It looks like a golden age for children's writing. A British tradition has been reinvigorated by two good, though overrated, authors. JK Rowling and Philip Pullman differ from previous classic authors in aiming at a slightly older age range, and their metaphysics are silly. Still, they reflect our timesby Richard Jenkyns / October 22, 2005 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2005 issue of Prospect Magazine
When I was at prep school at the end of the 1950s, Wednesday was a red-letter day, because it was then that Eagle arrived. This was the only comic that we were allowed to read, and it is a tribute to Eagle’s quality that we revelled in it even though it was lawful. The first two pages depicted the adventures of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, who did battle with the totalitarian green men of Venus, the Treens, led by their evil genius, the Mekon. That was the best of the adventure strips; the others were of variable quality, but none was contemptible either as story or as artwork. There was Luck of the Legion, a rip-off of Beau Geste; there was a cowboy, Jeff Arnold, Rider of the Range; there was Storm Nelson, who sailed round the world with a small private fleet foiling villains; and there was historical adventure with Jack O’Lantern, an English boy living in Napoleonic times. The best of the funny strips was Harris Tweed, Extra Special Agent, featuring the exploits of an incompetent sleuth; wittily drawn by John Ryan, it was surprisingly sophisticated in its humour. There were other features beside the strips. The centrefold was a cut-open picture of something mechanical, usually a ship, plane or train. There was a page of reporting from Macdonald Hastings, Eagle Special Investigator. There was a letter from the editor and items about hobbies. On the back page there was a different kind of strip, telling the life story of a real person. Sometimes the subject was a famous Christian, like St Paul or Livingstone, but more often he was a secular hero such as Marco Polo or Baden-Powell. Eagle’s greatest ever success was the life of Winston Churchill, skilfully told by Clifford Makins and superbly illustrated by Frank Bellamy. I can still relive the excitement with which we clustered round each new Eagle on its arrival to see the latest pictures of second world war blitz and battle.
Eagle is so vastly different from anything on the market today that it has become a document of historical and sociological importance; nostalgia is therefore not only a temptation but a duty. It was edited by Marcus Morris, an elegantly unconventional clergyman, who had founded it with the aim of improving boys’ reading matter. Like Baden-Powell, founder of the scout movement, Morris understood what made boys tick. Whereas The Boy’s Own Paper (then nearing the end of its long life) and Young Elizabethan exuded a perceptible atmosphere of moral uplift, there was no feeling with Eagle that you were being patronised or got at. And indeed, part of Morris’s secret was that he respected his young readers. He believed that small boys could appreciate a product of high quality (the artwork in Eagle Annual above all, which came out each year at Christmas time, was of a standard that one can barely imagine today). He also trusted their attention span: the life of Churchill ran for a year and at least one of the Dan Dare stories for even longer. He assumed that boys would be keen on science and machinery, and could be educated intelligently in these subjects. Some things in Eagle were more grown-up in presentation than a good deal that passes for cultural programming on television now. Marcus Morris would not have dreamed of patronising a nine year old the way that Simon Schama or Tony Robinson patronise the adult public.