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The Eagle of the Ninth, original book jacket OUP

Sally Hawkins, who writes for the Sunday Times, was asked to choose a ‘special book’ that changed her life, and explain why it means so much to her.

When I was eight, my taste suddenly moved on from What Katy Did at School and Swallows and Amazons to history. History with boys in it. The Eagle of the Ninth wasn’t the first historical novel I read, but it is one I found myself caught up in all over again, when the film version appeared in 2011. Fifty years on, I found its you-were-there depiction of Roman Britain and gripping plot as beguiling as ever.

I now realise I can trace my academic choices back to this tale of a young man searching for a lost legion — and missing father. Rosemary Sutcliff based it on authentic sources, and this intrigued me. The novel fired my interest in history; it was lurking behind my teenage passion for the First World War poets; and, from there, it was just a short step to my signing up for postgraduate degrees in medieval literature.

Re-reading Sutcliff, I realise just how un-condescending to younger readers her style and vocabulary are: what they don’t understand will just have to be looked up in a dictionary or on the internet. But the story is so compellingly told, they won’t be put off. More important, the book taught the younger me about friendship, courage and integrity. Sutcliff’s heroes are models of how to be good people, but never priggish or unbelievable. I bet George R R Martin read this book before embarking on his Game of Thrones series. The Wall for him is as potent a symbol of the divide between civilisation and darkness as it is for Sutcliff’s young Roman officer.

On November 4th, 1992, The Times newspaper recorded briefly the memorial service for “Miss Rosemary Sutcliff”.

The Secretary of State for National Heritage was represented by Mr Vaughan Rees at a memorial service for Miss Rosemary Sutcliff held yesterday (Nov 4th) at St James’s, Piccadilly.

The Rev Ulla Monberg officiated.

The Rev Peter Trafford and Mrs Sarah Palmer read the lessons, Ms Jill Black and Mr Anthony Lawton, godson and chairman, Sussex Dolphin, read from Miss Sutcliff’s works and Mr John Bell from the works of Kipling. Mr Murray Pollinger, principal, Murray Pollinger, and Mrs Penelope Lively gave addresses.

The Telegraph gave much more detail of who was there, and the readings.

A memorial service for Miss Rosemary Sutcliff was held yesterday at St James’s, Piccadilly. The Rev Ulla Monberg officiated, assisted by the Rev Peter Trafford.

Mrs Sarah Palmer read a lesson and Mrs Jill Black read from Miss Sutcliff’s “Sun Horse, Moon Horse”. Mr John Bell read from Rudyard Kipling’s “A Song to Mithras” and Mr Anthony Lawton (cousin and godson), Chairman of Sussex Dolphin, read from Miss Sutcliff’s autobiography “Blue Remembered Hills”, and from “Puffin Passport”. Addresses were given by Mr Murray Pollinger and Mrs Penelope Lively. “Blue Remembered Hills”, an Air for Rosemary Sutcliff, by Mr Steafan Hannigan, was played by him on the Irish Pipes.

The Secretary of State for National Heritage was represented by Mr Vaughan Rees. Among others present were:

Mrs Anthony Lawton, Rowan Lawton, Dominic Lawton, Miss Heather Lawton, Mr Michael Palmer, Mr John Sutcliff, Miss Rachel Sutcliff, Mr and Mrs Richard Wood, Mr Jonathan Wood, Mr James Wood, Mr Edward Sutcliff.

Viscountess Hanworth, Lady Reynolds, Mr Philip Attenborough, Hodder and Stoughton, Miss Margaret Clark, Bodley Head, Mrs Elizabeth Attenborough, Penguin Books, Mrs Jane Nissen, Hamish Hamilton, Mr Maurice Lyon, Puffin Books, Miss Julie Myerson and Miss Caroline Royds, Walker Books, Miss Catherine Toseland, Random House, Mrs Julia MacRae, Managing Director, Julia MacRae Books.

Miss Nina Bawden, representing the Royal Society of Literature, Mr Mark Le Fanu, General Secretary, Society of Authors, Mr John Paxton, representing the West Country Writers’ Association, Miss Paddy Moon, Association of Disabled Professionals, Mr J Eagle, the Ninth Legion.

Mrs Murray Pollinger, Mr Walter Hodges, Miss Shirley Felts, Miss Emma Chichester Clark, Mr Donald Fisher, Miss Gillian Avery, Mr David Davis, Miss Christine Long, Mr Christopher Fry, Mrs Robert Gittings, Mr and Mrs Brian Alderson, Miss Naomi Lewis, Mrs Anthony Burgess, Mrs Jill Paton Walsh, Mrs Elaine Moss, Miss Philippa Pearce, Miss Vivienne Menkes and Miss Frances Lincoln, together with other friends.

Cover of The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks was nominated for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. Holly Sykes, the heroine, appears in some form in each of its six segments, which begin in 1984 and stretch to 2034. The sixth and final portion imagines a near future in which an ‘Endarkment’ has reset the world into barbaric times.

In an interview for an online magazine about books, arts, and culture—The Millions— David Mitchell was asked whether any specific sources inspired his vision of how the world might look in twenty years time. He spoke first of a “really good book published in the 1950s called The Death of Grass where a killer virus doesn’t kill us, humans…but gets the crops we eat”. The second source of inspiration was Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth series, which is “the book that Holly is reading to the kids in the last section”.

Cover of The Lantern Bearers

 

Cover of The Death of Grass

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rosemary Sutcliff … was an English, wheelchair-bound classicist in the 1950s who wrote about the Romans leaving Britain and the collapse of Roman civilization. The series focuses on the power vacuums a collapse of that magnitude leaves, and how the innocents always end up having to pay more then the soldiers. Those books are colossal. They are fantastic. In the third book of the trilogy, The Lantern Bearers, the best of the three, there is a scene where the Roman ships leave the shores of Britain for the last time, and they know it’s the last time. What are they leaving behind? What’s going to happen to these people? That’s what was at the forefront of my mind—really how our world will look to my daughter as she grows—as I was writing that last section.

The Independent (London) —August 20, 1992—published some comments on their obituary of Rosemary Sutcliff, which noted that she had “a feeling for the mending side of life”.

Last year I interviewed Rosemary Sutcliff on the Arthurian theme in her fiction.

The published text arrived a matter of days before her death and on rereading the transcript I was reminded of her vitality and enthusiasm, of an honest approach which combined scholarship with an unsentimental attitude to pain and suffering.

As Julia Eccleshare observed of her writing (of the obituary), allusions to historical sources are present but never signposted, the battle narrative magnificent yet never glorifying the strife it depicts. These traits were most apparent perhaps in her adult novel Sword at Sunset, the ‘autobiography’ of King Arthur, and the work of which she was most proud. But as Sutcliff herself acknowledged, she also had ‘a feeling for the mending side of life’ and whether writing of the physically and emotionally crippled, or, when following in the footsteps of her beloved Kipling, of the healing which happens when clashing cultures learn to live together, her prose was always characterised by compassion.

She felt that as the years progressed she had become a tougher writer, a belief reinforced by a reading of The Shining Company, itself based upon the poem Y Gododdin, which celebrates the annihilation of an army at Catterick in cAD600. (Sacrifice was always a theme which fascinated her).

Yet for all her seriousness, she remained a cheerful and remarkably modest author, seemingly surprised by her success.’You’re always terrified that the books you write are going to go downhill,’ she once said. It seems unlikely that those books which remain to be published will disappoint.

Cover of Books for Keeps, March 2010

Brian Alderson founded the Children’s Books History Society; he was once Children’s Books Editor for The Times newspaper. Writing in Books for Keeps in 2010, he  recalled an anecdote once told to librarians by Rosemary Sutcliff in the 1950s: ‘That’s not a sand-castle,’ said the busy child on the beach, ‘I’m building a temple to Mithras.’

In all probability the temple-builder’s enthusiasm for the work came from hearing its famed serialisation on ‘Children’s Hour’ but (perhaps unlike television serials) the wireless version sent listeners straight back to the book to get the author’s full-dress narrative to go with the spoken one.

They were keen readers, those librarians – our first critics, long before the academic brigades were mustered – and for them, at that time, the landing of The Eagle of the Ninth had something of the force of a revelation. True, it did not come from an entirely unknown author. Continue Reading »

When Rosemary Sutcliff contracted Still’s Disease —severe juvenile arthritis, which left her mobility severely affected all her life—in the 1920s, the terms  ‘disability’ & ‘handicap’ were used equally. Now 90% of the use is  ‘disability’.

Relative use of terms disability and handicap

 

When she was first ill, she was most likey to be said to be handicapped. By the time of her death she was more likely to be said to be disabled; and were she alive now, increasingly she would be said to have a disability.

Comparing being disabled, crippled and handicapped

Frank Cottrell Boyce, author of Millions

Like Rosemary Sutcliff, Frank Cottrell Boyce was awarded the Carnegie medal—for his children’s book, Millions. Like Rosemary, he believes passionately in reading for the sake of reading. I suspect also that, like Rosemary, he is passionate about being read to.

An article in the Guardian newspaper on Friday last quotes him from a lecture in which he argues that children are too often asked to analyse the text of a book or respond to a story with their own story, thus “polluting the whole reading experience”.

I visit many schools. I see amazing, creative work being done – especially in primary schools. But I have a nagging fear that in encouraging literacy we are killing the pleasure of reading…

There’s a humbling, Homeric magic in the sight of a crowd of children sitting down waiting to listen to your story…

Time and time again I come across teachers reading a story and then asking immediately for some kind of feedback. A piece of ‘creative writing’ ‘inspired by’ the story. Some opinions about character and wow words. Something to show the parents or the school inspectors. It pollutes the reading experience by bringing something transactional in to play. It destroys pleasure.

Pleasure in reading is deeply important. Pleasure is a profound and potent form of attention, a kind of slow thinking.When I offer you a story I don’t want you to come back to me with a description of how I did it. I don’t think of my reader as a trainee writer. I’m hoping that it stays in your mind and comes out in different ways I could never have predicted – as an engineering idea, as a cake, as a hug that you give your dad.

We think of reading as a solitary activity but some of my most important reading experiences were very much shared.

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