William Mayne – A Swarm in May

William Mayne wrote over 130 books, mostly for children of different ages. He was a Yorkshireman born and bred, and many of his books are set in Yorkshire – my home county. However his first and possibly best known book, written in 1955, is A Swarm in May, set in a southern Cathedral choir school. He’d been a chorister himself at Canterbury, and it’s clear from a first reading that he knew what he was writing about.

The Independent describes this story as having “characters frequently talking past rather than directly to each other,” and says “it was just the stimulus that children’s literature at the time most needed. Replacing over-written, adjective-strewn texts with spare, sinewy prose, here was a story which readers had to engage with in their own hunt for its ultimate shape and meaning.”

It was very true that the books I read made me think about what was going on in them. Reading him you have to do your share of the work. He and other new writers of the late fifties and early sixties abandoned familiar plot lines involving middle-class children in favour of something different and more challenging, and their new style of children’s literature was what I particularly enjoyed.

A Grass Rope was set in the Yorkshire Dales, and like many of his books made use of local dialect, another new departure in 1957. I remember being overwhelmed by the conversations of the youngsters in Sand, in which a fossilised skeleton of a dinosaur is found buried in dunes. It was a laugh aloud book. I was delighted by the way in which he caught the reality of the way teenagers use incomplete sentences which don’t answer the previous speaker. 

I was reminded of Mayne’s  conversational style thirty years later when I saw and read the Beiderbecke trilogy by Alan Plater. I described it then as ‘sideways conversation’ – (it was very successfully televised in the late eighties with James Bolam and Barbara Flynn).

One of William Mayne’s most famous novels, Earthfasts (1967), describes how two boys befriend Nellie Jack John, an 18th-century drummer boy who had disappeared under Richmond Castle over 200 years ago, but now comes out alive after travelling through time. At the time I found it a confusing mixture of earthy realism with high fantasy, but the power of it was undeniable.

I would highly recommend his books – available online if not in bookshops – to anyone who’s still in touch with their inner child and who’s never read them. Their unique flavour is an experience not to be missed.


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