This morning, sensation seekers, I’m going to talk about love and loneliness. I’ve just finished reading The Lion of Sole Bay – another lost night – and I realized afterwards that that is what Julia Jones’s books ‘for children’ are about. This is the fourth one I’ve read, of a project that started as a trilogy, and the subtext is getting ever clearer.
(Which is not to say, naturally, that I’m right. Anybody, up to and including the author herself, is entitled to disagree. All I’d really like to insist on is that you read them.)
Julia’s child characters, let’s say, sprang originally from her reading of Arthur Ransome. Like me, she must have been sucked, inveigled, seduced into a world that I (although not necessarily she) certainly didn’t fully understand and certainly had no cultural part in. Without wishing to sound in any way threatened by it, it was a world of unthinking wealth and privilege that I could clearly never enter. A little later I went to grammar school, where I was one of only two working class boys. Weird.
Also weird in hindsight is the fact that the other boys were almost entirely the sons of naval officers, and therefore spoke an English which I had to emulate asap or get mocked to death – but it was never a problem. Like the world of John Walker, the Blackett girls, Dick and Dorothea, they just were. Different but the same. Ransome’s lot had boats, I had the Sea Scouts. My school compatriots spoke like something off the BBC, but I learned ’em how to sail. Any bullying I suffered came from the older boys, and a couple of the teachers.
Julia’s characters live in a different world again. Some of them are dirt poor, without the benefit of what our Government so pathetically and offensively insists on calling ‘hard-working’ parents. Some of them, indeed, are in care, some of them have health problems, some of them have mums and dads (or not) who are on the verge of going under.
The best sort of trilogy. Roll on Part Five!
But she involves them in situations that are the backbone of the Ransome books. They interact, essentially, with each other. Adults range from the bizarre to the extraneous, but the children are on their own. If not duffers won’t drown. But by God (to quote another favourite author) – no man is an island.
Julia’s key characters, unlike Ransome’s, have extremely subtle needs. Above all things they know (whether in words or not) that they need love, and Ms Jones understands from the bottom of her soul that love is help. She turns the story screw to make that need grow greater all the time. Not in a melodramatic way at all, however. Julia’s stories tend to make me actually cry.
The construct of The Lion of Sole Bay is extraordinary, but achingly simple. A boy called Luke, whom we know of old, is left to have a longed-for holiday alone with his father Bill while his extended and fragmented family go off abroad for their own ‘trip of a lifetime.’ Bill lives on an old fishing boat, and works in the local boatyard, where on the night he’s due to meet Luke, he actually meets a little girl called Angela. She is an emotional outcast, hanging on to a gang of older boys, with whom she manages to accidentally pull a propped-up boat down on to Bill, which comes very close to killing him.
The gang run off, but Angela stays. She is one of the school’s hopeless ones; friendless, apparently feckless, probably on the spectrum, a heavily-bullied dimwit, always in trouble, much despised. She is terrified of the police, but when she knows that they are coming, she stays with Bill, and cradles him, and dares to hold his hand.
She has to run at last, of course. But learns later that Bill, now in intensive care, mistook her for an angel. Angela, known derogatorily as Ants (the other kids like to publicly pull her pants down to check for the insects that must be crawling in them because she is incapable of being still) has found her name at last, a name that she has subconsciously ached for, an identity that can feed her soul. Angel.
Ants and Luke, however, are not the only damaged ones in this story. Alongside Bill’s boat, for some time, has lain a Dutch motor barge called Dree Vrouwen (Three Women) manned (irony) by a mad fascistic politician called Elsevier, her mentally ill follower Hendrike, and Hendrike’s thirteen year old daughter Helen. These three women have come across the North Sea to liberate the figurehead of a Dutch warship involved in the Battle of Sole Bay, in 1672. It is now the proud sign of a roadside pub at the head of the creek, but to Elsevier it is the material exemplar of an ancient crime.
Her own planned crime – in her eyes, the reversal of an ancient wrong – can only be carried out on a certain tide. And Elsevier, although mad, is a great general (she thinks), and completely ruthless. She controls Hendrike with herbal potions, fungi, and illegal drugs. She controls Helen through blackmail (Helen loves her mother and must protect her). And she carries a gun. A November the Fifth party will be the perfect cover for the heist.
Luke, Angel, Helen are thus thrown together – to hate and mistrust each other roundly. Bill lies in hospital, while other adults are helpless and disbelieving. The North Sea, and the late autumn gales, are waiting hungrily. I’m telling you, they will be horrible.
As well as the sea, Julia Jones understands the horror of the human condition, and how utterly cruel life can be. But she also understands redemption, inside out and backwards. And she is an absolute master (mistress? Ask Elsevier) of dramatic tension. Some scenes are more thriller than children’s story. But to categorise this book as either misses several points.
The children and the adults in this novel, this trilogy-plus, all need love. Their loneliness is awe-inspiring. With calmness and power, without a jot of sentimentality, Julia Jones gives it to them. All hail.