Monday, December 8, 2014

Childhood Classics - The Box Of Delights, by John Masefield

Sometimes rose-tinted spectacles are the only way to look back

This is a quality cover and the edging around them is not cheap and the dog is cool and anyone saying otherwise just... just shut up... you just don't get it... 
So, dear reader. It is that time of year. If you follow the new fancy Gregorian calendar, the final month of your year has fallen. If you don't, or live near or south of the Equator, then key elements of this article will be somewhat lost to you. Indeed, as with so much of my writing, so much may be lost to you unless you are me.

Oh, but you are me? You are? Really? Well, you look a bit rough, and are much taller... but very well. If you want to keep up this charade, I suppose I will indulge you, in the spirit of the season and in the spirit of enjoying your slavish devotion to my cultural desires.
I said cultural. Put your trousers back on. And your codpiece. Honestly...

So, now we are all on the same page emotionally, we can all agree that there is a nip in the air. A frost is now appearing each morning on the cars. Indeed, if you live in the NW of America, that frost has been somewhat excessive already. In southern England, and in my head (which is in southern England), it is both a time to yawn wearily as the t.v. and the high street combine to make the holiday season a garish, aggressive advert for Frozen DVDs and plastic shit, and a time to feel all warm and cosy, whether that feeling is caused by nostalgia for childhood excitement, or heated alcohol. And so I return finally to the book I promised myself to reread over the summer, and I failed, yet it holds such finer hold over the senses at this chilly point of the annual cycle.

The Box of Delights was written by poet and novelist John Masefield in 1935, and it shows, in both elements. Much of the phrasing and flow of the writing owes to a skill at verse, and much of the old-school Anglican Church and upper class morality owes to the time. But whilst this results in people describing things as 'awfully nice' there are some nice undercurrents of rebellion, chiefly in the usurping of clergy as villains-in-disguise, and the notion that the man on the street is wiser than the lord of the manor. However, it remains a product of its time, and also a product of being a sequel to a book (the in-some-ways superior The Midnight Folk) which itself was a spin-off from Masefield's historical adventure series.

Here we find the child protagonist Kay Harker returning, this time more clearly battling the forces of darkness, as he is chosen the protect the eponymous box from the evil Abner Brown and his cohorts. Warned of 'wolves running', he soon drops initial scepticism for mischevious fascination, and eventually adult commitment and bravery. The box is actually a device, which allows for some sequences that were guilty of sweeping my seven year-old imagination up in their grasp. It lets Kay shrink (handy for spying on the bad guys), fly (handy for being too young to drive) and travel through time (handy for adding some ancient English folklore like Herne The Hunter). What surprised me was how effective the action remains, and how direct Masefield's writing feels, almost a century after it was written. We visit ancient forests, see rat-men scuttling around tunnels, cars that turn into planes and paintings that hide portals in space and time. He may talk of a time of steam trains and kindly vicars yet his visual imagination is as modern as any children's author today.

As I reminded myself of the story, as Kay encounters Cole Hawlings and is introduced to a shadow world of magic and evil, it was hard to shake the familiarity born not from memory but from other works who owe a debt to Masefield. Bear in mind, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, another wintery classic, did not appear until 15 years later. In fact, more even than these other flavours polluting my viewpoint, the television series that the BBC in the UK broadcast in 1984, right after I had read the book, bore a heavy shadow over the narrative. I was unable to shake the music, the faces and the atmosphere of the creepy adaption, and it remains impossible for me to know how it stands as a novel on its own terms. To see the insanely-dated yet bewitching programme, click here  (hopefully works worldwide) and see the food critic from Frasier play a dodgy vicar in the first few minutes. The animation in particular is clunky, cheap, and utterly brilliant. And whilst the lead child actor is in retrospect is a bit weak, as child actors except Jodie Foster usually were back in the day, Patrick Troughton is good fun as Hawlings and the villains are amusingly pantomime.

But the book itself still has the key power for me - to transport me to a fantasy world far more intoxicating and desirable than any genre 'fantasy' landscape. It takes me to a place that probably didn't even exist in 1935 - a snowy English Christmastime of warm fires, happy carol singing and endless food out in the cliched, soft;y-beautiful countryside. It is an image Hollywood turn to again and again, and despite the press here claiming we will due to the joys of climate change finally get a white xmas, it is an effective image precisely because it could never exist in reality. It is idealism, it is pompous, cosy, old school Englishness. And it is as bad for you , and yet as warming and delicious , as a hot chocolate with brandy in. For once, a childhood memory held up to adult scrutiny.

So if you have no connection to my nostalgia's landscape, this is a good place to start. It's a gripping if child-friendly fantasy adventure that should take about three hours to read and takes you away to another world, albeit a nauseatingly posh English one that does nothing to counteract the view most Americans have that we all sound like Harry Potter. More so than that series and the far more beautiful and skilful Dark Is Rising (also set in the lead-up to Christmas), this is the festive season's best literary herald.

Posted by English Scribbler