William Mayne: An Obituary

William Mayne (1928-2010) was described as one of the outstanding children’s authors of the 20th century by the Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature. He wrote more than a hundred books, including the Carnegie Medal-winning A Grass Rope (1957) and the Guardian Award-winning Low Tide (1993). But his life and career was later dogged by controversy – in 2004 he was convicted of indecent assault on young girls and imprisoned. Despite this, he remains greatly admired by fellow writers including Philip Pullman and Brian Alderson, whose obituary of Mayne for The Times we reproduce in full below.

Brian Alderson writes:

William Mayne was born to write. He was possessed of great intellectual curiosity, had many practical gifts that ranged from bread-making to building, for he reconstructed, from the ground up, the ancient stone-built house in which he lived. But writing was what he had to do. Thus it was that, from the time of his first published work in 1953 to that of the most recent – two weeks ago – his name and a couple of pseudonyms may be found on over a hundred books. They are all written for the young and almost all explore their own individual trackways. Not for Mayne easy formulaic repetitions.

A Game of Dark
A Game of Dark

He was born in Hull on 26 March 1926, the eldest of five children of an East Riding doctor, but it was his schooling as a Cathedral choir-boy at Canterbury (and later evacuated to Truro) that was to prove the crucial influence of his childhood. Even at that time he apparently singled himself out as ‘a character’ (a friend speaks of him stowing away animal skeletons in his dormitory locker) and on leaving school, whose academic function seemed to him to lack purpose, he set about turning himself into a writer.

In 1953, with the manuscript of his first book, Follow the Footprints, completed, he had the good fortune to place it in the hands of John Bell, a fellow Hullsman, who was the editor of children’s books at the London office of the Oxford University Press. Bell took on the book and the nurturing of his new-found author (eventually becoming a life-long friend) and during the next eight years the Press was to be his foremost publisher. His third book, A Swarm in May (1955), in which he drew upon his choir-school experiences, confirmed the arrival of a remarkable new talent in the busy field of post-war children’s publishing and the acclaim it received then, and over most of his life, was repeated with A Grass Rope (1957) which was awarded the Library Association’s Carnegie Medal.

During this time Mayne had worked briefly as an editor of radio programmes at the BBC and he also toyed with the thought of becoming a teacher, driving up for courses at the Darlington College of Education in a Bentley, he being a member of the Bentley Drivers’ Club. But he was too independent a spirit for anything but the solitary working life of a writer and from his spectacular redoubt on the hillside above Wensleydale he widened and deepened his storytelling powers, becoming a figure unique in the annals of children’s literature.

In terms simply of the genres that he mastered he is unparalleled. Already in the early Oxford books he exhibited his capacity for testing the interrelationships of his everyday characters – schoolboys, holidaymakers, farming folk – by involving them in treasure-hunts or mysterious, but ultimately explicable, goings-on, and that was to be a dynamic behind many of his increasingly subtle and wide-ranging full-length stories. These might be fantasies such as Earthfasts of 1966 (later serialized for television) inspired by the legend of the drummer-boy who disappeared into the mound of Richmond Castle; they might be high comedies (humour abounded in his books) such as Sand, set on the eroding coastline above Spurn Point, or Tiger’s Railway in the unlikely environs of a bureaucracy somewhere behind the Iron Curtain. There were exotic adventure tales: Drift, in wilderness country in nineteenth century Canada, Low Tide and a tsunami in twentieth-century New Zealand, and alongside these there were plain tales, mostly for younger readers and mostly set not far from Wensleydale, or picture books such as the ‘Hob’ stories of 1984 illustrated by Patrick Benson (which almost achieved bestsellerdom for an author unused to such an experience). Lady Muck, illustrated by Jonathan Heale, won the Kurt Maschler prize in 1997 and is notable for introducing porcine speech into Mayne’s commanding array of replicated dialects

A Swarm in May
A Swarm in May

The list could go on: invented fairy tales … a play celebrating St Wilfrid, performed in the Saint’s own cathedral at Ripon … edited anthologies, two in company with Eleanor Farjeon … even musical composition as in a score accompanying Alan Garner’s 1966 nativity play Holly from the Bongs. (Mayne’s friendship with the Garner family is at the back of his little story The Big Egg of 1967.) But the crude evidence of a lively diversity seen in this reeling off of examples needs to be augmented by reference to the creative spirit which animates their making. For much of this work does not flow from what many may see as conventional authorial practices: the daily routines with pencil and paper or pattering laptop in the garden shed. For Mayne the galaxy of strange plots (what of Antar, taught flying by eagles? Or traumatised Donald, in the dreamland of the wrenchingly beautiful Game of Dark?) are not the working out of an accumulation of drafts but arrive as almost pre-existent entities whose release into print it becomes Mayne’s duty to undertake. They tend to be written ‘without blotting a line’ and must meet their recipients with only the barest of editorial intervention.

Critics might well lay the blame for Mayne’s notoriously uncompromising stance towards his readers at this automatic release of the ‘given’ story. To do otherwise however would first be to destroy a bloom of naturalness that gives each tale its character and second result in the blunting of its emotional purpose and power. For the core of many of these mysteries and extravaganzas is not the excitements of the narrative but a deeply sympathetic exploration of the confusions and the vulnerability of many of his youthful protagonists – moving accounts of children triumphing in the discovery of their own strengths against many odds.

How ironic then that, with his tender understanding and respect for these children and their language, to which he was acutely sensitive, Mayne should find himself being arraigned in 2004 for abusive behaviour towards young girls some thirty or more years in the past, pleading guilty (through a plea-bargaining process which he later regretted), and being sentenced to a two-and-a-half-year term. This he served with dignity, laced with bitter humour, only to discover on release that there was no truth to the adage that you cannot be punished for the same offence twice. He was ostracised by vindictive or cowardly editors and publishers (but not by his faithful and supportive agent); his books were withdrawn from sale (only now being revived through the print-on-demand series of Faber Finds), and no possibility was open for the publication of new work. (A new story accepted by a magazine editor had to be withdrawn on the insistence of the management.)

But Mayne was born to write and there was no stemming that process. Over the last few years he had completed at least six new books, no less diverse than or inferior to their predecessors, and since Convention denied him house-room, he took advantage of new electronic publishing methods, and set up Starrabeck, his own imprint, whose first production, Every Dog, appeared two weeks ago. That event though coincided with what may have been a small stroke, depriving him of the use of his right arm and although, with the help of friends and an admirable caring service, he was able to remain in his much-loved house he was overcome by a further fatal stroke some time in the night of 23 March.

Although briefly married, Mayne had no issue and is survived by two stepdaughters and two of his siblings. He has received other awards for his writing and was much honoured in Australia where he was Writer-in-Residence at Deakin University, Victoria in 1976-7. In recent years however he has been pleased and proud to be the recipient of benefits from the Royal Literary Fund, seeing himself  thus as in debt to his great literary hero, Samuel Johnson, who helped to establish it.