Favourite Scenes I

What are the scenes I like to return to again and again? Episode I: Over Sea, Under Stone & Cuckoo in the Nest


Inspired by the usual end-of-year "Best of..." lists (I'm writing this in the last days of December 2011), it occurred to me that there are moments in certain books that I'm always happy to go back to, to re-read for simple pleasure. Some of them are perhaps obvious: dénouement moments which would be accompanied by swelling strings if they were ever to make it to the big screen; or sweet moments where two people realise their attraction for one another. Others are less obvious, striking a chord with me personally, giving me a frisson of excitement, or causing a smile on my face or a lump in my throat.

For sure, generating a lump in my throat or putting a smile on my face is by no means the raison d'ĂȘtre of any author's endeavours, nor should it be the primary motivator for someone to read any particular book. But one, at least, of the reasons to encourage people to read is to offer them entertainment, emotion, a window into beauty or nobility or sorrow. And if one scene is enough to open that window for me, then maybe it's enough to allow someone else to see that book in a new light, or in any light at all.

This then is the first in an occasional series which will give me the chance to showcase a few scenes of this sort with a little more detail than I normally have space for in a review. I'm hoping that my enthusiasm about a particular moment in a particular book might motivate someone to pick up that book and read it, if only to find out whether or not they agree with me. To kickstart the series, I've included here scenes from two books: Susan Cooper's Over Sea, Under Stone, first of the Dark is Rising sequence; and Michelle Magorian's Cuckoo in the Nest, first in the two-part Hollis Family set.

Over Sea, Under Stone: up on the headland

I loved the Dark is Rising sequence when I was younger: an interweaving of Arthuriana with other myths and legends, all in a very understated British context. There are affectionate family settings (and, in the case of the Buckinghamshire Stantons, large and cheerful family settings). The story moves between Cornwall, Bucks and Wales in a sort of guided tour of British folklore. One of my sisters gave me the all-in-one paperback edition as a present just before I went to University, and I still have that copy beside me now, a little dog-eared, but a far better size and layout than any of the individual editions I have read (and better also than the later, smaller-sized combined edition).

This scene is from the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, written in the late 1960s as a one-off, apparently without any intention of producing a series. On its own it's a fairly average adventure story involving Jane, Simon & Barney, a sister and two brothers on holiday in a Cornish village, who discover an old map which leads them to a lost grail. There are Arthurian overtones to the story, not least in the person of the mysterious Great Uncle Merry but there's nothing particularly magical involved. Although this is now viewed as the first book in a series, for quite a while it was the only book. It wasn't until some years later that there really was a series, taking its name from the second book in the sequence.

The story plods along for the most part. But there is one episode, in chapter 6, which captures my imagination every time. The children have discovered a map which is obviously very old and which has a few words of recognisable Latin but nothing else they can read. The sinister Mr & Miss Withers, ostensibly antique dealers, are interested in it, but the children mistrust them and are reluctant to confide in their own parents. They decide to ask Professor Lyon, their courtesy Uncle Merry, enigmatic but trustworthy. He takes them up the hill overlooking the bay and translates the ancient text for them. As you might have gathered from elsewhere in my reviews, I'm always a fan of competent adults and Merriman certainly scores here with his calm assurance, his easy way with the youngsters, and his knowledge of forgotten languages. But it's the timeless setting of the rocky headland which really brings the moment home. That, and the stillness as Merriman reads aloud for the first time words which were written hundreds of years before and which contain a copy of words written hundreds of years before that.

(For brevity I have elided certain passages. Go and read the whole piece. Chapter 6.)

They turned again and scrambled up the slope, and at last they were at the top of the headland, with the line of the surf laid out like a slow-moving map below them on either side, and beyond it the great blue sweep of the sea. One big slanting boulder of granite stood higher than any they had passed on the way up, and Great-Uncle Merry sat down with his back against it, his legs arched up before him, long and knobbly in the flapping brown corduroys. The children stood together, looking down. The land before them was unfamiliar, a silent, secret world of mounded peaks and invisible valleys, all its colours merging in a haze of summer heat.


Great Uncle Merry took the parchment without a word, and gently unrolled it on his knees. He gazed at it in silence for a long while, and they could see his eyes moving over the words.

The wind on the headland whined softly round them, and although, as they watched, Great-Uncle Merry's expression did not change, they suddenly knew that some enormous emotion was flooding through him. Like an electric current it tingled in the air, exciting and frightening at the same time; though they could not understand what it was. And then he raised his head at last and looked out across the hills of Cornwall rolling far into the distance; and he breathed a great sigh of relief that was like a release from all the worry of the whole world.


"So therefore, I trust it to this land, over sea and under stone, and I mark here the signs by which the proper man in the proper place, may know where it lies, the signs that wax and wane but do not die. The secret of its charge I may not write but carry unspoken to my grave. Yet the man who finds the grail and has other words from me will know, by both, the secret for himself. And for him is the charge, the promise and the proof, and in his day the Pendragon shall come again. And that day shall see a new Logres, with evil cast out; when the old world shall appear no more than a dream."

Great-Uncle Merry stopped reading; but the children sat as still and speechless as if his voice still rang on. The story seemed to fit so perfectly into the green land rolling below them that it was as if they sat in the middle of the past. They could almost see the strange knight Bedwin riding towards them over the brow of a slope, and the long ships of the invaders lurking beyond the grey granite headland and its white fringe of surf.

For atmosphere this setting is only matched in the series by Will Stanton's arrival in Wales at the start of The Grey King. There's a real contrast between the brisk and cheerful arrival of his grown-up cousin, changing the tyre on a a land-rover in the grey autumn drizzle, and the brooding mystery of the surrounding mountains with their dark peaks breaking through the tattered clouds. The third book in the series, Greenwitch, is set once again in Trewissick but never manages to capture the ancient permanence of the place in quite the same way.

Cuckoo in the Nest: after the audition

Michelle Magorian is probably best known for her first book, Goodnight, Mr Tom, a charming story about Willie Beech, a wartime refugee from London's East End who finds a home in the village of Little Weirwold. He also finds a father in curmudgeonly old Tom Oakley, a misanthrope since his wife & newborn child died of scarlet fever years before. Most of her other books are set just after World War II and depict the austerity and privation of those times along with the changes which society was undergoing, after and partly because of the War. She has also published a few contemporary short stories.

Cuckoo in the Nest is the first in a two-book series which portrays the Hollis family and it focuses on 17-year-old Ralph. The second, A Spoonful of Jam is about his younger sister Elsie. Mr Hollis, newly-demobbed, works at the paper factory and he hopes his sons can find work there, too. The family lives in a small, ill-conditioned house, sharing rooms, sharing beds, and taking in extended family with nowhere else to stay. And dealing gracefully but realistically with the lack of space and privacy, the lack of money and the rationing which didn't finally finish until more than ten years after the war. (Indeed, certain forms of rationing didn't even start until the war had finished).

Although the family is working class, Ralph unexpectedly received a superior education when he was evacuated to the countryside during the war, and has passed the School Certificate and acquired a cultured accent and a taste for the theatre. This puts him at loggerheads with his down-to-earth father who thinks his son should be earning his wages at the paper mill and can't understand how he can waste his money watching plays and helping behind the scenes for little or no pay. To aggravate things Harry, Ralph's younger brother, is as keen as anything to leave school early and start work at the mill.

There is no shortage of moments I enjoy in this book. The scenes between Ralph & Jessica, daughter of the woman whose garden he works in part-time; the bedroom scenes when Ralph comes home late and exhausted and finds his younger sister Elsie sharing his bed with their brother Harry; the angry interchanges as father and son try and fail to understand one another's point of view. But it's one of the scenes set around the theatre that I put forward here, and in fact it's just one phrase within this short scene which captures the moment for me.

Ralph, untutored but keen to start a career as an actor, badgers Mr Neville, owner of the local theatre company, to give him an audition. He takes advice from a former teacher and, unwisely, decides to play the part of St Joan in Shaw's play. He turns up outlandishly dressed and declaims the speech falsetto. The whole audition is a farce (and not in the theatrical sense) and Ralph leaves the stage burning with humiliation. The cast, whose friendship he's earned by helping unofficially, finding props and making tea, are watching unobtrusively from the wings but steal away before he comes off-stage. This scene is set a little later in the cafe where the actors often gather.

"How did the audition go?" asked Felix casually.

Ralph suspected he knew, but he decided to play along with it. "I was terrible."

"No," said Felix in disbelief, puffing at his cigarette.

"And you know it," added Ralph.

Felix opened his eyes wide with innocence.

"It's all right," said Ralph. "I'm going to let the memory fade, and then see if I can persuade Mr Neville to give me another audition."

"Only this time he'll choose his material," added Isla quickly.

"I see," said Felix. "May I give you some advice?"

"If it's about speeches, no," said Ralph with false joviality.

"No. It's about your appearance."

"What's wrong with his appearance?" said Basil. "He looks fine to me."

"That's not how he was dressed for the audition."

"Oh," said Basil. "How was he?"

"Shall I tell him?" said Felix gently.

"Why not?" Ralph mumbled.

"A demob suit and cravat."

"And I played Saint Joan in it," added Ralph. "Falsetto."

There was a long silence, and much vigorous puffing of cigarettes. And then Ralph found his stomach quivering violently and he collapsed with laughter. He suddenly realised how absurd he must have looked and all around him the cast were exploding uncontrollably. They laughed for at least half an hour, and they and Ralph kept on laughing, not just at him, but at each other, as they exchanged horror stories, how they had fallen into the pit, or discovered that their flies ahd been undone. And Ralph listened and fell apart with them. Wilfred was right, humiliation was part of the job, but what he had heglected to mention was that a sense of humour was necessary in combating it.

I love that moment when everyone puffs at their cigarettes in a kindly attempt not to burst out laughing at the thought of Ralph in his ridiculous get-up. The next couple of sentences are a bit heavy-handed as the author lays out exactly what lesson is to be learnt. But it's worth it to see Ralph's mortification turned around by the simple companionship of the rest.

Friday 23rd December 2011