read a copy of Pollard's 1917 version of Malory's 'Morte d'Arthur' with its tales of King Arthur, Sir Launcelot, Gareth and Tristram because he later recalled : "When I wrote 'The Weathermonger' I was aware of Malory's Merlin, Tennyson's Merlin, and the Merlin of the kind of retelling one was given for Christmas when I was a child, with all the Rackham illustrations, and so on "

These were idyllic early years :  born in the middle of Africa, within earshot of the Victoria Falls; baboons sometimes in the school playground; swimming in the Zambezi  in a big wooden cage let down into the water, so that the crocs couldn’t get at them; in hot weather, the family move south to his Grandfather Lovelace's ostrich farm in South Africa. It was not to last. When he was 7 in the Spring of 1935 the family moved to Britain. A strange land for him, his bothers Richard aged 9, Hugh 6 and little David 2 months and their Mother not yet 32 and then just four months later on July 27, their father and her husband died from complications caused by an undiagnosed strangulated gut. He was 38 years old.
Of Africa Peter would later say : "It matters to me that I was born there, though I haven't been back." Now in straightened circumstances he lived in a world where : 'My mother had to bring up four children with very little money of her own, but with rich relations in the background. So we had a curious childhood, with a good deal of pinching and scraping, but with the atmosphere of affluence around.' Application for financial help was no doubt made to Grandfather Willoughby Dickinson, who had been a distinguished Liberal politician and Member of Parliament and advocate of female suffrage and elevated to the peerage as 'Baron Dickinson of Painswick' in recognition of his work for 'Peace and International Understanding', four years before Peter was born. Either way, the fees for a boarding and prep school, later remembered in his adult novel 'Hindsight', were paid and in 1938 at the age of 11 he joined for his Father's old public school, Eton, where he recorded that he had the distinction of being "the bottom scholar in the worst year on record. A record previously held by my father!"

In school holidays he remembered how much he enjoyed sailing boats with his brothers in John Masefield's stream at Boars Hill, near Oxford. It was a love which never left him along with that of his novel, 'The Bird of Dawning' :  "A wonderful account of a tea-clipper on its way home from China. Terrific stuff. The final race up the Channel - terrific!"

On the reading front it was now 'St George for England' by G.A. Henty, which, when he came across a copy many years later he was "astonished to find how bad it is, mostly undigested chunks of history about the Hundred Years’ War, with our hero popping up from time to time to have an adventure. Early on he rescues the girl who becomes his childhood sweetheart. You don’t hear about her again till near the end, when you find he’s married to her, and gets to rescue her again. None of this mattered, because I was really into knights in armour. I read it every school holidays, which didn’t take long because I knew which bits to skip." In addition it was also 'Ivanhoe' by Walter Scott, which was a "Ditto, really, except that it’s a much better book, and you only need to skip the first fifty pages. You get Robin Hood as well as the knights in armour."

Peter wrote from experience when he said many years later : "Children have a very varying need of security, but almost all children feel the need of security and reassurance some time. For instance, in those families where boys are sent away to boarding school it is often very noticeable that, in the first week of the holidays, the boys do not read just the books they read last holidays, but books off their younger brothers’ bookshelves. One can often tell how happy or insecure a child is feeling simply by what she is reading. And sometimes she may need to reread something well known but which makes absolutely no intellectual or emotional demand. Rubbish has this negative virtue, and I would be very chary of interfering with a child who felt an obvious need of rubbish" and "Nobody who has not spent a whole sunny afternoon under his bed rereading a pile of comics left over from the previous holidays has any real idea of the meaning of intellectual freedom."

When he visited Grandmother Minnie and Grandfather Willoughby in Washwell House in Painswick Gloucester, up to the age of 16 when the old man died at the age of 84 in 1943 and Peter's brother Richard became the 'Baron', he sought out, along with his brothers, 'The Radium Seekers' by Fenton Ash  published in 1905 by Putnam which "must have been one of my father’s books. I read it whenever we stayed with my grandparents." When he was given a copy many years later "it all came back. Early science fiction, a cult classic, wildly racist, but enjoyable tosh. Our hero and his friends go to South America to look for radium, which has anti-gravity properties, and battle with a race of cruel Inca-type people who use the radium to fly, and disguise themselves as giant birds and terrorise the locals."

He also enjoyed 'King Solomon’s Mines' by Rider Haggard : "Same sort of thing, but in Africa and with diamonds instead of radium, but one of the great myth-making books, which still affects the way we think about Africa, I’m afraid. The witch Gagool was one of my regular nightmares."

Many years later he reflected on his own experience :
 "I am convinced of the importance of children discovering things for themselves. However tactfully an adult may push them towards discoveries in literature, these do not have quite the treasure trove value of the books picked up wholly by accident. This can only be done by random sampling on the part of the children."
At the age of 18 in 1945 was enlisted into the Amy for two years National Service and then completed his education at  King's College, Cambridge, where he read Classics for a while 'until they told me to stop it. I still have nightmares sometimes about being asked to put a passage into Greek.' before changing to English, a decision he lived to regret : "I enjoyed it, but it's such a soft option. I would much rather have done something with a few hard edges to it, like Anthropology. Something with a lot of facts for me to master would have been good for me. I'm not very good with facts."

In final exams he didn't get the 'first' he'd hoped for, but to his liking King's was 'a very civilised place' where 'they had various sorts of awards which they made to failed young gentlemen they rather approved of to enable them to stay up for another year and do research. They gave me one of these, but I turned out to be hopeless at it and two thirds of the way through it I was offered a job on 'Punch', simply because the youngest member of staff had recently celebrated his fortieth birthday.' In his own eyes he was a late developer who : "At 23, despite having been in the army, I was still a very moony teenager."

He spent the next 17 years maturing on the editorial staff at Punch, reviewing mainly detective fiction and writing occasional verse, but sometimes slipping in a round-up of children's books and in a 1953 issue he recalled his own childhood favourite 'The Radium Seekers.'

Into his thirties in the 1960s, 'in the course of reviewing all those thrillers I had an idea for one of my own, and I sort of toyed with it in my mind for a couple of years. Then one evening I sat down in the kitchen and started to write it. never really thinking I was going to get very far. I started on page one, and that's what I still do, go from page one to the end all at once.'  Then, three quarters of the way through this, his first novel, he got stuck until he had a nightmare which effectively became the first chapter of 'The Weathermonger'. 'I wrote that book to unblock the first one, and then I started at the beginning of the other book, took a great run up to it and got it done. So effectively I became a children's writer and an adult writer all at the same time, unlike some adult book writers who have gone into children's books thinking, as it were.' He had started writing the two books in 1966 and they were completed and published in 1968. He was 41 years old.

His young family with Philippa, Dorothy and John, now came in handy in that he would entertain them with his stories in the car which carried through to his books : "My purpose in writing a children’s book is to tell a story, and everything is secondary to that; but when secondary considerations arise they have to be properly dealt with. Apart from that I like my stories exciting and as different as possible from the one I wrote last time.”
In this, his first book he thought : 'The Weathermonger is written in very good English, old-fashioned, almost 'teacher's' English. And I think that's very important in children's books' and as for his style ? : He liked it 'very much' 'I think its very flexible.' and said : 'I don't think about language level or an audience at all' although on another occasion "I have an audience of one, who is the hypothetical me at the age of twelve or thirteen."
After this he "had no conception that I was going to wrote any more in this series. People liked The Weathermonger, however, and I enjoyed writing it. Because machines are wicked, it is a wonderful world for children to have adventures in. It's not just that guns are out. Since society has fragmented, there is space for freedom of action that is not there in the modern world. You run away from home, and there aren't any police to come looking for you. Danger is somehow nearer. In my books, despite the fantasy element, I like the danger to be as real as I can make it. When people get hurt, they get hurt."

He followed 'The Weathermonger' in 1968 with 'Heartsease' during the writing of which he was : "fortunate enough to know somebody who could take me out on a tug on the Thames, and talk to me about old- fashioned tugs" and 'The Devil’s Children' in the two subsequent years which were dramatised as 'The Changes' by BBC TV and broadcast in 1975  : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjVqHVo0nq0&t=0m08s He set them in a contemporary England that had mysteriously reverted to the Middle Ages, where magic was seen as part of everyday life.
So Peter, imbued with the gift of putting himself into the shoes of his youthful protagonists created at the age of 45, in 'The Dancing Bear' in 1972, a Byzantine slave boy, fleeing rampaging Huns in the company of a tame bear, at 52 in 'Tulku', a missionary’s son, orphaned in the Boxer Rebellion and lost in the mountains of Tibet, at 62 in 'Eva' a 13-year-old girl in an over-populated future dystopia, whose memory has been transplanted to the brain of a chimp and the following year, a child guerrilla in a fictional African country in 'AK.'
He said of his work : "I like to write a story, not to get at my readers. I like to deal with any subject which comes up as honestly as it can be dealt with, whatever it is. If you're telling a story, you may raise questions about sin, betrayal, incest, whatever it might be, and if they come up, you have somehow or other got to cope with them; you can't just pretend they don't exist."

 Encapsulated his love of writing :
'When you're on form you just sit there having a controlled dream and it comes out at the tips of your fingers. There's nothing else like it.'

No comments:

Post a Comment