William Mayne: Award-winning children's author whose career ended in disgrace

Thursday 20 May 2010 00:00 BST

He was the author of over 130 books and one of the finest writers for the young of his time, but William Mayne's reputation collapsed after his conviction in 2004 of indecent assaults against young girls, starting 40 years before. Reclusive, often teasingly opaque in his novels for older children, he had been particularly admired by adult readers and critics, who appreciated the wit and subtlety of his writing. Unpublished after his release from prison, he died of natural causes aged 82, a lone and unfathomable presence to the last.

Mayne's father was a Hull doctor and his mother a nurse. The oldest of five children, he grew up near Nidderdale in the Yorkshire Dales before winning a choral scholarship to the Canterbury Cathedral Choir School in 1937. Once there, he revelled in the beauty of his surroundings, often wandering around the building talking to different craftsmen. He contrived to sing solo only once, after making sure that there was no congregation to hear him. At the outbreak of the Second World War the school was evacuated to Cornwall, but by now his voice had given out. He had also taken an intense dislike to all examinations, preferring to fail simply by not trying.

He wrote his first novel at the age of 16, having decided to become an author. His moment of inspiration for arriving at this choice happened in a typically quirky fashion. Reading the words "Issued subject to" on a bus ticket, he realised that since this phrase had actually been written by someone, then he too could also write words for a living. After some experience teaching and working for a year with the BBC, success came with A Swarm in May (1955). Told largely in dialogue, it describes howsparky young choristers are encouraged by gentle, idiosyncratic teachers to engage in a treasure hunt with the prize being some ancient bee-hives hidden away in an ecclesiastical cranny.

Benefiting from its author's knowledge of Canterbury Cathedral, the originality of this affectionate, impressionistic novel was immediately recognised. With characters frequently talking past rather than directly to each other, it was just the stimulus that children's literature at the time most needed. Replacing over-written, adjective-strewn texts with spare, sinewy prose, here was a story which readers had to engage with in their own private treasure hunt for its ultimate shape and meaning.

Two more like-minded works followed, Choristers' Cake (1956) and Member for the Marsh (1956), before Mayne struck out in a new direction with A Grass Rope (1957). This tells how young Mary discovers what she is convinced is a unicorn skull buried in the Yorkshire Dales, so endorsing her firmly held fairyland convictions in the face of surrounding adult scepticism. Strong in its sense of place and making extensive use of local dialect, its freshness and immediacy of vision won it the Carnegie Medal. With Mayne and some other new writers now abandoning familiar plot lines involving casts of middle-class characters in favour of something different and more challenging, a new dawn in children's literature had arrived.

He continued to produce at least one book a year, always to high praise though rarely to large sales. One of his most famous novels, Earthfasts (1967), describes how two boys befriend Nellie Jack John, an 18th-century drummer boy who had disappeared under Richmond Castle over 200 years ago, but now comes out alive after travelling through time. Mixing earthy realism with high fantasy, it was successfully televised.

Unusually for Mayne, there were two sequels, Cradlefasts (1995) and Candlefasts (2000). Exploring how landscape, time and history form one indivisible whole, this trilogy provided rich rewards for young readers. Equally memorable, A Game of Dark (1971) describes how a son, trying to cope with his unloving, dying father, enters into a parallel fantasy world where his diseased parent is reconfigured as a devouring monster.

Ravensgill (1970), also set in Yorkshire, is a taut story in which two children from different families investigate and then try to heal the feud that divides their grandparents. But with The Jersey Shore (1973), Mayne for some became too elliptical for his own good. Based on the reminiscences of an old man talking to a boy about a crime which had happened years before, the story brings up important issues about race and family but leaves readers finally unsure of what really happened. While continuing to write more directly for younger readers, following on from the charming Pig in the Middle and No More School (both 1965), Mayne's next success with older readers had to wait until Low Tide (1992).

Set in New Zealand around 1900, in the aftermath of a massive tidal wave, this account of how three Maori children turn to ancient legends for practical help in managing to stay alive won it the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize. It is one of many Mayne novels where parents are shown to have no idea about what their children are either up to or capable of. His last award was for Lady Muck (1997), a picture book about an enormous pig, enchantingly illustrated by Jonathan Heale. This won the Kurt Maschler Award in 1997. Mayne characteristically declined to attend the ceremony, explaining that he was busy organising a nativity play at home.

Residing first in Ripon and then for over 50 years in the North Yorkshire village of Thornton Rust, where he had converted an old chapel into a stone house overlooking Wensleydale, Mayne lived the life of an affable, eccentric bachelor. There had been an unexpected marriage around 1970, swiftly terminated. He had also tried a spell of teaching creative writing to college students in Australia, where he maintained that their best work could often be found in letters explaining their absence from class.

Mayne finally returned to Yorkshire, became chairman of his parish council and was a popular local figure. Inclined to be monosyllabic in unfamiliar adult company (he once gave a lecture consisting of two words, "Any questions?"), he was more relaxed with children. Keeping open house and laying on a stream of entertainments, he also offered rides in his 1928 British racing-green Bentley. Helping out with computer lessons at his nearest primary school, devising educational games and addressed by all as "William", he sometimes brought along his toy bear, Beowulf.

But this benign picture was not all it seemed. Accusations of indecent assault made in 1973 and 1999 finally came to a head in 2004, when he was taken to court by a farmer's wife in her fifties whom he had befriended when she was eight. She described being entranced by Mayne, but there were times when her erstwhile friend, normally so kind, witty and affectionate, would force himself on her. This abuse lasted for six years; five other witnesses came forward with similar accounts. Evidence of his criminal behaviour for 15 years from 1960 onwards was overwhelming, leading to a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence.

His unpublished novels were dropped and his back list allowed to run down. On his release, he lived quietly in his former home, supported by friends and family and writing novels, one of which he self-published shortly before his death. When years before he was persuaded to go into some detail about himself, he had written, "All I'm doing is looking at things now and showing them to myself when I was younger." While other children's writers have spoken in similar terms, this reference to himself still as a child now carried extra resonance. The unforgiveable breaches of faith with the children who had trusted him inevitably served to obscure the achievements of his writing life, which at best were touched by a genius with language that was both rare and original.

Nicholas Tucker

William James Carter Mayne, writer: born Kingston-upon-Hull 16 March 1928; married (marriage dissolved); died Thornton Rust, North Yorkshire 24 March 2010.

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