Sunday, July 3, 2011


One of my favorite books as a kid was Whistle Down the Wind (1958) by Mary Hayley Bell.

Here's how it starts:

I am ten, and they call me Brat.

Of course, that isn’t my right name, nobody could be christened with a name like that.

All our lousy first names are birds’ names. Don’t ask me why. I imagine our mother was keen on birds and flying, though I don’t know much about her. She flew off some years ago with this character called Peregrine. She lives in South Africa on a different kind of farm, and once in a way we get a Christmas card – which is quite useful as we keep the stamp.

I can still see the cover, an orange background, like fire, with sinister black lettering. I’d been haunted by this story of three children from a working-class English village—Brat, Swallow, and Poor Baby—who find an escaped criminal in the barn and think he’s Jesus.

The children know much more of good and evil than the grown-ups. They’re both more innocent and way wiser than their loving but distracted parents. The man they find in the barn is gaunt, hunted, ravenous, exhausted, cryptic.

They start putting things together. Jesus would be tired. Jesus would be in trouble with the authorities. Jesus would live in the barn, on a bed of hay, with the animals.  They see the wounds on his feet and assume they’re nail holes. “Grownups don’t believe much in Jesus, do they?” notes the oldest, 12-year-old Swallow, so they take it upon themselves to protect him. They filch cigarettes and smuggle food in for him.They keep his secret to themselves.

At one point, Brat describes a conversation in the barn:

"Jesus" says:

“I just meant we’re all responsible for ourselves. Me for myself—you for yourselves. No one can really save anyone else. Know that?”

I was as confused as hell I knew that. I bet the others were too. Then I remembered what happened to me when I was very young.

I was alone in those woods at the back of the farm. Huge great trees were all around me with this jade green moss on them. I could hear the herons calling each other down on the marsh. Lonely sad old croaky noises. Suddenly there wasn’t anyone in the world but me, and I ran. I was quite out of breath when I saw old Edward by the silage heap.

“What’s up with you?” he asked.

“I was suddenly afraid,” I told him.

“Afraid of what?” he asked.

“I didn’t think there was anyone in the whole wide world but me,” I replied. “I was afraid of being turned into a heron.’

“That’s right,” he said, bashing at the silage. “You’d have your own pair of wings, wouldn’t you? Everyone has their own pair of wings.”

I never forgot that. Sometimes when I’m in one my moods it cheers me up.

Of course you can’t see them.

“I know what you mean,” I told Him. “I know just what you mean.”

He looked at me and grinned.

“You do? Then explain it to the others.”

“It’s nothing complicated,” I told them. “It’s like being birds, that’s all. You can’t see them of course, but it’s like having wings, and no one can do the flying for you. You got to do it yourself.”

“Well done, kid,” He said. “That’s just it.”

In fact, wouldn’t Jesus be very much like this? He doesn’t pander to the kids, he participates with them. He’s not a phony. He doesn’t hide his pain and he doesn’t whine about it either. He doesn’t lecture or preach or talk down; he tells the truth. He sees the poetry in things. This was a Jesus I could recognize—one who was troubled, like me, most of my friends from school, and I most grownups.

These were children I could recognize, too: children who when they saw one of their own instinctively protected him. Children who could not expect much from the adults but loved them and were anxious on their behalf anyway. Children who suffered from the school bully, because Judas is no respecter of age; and fought each other, but also instinctively banded together.

I won't spoil the ending but let's just say that, like the rest of the story,  it's neither tidy, nor neat, nor sentimental. [Here's a beautiful review of the book].

The 1961 film stars Hayley Mills (Mary Hayley Mills' daughter), and Alan Bates, and is also a gem if you can find it (it's not on netflix).

I came away being reminded that children know all about good and evil. And there's a darned good chance Jesus smoked.


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