THE SECRET WORLD OF POLLY FLINT
Published 1st January 1982
Once upon a time in the 80s, in a small public primary school in the north-western suburbs of Melbourne, I was chatting with my favourite teacher about a TV show I was watching after school—The Secret World of Polly Flint*. She went on to blow my tiny little mind when she told me that the show was based on a book, one of her daughter’s favourites, and would I like to borrow it. Hell yes I wanted to borrow it.
The television adaptation was of that ilk of British children’s programming that specialised in creepy, quiet wonder—atmospheric, I suppose would be an adequate word. We saw the same lovely eeriness in the BBC’s adaptations of Tom’s Midnight Garden, Moondial and The Children of Green Knowe, and in ITV’s Wind in the Willows and The Owl Service. Similarly, in Australia we saw glimpses of melancholy spookiness in the ABC’s Round the Twist. It seems to be something that is severely lacking in children’s television today† because we must not frighten the children, I suppose‡. Perhaps it is because I’m an old curmudgeon§ but everything is so much louder and brighter and frantic that I wonder if kids ever have the chance to be bored and creative and quiet anymore.
So many children’s stories of the 20th century begin with a child sent away to an aunt or a grandmother (great-grandmother in the Green Knowe books) for all manner of reasons. I suspect (though have not investigated fully) that it was the stories of evacuated children during the Blitz that inspired this simple manner of removing children from their normal lives to somewhere new, primed for adventure and exploration. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is a principal example here.
In children’s fiction of the post-war period, all manner of reasons are given for the evacuation of a child from their humdrum lives—from escaping illness of a sibling or parent, to merely being sent off for the summer hols.
The adventures, too, vary but the bestest, creepiest ones that have stayed with me are those with a time travelling or ghostly element. Polly Flint’s adventures—concerned with time—fit perfectly into this neat little genre.
The Secret World of Polly Flint begins with Polly’s father being severely injured in a mining accident. As the best chance for recovery is a hospital far from home, Polly’s parents leave her with her aunt in the countryside.
From the moment she arrives in the small village of Wellow, Polly feels drawn to the old Maypole on the village green and meets Old Mazy who tells her the story of Grimstone, the village that was swallowed up hundreds of years ago and now lies beneath Wellow. Perhaps, if you put your ear to the ground and the time is right, you can hear the church bells of Grimstone pealing. In the park around the lake, Polly is the queen of her own little kingdom. It is here she meets the Time Gypsies and determines to find out their secrets and the mystery of Grimstone.
Some children’s stories rely heavily on the adventures and skimp on the childrens’ relationships with the adults in the cast of characters. Polly Flint, however, gives us a relatively richer emotional view but especially with her father, who understands her the most.
Re-reading the book, I found it did not emit the same eerie quality that I found when re-reading other childhood favourites. I put this down to that quality being enhanced by the television adaptation, though without the ability to rewatch it, I am left to speculate. While the pagan undertones (or overtones) of the Maypole and the idea of the ritualistic magic in celebrating the coming of summer were not the emphasis of either book or series, I certainly caught it in the periphery and put it in my pocket for later consumption. Indeed it fueled my fascination with history and folklore.
It was an utter delight to read the book again, to fall back into the world of the Time Gypsies and Polly’s little kingdom, but it was the television series that seared in my mind the one image I remembered the most. In fact, having forgotten the title for many years, it was that one image that helped me find the story and the book again and I will leave you with it here: ghostly children in white, dancing and singing and weaving the ribbons around a Maypole in the dawn light. Thank you BBC.
*This occurred during the week I was guppy monitor. I remember this clearly as I was sitting in the chair near the tank when she told me. I don’t know why I remember this point so clearly but there you have it. Looking after the guppies and the neon tetras involved feeding them every day, checking for hatchlings and making sure everything was hunky dory. With great responsibility comes great power, and all that jazz.
†There is, of course, In the Night Garden but for our purposes I’m talking deliberately creepy. Though I’m probably wrong, does anyone regularly catch up with ABC3 to let me know what’s what? What is frightening the children these days other than the UV index, Brussels sprouts and big men shooting small children just for going to school?
‡ Personally, I loved being scared as a child – I still do. Give me ghost stories and old fairy tales and bless ITV and the BBC for catering to my needs by dramatising stories that have stayed with me and still influence me to this day.
§It is. I am. I have been since I hit puberty. At the younger end of adolescence, I recall wishing obnoxious teenagers, far older than I was, would just be quiet and sensible and stop putting us all to shame. At least now I am getting closer to the age where I will finally voice these wishes aloud, perhaps whilst waving a cane about. The time can’t be far off now.