The kettle for his tea boiled over

I haven’t been able to source the story in which Oscar Wilde is reported as having once said that ” the Bible begins with a man and woman naked in a garden and ends with startling revelations,” but it serves as a warning for those that wish to précis any complex work. “Two blokes fight over a woman and then bond. One of them dies and the one left questions everything” (Gilgamesh). “Arrogant posh boy is shamed in magical-realism bed-hopping drama” (Gawain). “Home from university, privileged guy embarks on a killing spree.” (Hamlet). They don’t work. So I am wary of a précis of William Mayne’s Earthfasts; this is Young Adult fiction before the genre; fantasy fiction with (as I read it) subtexts galore. Mayne is not alone in this landscape-and-legend venture, and some of the complexities arise, maybe, from the innovative aspects of the book; some of them arise (and this will be my main theme) as the legacy of his tarnished reputation. That euphemism is insufficient, but will do for now.

Earthfasts begins with the intense but unequal friendship of two teenage boys in a small Pennine town. David leads, with his “grave way…of deliberating and then pronouncing.” (page 24 in the Puffin 1976 edition I have in front of me). His father is the local doctor, and even his swearing “sounded respectable and necessary.” (25). Keith has deeper roots in the valley (it is Keith who defines the eponymous Earthfasts (75), whose father knows the local policeman (91), whose mother (165) is related to Farmer Watson) and in the story itself. He is marginalised a little in the intellectual journey of secondary education (67, 109), but remains the sensitive heart of the friendship. The class distinction between the two boys is present but not overdone. As the story develops Keith becomes the protagonist- sort of: David’s absence and return hang over the final section. Their age is hinted at but not made explicit: the concepts they play with, the homework they do, their independence, suggest to me they are perhaps 17, but I’m willing to rethink this. The narrative concerns the discovery of an eighteenth-century drummer boy, Nellie Jack John Cherry, the invasion of the modern world by other phenomena (a boggart, moving standing stones, giants, a herd of swine) culminating in a confusing, menacing encounter with King Arthur. There is some landscape writing of a very high order (63, 73), there are moments of horror ( 143ff: for me the creepiest writing in the story) and ingenious plot devices such as the inextinguishable candle (e.g. 170ff): flashes of inspired writing.

William Mayne was a prolific children’s writer, able to command a wide readership. His reputation plummeted with his conviction for sex with under-age girls, to the point where critics have asked whether his books should be read at all.  Part of the argument – and not the part I’m concerned with here – moves into the territory around people like Eric Gill, whose artwork is still admired, even to being a focus of religious devotion, despite his systematic abuse of girls. This is, for many people, a complex argument: how can sublime religious art be suppressed, or how can we continue to admire the output of a monster? I want to look at this in a slightly different way: Mayne’s book, Earthfasts, is not of this order anyway: the structure is weak at times, the ending feels rushed, and the ways in which the small town reconciles itself with a year of paranormal experiences are imperfectly set out.

“Earthfasts begins with two teenage boys’ close friendship and ends up with one of them in a bath with another boy.” I read Earthfasts as a curious mixture of fantasy novel and closed gay text. First published in 1966, this is understandable: the youth with whom David finally bonds (“Tha’s reet mucky,” says middle-class David in Nellie Jack John’s own argot, as they bath together, 186) is first unearthed as David and Keith explore a buried, insistent drumming; the candle the drummer leaves is hypnotic and compulsive (see below); there are persistent references to touch and physicality (“He was trembling all over and so was Keith. They stood clinging to each other…”, 14, with other passages passim, e.g. 17, 22, 34, 98, 117). It is a far cry, of course, from Patrick Ness’ More Than This, where one of the pivots for the story is a selfie of the protagonist in bed with his boyfriend but it seems to me that, once seen, it is inescapable. I’m not sure if it needs saying, but I am happy with all of this, so far, text or subtext.

Once seen. I have the haziest of memories of my first reading, but I think it was flushed with nostalgia, and that I read it in Enfield when we’d moved from Burnley. I didn’t read the relationship between the Earthfast boys as any more than a friendship when I was first reading it (I’m not sure “homosocial” was a word in the sixties, and I wouldn’t have met it or understood it anyway at twelve or thirteen), despite identifying with David and Keith in more than the common ground of the Pennines. I remember being disappointed by the TV series when I watched (and abandoned) it in the 90s. However, the possible other reading struck me on this next, much later reading, which I did because of the work we’re doing on Garner. This could be because I was too close to it, or because I didn’t understand the idea of subtext, or – and this is my disquiet- because it is knowing something about the sexuality of the author alerts me to reading his stories differently. Lady Muck, for example, is about temptation not resisted, and recurring in Earthfasts is compulsion and destruction. Look, for example, at how Keith, after David’s disappearance, is drawn to the same hypnotic experience with the candle in the tin:

The candle called him twice a day after that, at odd times. He grew used to it. The first three or four times he started up and went to whether the tin was, but the call died as he did so. Then he knew the feeling as it came, and let it wash over him. He had to, in fact, because once he was in the bus, and another time in church and the third time in assembly…By standing still he could outlast it, but the usual way of overcoming was no good. Whilst the urge was on him he could not think of anything else… (146-7).

So my question is: am I now reading a book written for younger readers not only with adult eyes but with an informed perspective that encourages me to read intentions where there are none? The irrational world that breaks into the village with the disruption the pigs introduce is dangerous and destructive carnival (96), but is it any more than that? Keith’s long-past kissing of a girl at primary school (65) is a poignant image but in the context of sharing the “erect and undimmed” candle with David, is it a sign of more desired, or missed? Are all of these subtexts for (another anachronistic term) gay adolescence, or for the darker themes of a different illicit sexuality?  Is the reader-critic entitled to ignore these as too extreme, in much the same way as this blog title suggests that not every incident teems with hidden, sexual meaning?

How much is a text, escaping from the writer, simply a text? Does its harking-back to the author (Auden, Wilde, Shakespeare, the Gawain-poet) and their context really inform our understanding?  Am I in danger of it distorting rather than informing my critical reading?
Reading Earthfasts with a jaundiced eye, I am unsure. I worry I could simply be a new Mr Meyerburg from Cold Comfort Farm.

One thought on “The kettle for his tea boiled over

  1. Oh, such an interesting way of viewing this text and one of course that would never have entered my mind in the early 70s when I read it. I’m even more encouraged to reread my brittle-paged paperback now to pick up on what I missed, whether implicit or explicit. A really excellent piece.


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