The Driftway by Penelope Lively

Piccolo Books, cover by Yvonne Gilbert

The Driftway was Lively’s fourth YA novel, published in 1972 between The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy (1971) and The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (1973), but it has a very different feel to either of them — or, I suspect, any of the YA novels of the time.

The story is simple, with the drama almost exclusively limited to the first and last chapters. It opens with Paul (who I think is around 9 or 10) leading his younger sister Sandra into a department shop in Banbury. He’s determined to buy a milk jug to complete a tea set that will enable him and his sister to have tea in his bedroom, and therefore away from Christine, the woman their Dad married earlier in the year. Paul also considers buying a padlock and chain to add to his door to prevent Christine from ever going into his room, but it turns out he doesn’t have enough money for either. In the crush, though, he finds he’s walked out of the shop with the chain in his pocket — and was spotted. The police are called, and though the policewoman who turns up is evidently kind, Paul is too suspicious of her (and everyone else) to explain anything. At the first opportunity, he leads Sandra on an escape.

He plans to go to their Gran’s in Cold Higham, twenty miles away. But not by bus or train — he’s convinced the police will be looking for them. So they start to walk. They eventually get a lift with Old Bill, who drives a horse and cart along what he calls the Driftway:

“This road. The Driftway. This is an old road, son. Older than you or me, or the houses in this village, or the fields round about, or anything we can see now, or even think about.”

Old Bill explains that such roads retain “messages” from the people who’ve used them in the past:

“There’s been men passing by here, and women and children, over thousands of years, travellers. And every now and then there’s someone does an extra hard bit of living, as you might call it. That’ll leave a shadow on the road, won’t it?… Messages that cut through time like it wasn’t there…”

UK hardback, 1972

For the rest of the novel, Paul and Sandra (who spends most of the journey asleep) are driven along this ancient roadway, sometimes on the tarmac with the cars, at other times on the “green road” of grass and mud. It’s a slow journey, with the occasional stop for Old Bill to get a drink at a pub, or brew up some tea, or fix his cart’s axle, or for them to bypass an accident on the road. But Paul starts to pick up these “messages”, and in each chapter he gets to hear a story told by one of the Driftway’s former travellers. They tell their tales as though standing in front of him, but when he comes to, it’s taken no time. In this way, he gets to hear the experiences of a stable-lad from the 18th century who indulged in a little highwaymanship, a Civil War soldier returning from a battle that’s shaken all his ideas of honour and glory, a boy from the area’s tribal days venturing to the edge of his people’s lands, a pauper widow being turned out of a poor house, and others. Lively paints a picture, through these Driftway “messages”, of:

“Islands of people in a harsh world, pushing back the ferocity of the wilderness just enough to use what there was to be used, to begin to put down roots, to explore the whole complex business of living with one another. And for that, the road would be the very lifeline, the artery along which everything must come, war and peace, hope and fear, trade and change.”

This combination of the slow, easy journey, and glimpses into others’ lives begins to affect Paul’s view of his own troubles. His Dad’s new wife Christine isn’t the monster he thinks of her as — she’s evidently making every effort to connect with her new step-children — it’s just that Paul resents her sudden presence in his life too much to let himself see it. But as Old Bill says, one of the messages of the Driftway is:

“We’ve all got to listen to other people, haven’t we? Find out what it’s like for them.”

Lively has a real feel for landscape, and the way it’s been shaped by history. As Old Bill says:

“There’s hardly such a thing as a natural landscape. It’s something that’s always on the move, changing every few years. And if you get to know a bit about it you can see all the layers of changes, going right back into old times…”

But it’s the sort of thing that Paul, obsessed with his own troubles, has to be forced to slow down to see. Old Bill again:

“Real travelling’s crawling your way over country like a fly on a wall, hedge by hedge and hill by hill and village by village. From river to river and town to town. That way, you feel the bones of the place, see?”

Although The Driftway could be described as an uneventful novel, that is also, really, the point: it’s about slowing down enough to start to see the world in all its richness, and so to break out of self-obsessive worries. And for Lively, it’s evident that seeing the world in all its richness includes a deep connection to times past, and the many individual lives that have been lived in every square mile of the land.

Like so many other 1970s YA novels, The Drifway combines the supernatural with the very real and ordinary troubles facing children and adolescents. It’s not as intense as Garner’s Red Shift, but The Driftway’s Paul has a hint of that book’s stubborn, self-destructive male adolescent pride, though Lively combines it with the sort of healing process that never made it into Garner’s novel (but which I felt could be found in his follow-up, the four novellas that make up The Stone Book Quartet).

It’s a subtle book, easy-paced but deliberately so, as its message is all about slowing down and seeing beyond the concerns of the moment. An unusual YA book both for its time and (I suspect) now, but a gently calming one, using its fantastical elements not so much to provide an adventure for its young protagonists, as to put the difficult elements of their mundane lives in a wider context. And it feels like a deepening of Lively’s own writing, compared to the YA adventure novels she’d written before. Obviously, she went back to comic supernatural shenanigans for her next book, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, but this is a deeper glimpse, I think, into some of her feelings about history, and human life, that can be found informing all her work up to this point and beyond (and which would come out in its purest form in her first non-fiction book, The Presence of the Past: An introduction to Landscape History in 1976).

Comments (3)

  1. Mark Valentine says:

    Thank you, Murray, I didn’t know of this book at all. From the route described, ‘The Driftway’ sounds like a real road, known locally as Banbury Lane. I grew up in that part of the world and we often followed it, passing through rolling upland and old golden villages. Very interested to hear of Penelope Lively’s evocation. Mark

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    Thanks, Mark! There’s something special, I think, in fantasy/supernatural stories set in real locations, like this — particularly if they engage with the history, myths and folklore of those places.

  3. This has always been my favourite of her books. It has real lyricism and power;once read it can’t be forgotten.

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