At the moment, I am reading and researching for a thesis chapter that creates a timeline of children’s fantasy from Alan Garner’s Elidor to Robin Jarvis’s The Whitby Witches (do read Daisy Johnson’s wonderful review of the latter here) and enjoying catching up with some old favourites.
Robert Leeson was the literary editor of socialist newspaper the Morning Star before becoming a children’s author. He was a prolific writer, in many different genres: social realist (including tie-ins with long-running children’s TV school drama Grange Hill), historical, science fiction, and fantasy- including The Third Class Genie (1975). Set in the outskirts of Manchester, it is what Leeson states he set out to do when he first started writing for children: a modern story about ordinary children, involving adventure: a mixture of fantasy and reality (Leeson, 2000).
Alec, the hero of the story, is a comprehensive school boy from a working class family: his dad is a train driver, his mum is a housewife who was formerly a crane operator, and is big sister works at a biscuit factory. While running away from another boy, Alec finds a sealed, but empty beer can, which when he opens it, releases Abu Salem, the Third Class Genie. Alec of course is excited by the possibilities of having a magical being to do his bidding- but a genie from ancient Arabia has no concept of 20th Century Manchester, and the expected hi-jinks ensue.
So far, so cliched- of course Nesbit and Eager have made magical mix ups a familiar trope in children’s low fantasy. But Leeson was also writing in an era of extreme racism in Britain; it was only 10 years on from the openly racist election campaign run by the Conservative Party in Smethwock, West Midlands. The Ugandan Asian refugees, escaping Idi Amin’s murderous regime, stoked the fires of the far right Nationa Front party, whi came close to local election success in the early 1970s. Enoch Powell MP’s anti-immigration Rivers of Blood speech was only 7 years old. The boy Alec is running away from at the beginning of the book is Ginger Wallace, who is Afro Caribbean. Ginger is insulted and bullied at every turn. A local councillor is obsessed with illegal immigration (clearly shown to be a thin veil over his racism) and Alec must team up with Ginger and his sister, Eulalia, to hide Abu Salem from him. Ginger’s family are accused of spreading disease through over crowded, poorly maintained housing. Although these aspects are handled lightly, they are there, with Leeson’s sympathies clearly lying with Alec’s famil, Abu Salem and Ginger and his family, and a delightful comeuppance for the racist characters.
This book deserves its Modern Classic status. I wish Leeson’s other work, including his wonderful non-fiction book on children’s literature, Reading and Righting, was better known.
Leeson, R (1975, 2000) The Third Class Genie London: Collins Modern Classics
Leeson, R (2000) Postscript to The Third Class Genie London: Collins Modern Classics