Practically Marzipan: An Obituary

I discovered last week that William Mayne was dead and had been for about ten days. The reason it had taken me so long to find out was that hardly anyone had reported it – the Darlington and Stockton Times had a story here, and that was the only mainstream publication to have mentioned it at all. Since I wrote the column last week there have been a few more mentions of his death – Locus has a bit here, and links to this bit in the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, and I’ve discovered this two line obit in the Times. There’s a nice, long piece by Julia Eccleshare in the Guardian too. Which probably makes this column unnecessary. Still, though.

I suspect I made this more about me than was strictly warranted.

[An edited version of this was published in today's New Indian Express]

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This must be how the Michael Jackson fans felt.

When Michael Jackson died last year and various people were writing obituaries, I was a little disturbed by friends’ refusal to confront the child sexual abuse allegations. It wasn’t their conviction that he was innocent of the charges that was bothersome (everyone has the right to weigh the evidence for themselves and believe what they choose) – it was the complete dismissal by people who would normally take such allegations very seriously, just because they happened to be fans of the accused. That’s the easy way out, of course; it’s harder by far to acknowledge that an artist whose work you love and admire may have had serious flaws or committed crimes. There were obituaries that did just that, and those must have been difficult to write.

Fans of British children’s writer William Mayne do not have the comfort of wishing the bad parts away. Mayne was charged with the sexual abuse of young female fans. He pleaded guilty (though he later retracted this statement) and was convicted in 2004. He was imprisoned for two years.

I discovered Mayne’s writing only last year, and as an adult. I had heard him spoken of in connection with other children’s writers I liked, and around this time last summer invested in secondhand copies of A Grass Rope (which won a Carnegie Medal in 1957) and A Swarm in May (which was filmed in the 1980s). And I was overwhelmed; this was phenomenal writing. Not quite real, not quite fantasy, deep and introspective and uncomfortable and lovely. When I look back and try to remember my childhood (which wasn’t that long ago) Mayne’s books feel achingly familiar.

And this is not just my opinion. Mayne was widely acknowledged as one of Britain’s finest children’s writers. In addition to all the critical acclaim, he was quite popular. In addition to the movie of A Swarm in May, a five-part television series adaptation of another of his works, Earthfasts, was shown on the BBC in 1994. By anyone’s standards he ought to be considered at least a reasonably well-known writer.

Mayne was found dead in his home on the 24th of March this year. He was 82, and he seems to have died alone. Only one newspaper (and not a particularly big one) has reported his death. As of this date (almost two weeks after his death) none of the major papers have made mention of it. I don’t know why that is; whether it has anything to do with his crimes (and as I said before, such an obituary has to be hard to write) or he has just been forgotten.

Mayne was one of the greatest writers of the last century. His writing thrilled me when I first discovered it, and it continues to delight me. His actions in his personal life on the other hand upset and anger me. It’s a contradiction that we should all be used to handling by now (so many great artists have been less than ideal as human beings), yet somehow it’s still hard.

But I’m writing this column because Mayne deserves some sort of memorial, somewhere. He was brilliant, he was loathsome, but he mattered, and it would be shameful to let that knowledge die.

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Also (and I wish I could have hyperlinked this in the column itself) here is the Guardian’s report of Mayne’s trial. The quote from Mayne there enrages me.

6 Responses to “Practically Marzipan: An Obituary”

  1. I liked his writings too. I agree it is kind of sad, how people mix up things, personal and professional. He mattered; and that matters. I stick by you on this one. Thanks! :)

  2. You're certainly not sticking by me if you think it's sad that people mix these things up. His writing was brilliant and he confessed to sexually abusing children – those are separate statements, sure, but they both need to be acknowledged simultaneously. It's people who refuse to do that, or who shy away from stating the bad stuff, that set me off on writing this in the first place.

  3. Just picked this up. I knew Mayne very slightly. Not an easy or happy man – deeply screwed up. What he did to children was abominable, that's not to be denied. But his writings are another matter – quite wonderful and it enrages me he should be ignored like this. I know there's an obituary been written for the Independent and I bet they exist elsewhere. What would we have done to JM Barry these days? Thanks Kalaidoglide

  4. RIP Mayne

    I was a huge fan of his. Got to know the news only after reading your blog.

  5. Granny – Barrie, most of the Victorians…at some point you have to accept that the brilliance of their work might actually be tied up in the creepiness of their personal lives. It's a difficult thought.

    Gouthaman – Good to hear that he had other fans though.

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