bc Bannermere and the places from the mind of Geoffrey Trease.
The World of Bannermere

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Jim Mackenzie writes of Geoffrey Trease's Bannermere series of books.
Books, the Places and the People.

Geoffrey Trease Society

The World of Bannermere –
The Places

In the second volume of his autobiography "Laughter at the Door" Geoffrey Trease declares quite clearly that
"Bannerdale, with its lake and forbidden islet and its sombre mountain Black Banner lowering over it, is one of those private fantasy regions that authors, and especially children's authors, love to create."

However, nowadays it is not at all easy to get hold of "Laughter at the Door", and the story of the creation of Bannermere is worth telling again here so that everyone can share in what emerges from his personal record of how he created the place and the people who populated it.

As we shall see, Geoffrey Trease confirms his own description of the author's need to have a "magpie mind", the sort that garners information from a multitude of sources. Each detail gradually filters through the brain until it emerges some time later when he finally needs to use it. Some of the specific Bannermere influences we can try to draw together here.

In 1940, whilst still waiting for his call-up into the armed forces, Trease discovered that the meagre flow of money he was earning from writing was starting to dry up. He had a wife and a young daughter to support and so economic necessity drove him to apply for a job as a schoolmaster in a preparatory school on the seaward side of the Lake District. It was at Gosforth, three miles inland from Seascale which is on the coastal railway route travelled so often by Bill and Penny in the Bannermere stories. In fact Trease recalls how each journey north afterwards gave him a "temporary lifting of the heart" as he looked to the fells on one side and across the Irish Sea on the other. He became attuned to the rugged beauty of the place and, as he walked the hillsides and explored lonely valleys, he developed that feeling for its special inspiration which never really left him.

However, it could never really be a permanent feeling of happiness or content for the people that mattered most to him, his wife and young daughter, were back in Abingdon. The countryside was wonderful but the loneliness was almost overpowering. There was also the feeling of the world falling to pieces as Hitler's grip on continental Europe began to turn into a stranglehold. Then we must also consider the much more personal worry about whether to send his daughter to Canada, the U.S.A. or even Australia to be safe from the Luftwaffe's bombs.

"The tension in our lives derived not from what WAS happening but from what MIGHT. The imagination could function as actively amid the deceptive quiet of the fells as anywhere else in the country."

When his call-up finally came it was to Carlisle that he was required to report. He found himself in a hut with ordinary men from all over Cumberland and Lancashire. He conveys very piquantly the indignity of being stripped of all his individuality and, as he watches his civilian clothing being stuffed into a sandbag in order to be sent home, he comments balefully :
"I felt halfway already to being a name on a war memorial."

Yet for a writer who is accustomed to soaking up impressions like blotting paper does ink it gave him a golden opportunity. He sums it up as an "enlarging experience" and comments that
"Shakespeare could have drawn those camp-fire groups on the eve of Agincourt from the men in my squad."

I have purposely included this brief early section of his long wartime service because he declares that this knowledge of the ordinary working countryman allowed him twelve years later to create the character of "Willy the Waller", whose troubles are the mainspring of "Black Banner Abroad".

And yet it is not until 1947 that we come to the key moment where all the distilled experiences of Cumberland and Cumbrians finally produce the spur to write "No Boats on Bannermere" and its four sequels.

It was while he was in west Cumberland on a long lecture journey that he came to the small town of Millom. At the end of his afternoon lecture two girls asked why he didn't write school stories. They made it clear that they didn't want "midnight feasts in the dorm, secret passages and hooded figures".

Instead they required "true-to-life stories, about real boys and girls, going to day-schools as nearly everybody else did?"

That short conversation became a challenge and then a year or so later turned into "No Boats on Bannermere".

And now for some of the facts that Trease reveals about the Bannerdale places.

First of all he makes it clear that though there is a real Banner Dale just east of Saddleback and there are Bannerdale Crags ranged above it, they have nothing to do with his Bannerdale. In fact he has never even seen that place. His Bannerdale is a combination of both Wasdale and Eskdale with other features drafted in from elsewhere. The jaws of Borrowdale, for example, are the inspiration for the Gates of Bannerdale. He declares that Black Banner was suggested by the real mountain Black Sail. Perhaps most importantly the town of Winthwaite was based on Cockermouth "shifted southwards for literary convenience".

Thus the dedicated traveller has a few points of reference to which he or she can make his or her pilgrimage. But you will have to be very careful. There's no station in Cockermouth at which you can arrive in the rain. Perhaps it's still possible to search the streets for Botley's in order to request the splendid cakes or the ice-cream that makes Bill's eyes pop out (or was that the first sight of Penny ?) It would be nice to find the sports ground almost ringed by the hills but still allowing a glimpse of the distant Isle of Man and imagine again Bill's fruitless chase round the track after the nauseating but talented Seymour, or the Kingsford devised frantic cricket matches resembling the battle of Waterloo or, best of all, Bill's final rugby encounter before he too becomes one of the "old boys" of the school. Is there a shop in Cockermouth which would do for Mr. Morchard's booksellers and is the public library still full of old fossils who would leap out of the shadows to screech "Silence"?

But I am forgetting that this is an "invented" world. In the town which produced William Wordsworth there seems little danger that we can ever establish a plausible "Geoffrey Trease" trail ! I would much rather have the world of the books, the world which has been made vivid and memorable not just by the clarity and loving care of the author's prose but also by the skilfully executed maps where every detail of the adventures can be faithfully traced. I can still remember arguing with a class of 11 year olds about the exact place where Miss Florey meets Sir Alfred with a spade and getting them to mark on their own neatly drawn copies just precisely where they thought the skeletons of the monks would lie. Just a glimpse of the Black Banner range with its evocatively named lower peaks of Little Man, Lost Maid and Shivery Knott is enough to send me back to the pages where they find the almost lost valley of Black Banner Tarn. Without being at all unreal it's better than any reality, and you are forced very happily to agree with the author as we give him here the last word about Bannermere. As a one-time schoolboy reader, one-time English teacher and now writer of rambling articles about my favourite author, I know what he says is true.

"Nowadays I can perhaps say, without blatant immodesty, that it (Bannermere) does not 'exist merely in my own mind' but exists also in the minds of a lot of people who, in childhood or later, have read the stories I laid there." (Geoffrey Trease – "Laughter at the Door")

Footnote:- The two volumes of Geoffrey Trease's autobiography "A Whiff of Burnt Boats" and "Laughter at the Door" whilst not being commonly available are not impossible to obtain. The information above merely scratches the surface of what we learn about the life and work of this superb storyteller in those two excellent volumes full of his usual humorous, perceptive, honest and stimulating writing. I hope the above makes you want to read them.

The World of Bannermere – The People

The four central characters of the saga grow up during the course of the five Bannermere/Bannerdale books. Thus the observations here are confined to general characteristics so that those who have not read all the adventures will not have the stories spoiled. Similarly, to avoid the disappointment of gaining information you didn't really want to know, I strongly counsel against reading the article I have entitled "A Fine Romance", until knowledge of all the books makes you ready.

William Derek Melbury (Bill)
Bill tells us each of the stories but the last thing you would call him is an omniscient narrator. Sometimes you realise that he doesn't really have much of a clue about what is going on around him, nor a full appreciation of other people's feelings. That is how Geoffrey Trease conveys the very essence of what it is like to grow up – to be a major character in a story where the reader has the benefit of hindsight and the broader view long before Bill himself discovers these things. What strikes you most about him is his decency and his good humour. Whilst constantly deprecating his own abilities, he is a talented and appreciative classical scholar, a dependable friend and (almost contradicting the previous comments about his lack of perception) at times a shrewd observer of human nature.

He loves literature, especially plays, and comes to develop a particular affection for the countryside around Bannermere. Some of his efforts to become a writer draw deeply upon Trease's own experiences of struggle and failure and the need to find an individual artistic inegrity. We share his setbacks and his triumphs, his hopes and his fears, not just in his literary endeavours but also when his other deepest feelings are involved.

Susan Melbury
At one point Bill declares that Susan is a much nicer person than he is. Though one year younger than her brother, Susan comes to terms much earlier with what she wants from the world and the people who are going to be most important to her. The life of the countryside has an overwhelming appeal for her and this comes out not just in her interest in farming but in her knowledge of wildlife and the local people. Her friendship with Penny is a deep one and the two of them clearly share many secrets about their relationships. A part of the fun of the books is the good-natured bickering and bantering that takes place between Bill and Susan as they settle in to Beckfoot Cottage, their life in Bannerdale and their respective schools in Winthwaite.

Mrs. Melbury
Many critics have made much of the point that Trease appeared to be breaking new ground when he introduced the subject of divorce into this series of stories. Bill and Susan's father is not absent through any of the traditional stand-by devices of children's literature – an expedition up the Amazon, managing a farm somewhere in Africa or killed whilst on active service. Mrs. Melbury had a husband who deserted her and who went to Canada. In his narrative Bill is careful to point out that there are many other children like him and Susan. However, it is better to remember Mrs. Melbury as an eminently sensible woman who talks through each decision that she makes with both of her children. In particular the episode where she offers to write a letter for Bill to the mother of an officer who was killed in the war (Black Banner Abroad) brings out all her best qualities. Both Tim and Penny soon turn to her as an unofficial auntie. Susan attributes some of Penny's more foolish errors to not having a mother like hers. The theme of loneliness and isolation is also often explored by the idea of Mrs. Melbury left alone at Beckfoot whilst the children are at school or involved in some adventure.

Penelope Morchard
Penny's physical appearance is mentioned many times during the course of each of the novels. Three things are bound to remain in our memories – her dark hair, the smooth perfection of her skin and the look of mischief in her dark eyes. Of course we should also mention her limp, the result of a childhood accident that has apparently blighted her life. There are no miracle cures in Trease's books, at least not ones for physical disabilities. Penny's route to maturity is the hardest of all the four children that we meet in "No Boats on Bannermere". Her talent for acting, her natural vivacity and her passionate nature cannot always dispel the feeling of gloom that overwhelms her when she considers how she might have been a success on the stage. In some ways her access to all the books in her father's shop and the lively discussions she has with her affectionate parent have made her older than her years. In other ways she is a prey to her sudden enthusiasms that lead her into foolishness that teaches her the harsh lessons of this world. Each member of the Melbury family eventually brings her something she has never had before in her life but to tell more would spoil the story of the books.

Tim Darren
Tim's ambition to be a detective is at the core of his character. He is always sensible and patient in his approach to all the problems and mysteries that they encounter. The combination of his deliberate procedural methods and the sudden insights of Bill and Penny allows the reader to enjoy every aspect of their adventures. He represents solid Cumbrian common sense – in particular we remember the advice he gives Bill and the others about safe behaviour whilst out on the fells. Inevitably his slowness and "plodding" occasionally lays him open to the ridicule of the others. However, he laughs at himself and confesses that the police in the district treat him warily because of previous examples of his misplaced zeal. His future is mapped out in a plausible and satisfactory manner – making another contrast with the insecurity that lies ahead for both Bill and Penny.

Miss Florey
The new headmistress of the local girls' high school has swept through Winthwaite like a breath of fresh air. She represents knowledge without "stuffiness" and is ready to try new methods of developing the limited opportunities of girls in a remote Lakeland market town. A formidable scholar herself, she expects and receives high standards in others. Though clearly a generation away in age from Penny and Sue, she understands that the world has changed and that relationships between boys and girls as they grow up are not only inevitable but healthy. During each of the books she shows a great deal of determination and ingenuity in ensuring that joint activities between the boys' grammar school and her own establishment should foster the right kind of social interaction. Very soon she moves from being merely a headmistress to being a friend of the family. In particular she wins the undying loyalty of Penny whom she steers through various scrapes with patience, firmness and good humour.

Mr. Kingsford
Though the books concentrate on the fortunes of the four main teenage characters, it is fascinating to note that the oldest character of all is also subject to a process of change. In the opening chapters of "No Boats on Bannermere" he is presented as a "benighted old fogy". In particular he appears ruthlessly determined to stamp out any possibility of friendships between the boys of his school and the young ladies of Miss Florey's establishment. As the books proceed we see many other sides to his character, though what stands out are his courage, his honesty and his care for the boys in his charge. He is not ashamed to admit when he has been wrong and he undergoes a complete "volte-face" with regard to Miss Florey by the end of the first book. Perhaps the best way of catching the essence of the man is the chapter in "Under Black Banner" where he steps in to take a lesson for a teacher who is absent. His teaching is exciting and compelling whilst it lasts, and clearly makes a deep impression on Bill after it is over, for it inspires him to take on the world of bureaucracy in the cause of the farm at Black Banner Tarn. The subject matter of the lesson includes a description of how Kingsford's own aunt had behaved when fighting for votes as a suffragette. At the time he had been ashamed of her but now he knows she was right and he has nothing but admiration. That he should become reconciled to Miss Florey's changes is thus entirely plausible.

Johnny Nelson
Bill's admiration and liking for Johnny, a senior boy at his school, shows that he is becoming a far more rounded person himself, appreciating the different qualities that go towards making a worthwhile person. For Johnny possesses no physical graces and in both appearance and behaviour reminds Bill of a friendly young horse. Susan's feelings about Johnny are rather different. Outstanding at sport and not without ability in his studies, Johnny is both reserved and shy when it comes to talking. Even though he was young when he left there, Johnny's feelings are deeply bound up with Black Banner Farm and the possibility of life there as a farmer if only it can be got back from the War Department.

Mr. and Mrs. Tyler
Mr. Tyler is a tenant farmer who has little liking for his landlord, Sir Alfred Askew. He and his wife are kind good neighbours to the Melbury family when they move into Beckfoot. During his time as a soldier Mr. Tyler saw much of the world but retains his deep abiding conviction that there is nowhere like Bannerdale.

Mr. and Mrs. Drake
These two retired actors of the "old school" live in Gowder End, one of the smaller villages at the end of a long valley. Their cottage, which contains a special secret, was inherited from one of Mrs. Drake's ancestors. They are both appreciative of Bill and Penny's efforts with the "Black Banner Players" and regale the young actors with their own stories of life on the professional stage. Mr. Drake had his health broken by their special tours during the second World War and they now live in "genteel" poverty that arouses both the compassion and the passion of young Penny

Sir Alfred Askew
Successful in business in India, Sir Alfred returns to England and purchases a large estate in Bannerdale. He is both a snob and a petty tyrant. He attempts to play at being the local squire but does nothing but build up resentment amongst his tenants and the other Bannerdale people. Bill and the others have more than one good reason for disliking this man who clearly has a large streak of unscrupulousness.

Mr. Morchard
Penny's father is another true lover of the Lake District and of learning. He is passionate about books and about preserving the character of the town of Winthwaite. Bill often wonders how he makes a living in his old-fashioned but comfortable book-shop. His concern for his daughter never overcomes his trust in her basic common sense. For many years she has read books upon his recommendation and the penetrating accuracy of his observations and questions have helped to develop her fine mind and eliminated any sloppy thinking. Mr. Morchard's own intelligence and his love for Penny are often masked by an apparent absent-mindedness that doesn't deceive Bill for very long.

Many Others
There are many other characters to meet but describing their part in the stories would actually betray too much of the different plots for those who have not read all the books. So you must find for yourself "The Infernal Triangle", Gigi, Carolyn, Paul, Cracker Crawford and the rather odd Gloria Minworth.

In "Laughter at the Door" Geoffrey Trease makes this observation:
"Characters I have never taken entire from life, and, if I have used any particularly recognisable mannerism, I have felt safer if the story was set in some remote period…… Perhaps the nearest I came to it was in Kingsford, the headmaster in the Bannermere stories, modelled on the craggy, alarming but lovable history-master, R.S. Bridge, who had loomed so large in my own schooldays."

In their love of the theatre, of literature and of the Lakeland countryside it has often struck me that there is a good deal of Geoffrey Trease in both Bill and Penny. #

(C) Jim Mackenzie 2002

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