Children's literature: swingtime

20th December 1996 at 00:00
Swings and Shadows: poems of childhood and growing up

Collected by Anne Harvey,Julia MacRae Books , #163;14.99.

In a year that has excelled in literary lookings-back, the personal memoir has become an especially engaging form, and is moving in on the novelist's space as well as on the biographer's. Seamus Deane's anguished evocation of a Derry boyhood was shortlisted for the Booker, and has recently won the Guardian Fiction Prize. Other sons have hung out both dirty and dazzling linen; other daughters, other lovers, too: biography has become increasingly autobiography.

So it is with particular excitement that I have been reading Anne Harvey's latest anthology, since in Swings and Shadows she, too, is avowedly a memoirist. It "traces the pattern of my life", she says. Our most eclectic, engaging and engaged anthologiser for children has chosen to indulge herself - and us - in shaping this anthology around her own memories "of childhood and of children, toys and books, theatre, music, dance, people of all ages, the swings and shadows of a passing time".

The result is a triumph of celebration - the swinging "up in the air so high" - and of startling empathy with childhood's darknesses, its more-than-shadows.

The borders between waking and sleeping, so magically explored in her 1995 anthology for younger children, Starlight, Starbright, here darken into the existential terrors that grown-ups blandly dismiss, as in Edward Lowbury's "Nothing", about a six-year-old who cannot sleep: "[She] says, more loudly, 'I'm afraid of Nothing';Says it again, till suddenly we see it -Nothing outside the windows; Nothing afterThe longest day; Nothing inside the house."

When we enter the child's daytime world, dolls and teddies and toy soldiers are given their real dues, and fierce, tough love is spoken between child and "toy". Although the Bront children do not appear, the section "In play is all my mind" is filled with their deep seriousness and imagined life. Russell Hoban, more familiar to me as fiction writer than poet, has three terrific poems here instead: a wonderful exchange.

It is that sense of surprise alongside recognition that is so moving in Swings and Shadows. And it is there not just in the risk of seriousness in subject matter, but in the brilliance of juxtapositions. The sixth of the 12 sections, "Tread softly here", has an extraordinary grouping of moons; starting with a haunting rhyme by Anon, it has Ted Hughes' "Full Moon and Little Frieda" next, followed by Carole Satyamurti's "Broken Moon" about her daughter: "Twelve, small as six . . . child of genetic carelessness"; "Ten years ago, cradling her,I showed her the slice of silver in the sky.'Moon broken, ' she said."

It is the pain of difference, of not fitting, of being mislaid. Gradually this inspired section turns towards the belonging that can begin to be found in books: Ian McMillan's "Why we need libraries", and Alastair Reid's strange "The O-Filler" about a man busy every day in a library, "who licked his stub of penciland leaned over every O with a loving care, shading it neatly, exactly to its edges . . ."

What are the swings, then, that counterbalance the shadows? It is Harvey's theatrical nurturing and performing experience that give us the best of these, and her relish in words on the tongue, in pantomime, in the play. The sheer joy of language, of its shape and song, resounds through the pages of this very personal anthology. What an intriguing counterpart it makes to all those prose memoirs of childhood I have been reading.

As John Wain says: "Our hearts are ill with silence - someone must sing:We have grown yellow on a diet of prose."

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