Wednesday 24 June 2020

The Revenge of the Return of Leon Garfield (Part Two)

Here it is... the second part of my huge Leon Garfield review-fest.. four books this time.

The Boy and the Monkey

The Boy and the Monkey would certainly appear to be a Garfield book for younger children. As a chapter book, it only has two. However, this is still Leon Garfield and he’s not even writing in his Fair’s Fair younger children’s style, he makes a joke about the young protagonist not being a foundling but a lostling.

The main character is Tim and his monkey is called Pistol, they are the main characters in a trilogy of books (and I’ve managed to get the first and last of them). Tim is eleven and has a single ability, looking sad. He uses this skill to sell Pistol to people and Pistol, having “seen much of the world and none of it wonderfully honest” returns to Tim, having stolen something from the house.

This goes fine until Pistol returns with an astonishingly expensive wedding ring and the two of them are arrested, taken to Newgate and await trial. The tension is built up brilliantly, especially considering how short the book is. The Foreman of the jury is a tough man who encourages them to be utterly prepared to kill people and the judge is a tough man in a large wig which makes him look like a ‘villainous old sheep’. The Judge and Jury immediately start a battle of wills which leads to that most peculiar of things, a fair trial.
   “Gentlemen were convicted and beggars were freed, with no regard to anything but the evidence.”

The ending is a surprise and what I like is that it uses a genuine historical quirk to solve its problem. 

The Captain’s Watch

The second in the trilogy of Boy and Monkey books. I've now found a copy and shall sneak it in when I've read it).

Lucifer Wilikins

The last in the Boy and Monkey trilogy and another short novel for younger children. My copy of The Monkey and the Boy comes from what seems to be a print-on-demand selection of Leon Garfield’s work, which sadly doesn’t include the illustrations, my Lucifer Wilikins is a first edition which does. It also reveals that the trilogy was commissioned for the ‘Long Ago Children’ series of books which aim to be ‘stories for younger readers about children in different periods in an authentic historical setting’. I can see why they went to Leon Garfield.

In the first book Tim was transported, what I can make of the second, it’s about an incident on the passage to America, this third one is set on a plantation and here we run into some problems. We meet Tim slacking off work and hiding under a cool tree for shade. He’s doing this because the main weapon in his arsenal is his pale and miserable-looking face and if he goes out into the sunshine he’d go “as black as them n_____ slaves” and lose his advantage - also losing the modern reader on the first page. It’s the only time the word appears in the book and it fits into the time period but having such a word at the beginning of a 46 page children’s book with colourful illustrations seems terribly out of step. (Though, the Black and White Minstrel Show was still on telly when this book came out, and would for another five years more.)

What’s more, the use of the n-word at the beginning but not later could be a conscious choice to show Tim’s change in attitude, because as an indentured servant for seven years, he doesn’t really see any problem with plantation life and he wonders at why the Black slave, Lucifer Willikins is so unreasonably angered by the whole thing. As far as he’s concerned, all he needs to do is dodge work for seven years and then he’s home free, this being especially easy because their mutual master is “a saintly soul who uses his slaves and bond-servants better than most of his neighbours treated their wives.” As the book goes on, he begins to understand the slave’s distress.

Unfortunately, the means through which Tim changes his mind and grows is by reflecting on his monkey, Pistol. Not only are Lucifer’s main traits (often repeated) his bigness and his blackness, he is frequently compared to the little monkey. The two of them share a wild spirit and a longing for freedom and are put in a category of ‘wild animals’ together far too often. Again, I can see how this is Garfield’s intention to create an ‘authentic historical setting’, as the series aimed to do, drawing on eighteenth century notions of black people as ‘natural’ in ways ‘civilised’ white people were not but in the context of a very short book for eight year olds, it feels very questionable.

Lucifer, Tim and Pistol find themselves in Brazil, where Pistol goes back to his monkey home but is repulsed by his monkey family, going back to Tim who has now formed a family like bond with Lucifer. This means that as the trilogy ends, three lost souls have found each other and are facing the world as a unit, though I don’t feel their chances are very good.

Blewcoat Boy

This book has been published under the alternate titles, The Stolen Watch and Nick and Jubilee but Blewcoat Boy was the original title, having been commissioned by the National Trust for a series of books inspired by their holdings, in this case, the Blewcoat School. 

Not that this book takes much inspiration from the school, except that the two protagonists, orphan brother and sister, Nick and Jubilee, become pupils of the school during the course of the book. They begin the novel as vagabonds, living in bushes in St James Park. Nick lies awake worrying about Jubilee’s marriage prospects, while Jubilee wishes she were six inches taller. She has curly black hair and thin gold earrings and they both have a foxy look - I mention this because the book does, many times. The book tries to be child-friendly by repeating certain phrases, especially those which impact the plot.

The two children search for a stolen watch which they hope to get a reward for, they find the thief and through shenanigans find themselves posing as his children. He’s another in Garfield’s gallery of loveable rogues, being an inveterate criminal but also a man with a beautiful voice and a warm heart. In posing as the children’s dad, he starts busking, finding himself with a real talent for it and learning how to be a dad.

It’s a sweet enough book but the repetitive nature of the prose and the lack of experiment or risk make it a pretty flat endeavour.

Child O’ War

This is another Leon Garfield book that is set at the end of the eighteenth, beginning of the nineteenth century. It deals of a young man of slim means who finds his way in the world with the help and hinderance of various father figures. That aside, this is completely different to any of Leon Garfield’s other work and almost uncategorisable as a work in general.

Within the archives of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich are the privately printed memoirs of Sir John Theophilus Lee (who got people to call him Sir T Lee). He became a midshipman at the age of five, finding himself the youngest officer at the battles of Cape St Vincent and the Nile. This book takes extracts from those memoirs and places them into an imagining of Sir T dictating them to one daughter as two other daughters work on his portrait. Leon Garfield’s job in this instance is to create that frame story and to summarise the parts when the original memoir would be too lengthy or dull for an intended audience of children - sort of like a real version of the Princess Bride ‘good parts’. But the book spends the whole time sabotaging itself.

For a start, Sir T Lee’s story is not the Boy’s Own adventure that a reader would expect from this sort of book. Yes, he was a midshipman during was was probably Nelson’s finest victory, at the Battle of the Nile. He was even on the Swiftsure, the ship that blew up the French flagship L’Orient. His main task during the battle was fetching some officers ginger beer. Similarly, his action during the Battle of Cape St Vincent was fetching wine and water to officers. It’s true that he saw some things a child should never have to see (and I’ll come to those later) but his role on board seems to be more of cute mascot than anything else.

He came back to Greenwich and passed the Lieutenant’s exam but instead of getting a commission at sea, he got a job in the admiralty where he organised provisioning, most notably in finding a better deal for the Navy’s lemon juice. As he grew older, he meddled in politics a little and collected the handshakes of titled people.

Ultimately, the book spends most of its time taking the piss out of Sir T Lee. The preface calls him a ‘pygmy’ who ‘crawls on the edges of history’, the characters in the fictitious parts are his children and they all regard their father with a sort of fond disdain, his wife feels sorry for him and the book becomes a point and snigger at this pompous ass who thinks he has a place in history. Throughout the frame story, two of his daughters are trying to sketch his right arm and are failing, as the text goes on, various implements are put into this hand. Eventually, they draw it tucked into his coat, in classic Napoleon fashion. He is the ridiculous Napoleon of the little house.

What’s more, when the book isn’t picking out parts of the memoirs to make Sir T Lee look petty, nor creating fictitious situations to show how no one respects him, the narrator is making some very full throated and sardonic anti-war commentary. Whether it’s dead sailors saluting each other with ‘fish-nibbled’ fingers, or the running gag about great men writing history in other people’s blood - it’s the complete opposite way I would have expected a story like this to have been told. Not only is there no glory in this (diametrically opposite to your Hornblowers or Jack Auberys) but any notion of glory is a bad joke. Even the notion that a French invasion would have been a bad thing is ridiculed by the lines like, “bewildered listeners actually came to believe that chains stamped ‘foreign made’ were of a more constricting fit than those that were forged at home.”

I’m not saying I disagree with the sentiments particularly, but to self-sabotage a story quite this much seems like such a strange move. The cover and marketing suggest an exciting romp with a child midshipman at the Royal Navy’s most storied period - and it cuts the legs out from under itself in every way. It’s hard to know who this would be for, it’s too marketed at children to be for adults who would be mostly put off by the layers of fiction included, but also far too sour and mocking to please a kid wanting a high seas adventure.

I think the intention of the book can be discerned though, through the reaction of the different family members as they hear the story. They are charmed by the little boy with shining eyes and miniature naval uniform going off to see the world and unlike Sir T Lee himself, they see the damage that his early naval life has done to him. 

He tells a story of an incident during the Spithead Mutiny (though in the fleet out in the Mediterranean not Spithead.) The man asked the young boy, as an officer, for a third cup of water and the little T Lee agreed. When the person giving out the water said no, the man became aggressive and  was hanged from the yard arm for that aggression. The older Sir T does not reflect on this as his fault, nor on the harshness of the punishment but reflects on the way that a couple such hangings effectively staved off the mutiny in their fleet. 

Each family member has a fondness for the young child and feels sorry for the adult that he became. Some of them are sorry that he was in these legendary places, dancing with Emma Hamilton, chatting with Nelson but was no hero himself. Others regret that he became a man who instead of living his life, has used it to ‘collect’ the handshakes of the great and good who have lived theirs. We are left with the feeling that being a child o’war is no thing to be indeed, and that is the main thrust of the book, it wasn’t a memoir or a sea story, it was a call against child soldiers and for humanity. 

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