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The Box of Delights – John Masefield

October 31, 2016

tbod-3First published in 1935, Kay Harker is returning from boarding school when he finds himself mixed up in a battle to possess a magical box. It allows the owner to shrink in size, to fly swiftly, to go into the past and to experience the magical wonders contained within the box.

The current owner of the box is an old Punch and Judy man called Cole Hawlings whom Kay meets at the railway station. They develop an instant rapport, which leads Cole to confide that he is being chased by a magician called Abner Brown and his gang, which includes Kay’s former governess. For safety, Cole (who turns out to be the medieval philosopher and alleged magician Ramon Llull) entrusts the box to Kay. The schoolboy then goes on to have many adventures as he protects the box from those who wish to use it for bad deeds.

tbod-2There’s a 1930s Christmas muddled up with old English mythology, Ancient Britons and Ancient Greeks, a touch of Arthurian legend, a pirate or two, bumbling policeman, disappearing clergymen, some pretty ruthless and very un-PC gangsters and what must have been the very latest in technology at the time, children being placed on trains alone, talking to strange people and accepting magical boxes from shabby tramps.

It did not used to be sexist to say that this is very much a boys’ adventure book, though the pace slackens about a quarter of the way through.

There are lots of old, pre-Beeching, railway stations. Also vivid descriptions.

I with he’d get details right: a bishop of the Right Reverend (Very Rev’d is a dean)_ and hey are addressed ‘My Lord ’not your grace (which is an archbishop). An organist is unlikely to play a requiem at Christmas.

I liked the description of the English as ‘a tiny, insignificant race.’

I had to look up ‘buttered eggs’ = scrambled eggs made with a very high proportion of butter, and ‘a tosser in my kick’ =  coin in my pocket (?), “scrobble,” which means to kidnap, ‘fantods’ = a state or attack of uneasiness or unreasonableness, and ‘vesturer’ = a person in charge of church vestments. And, surely, mayonnaise doesn’t come fish in the sea.


And now, Master Harker, now that the Wolves are Running, perhaps you could do something to stop their Bite?

Only you’ll have to lend me some tin, for my purse is gone. I haven’t a tosser to my kick.’
‘Now Kay, you mustn’t use slang in the holidays.’

“Christmas ought to be brought up to date,” Maria said. “It ought to have gangsters, and aeroplanes and a lot of automatic pistols.”

“There’s one part [of Time] that everybody goes to and that’s the Trojan War.”

Kay went on to Lower Lock, which was a sort of double alley of very old houses near Tibbs’s Wharf where the barges were lying up for Christmas. The two alleys were known as Lockside and Quayside. There was a brew-house at Lockside, and in between the two alleys was a little public-house known as the Lock and Key. A lot went on down at Tibbs’s Wharf, around the Lock and Key. The bargemen used to come there, “just like pirates from foreign parts,” so Ellen said, and would fight the landsmen for half-a-crown or a gallon of ale (or for the fun of it if times were hard). Then the poachers used to bring their game there, and plan their big drives with the men from the city shops. Then there was cock-fighting, and sometimes dog-fighting; and men would come in sometimes from the cities, to nobble horse at the races, or to burgle a house, and so away. No matter at what time of the day or night you came near to Lower Lock you would always meet a dirty boy doing nothing in particular hanging about on the approaches. If the boy whistled “God Save the King,” it was a sign that you were all right, but if he whistled “Holy, holy, holy,” all those who felt uneasy used to get under cover.

D’you mean Fairies?” Susan [one of Kay’s friends] asked.

“No, very, Very Good People,” the field mouse said: “very clever, very beautiful and very wise. But they went away. It’s a long time ago,” the field mouse added. “I don’t know the rights of it. It isn’t wise to talk about those People, but, of course, everybody knows they were very, very good.”

He that dares blow must blow me thrice.
Or feed th’ outrageous cockatrice.”

And think of all the benefits that I have conferred; the stimulus that I have given to the jewel trade. Half the noble families of England, you might say of Europe, have had to buy new jewels because of me. Think of the impetus that this has given to the mining industry. Many black and brown creatures in remote parts of the world are munching the banana of content in full employment when, but for little Abner, they might be sitting in the sun doing nothing – starving. Now, very likely, they can even go to the cinema. Then, too, the benefit that I conferred upon the Church. All the clergy of the diocese who have perhaps had embittered years thinking that they would never get promotion – what is the clerical name, by the way: not promotion, not translation – preferment. Now, at one swoop, the curate becomes a rector, the rector a canon, the canon an archdeacon, the archdeacon a dean and the dean a bishop. Think, too, what I do to the tourist industry. Thousands will come to Tatchester to see the scene of the recent outrages: hotels will prosper: tearooms will enlarge their premises. The master masons of Tatchester will obtain an enormous sum of money by public subscription in order that they may put up a memorial to the martyred clergy …

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One Comment
  1. Ian permalink

    The head Virger at Canterbury cathedral is called the Vesturer, of course …

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