From time to time I have reason to drive past St Christopher's Lower School, Dunstable, Bedfordshire, England. It's not exactly on my way to my parents' house, but if the mood takes me I'll make a slight detour in order to view the place that was responsible for my early education. It's changed a lot since I started there a quarter of a century ago -- the high wire fences are new, minimising the chances of sneaking in to use the field for extra-curricular football -- but the sight of the place never fails to undam a flood of memories.
As part of an initiative to encourage the students to read more, a book distributor's rep arrived one day and eulogized for half an hour about some of his leading titles. Up till then, if my memory serves me well, I had read little more than Enid Blyton novels (up with The Famous Five!) and Whizzer and Chips comics. And that was fine. But I became enthused at the thought of expanding my horizons through reading -- an ambition that hasn't left me to this day -- and I eagerly waited for the six books I ordered on that day. One was Nicholas Fisk's Trillions (quite possibly the first sf novel I ever read) and one was Jean George's My Side of the Mountain: a survival tale. Two others escape me for the moment, but the one I remember most vividly was Helen Cresswell's The Winter of the Birds.
Even the cover astonished me. Awash as it was with blues and greys, I inferred that this was going to be a bleaker prospect than I had been used to; and the opening chapters did nothing to dispel the impression. From the off, Cresswell had managed to convey an atmosphere of ice and chill -- a perfectly honed example of pathetic fallacy as I entered the heads of a lonely young boy who longed to be a smalltown hero, and that of an old man who was the only who knew about ... the birds. Now wait just a minute, I thought. What was this? Metal birds that scraped and screeched along wires in the night? What would have been my most likely adjective, given my years? 'Brilliant'? 'Amazing'? All I know is that as a conceit it was close to breathtaking. I read with awe. I read as the lives of the two male leads became intertwined; I read as the town bullies caused misery and havoc; I read with the sadness that only a stark personal contrast can achieve the depictions of a lonely, unlovable childhood: and then I stopped reading.
Children's fiction it undoubtedly was, but of a terrible and frightening new timbre. An adult rereading has revealed the book's minor flaws, of course, most notably a certain (understandable) facetiousness; but the power remains -- the glue that sticks the reader to the pages is still very cold. But at the time it was too much for me: it was too intelligent -- which I know says more about my own development as a reader than it does about the author's intentions; but there we have it. Over the years I attempted the book a couple of times, and probably completed it at around the age of twelve. Nor would I be writing these words if I didn't think this book worthy of the attention of any twelve year-old. But there's more: I think this book is a seriously undervalued volume of urban fantasy. It only struck me on rereading it recently just how much its descriptions of a smalltown November have filtered into my own fiction. There was clearly something highly influential about it; I just didn't know that at the time.
Its quests are all internal. We see the struggle for survival against inertia and entropy. And Cresswell has made the reader feel sympathy -- not only for the boy, the old man ... but also for the town itself, the birds themselves, and even for the family that makes the boy's life so difficult. Furthermore, I would add that it is impossible to feel warm throughout the reading of this book; it gets into the reader's blood. You need a blanket -- a security blanket. The horrors and threats are marrow-deep. The Winter of the Birds does not rely on violence or special effects: indeed, I think one of the things that I found so perplexing at first, is that the town had not been invaded by the metal birds (whose menace is as vague as the origins, and whose ambitions seem as thin as tiffany, at least at first), but rather that the birds were an every-night occurrence that so very few wondered about. It is a tale describing the co-existence of ... existences, rather than of lifeforms (for the birds have no blood in their vessels); and the co-existence of beliefs and truths. All cloaked inside layers of dry ice and loathing. It is an astonishing performance from a noted children's writer whose name has become better known for other work. But this is the one for me: this is Helen Cresswell's masterpiece, and I would urge it upon the attention of readers young and old. Take a nip of something strong before you nose the air, however; you might be out in the frost for some time.
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