It came as a sad shock to learn that K M (Kathleen Peyton has died aged 94, after a remarkable and distinguished career as a writer for both children and adults. Many readers love her Flambards quartet and the Pennington novels, and she's influenced many another author, including me - she was (possibly unintentionally) a pioneer of young adult fiction in the 70s and 80s, along with other such 'golden age' authors as Robert Cormier, Jill Paton Walsh, Jean Ure, Alan Garner, Robert Westall and Aidan Chambers. One of her extraordinary achievements was to publish books over eight decades - I wonder if there's another author in the world who can match that? Surely very few.
I first came across K M Peyton during my training as an English teacher, when I happened upon Flambards in the college library. I well remember how eagerly I devoured it, captivated by the setting, the characters, the social issues and how beautifully and economically she evoked countryside, seasons and weather. I went on to read more and more of her work. I'd always wanted to write, and she introduced me to young adult fiction, which hadn't existed in my own teenage years. So I owe her a great deal - especially as, many years later, she gave me permission to continue the Flambards story by writing a novel (The Key to Flambards) about Christina's great-great-granddaughter, set in 2018. I've written here about how I became friends with Kathy and about the various elements of the quartet that I wanted to pick up in my own story, so I won't repeat that here beyond explaining how we met: I was at the time a regular reviewer for Books for Keeps magazine, and asked to interview her for the Authorgraph feature. She invited me to her Essex home, and from then on we met regularly at publishers' parties or for lunch in Chelmsford, until she became less mobile and I visited her at home each year. A couple of times, staying overnight, I made a point of doing some writing in bed, in the hope that a little of the Peyton magic would get into my words.
Readers may not know that the M of K M Peyton referred to Kathy's husband Mike, an illustrator, writer and sailor. For a while they wrote serialised stories together, Mike supplying plot details while Kathy did the writing. Before that, Kathy had published her own first novel, The Horse from the Sea, when she was only 15; she once showed me her handwritten first draft of that story. She also showed me her MBE, awarded for services to children's literature, but I was more interested to see her Carnegie Medal - she won that for The Edge of the Cloud, the second of the Flambards books, as well as the Guardian Prize for the trilogy (as it was then). Other accolades include the Children's Book Award, for Darkling. Numerous other titles were shortlisted for the Carnegie and in 1966 she was declared runner-up for Thunder in the Sky, the year the judges decided not to award the Medal - she always retained a sense of aggrieved bemusement about that! (And in my opinion, Thunder in the Sky would have been a worthy winner.)
So what were the qualities in her writing that earned her such acclaim and such devotion from her readers?
David Fickling, editor of many of her books, has called her 'a born writer', and surely she was - with the desire to write from an early age, and an enviable gift of fluency that made writing look easy. In our conversations she told me that she didn't like revising her work, and only did so at the request of editors, sometimes reluctantly. She was described by John Rowe Townsend (I think it was him) as 'an Ancient Mariner of a storyteller' for her compelling plots. She was particularly good at action, whether it involved horses and hunting, early aviation, sailing or mountain-climbing - the finale of The Boy who Wasn't There is truly nail-biting. Her characters and the tensions among them were never less than compelling; she was attuned to adolescent yearnings, frustrations and conflicts, and several of her stories involved a young person at odds with a demanding or ambitious parent and determined to find their own way in life. And no one - not even Dick Francis or Cormac McCarthy - wrote about horses better than she did; their beauty, grace and vigour, their personalities.
(Erm, hunting. If you follow this blog, and especially if you've read my most recent Animal Advocate feature on Rob Pownall of Protect the Wild, you may be surprised that I could enjoy the Flambards books, especially Flambards itself and Flambards Divided, with their relish of fox-hunting. I'm a long-term supporter of the League Against Cruel Sports and now of Protect the Wild, and can't wait to see a complete ban. The Flambards books, however, depict fox-hunting in the past, which in my opinion is where it belongs.)
Meg Rosoff is another author who was impressed by the qualities of Kathy's work, writing in a Books for Keeps article: "I started reading and couldn’t stop. Something about this woman’s writing resonated directly with my brain and my heart – the unsentimental, sharply-observed, clear voiced love of horses and riders, the trials of adolescence, of friendship and country life and the endless difficulties with families, all rendered in the most intelligent elegant prose."
Best-known for the Flambards quartet and the Pennington stories (oh yes - she could write wonderfully about music, too; Patrick Pennington was a gifted pianist) Kathy wrote a number of stand-alones that were just as impressive. A favourite of mine - and, I know, of hers too - is A Pattern of Roses, a beautiful and lyrical mystery which begins when Tim, son of materialistic, class-conscious parents making a new life in the country, finds a gravestone with his own initials on it, marking the death of a fifteen-year-old boy from Edwardian times with whom he finds affinity. This book was filmed, incidentally giving the young Helena Bonham Carter her first screen role as the imperious, privileged Nettie. The cover shown here uses Kathy's own artwork - a trained artist, she provided cover images for several of her novels as well as illustrations for some younger books. Her painterly eye is apparent in her evocation of place, shown here just before Tim finds the other boy's grave:
He walked across the churchyard, through long yellowing grass. It tapered down to the compost heap, the elm-trees closing in on it. A few graves humped themselves untidily; it was the cheap end, Tim thought, the stones, roughly etched, all illegible now with lichen and time. There was a rose-bush growing, with strange, smoky-violet flowers dropping faded petals into the grass. The colour smouldered; the roses, the rotting peat round the gardener's heap, a tangle of old man's beard like white mist over the elm hedge. Tim saw it with his O-Level artist's eye, and smelt the old summer going and all the years and years that had gone before in the decayed, deserted corner of the churchyard.
The Flambards trilogy (as it was then - the fourth book, Flambards Divided, followed after an interval of twelve years) was filmed by Yorkshire television - it's well worth watching, but true Peyton lovers will prefer the novels. I still love, as I did back in my twenties, the sense of imminent change as the First World War approached; the feudalism of Uncle Russell and his obsession with hunting, the social inequities that Christina's cousin Will sees clearly. When the kindly groom Dick is unfairly dismissed by Uncle Russell and Christina visits him at home where he cares for his invalid mother, she contrasts the poverty there with the attention lavished on the Flambards horses:
She thought of the new blanket on Goldwillow that Dick had smoothed the last time she had seen him in the stable: thick and bright with stripes of black and red on deep yellow. The blankets she looked at now were grey and threadbare. Dick's mother was less than a Flambards horse. Dick had always known it. It was a part of his reserve, his quietness, knowing things like that, she thought.
Kathy hadn't at first intended Flambards to be published for children; it was at an editor's insistence that it appeared on a children's list, but as the series progressed to depict Christina in her twenties, widowed, divorced (sorry, spoilers) and contemplating a new beginning, it became what we would now call crossover fiction. Kathy wrote several adult novels too, though they never won acclaim to match her writing for young readers. The Sound of Distant Cheering is set in the world of horse-racing, clear-eyed enough to show the seamy, callous side of the industry alongside the glories and the triumphs: Jeremy, a trainer, thinks:
Oh, Jesus, who would be in the racing game! It was so magnificent at its best, seedy – to put it kindly – at the bottom. Human greed ruined it; the exploitation of one of the kindest, gamest animals on earth for money ...
Possibly her favourite of her adult novels was Dear Fred, set in Victorian Newmarket, in which teenage Laura is obsessed with the champion jockey Fred Archer before finding loves of her own. Kathy felt that this had been published rather uncertainly, not a children's book but not marketed for adult either; in recent years she hoped that it might be reissued, something we discussed. Anyone ...?
I will miss my visits. Kathy was always great company - forthright, sparky and funny. Sometimes we talked in her study, a spacious room overlooking the garden and her bird-feeders, with shelves lined with her own books among many others. On the walls were a number of fabric collages she had made, all depicting horses in her distinctive style. On warm days we would sit outside the back door looking out at the large pond, or walk into the wood she had planted alongside the house over many years - another commendable achievement.
She'd started another novel, for adults, in her nineties, but failing concentration halted its progress. It's sad to think that there will never be another K M Peyton book - but for her many admirers, or for those new to her work, there's that huge, glorious list of titles to revisit or discover for the first time, and the inspiration she's left to both readers and writers.