When I was a child, books were eternal artefacts, as old as the stars, bring- ing news from regions just as distant. They seemed beamed down, not crafted; and certainly not ‘made up’. The writers of the books I idolised were denizens of some Dantean heavenly sphere outside time; it would never have occurred to me that they might be located by the Royal Mail for the price of a stamp. Though I read constantly, I didn’t understand the concept of a professional writer, or connect the stories we wrote for school with anything in a book.

The seeds of a future career as a literary critic may have been sown at this time, but the sense of books as unchangeable meant the penny of critique took a long time to drop. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was one of my favourites, its adventures thrilling, its two complementary heroines utterly beguiling; so why were the follow-on titles Black Hearts in Battersea and Nightbirds On Nantucket so disappointing in comparison, when they were just as ‘true’? It took an adult re-reading to pinpoint the flaw, for me, of making Dido Twite the heroine of subsequent books, an endlessly indulged character more loved by its author than the reader.

Because stories were true, inconsistencies were devastating and best skated over. Why didn’t the Famous Five ever need to go to the toilet, even when they had been locked up in a castle dungeon overnight? Separate books by different authors all occupied the same fictional space: Narnia was cotermi- nous with the riverbank of Rat and Mole, and not far from Mary Lennox’s secret garden. Novels jumbled about in my head, The Little White Horse rubbing alongside The Amazing Mr. Blunden, The Children of Green Knowe, Tom’s Midnight Garden and When Marnie was There. But gradually the idea of authors and oeuvres, of distinct sensibilities and bodies of work, dimly began to form.

I favoured timeslip novels or those with a hint of the supernatural. My read- ing habit far outstripped my pocket money, so many novels were encountered through an inspired reading scheme at the town library. A separate section was set aside for a few hundred librarian-approved books, suitable for various ages and abilities. On signing up, young bibliophiles were given a kind of passport to be signed, signifying that a book had been read and absorbed. ‘I’m return- ing these, and I’d like to be tested on these two, please,’ became the Saturday morning mantra. The librarian would whisk you away to a quiet corner and gently probe, with questions ranging from simple plot points to more subtle analysis.

There were three certificates awarded when set levels were passed: bronze, for the first ten books – any dolt could manage that – and silver for forty. The leap to gold was huge: ninety books had to be read. It took me two years, and I only cheated on one title, pretending to have read Oliver Twist having only seen the film. I never forgot the disappointment on the face of the librarian as I bluffed and blushed, and though I got my sign-off, I never tried to pull a fast one again.

It was probably at the library, if not at school, that I first came across the novels and short stories of Leon Garfield, then rated very high in the ranks of literature for children, winning the Whitbread, the Carnegie and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. He seems less well-known today, but no child’s bookshelf used to be complete without a copy of Smith, Black Jack or Devil-in-the-Fog. Now a new generation will be able to enter his grimly thrilling world; Random House Children’s Books are planning to bring his work gradually back into print (or at least, print on demand and ebook). I sent off for a batch of the first titles, hoping to relive those hours of childish absorption. How would they hold up?

The print-on-demand volumes are uniform in design, utterly belying the lively contents: a plain background of faded text against some dull colour such as maroon or grey-green, crossed by a band with the title and the author’s signature. Though the republishing is to be applauded, the drabness of the presentation is a little disappointing. I think back to the treasured original

volumes with their brooding jacket designs and illustrations, inextricable from the text itself.

Book covers and illustrations are especially important for young readers. In this respect Lucy M. Boston was fortunate in having her son Peter create the wonderful woodcut illustrations and book jackets for her Green Knowe series which are a major part of the books’ appeal. A quick internet search brings up the evocative Seventies Puffin paperback jackets for Smith and Devil-in-the-Fog. The former shows a smoky, blue-grey cityscape with the tiny eponymous pickpocket dwarfed by the grand buildings all around. The latter is decorated in swirling dusty browns, with an apprehensive George Treet, the boy hero, clutching his pistol while a coach lumbers off in the distance. Oh, to hold these in my hands once again!

Garfield’s characters wore tricorne hats, long swaggering coats and buckled shoes, clutched cudgels or guttering candles, and were often to be glimpsed skulking through a London muffled in banks of fog. Poverty, disease and spiritual desolation was rife in works peopled largely by starveling urchins and manipulative, cruel and terrifying adults who could be outwitted with courage and guile, and the assistance of the few noble souls who escaped corruption. There are heart-piercing moments of pathos, together with lively humour and the sort of spookiness that makes you check under the bed be- fore putting the light out.

Reading about the time before electric light and the internal combustion engine, when I was a child, must be the equivalent, for children today, of reading about the era just before the rise of the internet. To be transported to a world of horse-drawn coaches and bad dentistry, or one with cars and light-switches but no selfies or social media, is simultaneously soothing and scary. We realise that for all the advances – and we probably wouldn’t wish to sacrifice any of them – something ineffable has been lost.

Garfield took inspiration from his own reading, the influence of Robert Louis Stevenson eventually giving way to that master of fog-bound atmospherics, Dickens. Like him, Garfield loved to write about London, its stinks, grandeur and danger. Also like Dickens, he stuffs his books with social commentary: poverty, injustice, oppression are feelingly dramatised. The mean and pompous get their come-uppance. Though unsavoury characters rarely flourish, there’s the same relish at their foul antics, the same urge to pile on the menace. He is moral, but not moralistic. Although less verbally elaborate than Dickens, Gar- field lightly employs some of the same verbal tricks, the personifications and outré metaphors. But Garfield is far more than just Dickens-lite.

If Dickens is like the over-assertive host at the party loudly insisting that everybody have FUN, Garfield is the man chuckling mischievously in the kitchen. The more we know about Dickens, the deeper the gulf appears between the behaviour he promoted in his books and how he actually lived his life. His sickly depictions of wedded bliss ring false; a prating propagandist for marriage, Dickens failed to feel for his own wife and children the selfless devotion he set up as an ideal in his novels.

In contrast, the man behind Smith and Black Jack is much less coercive. Granted, Garfield was writing for children; but his first novel was written with adults in mind, and it took a perceptive editor to see that it could be angled to a younger market. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were his favourite stamping grounds. In The Sound of Coaches, Garfield seems to know exactly how the coaching system worked, its wheezes and dodges as well as its weary routines. In The Apprentices, interlocked tales about hardscrabble ’prentice boys and girls, he can summon up a Victorian pawn shop or undertaker’s as easily as the patter of a street thief or a link-boy. Lowly clerks, beggar girls or juvenile midwives totter into the lamplight for a brief moment and disappear like wraiths. His access to the past, seem- ingly total, was uncanny.

To see if the magic still worked, I settled down to re-read The Ghost Downstairs, Garfield’s riff on A Christmas Carol, also set in the Victorian era. The first half – the set-up – I found I had entirely forgotten. ‘Two devils lived in Mr. Fast – envy and loneliness.’ Fast is a solicitor’s clerk, well used to stitching up the unwary and grubbing through documents in search of loopholes. He’s an easily recognisable type that Garfield, like Dickens, abhors. Without going to the Dickensian lengths of extolling strenuous do- gooding and energetic sociability, it’s clear that Garfield thinks such peering, tricking and gloating is a vexatious waste of the human spirit. When Mr. Fishbane, the old man downstairs, assures Fast he has a million pounds to give away, Mr. Fast humorously draws up a watertight contract of exchange: ‘Really, Mr. Fishbane – it’s lucky for you I’m in the Law. My dear sir, you don’t protect yourself at all.’ But he has left a sting in the (literally) small print that the old man’s eyes are too feeble to spot.

When, by a strange quirk of fate, the promised fortune does indeed fall into Mr. Fast’s hands, he begins to fear that the old man may be the devil him- self – but there’s always the meticulous contract which, he thinks, protects his immortal soul. But a ghastly spectre begins to haunt him. At first there doesn’t seem to be anything terrifying about Dennis, a small, golden-haired boy in a sailor suit, with his hoop and stick. Some buried memory stirred, and I began to get the shivers exactly as I did when a child at this eerie sound effect: the rolling noise of the hoop, and the tap-tap-tap of the stick propelling it. Mr. Fast soon learns to dread the sound. ‘The next night, he heard the hoop again. He lay in bed, sweating profusely, but did not dare to go outside.’

Both pitiful and baleful, Dennis in some respects seems like an ordinary child; he wants to be an engine-driver, and charms everybody else he comes into contact with. The money utterly forgotten, Mr. Fast pursues the wraith, wishing desperately to reclaim the innocent portion of himself, but every- where his legal mindset comes back to mock him. Showered with sparks and ash from a passing steam train, he is temporarily disorientated. ‘Calm yourself, Mr. Fast. Did you fancy you’d been snatched into hell – right out of the middle of Seven Sisters’ Road? No one goes to hell anymore, Mr. Fast. Take Counsel’s opinion on it.’ It’s a thorougly Dickensian touch.

The book culminates in a nightmarish chase through London in the fog (‘the blackish brown emptiness’) on Bonfire Night. ‘Mr. Fishbane seemed to be smiling – a trifle critically, the clerk thought, as if he was used to superior conflagrations and more lively guys …’ Mr. Fast makes it as far as Charing Cross Station and, on impulse, buys a ticket to Chatham. Thinking to escape his demons, Mr. Last settles back in his carriage and regards his fellow pas- sengers with sympathetic interest, an emotion he is feeling for the first time. I relived my youthful terror all over again at the remembered words: ‘In the cabin, precisely outlined against the leaping flames, he had seen the phantom child! It was driving the train.’

How much more terrifying the story seems for being so rooted in real places. On arriving in London years later, with a half-remembrance of Smith’s plaintive cry, ‘This is Holborn Hill,’ I looked in vain for anything hill-like around Holborn underground station. There are no pea-soupers any more, and no horse-drawn coaches, but a blackening Wren church or gloomy alleyway can bring his wretched, wan-faced characters flocking from the shadows. Leon Garfield is worthy to be placed alongside Blake, Ackroyd and Machen as one of London’s great chroniclers.

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