No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, April 15, 2007

#6: Witchwater Country -- Garry Kilworth

I've owned this book for a long time, having picked it up because it's set in the area where I grew up. Kilworth's fictional Tenbridge must be somewhere pretty close to the house on the marshes where I spent the first two decades of my life. (I did spend some time trying to work out exactly where it was: close enough to the River Roach, and the mills, for kids to swim there; more than an hour's cart-ride from Rochford Market; not Canewdon, or Paglesham, because they're both named. But Tenbridge doesn't occupy a distinct physical location, of course: it's the fictional essence of village life in that part of Essex.)

It's set in the early 1950s. The story's narrator, Raymond 'Titch' Swan, is ten years old, and spends the summer hanging around with his mates, getting into mischief, making up fantastic tales about the world he lives in. Are there water-witches at the bottom of every pond? Is the old lady in the cottage one of the witches? For there are witches, everyone knows it: chiefly in Canewdon, where Titch's Aunt Elinor lives ...

The fantasies Titch and his friends weave are scary, but much realer and more exciting (and, paradoxically, ultimately safer) than the mysteries of adult life that surround them and begin to impinge. Though this is a tale told by a child, the story is as much about the grown-ups (observed uncomprehendingly) as about the gradual transition from fantasy to reality. And Titch digs his heels in as he's dragged (metaphorically) into the real world.

Though the voice of the narration is occasionally clumsy (sometimes too plodding to be the child's voice it's striving for, sometimes authentically bogged down in detail, demonstrating how different a child's point of view can be), Titch's sheer ignorance of the events around him is conveyed very clearly. He's terrified of witches, but then there's Aunt Elinor whose pagan beliefs upset Nan. His grandfather's artificial leg gathers a hundred stories about it, but Titch never stops to wonder at the sleeping arrangements in the cottage.

And there are some truly nasty scenes. The discovery of 'Amy Johnson'; the sheer distress that the badger's furry corpse caused me; the grim reality of the Flood of '53, which is described more vividly and less romantically than any other fictional version I've read.

Enjoyed this much more than I expected, and found it astonishingly evocative of a landscape I know very well, although it'd changed quite a bit over the twenty-odd years between the novel's events and my early memories. It's also an interesting exploration of the conflict between fantasy and reality, the contrast between childhood terrors and the mundane horror of human interaction.


  1. Garry Kilworth3:05 pm

    Hi Tamaranth

    Thanks for a nice crit on (what is to me now) an ancient novel. You're right, a little plodding in places and too much information at times, but it was an early effort. 'Tenbridge' is Stambridge. Two of my children's books are set in the same area - 'The Rain Ghost' and 'The Raiders'.


  2. Hi, it's years since you wrote this but I just stumbled on it. I love this book, as I live in Rochford not far from Stambridge Mills which I assumed to be the inspiration behind 'Tembridge'. The mills today are derelict and crumbling into a state of sad neglect. But this book has stayed with me ever since my Dad and I read it in the 80's. A great story and I loved the spooky fancies of the children in the novel.