Children's books

Writers' lives.

Children's authors often appear to have had more than their fair share of disturbed childhoods. That most English-seeming of writers P L Travers (creator of Mary Poppins) was born in Australia to an Irish father, who died when she was seven, and a Scottish mother, who three years later tried to drown herself.

According to Lively Oracle: a centennial celebration of P L Travers, edited by Dooling Draper and Jenny Koralek (Larson Publications pound;12.99), the young Pamela was at that moment huddled with her sisters under an eiderdown in front of the fire. As she was telling them a story about a small horse, her bedraggled mother returned. The nightmare was over, but Pamela was never to forget the power of story.

Other contributors discuss her disapproval of the film that more than anything else still keeps the name of Mary Poppins alive today. For Pamela, however, Julie Andrews was far too pretty for plain Mary, herself based on that plainest of toys, a Dutch doll. And no, the real Mary would never have displayed all that underwear when dancing a can-can on the rooftops.

The book ends with three essays by Pamela herself, each one erudite, wise and beautifully written. Readers who may find it difficult to follow her later enthusiasm for Zen will still find much to enjoy in this affectionately edited volume.

Apart from his initials, author and artist Mervyn Peake was as far from Mary Poppins as is possible. He was born in China, and his claustrophobic masterpiece Gormenghast drew on memories of life within a walled city with great gates that closed at sunset. Peake's father sometimes used to escape at night down a 100ft rope, a ruse Peake's character Steerpike also used to get away from the crazed castle.

More mundane influnces on his writing, such as the masters' common room at Eltham college, with its anthracite fire and rows of shiny, greenish gowns hanging from the wall, are duly tracked down and dryly recounted in Vast Alchemies: the life and work of Mervyn Peake by G Peter Winnington, editor of The Mervyn Peake Review and Peake Studies (Peter Owen pound;18.95). Because of a falling-out with the Peake estate, virtually none of the original mesmeric illustrations are included - a sad loss.

There is no shortage of pictures in David Day's Tolkien's Ring (Pavilion pound;14.99), massively illustrated throughout by Alan Lee, now working as conceptual designer for the three-part film version of The Lord of the Rings, the first section of which is due out next year. The author traces the various influences upon Tolkien, from Norse mythology to Wagner's Ring cycle, each saga brought to life by Lee's moody, swirling pictures, high on atmosphere if, like Tolkien himself, sometimes a little short in humour. But David Day is no uncritical worshipper at the shrine of Gandalf - he writes lucidly throughout, particularly about the final moments of the trilogy in which Frodo discovers that evil in itself can never succeed in defeating other evil. This potentially pacifist message was widely taken up in the 1960s, for example (on their own admission) by those involved with the maiden Greenpeace voyage attempting to stop American nuclear testing on Amchitka island in Alaska.

Whether Tolkien also succeeded in providing his beloved England with a ready-made mythology to rival those legends owned by its Celtic neighbours seems much less likely. But his was still a mighty achievement, effectively described and celebrated in this lavish, handsomely presented volume.


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