When I was young I read a whimsical book by Beverley Nichols entitled The Tree That Sat Down. The story is set in a wood where four human characters – Judy and her grandmother Old Judy, and Sam and his grandfather Old Sam – run two rival shops. The Judys’ shop is set in the crook and hollow beneath an old willow tree, and there they sell all kinds of good and wholesome things to the talking animals of the wood. The Sams are newcomers and set up a rival shop in a ruined Model T Ford. Young Sam is a hoodlum and uses modern advertising techniques to sell worthless things to the animals, many of whom are nonetheless taken in. Sam recruits the help of Mr. Bruno, a bear who is basically decent but weak. In order to impress the woodland animals, Mr. Bruno has always pretended to come from ‘The Steppes of Russia’ and to be able to speak Russian, but Sam blackmails him, having recognized him from a visit to the circus from which Mr. Bruno had escaped. He becomes Sam’s bearspaw and bearsbody, doing nefarious errands for the young entrepreneur.
Into the wood comes a character who comes and goes through several of Beverley Nichols’ children’s books – the witch Miss Smith, with her attendant squad of toads. Though two or three centuries old, Miss Smith presents herself as a young lady of fashion. She is thoroughly evil, and Nichols describes this in a simple but succulent way:
“… all the evil things in the dark corners knew that she was passing… The snakes felt the poison tingling in their tails and made vows to sting something as soon as possible. The ragged toadstools oozed with more of their deadly slime… In many dark caves, wicked old spiders, who had long given up hope of catching a fly, began to weave again with tattered pieces of web, muttering to themselves as they mended the knots…”
Sam accepts her help in his commercial war, but soon finds himself dominated by her. She suggests sending a poisoned gift, which she will make, to the Judys. Sam seems terrified at the implications of this, but mutely agrees, and Mr. Bruno is forced to deliver the deadly package. He sets off to do so, but at the last moment surrenders in tears to Constable Monkey and Mr. Justice Owl.
The animals put young Sam on trial for his life. Prosecuting counsel is the Judys’ best friend Mr. Tortoise. Mr. Justice Owl, despite his incompetence, conducts the trial, and Mr. Bruno, Miss Smith, and even the toads (“Swelpmesatan” they croak in chorus as they take the oath) give evidence against Sam. A storm is coming, the wind is rising; Judy looks at Sam cowering in the dock and feels nothing but pity for him. She shouts for mercy, but her cries are carried away in the wind. She looks up to the clouds and prays for some power to save Sam. The clouds roll back and she sees the stern face of the Clerk of the Weather – an angel who had once complained to God about the remorseless sunshine of heaven – who sends a tornado to blow Sam away to a new but hard life.
Mr. Tortoise transforms into a handsome prince – he had been turned into a tortoise until he had learned to better his ways – and marries Judy.
I can recall how incensed I was as a child by Sam’s trial. Certainly he was a wrong’un, a capitalist, and a racketeer, but how could it be fair? The judge was incompetent, the jury of animals was prejudiced against him after learning of the plot to kill Judy, and he had no defense counsel. Moreover he had been an almost-unwilling party to the plot, which had all been the suggestion of Miss Smith. She had made the poison. As far as I could tell Sam hadn’t even touched it, Miss Smith put it into the hands of Mr. Bruno, and now these two co-conspirators were giving evidence against him. I shouldn’t have had any sympathy for Sam, but my outrage was more practical than Judy’s pity. I imagined myself imposing my presence – a girl no older than Judy at the time – upon the court as counsel for the defense, showing how inadmissible the evidence was, how unreliable the witnesses were, how little a part Sam had actually had to play in the scheme, and dashing the prosecution’s case to pieces! How delicious it would have been to have had a battle of wits with Miss Smith as a hostile witness.
As I could not do that, I went through the book from the beginning, scoring out any bad thing that Sam did or said and writing in a virtuous alternative characterization. By the time I had finished the pages were thick with crossings out and were a palimpsest of redemptory fiction.
That was, I believe, the only time I had ever desecrated a book. I am rather glad I did, though, and if I ever get the time and inclination, I will search the second-hand book stalls and car-boot markets for Nichols’ other books that feature Miss Smith. It seems that she catalyses my creativity. I’ll put my pens well out of reach, though.