Back to the Far Distant Oxus

I’d forgotten about this book, and this poem:

As a child I was a great reader, and as a child I was a great story-teller, even before I could write any of my tales down. I haunted the library, reading my way through all the books in the children’s section before borrowing my mum’s ticket and starting on the adult books. I was often influenced by what I read and would try to write similar stories.

I came across a book called ‘The Far Distant Oxus’ and was immediately struck by the title – I have a feeling it was recommended to me, either by my friend Frankie,or my cousin Gill, but I borrowed it from the library. The title comes from the poem ‘Sohrab and Rustum’ by Matthew Arnold; it was a poem I had read many times, marvelling at the terrible story of a father’s unwitting slaying of his son:

And he saw that Youth,
Of age and looks to be his own dear so
Piteous and lovely, lying on the sand,
Like some rich hyacinth, which by the scythe
Of an unskillful gardener has been cut,
Mowing the garden grass-plots near its bed,
And lies, a fragrant tower of purple bloom,
On the mown, dying grass; — so Sohrab lay,
Lovely in death, upon the common sand.
And Rustum gazed on him with grief

The idea of hidden identity fascinates me, and emerges in some of my novels now, it is central to ‘Farholm’ and is an important theme in ‘Night Vision’. (Reading Arnold’s poem I always giggled at the thought of this boy looking like a hyacinth, even though I was moved by the tragedy!)

Back to ‘The Far Distant Oxus’; when I read it I certainly enjoyed it but when I discovered that the authors, Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock were only fourteen and fifteen I was struck with a mixture of amazement, admiration and envy. The two girls who were only slightly older than I was when I read it, had met in an almost fictitious way – sheltering during a storm, becoming friends through their love of books and ponies. Their favourite author was Arthur Ransome, who wrote ‘Swallows and Amazons’, their favourite book. They decided to write a story together which they did, writing alternate chapters about girls and ponies and Exmoor. They sent the finished story to Ransome who was so impressed that he had it published, illustrated by Pamela. It was published in 1937, by which time, Katharine was sixteen and Pamela seventeen. How excited and thrilled they must have been! What a wonderful thing for two young girls! I might have been envious of them at the time, but now I can look at their success and be delighted for them.

They went on to write other books, ‘Escape to Persia’ published the following year, ‘The Oxus in Summer’ published the year after that, and finally ‘Crowns’ published after the war in 1947. Katherine wrote some short stories but I don’t think Pamela pursued her early love of writing, or if she did maybe nothing was published. Sadly they both died relatively young, Katharine when she was fifty-six, and Pamela six years later when she was sixty-two.

Here’s a link to ‘Farholm’ and ‘Night Vision’:

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