I was recently rummaging through some old books tucked away at the back of a cupboard in my parents’ house while visiting, and rediscovered my copy of The Otterbury Incident. This was one of my favourite books as a child, and it was just as delightful (albeit a lot quicker) to read it again some 15 years later. Out of all the stand-alone books for boys that I’ve read, this one would definitely figure in my top 3. (Note: this review contains spoilers).
The Otterbury Incident is set in the fictionalized town of Otterbury, just after the end of the Second World War, probably around 1948 or so. The town largely survived the German bombings, except for one stray bomb that knocked down a few buildings. The site, named ‘The Incident’ is what the schoolboys use use it to play their war games. There are two rival bands, or companies, of boys, with their leaders, Edward Marshal (Ted) and William Toppingham (Toppy). The two are complete opposites; Ted is restrained where Toppy is gregarious, Ted is a strategist while Toppy is an enthusiast, Ted is methodical whereas Toppy improvises. The only thing they have in common is a grudging respect for each other, which develops into friendship as they recognize the leader in the other.
The story is told through the perspective of George, Ted’s trusted and absolutely loyal lieutenant. George, in fact, writes the book as a military historian, carefully taking notes and poring over his manuscript, and is somewhat aggrieved when the others fail to recognize its worth. Anyhow, it opens with a battle between the two companies. Ted’s band is tasked with destroying Toppy’s tank before it can reach the flag at the foot of the hill of the ‘incident’. Using a clever variation on the pincer-ambush military strategy, Ted and his most trusted lieutenants (George, another boy called Nick Yates, and young Wakely) hide in Skinner’s the Carpenter’s yard, the most unpleasant and violent man in the town and allow the tank to pass through to engage with Ted’s main force, further down in the Incident so they can ambush the tank.
Toppy falls for Ted’s trap and Ted’s band destroys the tank, while Nick uses his football as a weapon to kill people (bopping them on the head with it and saying you’re dead). While Ted and Toppy argue about the verisimilitude of the football as a deadly weapon, the post-lunch school bell rings. The boys all rush back to school, dribbling Nick’s football between them as they go. Then, as they enter the school ground, disaster strikes. One of the boys, possibly Nick, kicks the ball hard enough to send it smashing through one of the door size ground-floor windows. The Headmaster emerges. Nick owns up responsibility for the accident, and the Headmaster tells him he must pay for the repairs. The scope of this tragedy emerges as we learn that Nick’s parents had been killed in the bombing, and he himself had been dug out of the ruins. He now lived with his aunt and uncle, who were, well, parsimonious would be putting it lightly. He could barely even contemplate the thought or returning to ask for money without starting to shiver uncontrollably. And it would cost around 5 pounds to replace the window.
Worried and anxious to help Nick, Ted and George call an extraordinary meeting of all the boys and argue that since all of them were playing with the ball, they had a collective responsibility to repair the window they broke. Toppy, despite his caustic exterior and the protestations of his own second-in-command Peter Butt, is convinced by the fairness of the argument, and the two companies temporarily ally to collect enough money for the N.Y.A.F – The Nick Yates Assistance Fellowship -, which prompts Toppy to say that if an inquisitive adult asks them what they’re doing, they can call it the National Youth Association Fellowship. Between Toppy’s strokes of inspiration and Ted’s methodological planning, they decide to set-up a weekend fair in the village, identifying each boy’s strength and/or resources and devising a means to exploit it. Thus the fair provides everything from caricature sketches (courtesy Toppy’s older sister, an art student) to lessons in Cockney rhyming slang. Toppy takes charge of the fair, while Ted, George, Nick and a few others move around town mooching odd jobs, delivering this here, shining shoes there. Toppy devises a brilliant plan, beautiful in its simplicity, to deliberately dirty shoes. Unfortunately, the shoe shine scheme backfires when they use it on Johnny Sharp, the town spiv, and his constant companion, known generally as the Wart. Sharp tumbles the scheme, but only congratulates the boys on their ingenuity. Disarmed, they reveal what they were doing and why they were collecting the money.
Later, to their collective delight, the final account reveals that the boys collected more than what was required to pay for the broken window. Deciding to sleep on the final decision, the money is entrusted to Ted, who keeps it in a wooden box somebody gave him The next morning? Disaster! The money’s been stolen. The story now takes on a much stronger feel of a detective/crime-solving novel, as Ted’s lieutenants are completely convinced of his innocence and seek a way to exonerate him, ideally by catching the real thief.
Naturally, the Spiv* and his companion the Wart are prime suspects. Toppy, much to the chagrin of his lieutenants, soon discovers for himself that Ted is definitely innocent. Ted and Toppy agree again to work together. Deciding to attack the Wart, clearly the weaker of the two personalities, turns out to be both a good and bad plan; they now know where the money-box is. but the Spiv rescues the Wart and leaves the kids locked up an old church towers. Between Butt, Ted, George and Toppy, they devise a way to get sufficient attention to persuade someone to climb the tower and unlock the door.
Then things begin to snowball. The revelation of the truth about one crime leads, after some wonderfully hair raising derring-do on the part of our two intrepid captains, to the discovery of another, much bigger one involving breaking into Skinner’s, lorries, and cartons of black market items. . Ted is kidnapped following a venture with Toppy deep into enemy territory to find evidence of the theft. Determined to rescue him, Toppy,who managed to escape from under the villains very noses, quickly improvises a brilliant martial plan. War is formally declared (according to George) and the battle of Skinner’s Yard begins. Peter Butt devises some truly ingenious weapons, and they arm themselves, mobilize, and attack from four different directions.
Only with the eventual arrival of the police, whom George was dispatched to find*, does it end. The next morning, the Headmaster first castigates the boys involved in the battle of Skinner’s Yard, and then announces that the two companies were invited to Scotland Yard to be formally thanked for cracking such a big case before being given the grand tour! And in his closing remarks, the Headmaster, who after all is not a man totally lacking in sympathy, tells the students that since they’d already broken half the windows in Otterbury the previous night, one school window was hardly a problem, and the school would take care of it. The cheers nearly blow the roof off the top of the auditorium
I apologize for giving so much of the plot away, but it was such fun to write about. The Otterbury Incident combines all the elements that make for an exciting boys story; war games, crime-solving, camaraderie, and a good deal of dangerous climbing and breaking and entering. While written for young boys, there is absolutely no reason why an adolescent, (or even an adult, for that matter), of either sex shouldn’t enjoy it just as much. It’s a classic in its own right, and has the significant advantage of realism, and while a J.K. Rowling and a Garth Nix might come along every generation or so, most quality contemporary children’s fiction tends to be either magical or uncanny in one way or another. The Otterbury Incident, however, barely tests the limits of your credulity. The events that transpire could quite conceivably take place. The adventures the boys have, while obviously exhilarating and dangerous, could happen to any group of kids in the right place at the right time. The Chief Inspector later confirms to George that often the best informants for crimes like breaking and entering with the intention of deliberate property deprivation, (theft is probably a better way to put it) are sharp-eyed youngsters out on the streets at all times; washing dishes, delivering newspapers, carrying loads, and hawking merchandise. Essentially doing the kind of things Ted and Toppy and the others dreamed up for the N.Y.A.F.
It’s a wonderful book, a short and quick read, accurate in its description of post-war England, and balances the main themes for a young boy’s adventure book remarkably well. Like a good many other poets, C.D. Lewis has the gift of being able to write well for children. I don’t know why this is, but most poets who turn to children’s fiction are usually very very good at it. Incidentally, the author, C.D. Lewis, bears no relation to C.S. Lewis of Narnia fame. He is, however, the father of the actor Daniel Day Lewis. He was also the poet laureate of England from 1968 to 1972.
* George is forced to wait for half an hour by the Chief Inspector’s immediate junior and clerk, who took a malicious pleasure in stoking George’s anxiety and ignoring overwhelming evidence of…ahh, shouldn’t give that away…until the Chief Inspector returns. When he does, he sees the evidence, pounces on George to ask him few pointed question, and turns out the whole station to go to the aid of the boys, who were by now fighting a rearguard action against Skinner’s troops, much to the chagrin of his desk-bound clerk.
From Bangalore but based primarily in New Delhi, India, Samir has variously been and continues to be a professional musician, a pub quiz host, a political campaign aide, and a student of the guitar, as well as history and international relations. He is currently Research Director for the Global Security Centre in India. He is also a freelance editor and research consultant, having worked for the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the Public Health Foundation of India, and a McKinsey-IBM KPO, as well as Random House and Oxford University Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org