Diana Wynne Jones
I think I write the kind of books I do because the world suddenly went mad when I five years old. In late August 1939, on a blistering hot day, my father loaded me and my three-year-old sister, Isobel, into a friend's car and drove to my grandparents' manse in Wales. "There's going to be a war, he explained. He went straight back to London, where my mother was expecting her third baby any day. We were left in the austere companv of Mam and Dad (as we were told to call them). Dad, who was a moderator of the Welsh Nonconformist Chapels, was a stately patriarch; Mam was a small browbeaten lady who seemed to us to have no character at all. We were told that she was famous in her youth for her copper hair, her wit, and her beauty, but we saw no sign of any of this.
Wales could not have been more different front our new house in Hadley Wood on the outskirts of London. It was all grey or very green and the houses were close together and dun-coloured. The river ran black with coal -- and probably always had, long before the mines: they told me the name of the place meant "bridge over the river with the black voice." Above all, evervbodv spoke a foreign language. Sometimes we were taken up the hill into suddenly primitive country to meet wild-looking raw-faced old people who spoke no English, for whom our shy remarks had to be translated. Everyone spoke English to us, and would switch abruptly to Welsh when then wanted to say important things to one another. They were kind to us, but not loving . We were Aneurins English daughters and not quite part of their Culture.
Life in the manse resolved around Chapel next door. My aunt Muriel rushed in from her house down the road and energetically took its to a dressmaker to be fitted with Sunday clothes. On the way, she suggested, as a way to stop us feeling strange, that we should call her Mummy. Isobel obligingly did so, but I refused on the grounds that she was not our mother -- besides, I was preoccupied with a confusion between dressmakers and hairdressers which even an hour of measuring and pinning did not resolve.
The clothes duly arrived: purple dresses with white polka dots and neat meat-coloured coats. Isobel and I had never been dressed the same before and we rather liked it. We wore them to Chapel thereafter, sitting sedately with our aunt and almost grown-up cousin Gwvn, through hours of solid Welsh and full-throated singing. Isobel sang too, the only Welsh she knew, which happened to be the name of the maid at the manse, Gwyneth. My mother had told me sternly that I was bad at singing and, not knowing the words, I couldn't join in anyway. Instead, I gazed wistfully at the shiny cherries on the hat of the lady in front, and one Sunday got into terrible trouble for daringg to reach out and touch them.
|Diana Wynne Jones, 1938. "This photograph is one my husband particularly values. Its battered condition is because he always carries it in his wallet."|
Then my grandfather went into the pulpit. At home he was majestic enough: preaching, he was like the prophet Isaiah. He spread his arms and language rolled from him, sonorous, magnificent, and rhythmic. I had no idea then that he was a famous preacher, nor that people came from forty miles away to hear him because he had an almost bardic tendency to speak a kind of blank verse -- hwyl, it is called, much valued in a preacher but the splendour and the rigour of it nevertheless went into the core of my being. Though I never understood one word, I grasped the essence of a dour. exacting, and curiously magnificent religion. His voice shot me full of terrors. For years after that, I used to dream regularly that a piece of my bedroom wall slid aside revealing my grandfather declaiming in Welsh, and I knew he was declaiming about my sins. I still sometimes dream in Welsh, without understanding a word. And at the bottom of my mind there is always a flow of spoken language that is not English, rolling in majestic paragraphs and resounding with splendid polysyllables. I listen to it like music when I write.
|"My grandfather, T R Jones, holding me aged about six months," London, 1935|
Weekdays I was sent to the local school, where everyone was taught in Welsh except me. I was the only one in the class who could read. When the school inspector paid a surprise visit, the teacher thrust a Welsh book at me and told me in a panicky whisper to read it aloud. I did so -- Welsh, luckily, is spelt phonetically -- and I still understood not a word. When girls came to play, they spoke English too, initiating me into mysterious rhymes: Whistle while you work, Hitler made a shirt. War had been declared, but I had never heard of Hitler till then. We usually played in the chapel graveyard, where I thought of the graves as like magnificent double beds for dead people. I fell off the manse wall into such a grave as I declaimed, "Goebbels wore it, Goering tore it," and tore a ligament in one ankle.
After what seemed a long time, my mother arrived with our new sister, Ursula. She was outraged to find Isobel calling Aunt Muriel Mummy. I remember trying to soothe her by explaining that Isobel was in no way deceived: she was just obliging our aunt. Unfortunately the voice I explained in had acquired a strong Welsh accent, which angered my mother further. We felt the strain of the resulting hidden rows as an added bleakness in the bleak manse. We were back in Hadley Wood by Christmas.
Looking back, I see that my relationship with my mother never recovered from this. When she arrived in Wales, she had seen me as something other, which she rather disliked. She said I would grow up just like my aunt and accused me of taking my aunt's side. It did not help that, at that time, my hair was just passing from blond to a colour my mother called mouse and I looked very little like either side of the family. My parents were both short, blackhaired, and handsome, where I was tall and blueeyed. When we got back to London, my mother resisted all my attempts to hug her on the grounds that I was too big.
Meanwhile, the threat of bombing and invasion grew. London was not safe. The small school Isobel and I were attending rented a house called Lane Head beside Coniston Water in distant Westmorland and offered room in it to my mother and her three children. We went there in the early summer of 1940. Here were real mountains, lakes, brooks racing through indescribable greenness. I was amazed -- intoxicated -- with the beauty of it.
We were told that Lane Head had belonged to John Ruskin's secretary and that this man's descendants (now safely in America) had been the John, Susan, Titty, and Roger of Arthur Ransome's books. Ruskin's own house, Brantwood, was just up the road. There was a lady in a cottage near it who could call red squirrels from the trees. This meant more to me at the time -- this, and the wonder of living in a rambling old house smelling of lamp oil, with no electricity, where the lounge (where we were forbidden to play) was full of Oriental trophies, silk couches, and Pre-Raphaelite pictures. There was a loft (also forbidden) packed with Titty and Roger's old toys. The entry to it was above our room and I used to sneak up into it. By this time, war shortages had made themselves felt. There were no new toys and no paper to draw on and I loved drawing. One rainy afternoon, poking about the loft, I came upon a stack of high-quality thick drawing paper. To my irritation, someone had drawn flowers on every sheet, very fine and black and accurate, and signed them with a monogram, JR. I took the monogram for a bad drawing of a mosquito and assumed the fine black pencil was ink. I carried a wad of them down to our room and knelt at the window seat industriously, erasing the drawings with an ink rubber. Halfway through I was caught and punished. The loft was padlocked. Oddly enough, it was only many years later that I realised that I must have innocently rubbed out a good fifty of Ruskin's famous flower drawings.
The school and its pupils left the place towards the end of summer, but we staved and were rapidly joined by numbers of mothers with small children. The world was madder than ever. I was told about the small boats going to Dunkirk and exasperated everone by failing to understand why the Coniston steamer had not gone to France from the landlocked lake. (I was always asking questions.) Bombs were dropping and the Battle of Britain was escalating. My husband, who had, oddly enough, been sent to his grandparents barely fifteen miles from us, remembers the docks at Barrow-in-Furness being bombed. He saw the blaze across the bay. During that raid a German plane was shot down and its pilot was it large in the mountains for nearly two weeks. It is hard now to imagine the horror he inspired in all the mothers. When he broke into the Lane Head pantry one night and stole a large cheese, there was sheer panic next morning. I suppose it was because that night the war had briefly climbed in through our window.
Being too young to understand this, I had trouble distinguishing (Germans from germs, which seemed to inspire the mothers with equal horror. We were not allowed to drink water from the washbasin because it came from the lake and contained typhoid germs. The maker's name on the For washbasin was Twyford. For years I thought that was how you spelled typhoid. I had a terrifying recurring dream of these typhoid Germans -- always dressed in cream-coloured Anglo-Saxon tunics -- running across the surface of the lake to get me. When a large Quaker family arrived to cram into the house too, bringing with them an eleven-year-old German-Jewish boy who told horrendous stories of what the police did -- they took you awav in the night, he said, to torture you -- I had no idea he was talking about the Gestapo. I have been nervous of policemen ever since.
|"My husband, J. A. Burrow, seated in Ruskin's stone seat with a bottle labelled 'Ruskin Sherry'. Ruskin's parents were wine merchants." Lake District, 1985|
The Quaker family, all six of them, had a cold bath every morning. We were regularly woken at 6:06 A.M. by the screams of the youngest, who was only two. In their no-nonsense Quaker way, this family got out the old boat in the boat house and went sailing. I can truthfully say that I sailed in both the Swallow and the Amazon, for though this boat was a dire old tub called Mavis, she was the original of both. I didn't like her. On a trip to Wild Cat Island I caught my finger in her centreboard, and my father nearly drowned us in her trying to sail in a storm on one of his rare visits from teaching and fire-watching in London.
The mothers gave the older children lessons. Girls were taught womanly accomplishments. Being left-handed, I had great trouble learning to knot until a transient Iclandic lady arrived with a baby and a large dog and began teaching me the continental method. She left before teaching me purl or even to cast on stiches. I had to make those up. Another mother taught sewing. I remember wrestling for a whole morning trying to sew on a button, which became inexplicably enmeshed in my entire supply of thread. Finally I explained to this mother that I wasn't going to grow up to be a woman and asked if I could do drawing with the boys. She told me not to be rude and became so angry that -- with a queer feeling that it was in self-defence -- I put my tongue out at her. She gave me a good shaking and ordered me to stand in the hall all the next morning.
The same day, other mothers had taken the younger children to play beyond the cottage of the lady who called squirrels. The noise they made disturbed the occupant of the houseboat out in the bay. He cam rowing angrily across and ordered them off, and, on finding where they lived, said that he wasn't going to be disturbed by a parcel of evacuees and announced that he would come next morning to complain. He hated children. There was huge dismay among the mothers. Next morning I stood in the hall, watching them rush about trying to find coffee and biscuits (which were nearly unobtainable by then) with which to soothe the great Arthur Ransome, and gathered I was about to set eyes on a real writer. I watched with great interest as a tubby man with a beard stamped past, obviously in a great fury, and almost immediately stormed away again on finding there was nobody exactly in charge to complain to. I was very impressed to find he was real. Up to then I had thought books were made by machines in the back room of Woolworth's.
My brush with the other writer in the area was even less direct but no more pleasant. We were up near Sawrey, which was a long way for children to walk; but, if the mothers were to go anywhere, they had to walk and the children had to walk with them. No one had a car. Isobel and another four-year-old girl were so tired that, when they found a nice gate, they hooked their feet on it and had a restful swing. An old woman with a sack over her shoulders stormed out of the house and hit both of them for swinging on her gate. This was Beatrix Potter. She hated children, too. I remember the two of them running back to us, bawling with shock. Fate, I always think, seemed determined to thrust a very odd view of authorship on me.
The boy who kept talking of the Gestapo was only one of several disturbed children among us. The madness of those times got into the daughter of the sewing lady too. She began systematically pushing the younger children off high places. She told me and swore me to secrecy. I knew this was wrong. My grandfather haunted me in dreams and I kept telling myself that I was feeble not to tell someone -- but I had sworn. Even so, when the girl pushed Isobel down a deep cellar I summoned my courage and told my mother. This caused a terrible row, as bad as the row in Wales, and I think that as a result of it my mother decided to leave Lane Head. She went to York to find a teaching job, leaving us in the charge of the other mothers. That night, the daughter of the sewing lady suggested it might be fun if I sneaked into her bedroom to eat aspirins with her. Feeling like an adventure, and also feeling bad at having betrayed this girl's trust, I did so. Aspirins were horrible. I swallowed mine with huge difficulty and asked her what she saw in them. Nothing, she said. It was just that you were forbidden to eat thein. And she spat hers out on the carpet.
Here her mother irrupted into the room.
I remember that a Court of Justice was hastily convened. Three mothers. I stood accused of leaving my bed in order to spit aspirins all over another's carpet. I remember I was bemused to find that the other girl was not accused of anything. Sentence was that I and my bed were taken downstairs to a lumber room and I was to sleep there. I rebelled. I got up again and went into the forbidden lounge, where I did what I had always wanted to do and took down one of the heavy, slightly rusty Indian Army swords. I wondered whether to fall on it like a Roman. But since it was clear to mw that this would hurt very much, I put it back and went out of the open window. It was near sunset. The grass was thick with dew, but still quite warm to my bare feet. The sky was a miraculous clear auburn. I tried to summon courage to run away in my nightclothes. I wanted to. I also had a dim sense that it would be an effective move. But I could not make myself take another step. I went back to the lumber room knowing I was a coward.
In fact, when my mother came back late the next night she though I had run away -- or been taken ill. Since nobody had told her, I suspect that the punishment was aimed at her to. There were further rows before we left for York in September 1941.
|The author in Troutbeck Valley, Lake District, 1985|
In York, we boarded in a nunnery. The blitz was on and the war was moving into its grimmest phase, which may have been why we never got enough to eat there. Granny -- my Yorkshire grandmother -- used to send us hoarded tins of baked beans which my mother heated in an old tin box over a gas ring in our bedroom.
My sister Ursula was now old enough to be a power. She was a white waifchild with black, black hair and a commanding personality. While my mother was teaching, Ursula had various nannies, whom she ordered mercilessly about and did imitations of in the evenings. I had long known that Isobel was the best and most interesting of companions. It was marvellous to discover that Ursula, and two-and-a-half, could make us fall about laughing. I knew I was lucky to have sisters.
My mother decided that Ursula was going to be an actress. Isobel, she told us, was beautiful but not otherwise gifted. As for me, she said, I was ugly, semi-delinquent, but bright. She had the nuns put me in a class with nine-year-olds. This was the first I knew that I was supposed to be clever. I did my best, but everything the class did was two years beyond me.
Religion was beyond me, too. The nuns, being an Anglican order, worshipped in York Minster and took us with them. This huge and beautiful cathedral must have been ten times the size of the chapel in Wales. I couls not make head or tail of the mysterious, reverent intonings in the far distance. I fidgeted and shamed my mother until one of the nuns took me instead to a smaller church from then on. There I sat, wrestling with the notion that Heaven Is Within You (not in me, I thought, or I'd know) and of Christ dying for our sins. I stared at the crucifix, thinking how very much being crucified must hurt, and was perturbed that, even with this special treatment, religion was not, somehow, taking on me. (I put it this way to myself because I had baptism and vaccination muddled, like germs and Germans.)
Weekdays, I joined a playground game rin by the naughty son of another teacher. It was called the Soft Shoe Brigade, in which we all marched in step and pretended we were Nazis. I could not understand why the nuns put a stop to it.
My please to be put into a class of younger children were granted near the end of the time we spent there. After a few weeks' bliss, doing work I understood, we went back to Hadley Wood in 1942. By then, the bombin was beginning to seem like the weather, only more frightening. When the siren sounded at night, we went to the ground floor where we sat and listened to the blunt bang and sharp yammer of gunfire and the bombs whistle as they fell, or watched searchlights rhythmically ruling lines in the sky. Recently I was talking to a woman my own age: we both confessed that any noise that resembles these, or the sound of a low-flying plane, still makes us expect to be dead next moment.
The world was mad in daytime, too, not only with rationing, blackout, brown paper stuck to bus windows, and notices saying "Careless Talk Costs Lives." The radio talked daily of bridgeheads, pincer movements, and sorties, which one knew were terms for people killing people. My father was away most nights fire-watching and at weekends he exercised with the Home Guard.
One Sunday I almost fell over one of our neighbours who was crawling about in the field behind our house with -- inexplicably -- a great bunch of greenery on his head.
"Oh, Mr. Cowey!" shouted I, in much surprise. "What are you doing crawling about with a bush on your head?"
He arose wrathfully, causing the greenery to fall into two horns. "Get out of it, you stupid child!" he snapped, the image of an angry nature god. "You've spoilt the whole bloody exercise!"
Considering this madness, it is not surprising that, at the latest of many private schools we went to that year, when the forbidding teacher announced, "All those children for elocution stand up and go into the hall," I mistook and thought the word was execution. I trembled, and was astonished when they all came back unharmed. At that same school, Isobel's teacher used to punish her for writing left-handed. She was shut in a bedroom, being punished, one day when the air-raid siren went. The rest of us were marched into the moderate safety of the hall, but Isobel was forgotten. I wrestled with my cowardice and managed to make myself call out that Isobel was still in the bedroom. The teachers were, I suppose, scared to go up there during a raid. They told me fiercely to hold my tongue and made me sit for the rest of the week behind the blackboard as a lesson for impudence. There was more disgrace than hardship to this. I used that time for reading.
I read avidly that year, things like The Arabian Nights and the whole of Malory's Morte d'Arthur. Soon after I was eight, I sat up from reading in the middle of one afternoon and knew that I was going to be a writer one day. It was not a decision, or even a revelation. It was more as if my future self had leaned back from the years ahead and quietly informed me what she was. In calm certainty, I went and told my parents.
|"My mother with my son Colin, at his Cambridge graduation," 1984|
"You haven't got it in you," my mother said. My father bellowed with laughter. He had a patriarch's view of girls: they were not really meant to do anything. Though he never said so, I think it was a disappointment to him to have three daughters. My mother, as always, was more outspoken. She said if it were not for the war, she would have more children -- boys.
I think my mother was very discontented that year. She was, after all, an Oxford graduate who had dragged herself up from a humble background in industrial Yorkshire by winning scholarships -- and all she had for it was the life of a suburban mother. I know she encouraged my father to apply for the husband-and-wife job they took in 1943.
The job was in a village called Thaxted in rural Essex. My parents were to run what would nowadays be called a conference centre for young adults, a place where teenagers who worked in factories in urban Essex could come for a week or weekend to experience a little culture. It was one of many schemes at that time which looked forward to the widening of horizons at the end of the war, and it had considerable propaganda value, since it was by no means clear then that the Allies were going to win the war. My father believed in it utterly, and it became his life for the next ten years.
I was already wrestling to make sense of the experience of the previous four years -- particularly the religion. Now I had a whole new set, three or four new sets, in fact, all going on at once. Thaxted, to take that first, was straight out of a picture postcard, with houses that were either thatched and half-timbered or decoratively plastered, and a medieval guildhall straddled the main street. The church, at once stately and ethereal beside a majestic copper beech, stood at the top of the hill opposite Clarance House (the house my parents ran). Industry was represented by a little sweet-factory at one end of the village and a man who made life-sized mechanical elephants at the other. The place was connected to the outside world by sporadic buses and by a branch railway that terminated a mile outside the village (but the train driver would grudgingly wait for anyone he saw panting up the hill to the station). On holidays, people did folk-dancing in the streets. There was also much handweaving, pottery-making, and madrigal singing.
This idyllic place had the highest illegitimate birthrate in the county. In numerous families, the younger apparent brothers or sisters turned out to be the offspring of the unmarried elder daughters -- though there was one young woman who pretended her daughter was her sister without grandparents to help-and there was a fair deal of incest, too. Improbable characters abounded there, including two acknowledged witches and a man who went mad in the church porch at full moon. There was a prostitute not much older than me who was a most refined person, with a face like alabaster, a slight foreign accent, and tweeds. There was another who looked like an artist's impression of Neanderthal woman; she had a string of pale thin children, each with huge famine-poster eyes. I had assumed you had to be married before you had children, so all this was quite a shock. I began to suspect the world had always been mad. In self-defence, my sisters and I assumed our home life was normal, which it certainly was not.
Clarance House was as beautiful as the rest, built in the days of Queen Anne, with graceful wall panels indoors, although the interior was somewhat bare because the Essex Education Committee which financed the place could seldom spare much money. Here my father threw himself into life as an educator and entertainer, for he was as gifted in his way as my grandfather and could hold an audience like an actor, whether he was making intellectual conversation at table with my mother, introducing a lecture, or telling ghost stories to rapt teenagers. His main story was about Clarance House. There was the remains of an old stair in a cupboard where, my father claimed, you could hear disembodied feet, climbing, climbing. . . . We knew he was right to call the house haunted, but the really haunted part was the main entrance hall, which I always felt compelled to run through if I had to cross it, shaking with fear. Eventually one of the cleaners saw the ghost. She had been chatting to it while she polished the hall for some minutes, thinking it was the girl she worked with. Then she looked properly and found she could see through it. She had hysterics and left at once for a job in the bacon factory in Great Dunmow.
My mother organised the cleaners, the cooks, and the domestic side, and in her spare time went feverishly into local history and madrigal singing. Not a day passed without some fearful crisis, in which my mother raced about inveighing against the Committee, the war, or my father, while my father stormed through the house in a fury, forgetting to speak English in his rage. His life was wholly public: my mother's three-quarters so. Neither had time for us. For a short while the three of us children shared a room at the top of the house; but my parents were so dedicated to making a success of the centre that they decided that room was needed for additional guests. We were put out into The Cottage. This was a leanto, two-room shack across the yard from the main house. The mud floor of the lower room was hastily covered with concrete and our beds were crammed into the upper floor. And we were left to our own devices. Looking back on this, we all find it extraordinary; for damp climbed the walls and, almost as soon as we had arrived in Thaxted, I had contracted juvenile rheumatism, which seriously affected my heart; and Ursula also contracted it soon after.
The only heating was a paraffin stove -- and how we failed to set The Cottage on fire I shall never know. The stove was often knocked over during games or fights, or encased in paper when we dried paintings. There was nowhere to wash in The Cottage, so we seldom bothered. Nor did we comb our hair. Ursula, whose hair was long, wild, and curly, tied it in two knots on her forehead to keep it out of her eyes. My mother did not notice for six months. Then I got into trouble for allowing it. But Ursula always did what she wanted. The following year she refused to eat anything but three slices of bread and yeast-extract a day, whatever Isobel or I said, and my mother never knew about that at all.
I was supposed to be in charge of my sisters and it weighed on me. I did my best, but at nine and ten I was not very good at it. The worst thing happened just after Isobel had been to a pantomime with a school friend, where she had been entranced to find the fairies swooping over the stage in flying-harness. She wanted to do it too. So Ursula and I obligingly tied skipping ropes together, slung them across a beam above The Cottage stairs, and hauled Isobel up there by a noose under her armpits. She dangled, rotating gently, looking worried. "Look more graceful," we advised her. She stuck out her arms -- and her legs, too, like a starfish -- and went on hanging. Absorbed in her experience and knowing that one had to suffer for art's sake, she failed to say she was suffocating. Luckily, Ursula and I became worried and cut her down with blunt nail scissors just in time.
Around this time, my mother decreed that Isobel should become a ballerina, because of her looks. My mother's main substitute for attending to us was to assert periodically that Isobel was beautiful and a born dancer, Ursula a potential actress, and me an ugly semi-delinquent with a high IQ. Her other substitute for attention was to make our school uniforms herself. She would buy half the required garments, angrily protesting at their cost and the number of clothing coupons they took, and make the rest. Other children jeered, because our uniforms were always the wrong style and material, and it always mystified us that their parents could afford enough coupons for a complete uniform. Other clothing my mother got from the local orphanage. The matron, who was a friend of my parents', used to give us all the clothes donated which she did not think suitable for the orphans. We often looked very peculiar. When I protested, my mother would angrily describe her own childhood with a widowed mother in World War I. "You're all extremely lucky," she would conclude. "You have advantages I never dreamed of." At which I felt acutely guilty.
Even so, I might protest that my mother had had proper clothes. I was prone to spot flaws in any argument and I had an odd theory that you ought to be truthful about your feelings. This usually sent my mother into a vituperative fury. This was part of the reason why she called me semi-delinquent. Another reason was that I had inherited my father's tendency to fly into towering rages. I also used to shout at my sisters because they seldom listened to mere speech. But I think the main reason was that I was always at some more or less mad project: some of which were harmless -- like dressing as a ghost and pretending to haunt the graveyard, inventing a loom, or directing a play; some of which were liable to cause trouble -- like the time I tried to organise a Garden Fete without asking anyone; some of which were outright dangerous - like walking on the roof, or the time I could have attracted enemy aeroplanes by signalling Morse code by flashlight to friends outside the village. For some reason I believed it my duty to live a life of adventure and I used to worry that, for a would-be writer, I had too little imagination.
Clarance House had two gardens, one ordinary one and a second, much bigger, across a lane at the back. This other garden was kept locked. I was always begging for the key. It was like paradise, or the extension of life into the imagination. Here were espalier applies, roses, lilies, vegetables, and a green path running under an arcade of creepers to an old octagonal summer house in the distance. Near the summer house my father kept bees. These were a notoriously fierce strain, and the gardener could often be seen racing down the green path pursued by an angry black cloud of them. But the bees never attacked us. I used to go and talk to them, because I had read that bees were part of your family and you should tell them all your news-although I never spoke to them when the gardener was by. He hated superstition. He was very religious. As a young man, he told people quite frankly, he had attended both church and chapel to be quite sure of heaven; but one day on the Sampford road he had had a vision in which an angel descended and told him always to go to chapel. And he was only one of a crowd of remarkable people who swarmed through the house. There were ham actors, gays, politicians, hirsute artists, hysterical sopranos, a musician who looked like Dr. Dolittle, another who believed in the transmigration of souls, an agriculturalist who looked like Hitler, a teddy girl, local vicars, one long thin and gloomy who grew tobacco, another stout and an expert on wine. . .
The vicar of Thaxted was a communist and people used to come from Great Dunmow in hobnailed boots specially to walk out noisily during his sermons. Actually his politics derived more from William Morris than Marx. The church was hung with light drapery to enhance its considerable elegance and he taught any child who wished to learn a musical instrument. "Not you," said my mother. "You're tone deaf." Or maybe just deaf, I used to think, on Thursdays when the bell ringers practiced. The Cottage was almost opposite the bell tower and the sound was deafening. In fact I had little to do with the church otherwise because I settled my religious muddles by deciding that I had better be an atheist.
School brought more strange experiences -- with an uncomfortable tendency to pick up motifs from the past. Isobel and I were sent to the village school, where we came up against the English class system for the first time. As children of intellectuals, we ranked above village kids and below farmers or anybody rich, but sort of sideways. This meant we were fair game for all. The headmaster had only contempt for us. He said I was never likely to pass the exam to enter grammar school ("the Scholarship," everyone called it) and almost refused to enter me. My mother had one of her rows over that (by this time I was dimly aware that my mother truly enjoyed a row). In school, we spent all but one afternoon a week knitting endless scarves and balaclavas for the forces, while one of the teachers told us about tortures, shivering with strange excitement while she spoke. I once nearly fainted at her account of the rack. The other afternoon, the boys were allowed to do drawing and the girls sewing. I protested about this. The headmaster threatened to cane me for impertinence. At which a berserker rage came over me. I seized a shoddy metal ruler and tied it in a knot. I was sent home, but not caned, to my surprise.
Being fair game for all meant that the school bullies chased you home. One winter day, in snow, a bully chased me, pelting me with ice. It cut. Terrified, I raced away down the alley between the blacksmith and the barber and shot into the glassy white road ahead. Too late, I saw a car driving past. I think I hurtled clean over its bonnet, getting knocked out on the way. I came to, face down, looking back the way I had come. "Help!" I shouted to the blacksmith in his forge. "I've been run over!" Not accurate, but I was upset. The blacksmith's wife improved on this by racing into the barber's, where she knew my father was having a haircut, yelling, "Mr. Jones! Come quickly! Your daughter's under a car!" Even less accurate, because the car was down the hill, slewing about as it braked. My father dived out of the barber's with his hair short one side and long the other. The driver got there about the same time and his face was truly a light green, poor man. I was quite impressed at the effect I had had.
I passed "the Scholarship" later that year. My parents' connection with the Essex Education Committee enabled them to discover that my marks were spectacularly good. I continued to get spectacular marks most of my school career. This is not a thing I can take much credit for. I just happened to have a near photographic memory and an inborn instinct about how to do exams -- which always struck me as cheating, because whenever I was in doubt about a fact, all I had to do was close my eyes and read the remembered page. But it was the one thing my parents cared about. My mother decided that I was to go to her old Oxford college, and added that to the ugly, semi-delinquent, brainy list.
|Diana, aged twenty (at left), her sisters Ursula (center) and Isobel|
As a semi-delinquent I was sent as a boarder to a school in Brentwood; but there was no room in the boarding house and I had to live for one endless term with the family I later put in Eight Days of Luke. Then a girl left the boarding house and I had her bed. This was an old overused hospital bed and it broke under me; and the matron made public discovery that my ears were unwashed. As a punishment -- and I am still not clear whether it was for the bed or the ears or both -- I had to sleep on my own in an old lumber room. Just as before, in Coniston, I could not muster courage to run away. Nor could I muster courage to tell my parents: I was too ashamed. But I did tell them, because I enjoyed it so, how the matron marched us in line every Saturday to the cinema to see every film that happened to be showing. This philistine practice horrified them. I was removed and sent by bus to a Quaker school in Saffron Walden as day pupil instead. I was there from 1946 to 1952. It was mainly a boarding school, which meant that I, and later my sisters, were as usual part of an oddball minority. Quakers do not believe in eccentricity or in academic success. They found me highly eccentric for getting good marks and for most other things too.
As time went on, my parents had less and less time for us. We never went on holiday with them. When they took their yearly holiday, we were left with the gardener, the minister of the chapel, or the matron of the orphanage-or simply dumped on Granny. Granny was truly marvellous, five feet of Yorkshire common sense, love, and superstition. She was always saying wise things. I remember, among many sayings, when one time she had given me a particularly good present, she said, "No, it's not generous. Being generous is giving something that's hard to give." She was so superstitious that she kept a set of worthless china to break when she happened to break something good, on the grounds that breakages always came in threes and it was as well to get it over. I would have been lost without Granny, that I know.
That was a grim time in the world. The war, which had receded when we left London, came close again as rockets and pilotless planes. They were terrifying. Then there was the anxiety of D Day, followed by the discovery of the concentration camps, which made me realise just how mad the world had been. This was followed by great shortages and the cold war. Hiroshima horrified me: the cold war made me expect a Hiroshima bomb in England any day.
Things were grim at home too. When a course was running at Clarance House -- which was continuously during summer and two-thirds of the time during winter -- we quite often came home from school to find that nobody had remembered to save us anything to eat. If we went into the kitchen to forage, the cook shrieked at us to get out. When no course was running, my father would sit slumped and silent in the only family room, which was also his office. He rarely spoke to any of us unless he was angry, and then he could not remember which one of us he was talking to and had to go through all our names before he got the right one. Almost every night during winter, my mother would shout at him -- with some justice -- that he kept all his charm for his job and none for her in private; whereupon he would fly into a towering Welsh rage and they would bawl at one another all evening. When it was over, my mother would rush into the kitchen, where we had retreated to do homework, and recount angrily all that had been said, while we waited with pens politely poised, knowing that any comment only made things worse. This routine was occasionally lightened by ludicrous incidents, such as the time the cat locked us all into that office by playing with the bolt on the outside of its door; or when our aged corgi suddenly upped and bit my father in the butt while he was chasing Isobel to hit her.
My parents did remember birthdays and Christmas, but only at the last minute. That is how I remember that day peace was declared with Japan. It was the day before my eleventh birthday and all the shops were shut in celebration, so I got no presents that year. This left a void, for birthdays were the one occasion when my father could be persuaded to buy books. By begging very hard, I got Puck of Pook's Hill when I was ten and Greenmantle when I was twelve. But my father was inordinately mean about money. He solved the Christmas book-giving by buying an entire set of Arthur Ransome books, which he kept locked in a high cupboard and dispensed one between the three of us each year. Clarance House had books, he said. True: it had been stocked mostly from auctions and, from this stock, before I was fourteen, I had read all of Conrad, Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, Bertrand Russell on relativity, besides a job lot of history and historic novels -- and all thirty books from the public library in the guildhall. Isobel and I suffered from perpetual book starvation. We begged, saved, and cycled for miles to borrow books, but there were still never enough. When I was thirteen, I began writing narratives in old exercise books to fill this gap, and read them aloud to my sisters at night. I finished two, both of epic length and quite terrible. But in case someone is tempted to say my father did me a favour, I must say this is not the case at all. I always would have been a writer. I still had this calm certainty. All these epics did for me was to prove that I could finish a story. My mother was always telling me that I was much too incompetent to finish anything. During her ugly, semi-delinquent litanies she frequently said, "When you do the Oxford exams, you'll get a place, but you won't do better than that. You haven't got what it takes."
In his stinginess, my father allowed us one penny a week pocket money. Money for anything else you had to ask him for. Looking back, I see I accepted this, partly because I thought it was normal and knew I wasn't worth more, but also because asking for money at least meant he spoke to me while he was enquiring suspiciously into the use of every penny. He also allowed me to darn his socks for sixpence a pair (By this stage I was sewing clothes for myself and my sisters and doing the family wash in spare moments). My sisters, however, rebelled at their poverty and bearded my father in his office. Groaning with dismay, my father upped our allowance to a shilling a week when I was fifteen, on condition that we bought our own soap and toothpaste. A tube of toothpaste cost most of two weeks' allowance. Isobel and I were by then civilised enough to save for it. Ursula squandered her money.
Ursula always took the eccentric way, particularly over illness. The cardinal sin we could commit was to be ill. It meant that someone had grudgingly to cross the yard with meals for us. My mother usually made a special trip to our bedsides to point out a nuisance we were being. Her immediate response to any symptom of sickness was to deny it. "It's only psychological," she would say. On these grounds I was sent to school with chicken pox, scarlet fever, German measles and, for half a year, with appendicitis. Luckily the appendix never quite became acute. The local doctor, somewhat puzzled by my mother's assertion that there was nothing wrong with me, eventuall took it out. He was an old military character and, in keeping with the rest of his life, he had only three fingers in his right hand. I still have a monster scar. I had the appendix in a bottle for years, partly to show my mother the boils on it and partly to live up to the title of semi-delinquent. But Ursula, having concluded that "only psychological" meant the same as "purely imaginary," deduced that it was therefore no more wrong to pretend to be ill than to be really ill. She drew on her strong acting talent, contrived to seem at death's door whenever she she was tired of school, and spent many happy hours in bed.
I put some of the foregoing facts in The Time of the Ghost, but what I think I failed to get over in that book was how close we three sisters were. We spent many hours delightedly discussing one another's ideas and looked after one another strenuously. For example, when I was fourteen, Isobel was told by the Royal Ballet School that she could never, ever make it as a ballet dancer. Her life fell to pieces. She had been told so firmly that she was a ballerina born that she did not know what she was any longer. She cried one entire night. After five hours, when we still could not calm her, I crossed the yard in my pajamas -- it was raining -- to get parental help. A mistake. My mother jumped violently and clutched her heart when I appeared. My father ordered me back to bed, despite my explanation and despite the fact that we had been ringing our recently installed emergency bell before I went over. I trudged back through the rain, belatedly remembering that my mother hated giving sympathy. "It damages me," she had explained over my appendix. Ursula and I sat up the rest of the night convinving Isobel that she had a brain as well a body. We were close because we had to be.
|"My husband, looking much as he did when I first met him," 1951|
This solidarity did not hold so well when our parents laughed at us. I became very clumsy in my teens and they laughed at anything I did which was not academic. Perhaps they needed the amusement, because, for the next year, my father sickened mysteriously. When I was fifteen, he was diagnosed as having intestinal cancer. To my misfortune, something painful went wrong with my left hip at the same time, so that I could only walk with a sailor-like roll, causing much mirth. It was the beginning of multiple back trouble which has plagued me the rest of my life, but no one knew about such things then. The natural assumption was that I was trying to be interesting because my father was ill. It is hard to express the guilt I felt.
My father, full of puritanical distaste, weathered that operation. He developed secondary cancer almost at once, but that was not apparent for the next three years or so. Once he had recovered, it occurred to him that I would need special tuition if I were to go to Oxford as planned. The Friends' School was not geared to university entrance. Academic ambition vied in him with stinginess. Eventually, he approached a professor of philosophy who had just come to live in Thaxted with his wife and small children and asked him to teach me Greek. In exchange, my father offered the philosopher a handmade dollhouse that someone had given my sisters. My sisters loved the thing and had kept it in beautiful condition. But the philosopher accepted the deal, so no matter what their feelings, the dollhouse was given away. In return, the philosopher gave me three lessons in Greek. Then he ran off with someone else's wife. I must surely be the only person in the world to have had three Greek lessons for a dollhouse.
After that, pressure mounted on me to succeed academically. In my anxiety to oblige, I overworked. I did nothing like as well as was expected. I did scrape an interview at my mother's old college. There a majestic lady don said, "Miss Jones," shuddering at my plebeian name, "you are the candidate who uses a lot of slang." She so demoralised me that, when she went on to ask me what I usually read, I looked wildly round her shelves and answered, "Books." I failed. At the eleventh hour, I applied for and got a place at St. Anne's College, Oxford, where I went In 1953.
It was not a happy time. When I got there, I found that John Ruskin had taken belated revenge for the rubbed-out drawings: I had to share his vast, cold studio with a girl who required me to wait on her hand and foot. And my father died after my first term there. I had to stay at home to see to his funeral, and spent the rest of my time at Oxford in nagging anxiety for my sisters, who were not finding my mother easy to live with. However, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were both lecturing then, Lewis booming to crowded halls and Tolkien mumbling to me and three others. Looking back, I see both of them had enormous influence on me, but it is hard to say how, except that they must have been equally influential to others too. I later discovered that almost everyone who went on to write children's books -- Penelope Lively, Jill Paton Walsh, to name only two -- was at Oxford at the same time as me; but I barely met them and we never at any time discussed fantasy. Oxford was very scornful of fantasy then. Evervone raised eyebrows at Lewis and Tolkien and and said hastily, "But they're excellent scholars as well."
|"My three sons: Richard, Colin, Michael," 1964|
Let's go back now to the empty swatch of time before I went up to Oxford, when my father was periodically at home between times of being guinea pig at an early and unsuccessful form of chemotherapy. I have not said much about the young people who came to Thaxted on courses, because most of them were mere transients; but there were some who came often, some my own age, with whom we became firm friends. One was in love with Isobel (many people were) and he was coming to the house with ten friends to relax after doing finals at Oxford. Now this is an occasion comparable to the time when I was eight and knew that I would be a writer. As soon as I heard they were coming, I was seized with unaccountable excitement. I raced round helping get ready for them and made the tea far too early. They arrived while I made it. In the small hall outside my father's office I ran into a cluster of them talking with my father. One of them said, "Diana, you know John Burrow, do you?"
I sort of looked. Not properly. All I got was a long beige streak of a man standing with them in front of the old Arthur Ransome cupboard. And instantly I knew I was going to marry this man. It was the same calm and absolute certainty that I had had when I was eight. And it rather irked me, because I hadn't even looked at him properly and I didn't know whether I liked him, let alone loved him.
Luckily both proved to be the case. The relationship survived two years at Oxford when John was a graduate student, and a third year when he was a lecturer at King's College, London. It also survived my mother's impulsive purchase, after my father died, of a private school in Beeston outside Nottingham, in a very haunted house. We moved there in the summer of 1956. 1 had been ill all that year, but after four months of listening to invisible footsteps pacing the end of my bedroom, I went to Granny, who was living in Sampford (near where the angel appeared to the gardener) in order to be married to John in Saffron Walden, in a thick fog, three days before Christmas 1956. There are no photographs of the wedding because, as my mother explained, her own wedding was more important. She married Arthur Hughes, a Cambridge scientist, the following summer.
John and I lived in London until September 1957, where I seemed unemployable. I used the time to read Dante, Gibbon, and Norse sagas. Then we moved back to Oxford to a flat in a large house in the Iffley Road, with another family downstairs who became our lifelong friends. Meanwhile, Ursula failed all her exams in protest against academic pressure and made it to drama school. She is now an actress. Isobel was at university in Leicester, working grimly for a good degree, when my stepfather turned her out of his house. She arrived on our doorstep, shattered, around the time I discovered I was pregnant, and was living with us when my son Richard was born in 1958. She stayed with us until my next son, Michael, was born in 1961, and was married from our flat. Her husband is an identical twin. John, who gave Isobel away, was mightily afraid of handing her to the wrong twin. She is now one of the few women professors in England. Ursula and I always think we did a good job of persuading her she had a brain.
|"On the eve of Richard's wedding. Left to right: Colin, Michael, Dawn (bridesmaid), Harriet (the bride), Richard, myself."|
My third son, Colin, was born in 1963. My aim, from this time forward, was to live a quiet life -- not an easy ambition in a house full of small children, dogs, and puppies. During this time, to my undying gratitude, John and my children taught me more about ordinary human nature than I had learned up to then. I still had no idea what was normal, you see. After that I found the experiences of my childhood easier to assimilate and could start trying to write. To my dismay, I had to learn how -- so I taught myself, doggedly. At first I assumed I would be writing for adults, but my children took a hand there. First Michael threatened to miscarry. I had to stay in bed and, while I did, I read Lord of the Rings. It was suddenly clear to me after that that it was possible to write a long book that was fantasy. Then as the children grew older, they gave me the opportunity to read all the children's books which I had never had as a child and, what was more, I could watch their reactions while we read them. Very vigorous those were too. They liked exactly the kind of books -- full of humour and fantasy, but firmly referred to real life -- which I had craved for in Thaxted. Somewhere here it dawned on me that I was going to have to write fantasy anyway, because I was not able to believe in most people's version of normal life. I started trying. What I wrote was rejected by publishers and agents with shock and puzzlement.
In 1966 we moved briefly to a cold, cold farmhouse in Eynsham while we waited for my husband's college, Jesus College, to have a house built that we could rent. There Colin started having febrile convulsions and almost everything else went wrong too. I wrote Changeover, my only published adult novel, to counteract the general awfulness.
|The author, January 1988|
In 1967, the new house was ready. It had a roof soluble in water, toilets that boiled periodically, rising damp, a south-facing window in the food cupboard, and any number of other peculiarities. So much for my wish for a quiet life. We lived there, contending with electric fountains in the living room, cardboard doors, and so forth, until 1976, except for 1968-9, which year we spent in America, at Yale. Yale, like Oxford, was full of people who thought far too well of themselves, lived very formally, and regarded the wives of academics as second class citizens; but America, round the edges of it, I loved. I try to go back as often as I can. We went for a glorious time to Maine, and also visited the West Indian island of Nevis, where, to my astonishment, a number of people greeted me warmly, saying, "I'm so glad you've come back!" I still don't know who they thought I was. But an old man on a donkey thought John was a ghost.
On our return, now all the children were at school, I started writing in earnest. A former pupil of John's introduced me to Laura Cecil, who was just starting as a literary agent for children's books. She became an instant firm friend. With her encouragement, I wrote Wilkins' Tooth in 1972, Eight Days of Luke in 1973, and The Ogre Downstairs the same year. I laughed so much writing that one that the boys kept putting their heads round the door to ask if I was all right. Power of Three came after that,>then Cart and Cwidder, followed by Dogsbody, though they were not published in that order. Charmed Life and Drowned Ammet were both written in 1975.
Also on our return, we acquired a cottage in West Ilsley, Berkshire, as a refuge from the defects of the Oxford house. The chalk hills there, full of racehorses, filled my head with new things to write. It was at this cottage that John was formally asked to apply for the English professorship at Bristol University. He did so, and got the job. We moved here in 1976 and were involved in a nightmare car crash the following month. Despite this, I love Bristol. I love its hills, its gorge and harbours, its mad mixture of old and new, its friendly people, and even its constant rain. We have lived here ever since. All my other books have been written here; for although the car crash, followed by my astonishment at winning the 1977 Guardian Award for Children's Books, almost stopped me dead between them, I get unhappy I don't write. Each book is an experiment, an attempt to write the ideal book, the book my children would like, the book I didn't have as a child myself.
I have still not, after twenty-odd books, written that book. But I keep trying. Nor do I manage to live a quiet life. I keep undertaking things, like visiting schools and teaching courses as a writer, or learning the cello, or doing amateur theatricals, or rashly agreeing to do all the cooking for Richard's wedding in 1984. Every one of those things has led to comic disasters -- except the wedding: that was perfect. My aunt Muriel came to it just before she died, wearing a mink headdress like a Cardinal's hat, and gave the couple her blessing. My mother also came. She was widowed again in 1975 and keeps on cordial terms with the rest of her family. She thinks John is marvellous.
Another thing that stops me living a quiet life is my travel jinx. This is hereditary: my mother has it and so does my son Colin. Mine works mostly on trains. Usually the engine breaks, but once an old man jumped off a moving train I was on and sent every train schedule in the country haywire for that day. And my books have developed an uncanny way of coming true. The most startling example of this was last year, when I was writing the end of A Tale of Time City. At the very moment when I was writing about all the buildings in Time City falling down, the roof of my study fell in, leaving most of it open to the sky.
Perhaps I don't need a quiet life as much as I think I do.
For Young People
- Wilkins' Tooth (illustrated by Julia Rodber).
London: Macmillan, 1973; also published as Witch's
Business. New York: Dutton, 1974.
- The Ogre Downstairs. London: Macmillan, 1974; New York: Dutton, 1975.
- Cart and Cwidder. London: Macmillan, 1975; New York: Atheneum, 1977.
- Dogsbody. London: Macmillan, 1975; New York: Greenwillow, 1977.
- Eight Days of Luke. London: Macmillan, 1975; New York: Greenwillow, 1988.
- Power of Three. London: Macmillan, 1976; New York: Greenwillow, 1977.
- Charmed Life. London: Macmillan. 1977: New York: Greenwillow, 1977.
- Drowned Ammet. London: Macmillan, 1977; New York: Atheneum, 1978.
- Who Got Rid of Angus Flint? (illustrated by John Sewell). London: Evans, 1978.
- The Spellcoats. London: Macmillan, 1979; New York: Atheneum, 1979.
- The Four Grannies (illustrated by Thelma Lambert). London: Hamish Hamilton, 1980.
- The Magicians of Caprona. London: Macmillan, 1980; New York: Greenwillow, 1980.
- The Homeward Bounders. London: Macmillan, 1981; New York: Greenwillow, 1981.
- The Time of the Ghost. London: Macmillan, 1981.
- Witch Week. London: Macmillan, 1982; New York: Greenwillow, 1982.
- Archer's Goon. London: Methuen, 1984; New York: Greenwillow, 1984.
- The Skiver's Guide. London: Knight, 1984.
- Warlock at the Wheel and Other Stories. London: Macmillan, 1984; New York: Greenwillow, 1984.
- Fire and Hemlock. London: Methuen, 1985; New York: Greenwillow, 1985.
- Howl's Moving Castle. London: Methuen, 1986; New York: Greenwillow, 1986.
- A Tale of the Time City. London: Methuen, 1987; New York: Greenwillow, 1987.
- The Lives of Christopher Chant. London: Methuen, 1988; New York: Greenwillow, 1988
- Chair Person. Forthcoming.
- The Ogre Downstairs. London: Macmillan, 1974; New York: Dutton, 1975.
- The Batterpool Business. First produced at Arts Theatre,
- The King's Things. First produced at Arts Theatre, London, 1970.
- The Terrible Fish Machine. First produced at Arts Theatre, London, 1971.
- The King's Things. First produced at Arts Theatre, London, 1970.
- Hidden Turnings (a collection of stories for teenagers). New York: Greenwillow, 1989.
- Changeover. London: Macmillan, 1970.