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UNESCO City of Literature: Geoffrey Trease

23 March 15 words: James Walker
illustrations: Steve Larder

Trease was ahead of his time in recognising that the stories we tell children significantly impact on their view of the world as an adult

Alcohol is often cited as the main muse of the writer. From Kingsley Amis to Dylan Thomas, pen monkeys have literally been drunk on words. Alcohol was also influential for Geoffrey Trease. But he wasn’t a literary lush who got into Bukowskian brawls. His parents ran a family wine and spirit shop at No 1 Castle Gate, the narrow Georgian street leading to the castle, just a few doors away from a surgical appliance firm where DH Lawrence did a brief stint as a clerk. It’s now called Weavers and, if you ask nicely, they might show you the rooms that kick-started the career of one of Nottingham’s most prolific, yet least celebrated, writers.

As a nipper, Trease would accompany his father to work and pass his time “taking the stamps off the violet-inked envelopes from the shippers of Bordeaux.” Perhaps this fostered his intrigue of travel that later manifested itself in his children’s fiction, which spanned the globe depicting almost every major historical event from ancient Athens to the Bolshevik revolution. The family business also gave him access to paper, then an expensive commodity. It was here he wrote his first stories.

Trease grew up in three houses in Nottingham, but the family home in the Arboretum area - 142 Portland Road - would have a profound effect on his imagination. The surrounding roads were named after the likes of Cromwell, Raleigh, Chaucer and Shakespeare – a constant reminder of the men who had defined history and culture. As the first world war drew to a close in 1918, nine-year-old Trease was reminded that the glory of great men came with brutal consequences, “I lay in bed with the influenza that was raging across Europe and listened to the horse-drawn funerals rumbling and clattering down our cobbled road on their way to the cemetery.”

One body not on the cart was his uncle Syd, a second lieutenant in the Sherwood Foresters who’d gone missing at the Front. Trease’s grandmother was so distraught at his disappearance that she refused to allow his name to appear on the school war memorial, in the hope that one day he would return. All they ever found was his helmet. The seeds were being sown for a writer who would prioritise human feelings above national interests in his depictions of conflict.

Trease did well at school and won an honorary Foundation Scholarship to Nottingham High School. The school’s Boys’ Library gave access to a treasure trove of adventure stories, introducing the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne. This was important as his father had banned visits to the public library because he believed it was “infested with noxious germs”.

Early on, Trease demonstrated a flair for business as well as creativity when he started a school magazine. Issues were loaned out at a penny a night. When he won the Junior Sir Thomas White Scholarship, he persuaded his father to buy him a Remington typewriter that was “as heavy as a piece of artillery”. Now he could up his output and publish a school paper for private circulation. Kerching. His first paid commission came at thirteen when he sold an article to a popular boys’ weekly for half a guinea. Soon afterwards, he had a poetry collection accepted for publication, albeit by a dubious company who insisted he cough up half of the printing costs.

Trease excelled at the High School and regularly won prizes, the profits of which went on books, such as a Roget’s Thesaurus, having read that every serious writer should have one on his desk. He won a scholarship to Oxford to study Classics but dropped out after his first year in 1929. “I was bored to death with this musty scholarship, this wearisome gibberish concocted by the pedants. One year of Oxford at its driest, unrelieved by one flash of inspiration, humour or understanding from any don concerned with me, had suffocated the enthusiasm with which I had gone up from school. I told myself that if I went on like this for another three years I should hate the Classics for the rest of my life.”

He swapped Oxford for London’s East End slums, working at a settlement which “for an aspiring writer, anxious to study human nature, was a living laboratory.” The settlement was run by the Lester sisters, one of whom was a personal friend of Gandhi and had the philosophy that “one must approach the poor with the mind of the poor”, informing her approach to community service. Consequently, the most important task Trease was given was keeping the building clean and tidy. A lot of the people coming into the building in the evening had laboured hard that day and it was felt they were more likely to respect those with equally dirty hands.

Aside from cleaning and stoking fires, Trease ran library supervision sessions and escorted children to theatre productions. For his services he received his board, lodgings and seven shillings a week. The experience offered a grounding in humanity that was absent from Oxford and no doubt went some way into shaping the drive for equality that would see him revolutionise children’s stories by giving meaningful roles to both male and female characters.

Trease’s general philosophy was to avoid abstractions and generalisations and treat children as intelligent readers. Up to 1945 it was an unacknowledged preconception that children lacked experience. Historical accuracy was fundamental to his principle, but not to the extent that the enjoyment of the story was suffocated. As Margaret Meek has noted, “A familiar theme in his work is the way that men will defend their homes and the places they have built their roots, which is the basis for just about every historical story from the civil war to the French Revolution.”  

Trease was ahead of his time in recognising that the stories we tell children significantly impact on their view of the world as an adult, particularly the jingoism that presents war as glorious and the victors superior. He offered more complex portrayals of people and communities. In Mist over Athelney we see how the divisions created by the Roman Empire live long after the conquerors have left.

In arguably his most famous novel, Bows Against The Barons (1934), Trease gave the Hood legend a do-over. He was frustrated that “Robin Hood is about the only proletarian hero our children are permitted to admire. Yet even he is not allowed to remain an ordinary working man! He has to be really Earl of Huntingdon.” He set out to demonstrate that harsh winters left the likes of Robin Hood starving and frail and that life wasn’t always merry in the emerald forest. It would lead to George Orwell complimenting Trease as “that creature we have long been needing, a ‘light’ left-wing writer, rebellious but human, a sort of PG Wodehouse after a course of Marx.”

As he developed his craft and became more aware of the responsibilities of a writer, Trease would renounce his earlier propagandist novels such as Comrades for the Charter (1934) and The Call to Arms (1935), arguing that a children’s writer “should have the same sort of professional ethic as a teacher – whatever his personal beliefs, he mustn’t use his position of professional advantage to press party politics on readers too immature to argue with him on fair terms.”  

These principles would be cemented in Tales out of School (1949), the first wide-ranging survey of twentieth century children’s literature, which concluded that the best books confirm and extend the child’s own experience. A good book, he wrote “uses language skilfully to entertain and represent reality, to stimulate the imagination or to educate the emotions”. The book, along with his others, would be instrumental in driving up literacy levels, encouraging reading and bridging the gap between the comic and the classics.

Nottingham City of Literature website

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