The Otterbury Incident

by Harry on February 24, 2009

Rereading a much-loved book from childhood is a bit like meeting an old childhood friend. There’s doubt, until you finally meet, whether the magic of friendship will still be there and I imagine that it can be quite a disaster (though this has never been my own experience, in fact I’ve found that the people I liked as a kid and have encountered since have turned into quite delightful adults). So it was with some trepidation that I read The Otterbury Incident (out of print, but available from US amazon here and UK amazon here) to my oldest girl a few years ago, especially because the edition that was in print then lacks the lovely Ardizzone cover from the Puffin edition otterbury-incident (the original Ardizzone illustrations are all inside though and here are some more). My dad read it to me when I was 8 (it was published when he was 8) and I loved it so much that I reread it several times, the last well into my teens. But, who knows, perhaps the magical world of bomb sites, spivs, boys brutalized by their guardians, and one kindly teacher, would no longer have any hold on me, let alone her.

It’s the only children’s book that Cecil Day-Lewis (Poet Laureate, father of Daniel, who moonlighted as mystery writer Nicholas Blake — as my middle one just said “Cecil — that sounds like the name of a poet”) wrote. It is based on a Vichy-era French film that my expert friend says Day-Lewis must have seen in France shortly after liberation because it couldn’t have been shown in England, and which must also have formed the basis for Hue and Cry (Jack Warner as villain!) and, believe it or not, Rex Milligan’s Busy Term, which is a comic take on it. It’s set in market town shortly after the war – the Incident is a large bomb-site which two bands of boys make the site of an elaborate ongoing war game. One of their number breaks a school window, and is required to pay for it, but is so afraid of his guardians (and rightly so – interesting that Day-Lewis can’t bring himself to make parents the brutalisers, and interesting too that no other adults are monitoring the situation) that he can’t tell them. The boys band together to raise the money by bob-a-jobbing, even allowing girls into the organization (because “everyone knows that people only buy flags from pretty girls”) and then, suddenly, catch wind of illegal goings on which they attempt, at considerable risk and with no adult help, to foil.

Was it up-to-scratch? Well, I enjoyed it from the start. But my daughter, after about 30 pages, was willing to give up. After 40, though, she was riveted, and insisted on long readings to get through it. It’s fast-moving, thrilling, and appropriately poetic (it reads out loud brilliantly). The danger into which the children get is realistic and, at one point, genuinely frightening, while the companionship of the boys and, despite the danger they face, the freedom they have from adult interference, is a delightful escapism for middle class American children for whom unsupervised play is almost unheard-of. Lovely, even if you have to read one without the Ardizzone cover.

My middle child turned 8 this month. She picked it out 2 weeks ago, and found it riveting from page 2. In 5 years time I’ll enjoy reading it again to the little monster, assuming he allows the rest of us to survive that long.



Mark R 02.24.09 at 5:22 pm

Wonderful! I remember reading that… glue bombs, a home-made tank… As you say, a sense of real danger. It has floated into my head from time to time, never when I’ve been at a computer or in a bookshop, and I’ve thought I must see if it’s still around. Thanks for the link.


belle le triste 02.24.09 at 6:22 pm

i love the “many kids sit on hefty villain to immobilise him” bit of the picture — his expression of straining outrage at the overturned world is excellent

ardizzone is tremendous: i like in his own his own books (which were i guess written for slightly younger readers) that he often occasionally uses speech bubbles, a convention quite rare in non comic-strip illustration (for children or grown-ups)

i had a large collection of puffins as a child but actually always steered clear of this, on the rather misguided assumption that c. day lewis was a hopelessly obvious c. s. lewis imitator, and i preferred the original thank-you


Chris Brooke 02.24.09 at 9:15 pm

Yes – a very good book – I think I read it several times when I was a child, in the early 1980s.


gmoke 02.24.09 at 9:22 pm

Do you know _The Paul Street Boys_ by Ferenc Molnar? It is a novel of two rival gangs of boys in the streets of Budapest before WWI. I haven’t read the novel but saw the 1969 Hungarian film based upon it. It could be a good, politically deeper, companion to _the Otterbury Incident_.


belle le triste 02.24.09 at 10:14 pm

a favourite of mine as a kid — also in puffin — on this same theme*, viz gang of urchin kids foil desperate ruffians, is paul berna’s “the hundred million francs” (“le cheval sans tête” in the original)

*which is i would guess somewhat ubiquitous in kid-lit — the posher family-values version being enid blyton’s famous five (a series which began in 1942, and blyton didn’t invent the idea of children foiling crime) — but what makes these a bit different is that the kids are urban and poor, and that the backdrop is bombsite rubble


John Quiggin 02.24.09 at 10:26 pm

I also enjoyed it, and remember it was my first exposure to any kind of rhyming slang.


Alan B 02.24.09 at 11:27 pm

And the rough German equivalent of same being the wonderful Emil and the Detectives, also published (in translation) by Puffin. Maybe every European country has one?


Phil 02.24.09 at 11:58 pm

Not sure about the slang, but it was definitely my first exposure to “for a handful of silver he left us”. I loved that book & still have it (thankfully my mother hadn’t got rid of it when she died). I must press it on the kids, although I’m afraid my 13-year-old may have missed his chance. I used to have Rex Milligan’s Busy Term, bizarrely enough, although I got rid of it fairly soon afterwards and probably haven’t thought of it in 30 years.

Now I just need to remember the name of the book I bought in preference to RM’sBT the first time I saw the aforementioned on sale, and which on balance I liked much more. (It’s one of those AGH! GONE! memory-gap moments – you know, your partner mentions somebody you haven’t seen in years and you think, oh yes, Caroline, she was friends with… AGH! GONE! I hate it when that happens.) Kids, Scotland, an island, an eccentric landowner, a notice reading “TRESPASSERS WILL BE PERSECUTED” – ring any bells?


Jim Birch 02.25.09 at 2:22 am

Thanks for the memory reviver. Loved that book. Still have copies of the Tim and Ginger books with those great Ardizzone illustrations.


ajay 02.25.09 at 10:08 am

“The Case of the Silver Egg”, anyone?
Otterbury was the first time I came across “The Lost Leader” as well as terms like “R.A.” and “spiv”, both of which my patient parents explained to me…


Phil 02.25.09 at 10:49 am

I loved the Case of the Silver Egg, although I only read it a couple of times. (My kids are also obsessive re-readers, which is surprising, annoying and gratifying.)

“He’s not bad,” said Mini, “as grownups go.”
“No,” agreed X. “And, as grownups go, he’s gone.”

(Now, somebody must remember “TRESPASSERS WILL BE PERSECUTED”…)


David 02.25.09 at 11:22 am

Another Agh, gone! if I may – a ripping yarn for children about Russia before the Revolution: the hero is a naval cadet who befriends the haemophiliac prince and falls under the spell of Rasputin. It’s unapologetically White Russian in outlook, and I remember being scandalised by that as a child. Tonally, it’s the sort of thing Geoffrey Trease might have written (but for the absence of a feisty girl and a scholarly boy and, obviously, the politics). Anyone? anyone?


ajay 02.25.09 at 11:41 am

11: that line was stolen from Saki! “She was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go, she went.”


Phil 02.25.09 at 1:20 pm

13: so it is. Didn’t spot that at the time, for the obvious reason. Still, that scene also stuck in my head because of the novelty of kids openly saying they were glad the grownup(s) had gone – not to mention the slightly scandalous novelty of a grownup (the author) apparently approving.


ejh 02.25.09 at 1:49 pm

ring any bells?

Yep, but all of them coming through blurred.


Phil 02.25.09 at 2:37 pm

So is the memory, alas. (It may not have been Scotland; in fact, I think it was probably England. There was a castle. There may have been a fete. The ‘persecuted’ trespassers ended up locked in a church tower and were rescued by someone who saw that they were flying the Union Jack upside down. The funny part was, they didn’t realise they were flying the Union Jack upside down.)

It’s nowhere near as good as the Otterbury Incident, and doesn’t have that ‘kids’ world’ feeling that we’ve been talking about. (On which see also John Verney’s series of books about different members of one family – Seven sunflower seeds was my favourite.)


harry b 02.25.09 at 2:41 pm

I don’t know any of the above mentioned except Emil and the Detectives, so will search for those named, and hope that David’s and Phil’s memories improve, or there’ll be trouble. Henry Treece? Malcolm Saville? Neither sound right for either book (google is no help with “trespassers will be persecuted”).

Someone asked for a post on Geoffrey Trease a year or so ago, so I got ahold of a lot of them, and have been re-reading my way through the old ones and reading some new ones (he was still writing, and well, in the 90’s). I’ll post sometime.


ejh 02.25.09 at 4:02 pm

“Crying is strictly forbidden.” That was Emil and the Detectives, wasn’t it? Also “I am going to speak of the moon – look at me!” which I assume works as a joke in the original German…


belle le triste 02.25.09 at 4:16 pm

it was meant to be a very lame joke even in the original — it’s the passage where the pupils all arrange to laugh at the lesson in a strict and obviously unrealistic pattern, and the teacher (who is proud of his work) ends up being woebegone


ejh 02.25.09 at 8:57 pm

And then they’re all ashamed of themselves, as I recall.


praisegod barebones 02.25.09 at 9:07 pm

Phil at 8: the rhyming slang stuck in my head for years:

‘Diversion in force; Persian horse; nasturtium sauce’ comes up somewhere, iirc.


PreachyPreach 02.25.09 at 10:32 pm

Ahah, I thought this rang a bell. From the ‘other books you might enjoy’ bit at the back of my mum’s copy of the Hobbit (liberated when I were a nipper) -an early 60s Puffin edition.

“This is a really super story – I should know: I wrote it. My name is George, and I’m Ted’s second-in-command: Ted is centre-forward of the Junior XI at King’s School in Otterbury and a first-class chap. He’s the leader of our company, and the story began with our battle against Toppy’s company. We were so worked up in the excitement of victory that Nick Yates kicked a football through the big window of the classroom next to the Headmaster’s study. Poor old Nick! When the Head said he’d have to pay for it he looked like a puppy with distemper: he’d no more hope of raising £4 14s. 6d in a week than of going to the moon. So we signed a Peace with Toppy’s company and planned Operation Glazier to get the money for Nick. And if you want to know how it worked, and what happened after it was over, you’d better get cracking on Chapter 1.

(P.S. George is right, although he sounds a bit too pleased with himself -it’s a very good story and we think everyone between 9 and 12 will enjoy it – girls as well as boys – Editor)”

You don’t get blurbs like that these days…


jazzbumpa 02.27.09 at 3:33 am

ajay and Phil –

Another variation on the Saki theme, from the song “My Shy Violet,” recorded by the Mills Brothers.

“She was faithful as girls go, and as girls go, she’s gone.”

Strangely, I can’t remember any of the other lyrics. Can’t locate them on the web, either. The things you remember . . .


Robert Hanks 02.27.09 at 11:31 am

Is Phil’s Agh! Gone Geoffrey Trease’s No Boats at Bannermere? In which case, was David’s Treaseish (Treaseian?) Agh! Gone an unconscious response?

In regard to which: the set-up does sound like GT, except that he was an unapologetic lefty – Bows against the Barons was a big hit in Stalin’s Soviet Union – and I can’t imagine him being sympathetic to the Whites.


Phil 02.27.09 at 4:28 pm

‘Fraid not – it was whimsical sub-Buckeridge rather than boom-swinging sub-Ransome.


Nathaniel 02.28.09 at 6:37 pm

I read this one as a kid (a lot more recent that most of you). Had the same CS Lewis imitator first reaction. I remember they used the “sex appeal” of one of the character’s little sister in some scheme, which struck me as somewhat inappropriate. Beyond that I can’t remember much except kid gang warfare and an abandoned (bombed?) warehouse.


Phil 02.28.09 at 8:53 pm

Big sister, I think you’ll find, which may be a bit less creepy.

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