Sampson’s Circus

One of the first books highly commended for the Carnegie Medal proves to be justly consigned to the dustbin of history.

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In the running for the 1936 Carnegie Medal was Howard Spring’s Sampson’s Circus. Unlike the other highly commended book of that year, Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, Sampson’s Circus hasn’t stood the test of time: it’s out of print, and few people now remember Howard Spring as a writer for children. As a result he isn’t among the writers that I encountered as a child, and I was curious to see how Sampson’s Circus would compare to the two more famous books in the running that year. The answer is… not well.

In terms of genre, Sampson’s Circus is a kind of hybrid of the other two books. It features two adoptive brothers: Jo, and his Belgian foster brother Jack, the orphaned son of a Belgian refugee. At the start of the book, they set off on a caravanning holiday, a device which sets the book  in the ‘camping and tramping’ genre alongside Ransome’s and lots of others of that period, and wind up travelling with a circus, which provides some of the artistic flavour for which Streatfeild was known (indeed, she was to win two years later with a circus novel). This plot is spiced up by the addition of a mysterious stranger bound on kidnapping Jack, who turns out to be the heir to a fortune in Belgium. It also shares some of the same concerns as Pigeon Post: there’s a real affection for the rural landscape (descriptions of the countryside are the best writing in the book) and the theme of belonging is even more explicit here. When Jack discovers the existence of his inheritance, he rejects it and insists on his British identity, something which the reader is clearly supposed to accept and approve of.

From the vantage point of 2016, it’s hard to believe that this book was ever considered a serious contender: it lacks the nuance and characterisation of Pigeon Post, and is far less realistic or ground-breaking than Ballet Shoes. It feels much more dated than either book, more similar in tone to nineteenth century boys’ adventure stories. (Having said that, it’s also not unlike Enid Blyton, who was just getting started at this point, so it wasn’t that out of step.) The plot itself is muddled: living with the circus could have been a story in itself, and the kidnapping theme adds a lot of complication without ever really paying off in terms of creating tension or threat. There’s a fairly sympathetic portrayal of a working-class character, although the fact that he’s named ‘Charlie Chaffinch’ and Spring’s phonetic transcription of his Cockney accent are quite painful. Much worse than this is the racism: I wasn’t thrilled by the first mention of ‘n- minstrels’ among the circus characters, but wrote it off as an unfortunate period detail which you might easily edit out of a modern edition. When we actually meet a black character, though, it’s not possible to shrug off the problems with his portrayal: unlike Charlie Chaffinch, Buzack never really comes across as a real person.  Spring has him speak in pidgin English which resembles faux ‘Red Indian’, and describes him as constantly grinning, then ramps things up to eleven by having Jo and Jack disguise themselves by blacking up and wearing the same costume because it will be ‘impossible’ for anyone to tell the difference between the three. Oh, and they cheerfully refer to themselves throughout a large portion of the rest of the book as ‘Three Little N- Boys’. The book is deservedly out of print, and I like to think that even in 1936 some of these factors weighed against it with the Carnegie Committee.

Despite all this, there are some good elements of the book. The opening description of the Belgian refugees fleeing their home country is genuinely powerful. I enjoyed the competence of Charlie Chaffinch: there’s a running subplot about his desire to have an act in the circus and the ring master’s resistance to this based on the fact that Charlie is so good at runnnig the circus (it’s Charlie himself who explicitly makes this claim, but nothing in the text actually contradicts him).   I also very much enjoyed the curate who shows up towards the end of the book, beats Charlie in a boxing match, and proves to know how to pick locks. He achieves all these feats while maintaining a very mild-manned demeanour and constantly muttering about how staid the vicar is. Spring went on to write novels for adults, and I’d be interested to read them: he has the feel of an author for whom the genre of children’s fiction proved a constraint rather than an inspiration. However, I’m definitely glad that the inaugural Carnegie Medal went to Pigeon Post and not to Sampson’s Circus.

 

My overall rating: 4/10

Plot: 3/10

Characterisation: 4/10

Themes: Adventure, circus, home, camping and tramping

Publisher: Faber & Faber

Illustrator: Steven Spurrier

Pigeon Post

Pigeon Post gets the Carnegie Medal off to a good start with a realistically plotted story which celebrates the rural landscapes of Britain.

The Carnegie Medal kicked off in 1936 with Arthur Ransome’s Pigeon Post, the sixth book in the Swallows and Amazons series. Whenever I see this mentioned, the general consensus always seems to be that it was a ‘safe’ award which was really recognising Arthur Ransome’s body of work as a whole. Keith Barker, in his history of the Carnegie, says that Arthur Ransome himself said it wasn’t his best work. Well, I’m here to say that all these commentators are wrong, wrong, wrong. This far exceeded my expectations.

This is one of the Lake District books, and brings together all the main characters from the previous five books: John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker (the Swallows); Nancy and Peggy Blackett (the Amazons) and Dick and Dorothea (the D’s). There’s very little sailing in this book: instead, the plot centres around their efforts prospecting for gold up on the fells. There’s an enemy – the mysterious Squashy Hatted man who seems also to be  seeking gold – and a more realistic external threat in the form of a severe drought which has everyone in the area worried about fell fires.

I love the opening of the book, which gives a great ‘Previously, in the Swallows and Amazons series…’ via a dialogue between Titty and Roger and a farmer’s wife on the train, who knows Mrs Blackett:

“Aye, and her daughters too, and her brother Mr Turner that’s for ever gallivanting off to foreign parts …”

“We know him too,” said Roger. “We call him …” And he stopped short. There was no point in giving away Captain Flint’s name to natives.

“You’ve been here before, likely,” said the farmer’s wife. “Oh yes,” said Titty. “We always stay at Holly Howe … at least mother does … but Mrs Jackson’s got visitors for the next two weeks … Mrs Blackett’s having us till then because mother didn’t want Bridget to give us all whooping-cough.”

“We’ve come straight from school,” said Roger. “Eh,” said the farmer’s wife. “I know all about you. You’ll be the young folk that were camping on the island down the lake two years since when Mr Turner had his houseboat broke into. And you were here again last winter when the lake was froze over. But I thought there was four of you …”

“Five, with Bridget,” said Titty. “John and Susan must be here already. It isn’t so far from their schools.”

“And weren’t you friends with the two at Mrs Dixon’s?”

“Dick and Dorothea Callum,” said Titty.

We get a quick primer on all our characters, and set up a few things which are instrumental to the plot: the absence of Mrs Walker, (which results in a recurring anxiety on the part of Mrs Blackett about what the children are getting up to), the fact that the Swallows aren’t at the Jacksons (and thus won’t have access to their sailing boat), and Captain Flint’s penchant for foreign travel. It also subtly works to establish the Walkers as belonging in this community, which is a recurrent theme in this book.

Ransome is often criticised for writing essentially static characters – Geoffrey Trease was particularly vocal about this – but the care he takes to set things up here belies that. It’s important to Ransome to set up a reason why they’re not simply repeating the activities of the first book (which would be boring) – a love of sailing is really central to the Swallows’ and Amazons’ personalities, so it would be out of character if they just randomly decided to do something different. It’s also important that we know who these characters are, because they are slowly growing and changing and the adventures of the previous books actually matter. The whole book is actually full of lovely little character moments: one of the best scenes is when they are trying dowsing and it actually works for Titty, who totally freaks out. Her reaction is perfect for her character: she’s the most imaginative and sensitive of the Walkers, not used to being in the limelight (as second youngest), and  not really expecting anything to happen since the older children, whom she respects, haven’t managed to get it to work. I also love the way Susan is portrayed in this book: Susan is one of the characters who gets short shrift from a lot of critics because she’s a kind of ‘miniature adult’ who is mostly concerned with washing up and bedtimes. She’s definitely not the character who most readers identify with, and she’s partly there to fulfil a plot function by being the ‘serious’ one who grown-ups trust to make their undsupervised adventures safe. In Pigeon Post, though, we actually get a glimpse of what it’s like for Susan to be the one who plays this role: it comes across most powerfully in the moment when the older ones realise that the younger children are in the middle of a fell fire, and Susan reacts with the kind of horror that only comes with being the person who really feels responsible for everyone else’s wellbeing. I’m certain Susan’s character resonates more for me at 35 than she would have when I was 8, but I think it’s still important to the book as a whole that she’s there – and Ransome’s readers in 1936 were substantially more likely to have responsibility for the younger siblings than children of the same age are today.

I find Pigeon Post an interesting pick for the very first Carnegie Medal, because it is deeply concerned with the land, with ideas of belonging, and with heritage and history. The earlier books in the Swallows and Amazons series involve a lot of games in which the children imagine the British landscape as a foreign space, but that’s more or less absent here. The prospecting plot is motivated by their desire to prove to Captain Flint that rather than travelling overseas, he should ‘look for things here’, and the whole plot thereafter is concerned with uncovering valuable things in the landscape. Their prospecting does eventually bear fruit (although they find copper rather than gold), and Titty’s success at dowsing also allows them to find water, which in the context of the drought is even more precious. They draw on various bits of ‘traditional’ knowledge: a local story about finding gold in the fells, the water divining, making charcoal, and the use of homing pigeons for the titular pigeon post. The tension that runs through the book is also fundamentally to do with belonging: the farmer whose land they are staying on is deeply concerned about the possibility that they will accidentally set fire to the fells, and it’s clear that she sees them as lacking in a real appreciation of the importance of the land and the degree to which a fire would be devastating to local livelihoods. The climax of the book, in which the children save the farm from a fire with the aid of a well they have created and a homing pigeon who alerts the local fire volunteers, serves to resolve this conflict and confirm them as ‘belonging’ to the land. What we have here, then, is a beautifully constructed narrative about identity.

In case it is not clear, I LOVE this book and think it absolutely holds up after 80 years. I know from teaching Ransome’s books that my students, at least, tend to find him heavy going, and I think it’s probably the case that his appeal today isn’t what it was in the 1930s. This is a longer, slower novel than most children (or adults) are used to now. That said, I think that there are still children who would enjoy this book. There’s also nothing in it that would make me cringe at giving it to a child, which is nice for a book from 1936. A++ inaugural Carnegie committee.

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 10/10 (let’s start by setting the bar high!)

Plot: 9/10

Characterisation: 10/10

Themes: Home, heritage, history, camping and tramping

Publisher: Jonathan Cape

Illustrator: Arthur Ransome

Competition

There were two highly commended books in 1936: Howard Spring’s Sampson’s Circus (Faber and Faber) and Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes (Dent). We’ll be hearing from Streatfeild again…