NCRCL MA student, Jonathan Brough, writes about his experience in researching and writing his essay/article ‘Prosper the Bonaventure… Storm Coming Now’ for Travels in Children’s Literature. The article will now be published in John Meade Falkner Society Journal (forthcoming July 2015).
By Jonathan Brough
Appropriately enough for an essay to be submitted as the Travels in Children’s Literature assignment, it all began with a trip to New York City and a side-adventure to the bookstores of Union Square. Barnes and Noble was the source of a copy of the latest Horn Book and, having read an intriguing review (and succumbed to some very clever advertising) for a new teenage title by South African writer Michael Williams, I journeyed through the eighteen miles of books shelved in the nearby Strand Book Store and finally found a copy.
Every so often in life, perhaps once every eight years or so, I’ve discovered a book that just stops my world, everything else pales into insignificance and venturing through the narrative of the novel is the only thing that matters. I’m transported into a world utterly alien to me, but one that I can also completely understand; I’ve never had any of the experiences depicted in the plot, but I can empathise with all the characters nonetheless. The list is short: The Remains of the Day, To Kill a Mockingbird, Waterland, The Fault in Our Stars perhaps, but my find that day has definitely become a member of the short but select group. I started reading it on a bench in Union Square, somehow — I genuinely don’t remember how — I got myself back on the subway to my hotel room and I finished it at about two o’clock the next morning. It was Diamond Boy (2014) by Michael Williams.
What a journey! From the heights of elation to the depths of despair, from edge-of-my-seat adrenalin to spellbinding description of the Zimbabwean goldfields, I was there. I didn’t just read about it — I lived it. And then, the questions! the queries! the possible lines of enquiry to follow up! At some point, probably approaching midnight, it struck me that one reason why I was gaining such exceptional enjoyment from the book was that I was effectively reliving a favourite from my childhood: after having spent my life between the ages of nine and twelve actively avoiding well-meant recommendations of John Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet (1898) (from parents, relatives, neighbours, the local librarian — well, it seemed like everyone really — it was one of those very very very trendy books of the time which has later seemed to vanish somewhat without trace), a dedicated English teacher in my second year of grammar school put me under the semi-joking threat of a week’s detention if I didn’t get as far as chapter three and, thereafter, I was gripped.
Aha, I thought, this clever Michael Williams guy has taken a classic novel (published 1898 but set in 1757), updated it for a modern audience, replaced smuggling alcohol with smuggling jewels, changed the tyranny of King George’s Men dressed in blue and red for Mugabe’s Zimbabwe…and, clever chap, he’ll now have a real hit on his hands! Intrigued by my theory, I tracked Mr Williams down and then…to my astonishment and delight…he told me that not only had he never read my beloved Moonfleet, but he had never even heard of it or its author.
So my thinking and research began — what, precisely, were the similarities in the plot? (So, so, so many… Talking Diamonds! The symbolism of the letter Y! “Lost” fathers & role-modelling to deserted sons! Journeys of a thousand miles within a single step! The Book of Common Prayer! Searching for Grace! Searching for grace! Searching for the grace of Grace!) And then, why were those similarities there? Just a coincidence? Or was something fundamental to the human condition being depicted and, if so, what was it?
Specific criticism or background reading, of course, was practically non-existent on Diamond Boy (although there is a fascinating companion crossover novel, Now is the Time for Running, and Williams makes much of his factual research prior to writing available on the web). Similarly, nothing particularly significant seems to have been written about Moonfleet — it’s that thing again about going out of fashion — for the past twenty years. So my travels took me to the British Library and, amongst other resources, I read their copies of The John Meade Falkner Society Journal.
By this time, it would be fair to say the whole enquiry had become more of a project and a passion than an essay for an MA. Indeed, had it not been for brilliant guidance from Alison Waller at Roehampton University I doubt it would ever have solidified into piece of continuous prose. I approached the John Meade Falkner Society directly, wondering what other articles or research they might have, joined them (Yes! I am now a fully-fledged member of the Falkner fan flock!) and was very honoured when, once my essay entitled Prosper the Bonaventure… Storm Coming Now was finished, they offered to publish it in their journal. At the time of writing, I have yet to see the final copy but it occupies pride of place from pages 4-13 in the proof.
Finally, and to my great delight, Scholastic has republished Moonfleet in a cost-effective paperback version a few months ago. Thus my teaching (as well as being a very very part-time MA student at Roehampton, I’m also Headmaster of Hurlingham School in Putney) has also been shaped by my research: the Year Six children at the school are now all engrossed in comparing and contrasting Moonfleet, Diamond Boy and Now is the Time for Running.
Jonathan Brough has been studying for the MA in Children’s Literature for the past two years (having been offered a place on the course some twenty years ago, when he gained his BEd from Homerton and repeatedly deferred ever since!); he has now completed four taught modules and still has the Dissertation to go in the upcoming academic year. In his other life, he is the leader of Hurlingham School on the Putney Bridge Road, a proudly mixed-ability co-educational independent primary school of 326 children.