Beyond Land's End by D.J. Enright; The Extraordinary Wool Mill by John Fuller - review by John Rowe Townsend

John Rowe Townsend

Facetious Fantasies

Beyond Land's End

By

Chatto 139pp £3.50

The Extraordinary Wool Mill

By

Deutsch 96pp £4.25
 

A surprising number of English poets of the 20th century have written for children. Walter de la Mare, Robert Graves, James Reeves, Ian Serraillier, Ted Hughes, Roy Fuller, Charles Causley, Alan Brown-john, Brian Patten: it’s a star-studded list, and no doubt there are some distinguished names that ignorance or forgetfulness have caused me to omit. And most have written fiction for children as well as poetry.

Perhaps the surprise ought not to be too intense; one might expect the vision of the lyric poet to be frequently childlike, in a favourable sense of the word. Poets ought surely to be able to share with children the gift of seeing and feeling things freshly as if the world were new. They are Mirandas as well as Prosperos.

Were are books by two noted poets: D. J. Enright and John Fuller (son of Roy) Beyond Land’s End is the third of a trio by Enright; his earlier two were The Joke Shop and Wild Ghost Chase. All three are rather facetious fantasies about Robert and Jane, who seem to me to be very ordinary children, and their dreadful small brother Timmy; and about the adventures they have in the company of a peculiar group of trouble-shooting secret agents. These are (if I’ve got them right) Mr Mock, who is tall and of unearthly intelligence, being a Plutonian; Herr Brush, who is small, tender-hearted and for ever quoting; and Inspector Barlow, who is a comic police inspector.

In The Joke Shop they were in the land of the sinister Shadows; in Wild Ghost Chase they were involved with a golden-haired, green-dressed swimmer called Undine and a non-bloodthirsty vampire called Primula. And now in the new book it’s a trip to Atlantis, which lies unsuspected in the ocean just beyond Land’s End. It’s a kind of underwater floating disc covered by a huge transparent dome; it’s inhabited by people very like us, and it’s in trouble because it has lost its centre of gravity and is tilting at an ever more perilous angle. The children solve the problem in the end, of course. With the aid of a computer called Peter Puter (which is actually a pair of endlessly-squabbling twin computers) they recover the centre of gravity, a small black stone, and pop it back where it belongs, in a hole in the floorboards. All ends in triumph, acclaim and mutual esteem.

There’s a perennial danger, in reviewing, of upbraiding a writer for not doing what he never had the least intention of doing. Perhaps it’s not quite fair to Mr Enright to complain that his Atlantis appears to have been thrown together out of commonplace ingredients. Obviously he wasn’t aiming at a major artistic creation. But I can’t help feeling that the imagination of a poet at work on so rich and evocative a concept as Atlantis, with its great intrinsic appeal and its wealth of association, should have come up with something more interesting and rewarding than this. Here we have a Director of Pure Science who seems to run the show, an elderly absentminded Mayor wearing a tea-cosy, a surly submarine-bus driver, buildings ‘all of different shapes and sizes’, artificial sunshine, and the endless, typographically-exasperating chatter of that computer.

It’s casual, flip, jokey stuff, rather avuncular and not very well organised. Allusions that children will probably miss are balanced by some very corny and childish stuff: the bacon that comes from ‘special cabbages called piggages’, for instance, since Atlanteans are vegetarians. And there are one or two bits of juvenile near-rudery, as when interplanetary Mr Mock is accused of sitting on his asteroid while other people while other people do work. Most children like silliness form time to time, and some children probably will like Beyond Land’s End, but to me it seems to be at best indifferent. Mr Enright’s two earlier books got some quite respectful reviews: a fact which I fear may reflect his deserved standing as poet rather than the actual merit of the work.

If Mr Enright sounds like a jokey uncle, John Fuller in The Extraordinary Wool Mill comes across as a thoughtful and sympathetic father with a gift for placing himself exactly on a young child’s eye level without having to go down on hands and knees and make funny noises. This is a cluster of episodes in the life of the author’s daughter Emily, aged seven. The setting is the family cottage in Wales, and the events described often take place in that strange borderland between reality and fantasy in which children of Emily’s age are able (for a fleeting time) to wander.

Here is the wool mill staffed by Barwell and Flo, who are actually sheep (Flo is short for Flock, just as Co is short for Company). Then there are recipes for sand dribbles and Purple Cow’s Pudding; there’s the strange affair of the yellow van which drove for miles through the hills ahead of the family car, though it didn’t have an engine; there’s an adventure in the submerged village in the middle of the bay; and, very convincing, there’s the non-existent family pet who was built up so effectively in Emily’s imagination that she was close to tears when he couldn’t be found.

This is a low-key book, apparently slight but with a good deal of quiet strength and a fine sense of family affection. It’s not for every child, but there must be many to whom — especially if read aloud — it would speak clearly and memorably.

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