There probably should have been a rule about people like Helen Cresswell. In the golden days of children’s literature, she was responsible for some of its most memorable titles: Lizzie Dripping, A Gift from Winklesea, and the Bagthorpe saga, of which Ordinary Jack is the first title. She was a strong, if mostly unacknowledged, influence on children’s television, making beloved adaptations of Five Children & It and The Demon Headmaster, and authoring The Secret World of Polly Flint and Moondial. (I’m pretty sure Moondial was a formative TV experience: the very thought of a National Trust property sends shivers down my spine to this day.)
Thankfully, there is no legal prohibition (not even a by-law) against a writer producing a string of classics like this. Without being ubiquitous (no single writer could be said to dominate these decades, thank goodness), Cresswell’s work seems to typify that era: intelligent stories with big ideas and a dreamlike atmosphere in which anything might happen. She never actually won the Carnegie award, but was a runner-up with four wonderful, distinctly different novels: the historical, culinary, family comedy The Piemakers; the sweetly melancholic time-slip fantasy (with, again, a family at its heart) Up the Pier; the poetic, elusive The Nightwatchmen; the funny and unpredictable The Bongleweed. Her own favourite was seemingly The Winter of the Birds, which is almost woozily surreal, and perhaps the least categorizable of the lot – and there are lots. She was prolific, but outside her series, no two books are quite the same.
So, she had an intuitive understanding of children’s writing – and perhaps that is the source of Ordinary Jack’s power. It’s about being ordinary, when your brothers and sisters are each the hero of their own children’s novel. Each of the Bagthorpe children has a shining destiny, a huge intellect or a will to succeed; Jack Bagthorpe dreams of somehow gaining the same immortality, but dreams are really all they are. He’s falling asleep on the family lawn at the outset of the novel, worn out from being beaten at swimming lengths by his little sister. His companion is the similarly hopeless Zero, a dog with low self-esteem who can’t even fetch a stick, named unforgivingly by Jack’s father (a novelist and BBC scriptwriter – hmm).
So of course, we’re rooting for Jack from the very start (even before we read that he calls Zero ‘Nero’ when they are alone together, ‘so as to give him a bit of dignity in the eyes of others, and as Zero hardly ever came when he was called anyway, it didn’t make much difference’). But how can a boy win, when he’s in a novel about how sickening it is to be an over-achiever? Cresswell doesn’t even make the Bagthorpe family – among whom ‘Strings to Bows were thick on the ground’ – as awful as she might have done. They’re fond of Jack, in their own way. There’s not even a moral high ground to be taken, or – Mr Bagthorpe aside – a villain to be dealt with
His Uncle Parker (whose only personal claim to fame is his propensity to drive like a maniac) has a scheme. Ostensibly, Jack will rend the veil between this reality and the next – but (as he himself realises, just in time) the aim is really something simpler: a satirical blast, a low raspberry of tricksterish subversion. In this, perhaps, the book becomes more closely aligned than ever to the spirit of children’s literature.
It’s a deliciously funny comic novel, with echoes of Edith Nesbit (I’ve always loved that Nesbit’s children get in dreadful trouble when they wish themselves to be more like the Edwardian ideal of childhood), or perhaps stylistically, Richmal Crompton: “The day seemed off to a good start, as so often the really bad days do”. There are several wonderful set pieces when an upper middle-class household tips suddenly over into chaos, hysteria and fiery explosions. The ending, though perfectly arising out of the narrative, is sublimely bonkers. You feel that a child who read Ordinary Jack would carry with them a certain immunity to self-seriousness and intimidating pretentiousness.
My only question is: where can we possibly go from here? But knowing Cresswell’s genius as a storyteller, I also have utter faith that Absolute Zero and successive instalments of the Bagthorpe saga will have plenty of surprises in store. Despite their overtone of cosy stability, Cresswell’s novels suggest that we should always expect the unexpected, and as often as not, to expect it of ourselves.
Although much of her output is now out of print (you will have to comb second-hand book merchants for Up the Pier and The Piemakers, for instance) (and you should), there are some major works by Helen Cresswell available here and now from high street bookshops. Lizzie Dripping, a wonderfully peculiar series of stories, is published by Oxford University Press; super-spooky drama Moondial is published with a beautiful new cover by Faber Children’s Classics; and – yes! – HarperCollins have begun to reissue the Bagthorpe saga, with Ordinary Jack and Absolute Zero. You can order them from Waterstones here, or ask your local independent book magician to conjure them up for you. They don’t write them quite like this any more, and they have a distinctly dry wit and idiosyncratic air; I suspect, though, that they could offer a less cartoonish further step for a Walliams fan. Certainly, anyone who has once enjoyed the tales of William Brown will recognise something of their immortal hero in the well-meant misadventures of Jack and his jumbly canine pal.