It has been said that snow and teen years are problems that, if you have the fortitude to ignore them for a sufficient length of time, will depart of their own accord. Well, we've been giving increasing piles of snow the cold shoulder (in more ways than one) for the past three months, but it just won't to take the hint, and instead continues to linger about the landscape like acrid smoke from a burnt dinner or house guests who've over-stayed their welcome.
Which latter social transgression we trust is not the case with this latest issue of Orphan Scrivener, which we now (as union-card-carrying relatives would say) put on the table for full and frank discussion.
Needless to say, we'd read by torchlight for at least an hour after retiring, secure in the knowledge that even if one of our parents came tippy-toeing up the long staircase that hugged three walls on its journey from the landing below, the loud creakings of its Victorian era wooden steps would warn us of their approach in good time to conceal books and torches under the covers.
However, a much more sinister type of approaching steps were heard once a week most weeks, since they were often featured in one of our favourite BBC radio programmes.
Presented under the title Appointment With Fear, the series featured half-hour plays introduced by the suitably sepulchral and sinister tones of Valentine Dyall, The Man In Black. In memory at least these dramas were replete with menacing footsteps tapping slowly along dark alleys and exceedingly strange noises at ungodly hours -- often emanating from fictional attics, I may add, which made the shadows in the corners of our sloping-roofed bedroom seem *much* more interesting after these plays ended. Between the best efforts of the BBC Sound Effects Department and the vivid imagination of the young, we could almost see the thick, swirling fog pressing close to the windows of some isolated mansion, muffling all sounds except the grandfather clock in the hall as it began its whirring run-up to striking the twelve chimes of midnight and the supposedly locked study door began to squeak open...
However, it wasn't until I looked up the programme this afternoon at http://www.britishdrama.org.uk/mib.html#FEAR that I learnt plays for the series were mostly originals written by John Dickson Carr, with a sprinkling of reworkings of classic tales by Stevenson, Poe, and other luminaries of weirder fiction, including (of course) an adaptation of The Monkey's Paw.
The format of Appointment With Fear involved Dyall's Voice of Doom book-ending each play as well as providing occasional mid-drama links. By modern day standards the stories were not that ghastly and whereas our mother always claimed eating cheese sandwiches before bed-time caused nightmares -- although I for one did not find it so -- this wonderful drama series did cause a problem of a related kind in that after having had our latest Appointments With Fear neither my sister nor myself wanted the job of turning off the light.
The difficulty arose because the light switch was (naturally enough) next to the door, on the far side of which stood the old, mesh-fronted radio. The door was several paces away from our bunk. Who knew what might be lurking with evil intent behind the wardrobe between the door and our side of the room, or for that matter under the lower bunk? Which, I may add, was my berth.
Well, with a bit of ingenuity we came up with a solution. The light switch was of a type long discontinued, consisting a short, protruding stub terminating in a tiny knob. In the UK, dowsing a light involves switching up rather than down. So we obtained an appropriate length of wool, tied it tightly under the head of the switch knob, and then ran it from there up over the top of the afore-mentioned wardrobe, down to the bunk, and so into our grubby grasp.
The following week, once the play had concluded, I switched off the radio, got back into bed, and gave our semi- automatic light-switcher-offer a good, hearty tug.
Unfortunately the wool broke.
Childhood sometimes inflicts sad disappointments.
Looking back, it now occurs to me that a piece of string would have been a better choice for the task, but for some reason that never occurred to us. We continued to listen to the plays and then have whispered arguments about who should get the dreaded task of turning radio and light off. As oldest, it usually fell to me, and groping my way back, it struck me more than once how long it takes to cross even a familiar room when your eyes have not adjusted to the dark and there might be something nasty waiting...
In a touch of irony the programme's producers would surely appreciate, I noticed on the website mentioned above a presentation in a later series was called A Day At The Dentist. Now *there* is a play whose sound effects I shudder to contemplate -- let alone its plot line.
So I decided to read the story again -- or rather to read it for myself for the first time -- a perilous undertaking after nearly 45 years. I was not disappointed. My grandmother's comforting voice has been stilled for twenty years and her cozy living room long-since remodeled by strangers. But Grahame's words still held the magic that had touched me so long ago.
There are the gorgeous descriptions of river, fields and woods in all their changing aspects throughout the seasons, creating a vivid, irresistible world. And of course the appealing characters, all save for some nefarious denizens of the Wild Wood, as friendly and caring a group as any child could wish, but with enough quirks and peccadilloes, from Badger's anti-social tendencies to Toad's manic irresponsibility, to appear real, hardly a bunch of boring do-gooders.
Then too, the book is mostly about home, the thing best known and most important to a child. Ratty and Mole and the rest are always safe in some lovingly described home, or going home on a cold night, or thinking about being at home in their own warm beds. Which is probably why it is so horrifying when Toad arrives back from his adventures to find Toad Hall occupied by weasels and stoats.
This is one of many harrowing scenes. Losing one's home, or being lost in the dark woods on a cold night as happens to Mole, or having one's freedom taken, a fate suffered by Toad when he is thrown in prison for stealing a motorcar, are not trivial matters. The fears they stir are deep, so The Wind In The Willows makes for exciting reading.
Grahame's world is not only filled with real danger, but with mystery. The Wild Woods and the far off Wide World both harbor things unknown. In one chapter Mole and Ratty encounter the god Pan, who strikes the memory from their minds. As children, like Grahame's animals, we readily accept our strange and contradictory state, creatures seeking mundane physical comforts, some cozy den, in a limitless universe full of mysteries and wonders beyond our comprehension. But as we grow older we too often take the comforts for granted and forget that the wonders exist. I think it might be Grahame's mingling of domesticity and awe that makes The Wind In The Willows a classic. Then again, trying to explain the book like that makes me wonder if I haven't just caught some of Mr. Toad's overwhelming conceit.
[Editorial note: Eric contributed this essay to the Fostoria, OH, Library's celebration of Children's Book Week a year or so ago.]
Mary R and Eric
who invite you to visit their home page, hanging out on the virtual washing line that is the aether at http://home.epix.net/~maywrite/
Therein you'll find the usual suspects, including more personal essays and an interactive game as well as an on- line jigsaw puzzle (if you have a java-enabled browser) featuring One For Sorrow's boldly scarlet cover. For those new to the subscription list there's also the Orphan Scrivener archive, so don't say you weren't warned!