"Inspector Brook gave one look into the crate which Toppy had forced open. He muttered something about 'right under my nose - and it took a gang of kids to find out'."
It took an absolutely iron will to set aside my Grown-Up reading last weekend.
To leave The Seamstress for a few days was agony because I am loving it, but I did and as quick as a flash there I was curled up with The Otterbury Incident, my original copy and gradually noticing that all the foxing of the pages was at little person's hand level, presumably mine.
The story recounted in The Otterbury Incident actually derived by Cecil Day Lewis from a French film of the 1940s A Nous Les Gosses, but relocated in post-war England where bomb sites provided an exciting part of the landscape for adventurous children, the black market was a fabulous source of intrigue for the child detectives and the post-war gung-ho battle re-enactments offered the staple of 1950s childhood play.
We were after all the generation of children exposed to a weekly Sunday afternoon dose of monochrome war glory as the films emerged that translated all the derring do into heroic and victorious encounters of courage and bravery, and with it came a steady stream of heros and heroines to emulate in play. That said I don't remember playing at being Violette Szabo very often but Bookhound was heavily into Spitfires and Lancaster Bombers.
To this day he and I are often heard to remark on a cold, grey Sunday afternoon,
'I could just fancy watching The Dambusters...Reach for the Sky...633 Squadron'.
There will be a fanciful attempt at the theme music, bit of thumb and forefinger reversed over eyes for goggles stuff, some 'chocks away' and ' the Mohne Dam's gone Gibbo', then I'll say how I always cry when Guy throws the dog lead in the bin at the end and we'll be over it.
That's fifty years on so little wonder then that the boys (girls didn't really count) in The Otterbury Incident published in 1948 are taking it all so seriously as the rival gangs work out their ambushes, attacks and defensive tactics in the language of the war,
' When I give the word, this party will attack the tank with automatic weapon fire. Their objective will be to divert the attention of the tank-crew and the escorting troops from the main attack.'
And so power is again handed to the children as the boys regularly gather at The Incident, which now I remember was the name given to the bomb site but by the end of the book has also come to mean another Incident of far greater import as the boys track and corner whoever has stolen their hard-earned money. The money that was supposed to pay for the repair of the broken school window (football). The rallying signal is a whistled rendition of Lillibullero and when the two gangs merge to solve the crime and go into the final battle there is no messing about; airguns, dummy hand grenades and bows and arrows abound (is this where we got the idea?) and they beat each other black and blue for real.
The book was unputdownable again and this is still amazing me, Bookhound had read it as a child too and remembered far more than I did, but there was even more amazement to come.
How can I know someone for thirty four years and only just discover that while I was sedately learning to skip in an infant's school playground south of the River Thames, somewhere north of the river the six-year old Bookhound was being marched to the headteacher by the playground ladies.
Once in the presence he was advised that his gang actually had to disband because it had got too big and they were frightening the girls.
'What in heaven's name were you doing' I asked with some trepidation.
Apparently it was what we might now term a health and safety issue, joining hands in a great sweeping line across the width of the playground and then running full pelt the entire length, probably shouting geronimo or something, but bodies went flying and it had to stop.
'What did you do then' I asked.
'Picked flowers' he said...
Lest his leadership skills and courage be called into doubt he quickly added that he made membership cards for his next gang in the juniors, and this did involve ambushes and treacle bombs. Thankfully no fatalities but it must have been a close run thing.
This all leads me to believe that perhaps l was much safer south of the river chairing my PDSA Busy Bees club and saving milk bottle tops to turn into Guide Dogs and that thankfully my eventual meeting with Bookhound was still some sixteen years off.
Final word to Marcus Crouch in The Nesbit Tradition for a grown-up's verdict on The Otterbury Incident
'In the telling the absurd plot is given the illusion of realism by a skilful selection of details, and its improbabilities are masked by pace and brilliant timing..'
I'd have to add yet again... and the boundless limits of a childhood imagination, it all seemed perfectly plausible to me.