Friday, 21 February 2014

The Changes - a memory from childhood

I consider myself very fortunate that my parents understood the importance of reading and made sure I was able to read before I started school: I cannot remember a time when I couldn't read, nor when I didn't enjoy the experience. As a small boy I would visit the local library regularly and avidly: particular perennial favourites were the Famous Five books of Enid Blyton and the Jennings books of Anthony Buckeridge - stories of another era, really (are they still read today?).

On occasion I would branch out and try something different, and on one occasion I picked up "The Weathermonger" by Peter Dickinson. I was captivated by the idea of a society which had turned against technology (as it was back in the 1960s), and quickly devoured the sequels: "Heartsease" and "The Devil's Children". The BBC made a television series of the stories in 1975, but after that the stories slipped off my radar and into the darkest reaches of my memory.

That was until I started reading a book by Francis Spufford called "The Child that Books Built", which is a kind of literary memoir. In the early chapters of the book, Spufford mentioned the Dickinson books (much to my delight), and through the wonders of the world-wide web I was able to purchase the trilogy and revisit them after a break of over 40 years.

Although written in the order that I mentioned them above, the chronology of the trilogy is the reverse, with "The Devil's Children" telling of the start of 'the Changes', and "The Weathermonger" explaining how they were caused and how they ended. With that in mind I re-read them in reverse order. The central premise is that Britain has violently turned its back on machinery and reverted almost to a Dark Ages, agrarian lifestyle. Anyone found using or even touching machinery is deemed to be a witch and is stoned. Society becomes very insular: cities are deserted by all but feral animals and villages are governed feudally, and anyone 'strange' (such as outsiders or, in "The Devil's Children", a community of Sikhs (who seem to be immune from the changes)) is treated with paranoid suspicion.

In all three stories it is (naturally in literature aimed at 10 year-olds) children who are the focus of the action, and in that respect it carries some of the spirit of Blyton, Buckeridge et al. There is a sense that any child could see themselves as being a part of these tales, and that they could make a difference for good. These are quite moral tales: the Sikhs are eventually integrated into wider society, but not until they have suffered some tragedy, and the country is 'put to rights' by the actions of a couple of teenagers. Although quite dated, the stories do 'travel' well, though maybe more would be made of the 'green' agenda if they were written today - as I read the final pages of the trilogy this morning I was quite taken by the final sentence, which spoke volumes to someone like me living in the at times claustrophobic and suffocating environment of a modern British city: after seven years without machines "...the English air would soon be reeking with petrol."

I really enjoyed coming back to these books. My only regret is that I didn't do so when my own kids were a little younger, so that I could've shared them with them: but then again, if the early 50s isn't too late to return to them, maybe the early 20s isn't either...