Geoffrey Trease on Grub Street

The book which formed the basis of this research
The book which formed the basis of this research.

In 1930 Trease left his job working in the slums of the East End to take up a position as a ‘literary assistant’ for a well-known author, after replying to an advertisement in the Daily Telegraph. Although the role wasn’t quite as glamorous as the title implied, the experience would teach him some valuable lessons in the craft of writing as well as some dodgy dealings.

The idea of book groups was relatively new, at least this side of the Atlantic, due to tight trade laws which placed the cost of shipping books onto the customer. Trease’s employer had a cunning plan on how to get around such restrictions, in what was essentially a discounted book buying scheme.

When he wasn’t ringing up potential punters and luring them in with deals, there was a bit of writing to do as well. The company aimed to have its own monthly journal, containing the best one hundred book reviews in each issue. To prepare them for this staff were offered training at the home of the owner, himself an established author. The aim of the sessions was to brake down the writing process into components and nurture effective reviewers. Here, Trease learned the mechanics of technique and structure; opening and climax; character and plot development; atmosphere; and Polti’s 36 dramatic situations. It was, in essence, like doing an intensive Creative Writing course in a couple of weeks.

One thing they didn’t teach Trease was the need to avoid asking awkward questions concerning company ethics. He found a note in his next payslip saying his services were no longer required. Up until this point it had been unfathomable to him that ‘educated’ people got the sack. It was a harsh lesson in injustice, a theme that would surface time and again in his novels.

In 1931 he did a stint at Blank Publishing Company, in what was advertorial for their three glossy magazines. He had to produce 3,000 words per day, but was warned, similarly to Arthur Seaton at his lathe a few decades on in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), not to overstep his quota as this could do a colleague out of work.

A typical day comprised of writing 4-6 articles and was the equivalent of a novel every five weeks. Trease would be presented with a large manila envelope containing raw material on the subject and various cuttings. The topics varied dramatically and so he deployed a variety of pseudonyms to create the impression that the sections were written by a diverse range of experts. The readers who read the encouraging words of Elizabeth Severn on all matters feminine were reading the encouraging words of Geoffrey Trease.

Illustration: Steve Larder. Taken from issue 11: Books  and Bowstrings
Illustration: Steve Larder. Taken from issue 11: ‘Books and Bowstrings’.

Pay was a reasonable 45 shillings a week which included a half day on a Saturday. This was the period of the Wall Street Crash and so any work was welcome. But the problem for Trease was he had little energy to write when he got home. He quit and took up a post at an Essex seaside resort teaching History and English and junior Latin and French. It was here that he would meet his future wife Marian, who he married in Cambridgeshire in 1933 on his 24th birthday. His typewriter would accompany the newlyweds on their honeymoon.

No matter what he thought about his respective employers, Trease had become a disciplined writer, able to produce copy to tight deadlines. This gave him the confidence to pursue a freelance career, pitching articles and stories to every market he could think of, which at one point included an article for a nudist magazine. With an average of one in six pitches accepted he was slowly able to make a living as a writer, and always had commissions from Blank Publishing to fall back on as and when needed.

One publication he pitched an article to was the Cooperative Society magazine Dawn. He was frustrated that all children’s books were still rooted in the jingoistic ideas that war was glorious and Britain was superior to foreigners, and that the same old sides always came out on top. “Robin Hood” he wrote “is about the only proletarian hero our children are permitted to admire. Yet even he is not allowed to remain an ordinary working man! He has to be really Earl of Huntingdon.”

This article gave him the idea to pitch a novel based on similar themes to a publishing house with a leftwing bias. That novel was Bows Against the Barons (1934), a soft Marxist reading of the Robin Hood legend. His breakthrough into the children’s fiction market was born not through a desire to write for children, but for political reasons.

You can read about Geoffrey Trease in issue 11: Books and Bowstrings