|Arthur Calder-Marshall, The Fair to Middling
||[Jan. 3rd, 2007|09:13 pm]
I was talking about the lost books, the books which have a special magic in my mind because I loved them as a child, and have not re-read as an adult because I haven't seen them in years. There are other books which have some of the same charm, the personal treasures which no one else ever seems to have heard of, but of which I do, for whatever reason, still have a copy. The Fair to Middling is one of these, and I have just re-read it.
One August Bank Holiday a fair comes to the town of Middling, and the children at the orphanage there are each given half a crown (the book was first published in 1959, so this was a generous allowance) and an afternoon's holiday to enjoy the fair. Technically, I suppose it is fantasy, since it describes people experiencing things which are not realistic, but it doesn't feel like fantasy: the author does not seem interested in the fantastic elements for their own sake, but as a means of confronting his characters with choices which, in the real world, they could not have. This is not to say that his story-telling is schematic or moralistic: there is a wealth of baroque detail, but it springs, not from the joy of world-building but from a relish for the absurdities of language. If you wince at the punning title, you will probably be in pain throughout the book.
There is another respect, too, in which the book is not schematic or moralistic, which is that although many of the characters in the book undergo some sort of moral test, there is no one-size-fits-all correct response: Lawrie is horrified at Emma's cure, because he thinks that she has paid the price that he refused to pay. But Lawrie met the devil, who offered to - not cure, exactly, but conceal his albinism, in exchange for his soul; Emma met the Able Seemen, who cured her colour-blindness for two shillings.
This, above all, was what I had remembered about the book: that although it is concerned with moral choices, it grows from questions, not answers. The characters each have some disability (this is a qualification for admission to the school), and the narrative considers both what this might be like, and whether there is any reason for it, any gain to counterbalance it: if Peter gains his sight, will he lose his exceptional musical ability? Modern children's fiction takes a much sterner view of disability; this is disability lite. Lawrie's albinism, Rose's disfiguring scar, Wally's "something wrong with his thyroid glands" by which he narrowly qualifies for the school - these are depicted as having more with how the world perceives you than about actual handicaps, things which prevent you leading a normal life. The school is populated by the not very disabled, and Peter's impending blindness will make it impossible for him to remain there. Re-reading the book as an adult, I was uncomfortably aware that this view of disability was a fairly superficial one. No doubt 1959 was more squeamish about confronting children with the horrors of life, and The Fair to Middling, for all its philosophical seriousness is a funny, entertaining, light-hearted book: nonetheless I was relieved to find an article in the Winter 2004 issue of Disability Studies Quarterly describing it as "an interesting and stimulating book".
There's another respect in which this is, if not a book of its time still very much not a modern book, and that is the treatment of the female characters. Emma is shown as relective, thoughtful, perceptive: yet she sees herself as handicapped by her colour-blindness in that she cannot trust herself to choose clothes that suit her, she might be misled by a false friend into wearing something that made her look hideous and so lose the man she loved. Lawrie plans to discover a cure for albinism, Peter will be a composer, even Wally plans to follow his father into a life of crime, but Emma's plans for the future are limited to clothes and courtship. Rose "might have been a concert pianist, they said, if it had not been for the burn-scar on her face", but now devotes herself to Peter. The most positive depiction of a woman is probably Lady Charity, the benefactor who gives the children money to spend at the fair because she has just had a complex and successful bet, and who has never quite grown up.
When Emma thinks that she might be betrayed by a false friend, she is thinking of Florence, who has already revealed that she thinks of her hair as her "best feature" (though where Emma, given her choice of prizes on the tombola, would take the hairbrush, Florence would go for the Perma-set). The disability which has won Florence her place at the Winterbottome school is never revealed: this little scene suggests that it is her class: she is what was once called "common" but would now be called a "chav" - working class, but not in a good way. She and Wally are helped to overcome this handicap by their immersion in the Model Society, a fearsome combination of mass culture and bureaucracy, reminiscent of the Wart's experiences in the ant colony in T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone. Wally and Florence are offered not moral choices but aversion therapy.
The characters, their problems, what they are offered and what price they are asked to pay: these elements form fascinating patterns, and it doesn't matter that some of those patterns reflect the author's assumptions rather than his intentions. But the real pleasures of the narrative are deliberately crafted: the verbal richness, from the broadest puns to the slyest descriptions, it remains a joy to read.
One other virtue of this book, which I had completely forgotten: it is illustrated by Raymond Briggs.