Tuesday, 18 November 2008

101 today!

101! oh no, that's posts on this blog. I'm not quite that old - 54 doesn't sound quite so bad if you compare it to 101.

And what, in a perfect world, would I like for my birthday? Hmm, well, there is something:

I didn't even know this book existed until recently, and I would dearly love to find a copy. It's the fourth in a series which started with A Swarm in May, about the Choir School at Canterbury Cathedral, and based on Mayne's own time there. Mayne is a wonderful writer, an endlessly inventive manipulator of words. Here is the opening of Chorister's Cake, the second book:

'Sometime Dean of this Cathedral', said the two lines of carved letters just below Peter Sandwells' eyes and between the next boy's feet. Whoever had put them there had not thought that one day the Cathedral choirboys would be standing on it during their PT lesson. Standing was not the right word: Peter Sandwell had both heels on it, and so had Meedwell just in front, but their knees were wide apart and their heads were between their knees: they were waiting for the football to be rolled along through the arches of legs, so that it could be raced round to the front of the team again.

Meedwell felt Sandwell's head butt against his seat, so he sat as much as anyone can sit who looks for the time being like the two legs of a wishbone. Sandwell resisted the weight, but his head was pushed lower and lower. 'Sometime Dean of this Cathedral' slid out of sight. He found he was looking at the rest of the sometime Dean's inscription, reading a Latin verse from above.
Having decided to quote those two paragraphs, I had to keep reading. In some ways, this is my least favourite of the three that I've been able to read - although they are all witty and fun, both A Swarm in May and Cathedral Wednesday have a slightly more whimsical quality that increases their charm, but all are concerned with the acceptance of responsibility, and here the story revolves around Sandwell's chafing against the demands of membership of the choir.

Sandy is one of the choir school's older boys and, while he is aware that seniority should bring respect from the younger boys, he is at the same time more interested in flouting school rules and being the successful instigator of "chizzes" (jokes) than in being promoted from singing boy to chorister. An attempt to play an elaborate practical joke goes badly wrong for Sandy, and he finds himself persona non grata with the rest of the school. In two superb chapters, 'A Proud Walker' and 'In the Wilderness', his small boy's arrogance, first, won't even allow him to see that he is being ostracised and then, denies to himself that he cares. Mayne's depiction of Sandy's internal world is compelling: the stories he tells himself help to externalise his predicament, and even when he is doing the right thing he is concerned with how much esteem will be gained. The reader, meanwhile, has to walk to a fine line between identification and judgment, especially when Sandy refuses help that is offered.

The illustrations by C. Walter Hodges which accompany the story are beautifully judged, and the one showing the outcome of Sandy's joke integrates into the text in a way which makes my toes curl with pleasure. But, sadly, I think it is the exceptional modern child who would enjoy this series.
Mayne makes small concession concerning the intricacies of a chorister's world, and while only a smattering of musical theory is necessary for understanding, few children nowadays have the knowledge of church music required to fully enjoy some of the jokes made by precocious choirboys. It's been claimed all along that children don't enjoy Mayne as much as adults; this isn't entirely true, since I loved his work from the moment I discovered it, but many of his books didn't appear until I was grown up, and my husband, who read some of them to his classes of Cumbrian 8- and 9-year-olds, felt that much more discussion was needed for Mayne: Peter Dickinson's Annerton Pit, for instance, went down better than Mayne's Ravensgill, although both are demanding books. For an adult audience, though, Mayne's idiosyncratic voice is a delight, often requiring close attention from the reader to interpret his elliptic dialogue and offbeat view of everyday events, where even the serving of cocoa becomes a vehicle for a subtle demonstration of the complex relationships between the choirboys and their teachers. The denouement is both funny and poetic, closing on a perfect moment.


  1. I too would love a copy of Words and Music. I read A Swarm in May when I was a child and I still think it's wonderful. That and Earthfasts are my favourites of Mayne's books.

  2. I've always been a great fan of Mayne, but I've never come across a copy of this book. Clearly when one of us finds it we're going to have pass it around like a piece of buried treasure.

  3. Wow, what a great review, you can make a book like that sound interesting! I don't know much about music, but now I wish I did!

  4. Callmemadam and TT, I promise to share if I ever get hold of it, but I'm not optimistic. I ask myself, what is the most I would pay for a book...?

    Susan, I read these books conscious of the warm glow they give me, every page is a delight.

  5. Wow, that collar is something else...

  6. I'm in line too! And given what happened with Mayne, the chances of any of his books being republished is almost nil...