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).


The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively

1983 cover by Yvonne Gilbert

Without planning to, I’ve been working through some Carnegie Medal winners recently, starting with Robert Westall’s The Scarecrows, then Margaret Mahy’s The Haunting. I’ve written about Penelope Lively’s teen fiction before, but this is her Carnegie Medal winner, from 1973. (And just as both Westall and Mahy were the only writers to have won the Carnegie twice, Lively is the only writer to have won both the Carnegie and the Booker Prize.)

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe has been described (by Colin Manlove, in From Alice to Harry Potter: Children’s Fantasy in England) as “the best of Lively’s books in the fantastical vein”. Manlove goes on to say it’s “possibly indebted to Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man” as it “deals with an unnatural survival from the past”, though Lively’s previous YA books also dealt with an “unnatural survival from the past” — and I’ve heard that her adult fiction does too, though in a non-supernatural way — so no influence from Amis is necessary.

In Kempe, James Harrison and his family have just moved into East End Cottage in Ledsham, Oxfordshire, a small town that seems to encapsulate Lively’s picture of the world as a place whose heart belongs to the past, but which is slowly being crowded out by modernity:

“It was a very old place, half way between a village and a small town, and had, somehow, the air of being dwarfed by the present. New housing estates were mushrooming now on two sides of it, but the centre remained as it must always have been…”

1992 cover by Richard Jones

Just before James takes residence in his new attic bedroom, it, too, has been modernised, by builders who found (and broke) a small sealed bottle in the wall by the window. Unwittingly, they’ve released the ghost of Thomas Kempe Esq., who died in 1629. A restless, poltergeist-like spirit, Kempe is itching to get back to his old ways of making himself rather bullyingly useful to the people of Ledsham, offering such services as “Sorcerie, Astrologie, Geomancie, Alchemie, Recoverie of Goodes Lost, Physicke”. He decides James is to be his apprentice (and representative), and begins posting notices around the town to let it be known that “I doe once more practise my arte and cunninge in this house.”

But nobody wants “Sorcerie, Astrologie, Geomancie”, etc., nowadays, so Kempe starts attacking what he sees as his modern rivals. He trashes the local GP’s office (“Physicke”), causes havoc in an archaeological dig (“Recoverie of Goodes Lost”), interferes with the TV whenever it shows a weather forecast (that, too, being one of his services), and generally gives the police, the vicar, and an elderly neighbour, Mrs Verity, who Kempe decides is a witch, a hard time.

2006 cover

The trouble is, because Kempe cannot be seen, and because he mentions James’s name as his apprentice in several of his notices — and because most of his activity takes place in the Harrison household, around James — James gets the blame. James was a bit of a troublemaker beforehand, but quickly comes to resent being blamed for (for instance) pulling the chair out from under the vicar the moment before he sits down, or altering a pharmacy prescription for his sister’s cough to something more herbalistic. He certainly resents the suggestion he might have thrown a brick through someone’s window or chalked insults on Mrs Verity’s wall.

But James is caught between two intolerables. He doesn’t want to be Kempe’s apprentice (which would be just encouraging the self-important old so-and-so, and trapping himself into doing all sorts of things he doesn’t want to do, like having to tell the archaeologists to stop their work, or convincing the people of Ledsham Mrs Verity is a witch, and probably having to learn Latin, too), but if he resists, the poltergeist activity kicks off, and his parents simply blame him for all the breakages and nasty tricks. When he says it’s a ghost, they take that to be one more desperate attempt at the “it wasn’t me” defence. His sister, used to being at odds with him, won’t listen. Even his new friend, bespectacled Simon, never wholly believes. As James says:

“Nobody believes in him except me… And I wouldn’t if I didn’t have to.”

1973 HB cover

If The Ghost of Thomas Kempe wasn’t basically humorous, it could easily be awful for James, considering how harassed and isolated he becomes. It’s not like Lively’s previous go at the theme of a sorcerous personage from the past being summoned into the present (The Whispering Knights) where it’s three children who summon a witch, so at least there’s three of them to share the burden — and it’s definitely their fault. Nor is it quite like William Mayne’s It, another book on the same theme, whose protagonist finds herself singled out for the unwanted devotions of a witch’s familiar, because in her case she’s believed when she talks to an adult about it, it’s just that the adult can’t do anything to help. In fact, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe has close ties with both the other Carnegie winners I’ve reviewed recently, as they’re all about children having to deal with troublesome supernatural incursions while being blamed for their ill-effects, with varying degrees of isolation and distress. (Robert Westall’s The Scarecrows is the one whose protagonist is most responsible for the supernatural incursion, but only because he has the most emotional baggage to deal with anyway.)

One theme that pops up in Kempe but doesn’t get fully developed is when James starts to become aware of his own childhood as just one more aspect of the flow of history. He’s startled, for instance, to find old Mrs Verity telling tales of how naughtily she behaved as a girl, and so comes to see her as still partly a child. And the historical Arnold Luckett (a boy of James’s age who dealt with a bout of Kempe disturbances in the previous century, who James reads about), pops up as an old man in a portrait in the local school. In both cases, we see childhood put in its context as a stage of life that leads to adulthood, but also never quite goes away.

1976 cover

Perhaps we’re supposed to see Thomas Kempe’s selfish insistence the world returns to his idea of how it should be as a form of childishness? Certainly, his poltergeist tantrums are. And the inverse of that idea — the idea that being a child is like being a ghost — comes out in James’s realisation that “as far as most grown-ups were concerned, children were invisible”, therefore ghost-like, but also likely to cause poltergeist-like trouble.

Among Lively’s YA books, I still prefer The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, perhaps because of its slightly more serious tone and folk-horror feel of dealing with things pagan, primal and dangerous, but as far as Lively’s “unnatural survival from the past” theme goes, I think The Ghost of Thomas Kempe is more successful than her other two YA books I’ve covered, Astercote and The Whispering Knights (though it doesn’t have as adventurous a conclusion as either).

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe was read by Ronald Pickup on Jackanory in December 1977, and adapted into a US TV movie in 1979, which sets the action in a modern-looking house in the USA, thereby immediately compromising the influence-from-the-past theme. I haven’t watched the whole thing, though (the one version on YouTube has a weirdly warping picture), so it may improve.


The Visitor by Josephine Poole

Jacket by Gabriel Lisowski

The mysterious Mr Bogle arrives in Cormundy Village to perform some ‘light tutoring’ duties for fifteen-year-old Harry Longshaw, who (as with other protagonists of children’s fiction, like Marianne in Marianne Dreams and Henry in The Night-Watchmen) is out of school recovering from a fever that (like Mark in Marianne Dreams and Colin in The Secret Garden) has left him with difficulties walking. Harry and his older sister Margaret live alone (their parents being dead) at a large house called Fury Wood, which they’re about to sell, as Margaret is marrying Rupert Musgrave, a young man newly moved into the village, who has plans to revive its farms and mills with new machinery and modern methods. Harry takes an instant dislike to Mr Bogle, with his goat’s foot inkstand and coat of tabby-cat fur, and who claims to have a scholarly interest in witches. Bogle says Fury Wood is built on land where, long ago:

‘The trees were cut down and burnt, and the spring filled in; that was the usual procedure when they were mopping up witchcraft.’

When not tutoring Harry, Mr Bogle is not exactly to be found doing local research. Instead, he’s seen dancing the ancient Horn Dance in the local square, a ludicrous-looking performance (to Harry’s eyes, anyway) that for some reason fascinates the village adults, the men especially. Later, Bogle urges the village’s out-of-work men into flights of resentful nostalgia with a (surely magical) film show evoking their lost past:

‘And that old school… remember the horseshoes and hopscotch, and a week off from lessons at haymaking time? Are your own kiddies any better for their posh education? It’ll take them away from you in the end, away from the village… But that’s progress, I suppose.’

Inscribed above the fireplace in Harry’s room is a line from Virgil — ‘Arise, thou avenger to come, out of my ashes’ — which Mr Bogle says refers to the execution of the local witches. And it soon becomes obvious he not only believes the ‘avenger to come’ is himself, but that he is not merely the gentleman-scholar he seems:

‘Mr. Bogle frowned and drew the curtain behind him. He disliked the habit of swearing. People were too apt to take his own name in vain.’

I came across mention of this book while looking for reviews and information on William Rayner’s Stag Boy, and found a post at the Whistles in the Wind blog, which mentions The Visitor (released in the UK as Billy Buck, which is what some of the villagers call Mr Bogle), alongside Stag Boy and Penelope Lively’s The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy (which I reviewed here), all of which were published at the start of the 1970s, and which share a lot of common characteristics. All three, for instance, feature teen protagonists caught in a struggle between the old ways and the new in otherwise quiet English villages. In The Visitor, Rupert says of Cormundy:

‘The village is dead all right, with people out of work, and buildings standing useless and empty. But one rich man could start the ball rolling again…’

Rupert is that rich man, and it’s significant that the final action of the novel takes place before a church where, the next day, Harry’s sister Margaret (representing old village stock) is to marry the forward-thinking Rupert. (Margaret is also linked, through her flower-spotted wedding dress, to the May Queen, thus representing new life and hope in contrast to the village’s wintry despondency.) Mr Bogle, on the other hand, is set to wear the costume of antler-headed Cernunnos in his own secret revival of the Horn Dance pageant, making him yet another character in early 1970s YA fiction to assume stag’s horns, and to revive an ancient festival. Bogle plans to use that pageant, though, as a means of exacting his long-overdue revenge for the burned witches. (Which makes you wonder why he waited so long.)

The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy by Penelope Lively, cover by Yvonne Gilbert

In contrast to The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy and Stag Boy, where the battle between the old and new is tied up intimately with the teen protagonists’ inner struggles between childhood and adolescence, Harry of The Visitor doesn’t really have an inner struggle going on, and the story isn’t as focused on him as the Lively and Rayner books are on their central characters. In addition, the forces of paganism which, in Hagworthy and Stag Boy, are dangerous and alluring, but which also point towards valuable but little-acknowledged truths about the wider world, are here reduced to nothing more than wrongheaded forces of backwards-thinking superstition. There isn’t the same ambiguity, so The Visitor, for me, doesn’t pack the same inner tussle, the same sense of brushing against wider, weirder, darker truths. Paganism, in The Visitor (aside from the identification of Margaret with the Queen of the May), is simply deviltry by another name, and Mr Bogle, in the end, is a rather pallid Devil.