My inspiration: blizzards and baddies, amongst other things…

 

It started with a comic. A whole bag of them, in fact. I was 8 or 9 years old and a friend passed on a heap of back numbers so that, instead reading one issue and having to wait a week for the next, I could feast. It was there I found The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by the incomparable Joan Aiken…

 

I recently wrote about this book for The Guardian, and why it – and its utterly glorious sequels – really inspire my writing. You can read the whole piece here.

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Summer Reading 3: Islands of adventure…and growing up.

seaweed and limpets, Cornish beach

Recently I’ve been thinking, and blogging, about what kind of reading fits with summer days and I’ve finally got round to some children’s books. There’s still time! The weather may not be so summery right now but there are still weeks to go until…but let’s not think about that.

I’ve never been to the Scilly Isles but have long wanted to visit. Even more so now, after reading Breathing Underwater by Julia Green (2009), based on a fictionalised version of this archipelago off the tip of Cornwall. 14-year-old Freya returns for the first time in a year to the tiny island where her grandparents live and where her big brother drowned the summer before. It’s sad, but story and setting are beautifully evoked, as are the things that have changed and those which stay the same. I hate that lazy phrase ‘coming to terms with’, but I guess this is what the book is all about, and yet much more. Freya is growing up and stretching her wings. It also sums up wonderfully the way a holiday place can be somewhere you think of as your very own, more you than where you live most of your life – even when that’s painful, too.

Cornish cove

Cornish cove

 

Somewhere I have spent a lot of summertime in is mainland Cornwall, since my grandparents lived there and my mum grew up there. Also beautifully evoked, Helen Dunmore’s Ingo series (2006 onwards) mixes very convincing rocky coves, sandy beaches, caves, sun and sea-fog of the real Cornwall with a more mythical underwater strand which begins with a carved mermaid in Zennor church. Ingo is also about loss and longing; a little, too, about the economic difficulties of living in a remote, rural and seasonal county – but I expect grown-up readers will pick up more on this.  I’ve only read the first volume but have the second – The Tide Knot – lined up and can’t wait. Dunmore writes amazing novels for adults and is a poet, too – it shows.

In both these books children and young teens are testing their independence, and I love reading about their freedom to take risks and weigh up consequences.

For less nuanced reading, here are a couple of other ideas.

islands of adventure

More islands, swimming, sailing, picnics, camping out and building fires feature in my next suggestion. A much more traditional one: Swallows & Amazons by Arthur Ransome (1929). I confess I haven’t reread this since childhood and there may be some very uncomfortable attitudes lurking in it for modern-day readers. I know one of the characters has an embarrassing name that has not really stood the test of time. But there are ‘pirates’, intrepid and skilful girls, and plenty of adventures. It was in this book that I first came across a reference to pemmican – some kind of convenience-meal canned meat that, as a squeamish eater, I felt very nervous about – and because of my very literal young mind I just made the connection: pelican in a can. Obviously!

I’ve written elsewhere that I never read much Enid Blyton as a child, but I did enjoy a couple of the titles in the

The Island of Adventure by Enid BlytonAdventure’ seriesThe Island of Adventure being the only one I remember anything about! But Blyton is never short of picnics, boats, beaches and islands, and the kind of adventures that can only be had when responsible adults are right out of the picture and only the wicked, but easily outwitted by a handful of kids and a dog (or, in this instance, a parrot) type, are left.

 

Happy holidays (if only inside the pages of a book)!

Reading Heaven?

This is such a wonderful letter, so atmospheric and full of love for that kind fall-into-a-book reading that I remember from childhood and long school holidays (and days when I was lying ill in bed or on the settee, but not too ill to read). And it brought back memories of miniature moss gardens, too! And of drawing pictures to go with the pictures in my head that reading conjured up – or at least trying to draw something that could come close what I pictured. And cats keeping you company while you read! (How many ‘ands’ can I include here??)

I think Joan Aiken had a very sympathetic style in writing to fans and readers of her books, if I’m to judge from this letter. It’s warm and personal, a great piece of writing in itself, and doesn’t talk down to the reader.

Joan Aiken

Reading Holiday

This was Joan’s idea of a Perfect Holiday… what about you?

Dear Person

*********

Read the full letter from Joan at The Wonderful World of Joan Aiken

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Summer Reading: Part 2

swimming

Fiction set in a shared holiday house has become a cliché. But it’s still an interesting experience to read when you are actually in a holiday house yourself, shared or otherwise. Here are some of my favourites:

 

Summer’s Lease – John Mortimer (1988) Summer's Lease by John Mortimer

The first novel I ever came across set in a Tuscan holiday villa. Maybe Mortimor was ahead of his time. Witty and perceptive.

 

 

 

 

Love In Idleness – Amanda Craig (2003)

Love In Idleness by Amanda CraigAnother Tuscan idyll, comically riffing on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as both children and adults trespass in magical territory.

 

 

 

 

Swimming Home – Deborah Levy (2011)

This time the shared holiday house is in the south of France. An unlikely mix of characters and a jigsaw puzzle of emotional chaos.

 

The Red House – Mark Haddon (2012)

Closer to home, an extended family share a very recognisable holiday house on the Welsh border. As much mist and rain as sunshine here, so a typical British summer with tensions awash and a-sizzle.

Any suggestions that I have missed?

 

Summer Reading: Part 1

004

 

I once tried to read Orhan Pamuk’s Snow on holiday in Southern Italy. In August. It was too hot to move. All I could do was lie in the shade and, when that got too much, cool off by jumping into the swimming pool. Yet my holiday reading was set in a Turkish city in the grip of a mighty blizzard.

I now know better. The best summer reading needs some kind of seasonal link. Here are a few of my tried and tested favourite summer fictions, each read several times. Not for children, these are strictly grown-up fare. I don’t really do ‘lite’, even in the highest temperatures.

 

Godf On The Rocks by Jane GardamGod On The Rocks – Jane Gardam (1978)

An English seaside town between the wars. Love and lust and religion, duty and – quite frankly – madness all boil over, fuelled by the endless summer heat. Inimitable Gardam.

 

 

Prodigal Summer – Barbara Kingsolver (2000)

A familiar Kingsolver theme – humans’ interactions with nature and each other, positive or destructive, always complicated. Moths, coyotes, apples, bees, love and death, all observed throughout a lush season.

 

The Go-Between – L P Hartley (1953)Julie Christie in The Go-Between

Hot hot hot. Tension ratchets up as the temperature keeps rising in Hartley’s classic story of a child caught up in adult manoeuvres.


A Room With A View – E M Forster (1908)

This awkward love story never fails me. And for once the film version did not spoil my imaginings, but added pictures and a Puccini sound track. There’s also a wicked lady novelist!

 

Part 2 of Summer Reading will look at novels which look at people on their summer holidays. Reader, know thyself.

Children Behaving Badly: ‘The Wind On The Moon’

The Wind on The Moon by Eric Linklater, Jane Nissen Books

 

‘When there is wind on the moon, you must be very careful how you behave. If it is an ill wind, and you behave badly, it will blow straight into your heart, and you will behave badly for a long time to come.’

As a child I was always reading and so was highly reliant on our local public library. It was situated on the ground floor of a big Edwardian villa, and the children’s section occupied what might once have been the drawing room. The fiction shelves were up one end and that was where I stayed. I don’t remember having any guidance from the librarians. As far as I knew, they were just there to stamp your books and take your library tickets – only two for children, and hey, a generous four for grown-ups. How times have changed!

So I just roamed the shelves and pulled out random books, or checked my favourite authors in the hope they had written something I hadn’t discovered before. This wasn’t so much to see if they had written a new book – the library stock was well-worn and a bit tired – but because that the something new might always have been out on loan to other readers before.

This meant that I often re-read books. Sometimes these were my favourites, left just long enough so that I’d forgotten most of the plot, and could enjoy them anew. Sometimes it was just that the book was familiar (therefore a safe read), and I was drawn again to the cover or the pictures inside.

One of these was The Wind On The Moon by Eric Linklater. I’ve just found it, reissued by Jane Nissen Books, complete with original illustrations by Nicolas Bentley. I was very struck by these pictures as a child, especially, I have to say, the one where Dinah and Dorinda take their clothes off and hide them in a tree. Naked people in a book? Perhaps that’s why I decided to borrow it! But there are lots of other strange pictures, many depicting mysterious night-time scenes, in Bentley’s rather simple yet sophisticated line drawings. Or maybe I chose it because I recognised his style from a humorous book we had at home, How To Be An Alien by George Mikes.

It’s a strange book altogether, long and full of bizarre episodes. Dinah and Dorinda are affected by an ill wind blowing on the moon, which makes their behaviour turn bad, and just at a time when their father is going away and leaving them for a year. It was published in 1944 and is marked by the attitudes of the era and the strangeness of wartime.

It wasn’t a book that I loved, but I did come back to it from time to time because something about it obsessed me. Of course, tales of children behaving badly are very attractive to child readers. There’s shape-shifting and talking animals, too. I wonder if it will seem as strange – or even more so – on re-reading as an adult?

You can read a piece on it by James Meek in the Guardian and a less enthusiastic review here on Bookslut.

By the way, Nicolas Bentley was a cartoonist and novelist as well as an illustrator of books. He was the son of E. Clerihew Bentley – inventor of the clerihew!

 

Unforgettable: Laurian Jones’ horse drawings

National Velvet by Enid Bagnold Penguin edition 1951

National Velvet by Enid Bagnold

I’ve got a very ancient, yellowing Penguin edition of National Velvet from the early 1950s; not the actual copy I read as a child, just something I’ve picked up along the way and put on the shelf for the day when I would want it.

But glancing inside when I was writing my recent post on My Top Horses in Children’s Books, the simple and evocative drawings by Laurian Jones took me right back. Of course these were the illustrations that go with the book. Once you’ve seen these, nothing else will do.

title page of National Velvet by Enid Bagnold with drawings by Laurian Jones

There aren’t many of these drawings. They appear almost at random through the text, sometimes few and far between, sometimes in a cluster.

drawing by Laurian Jones for National Velvet by Enid Bagnold

Some seem very rudimentary but all have an amazing energy – capturing the basic shape and sense and speed of horses in motion. They remind me of cave paintings, or images in Etruscan art.

cave painting horse

Etruscan bronze horse

Etruscan bronze horse

It turns out that Laurian Jones was Enid Bagnold’s daughter. Mother and daughter, in their different ways, have given us unforgettable horses.

drawing by Laurian Jones fro Enid Bagnold's National velvet

When We Were Very Young and loved jumping in puddles

Winnie-the-Pooh Day is celebrated today, on the birthday of his creator, A A Milne.

Teddy Bear, from When We Were Very Young poems by A A Milne

I think if you grew up with a book since babyhood and know it inside out, it’s almost impossible to look at it objectively. I’m like that with Pooh books, both the stories – The House At Pooh Corner, and Winnie The Pooh – and the little books of poems, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six, which I am revisiting for this post.

Yes, there are twee aspects to them, and a distinct lack of female characters in the stories – though not so much in the poems. Mary Jane and Emmeline appear alongside boys who – often in curls and loose smocks over shorts in the distinctive drawings by E H Shepard – I’m sure I thought were girls, anyway. Yes, the poems feature children in buttoned gaiters, with nannies, and nurseries, and all that privileged pre-war clutter. But there are also plenty of animals – wild and domestic – and a good dose of imaginative transformation. It didn’t jar when I looked back at the books when I had small children to read to. Of course, I was selective, and I left out the sillier or rather aimless bucolic poems, but I suspect they got left out when the books were read to me too!

What I still really like about the strongest poems are their rhythms, which are so well-suited to being read – or recited – aloud. A poem that sticks in your mind is sure sign of a good bouncy rhythm (though I suppose that’s true of some doggerel, too – er, theory confounded, then.)  There are plenty of natural-feeling and satisfying rhyming words. But best of all – despite the buttoned gaiters – is that many of the situations are very simple and very child-centred, and are about gently defying adult expectations. The joy of just running madly around, of stepping in puddles, the pleasure and terror involved in avoiding the cracks in the pavement, and the hatred of being cajoled to be polite or eat up or hold hands.

Lines and Squares, Whene We Were Very Young poems by A A Milne

There is the assumption that tiny children will understand when the opposite of what’s being said is true – always fun: they’re in on the joke. We know exactly what’s the matter with Mary Jane, even if the grown-ups are too dim to spot that’s it something to do with ‘lovely rice pudding’. Bullying Sir Brian Botany really isn’t ‘as bold as a lion’ and we love it when he gets his come-uppance,

‘They took him by the breeches and they hurled him into ditches’

and then we love it again when he has a change of heart. King John is ‘not a bad man, but he has his little ways’ – doesn’t he just? James James Morrison’s glamorous but wafty-looking mother is ‘LAST SEEN WANDERING VAGUELY’ – no wonder he has to pedal off on his trike and fetch her. All these grown-ups are being gently lampooned, just like the flawed and foolish adults in Richmal Crompton’s Just William books.

It’s a world that was very real to me when I was little, a world of small daily activities and large imaginary ones. Looking at them again, I realise how much I like the space in some of the poems – how ordinary things like chairs, long curtains, and the famous ‘halfway down the stairs is the stair where I sit’ – are places where the imagination can roam free.

‘Where am I going? I don’t quite know…

Anywhere, anywhere. I don’t know…’

Halfway down the stairs, When We Were Very Young poems by A A Milne

The magic of Green Knowe

The Children of Green Knowe – Lucy M Boston (first published 1951)

The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston cover illustration by Peter Boston Faber paperback

Another read just perfect at this time of year, and especially in this year’s weather. It’s winter and the land is flooded. The rain is unceasing, rivers have burst their banks, lanes have turned into rivers, meadows into lakes. Sound familiar? But if you’re cold and fed up and worried about logistics, fantasising only about a fortnight in Antigua, step into Lucy Boston’s magical world instead.

Tolly, born in steamy Burma, is sent for the Christmas holidays to stay with his as-yet-unknown great-grandmother at her ancient family house, Green Knowe. This is a story where all the dividing lines are ambiguous, not just those between water and land. The magic of Green Knowe is not the ‘ordinary’ sort with wands and spells and wishes, it’s this permeable, malleable divide between present and past, real and imaginary, animate and inanimate, wild and tame, inside and outside, myths and ghosts and people. It’s also a book that is suffused with the love that seems to radiate out from Mrs Oldknow: love of home, of animals, of dear people and old dear objects. And in her and the gardener, Boggis, it has two heroic characters who are far from young, perhaps because Lucy Boston was in her 60s when she began writing.

Mrs Oldknow and Tolly get to know each other slowly, weighing each other up, although Tolly is immediately drawn to the special atmosphere of the house, with its strange layout and old artefacts. There are the tangible comforts of a fire, candlelight, homely food, which always make a welcome appearance in a children’s book when well done. Tolly is given permission to roam, and he discovers that everything in the house and its unusual garden, filled with topiary and bounded by water, has a story. Old toys and musical instruments, birdcages and paintings hark back to the people – and animals – who lived there in the past and who are not so far from those who live there now. Their stories are slowly and hauntingly revealed. This is wonderfully imagined for those who, like me, love old houses and the idea of layers of the past remaining in their fabric. (Do look at my recent post on ‘Thackers‘ manorhouse in Derbyshire.)

As Tolly explores he sometimes feels lost and alone, and encounters genuinely terrifying aspects to the place, involving walking trees and old curses.

In fact, Green Knowe is based on Boston’s own beloved house, The Manor, Hemingford Grey, in flood-prone Cambridgeshire, built in the 1130s. It’s not a huge house, but the water all round makes it seem like an island, a castle. On his arrival, Tolly has to be rowed up to it across the flood. Then deep snow falls in time for Christmas, and Tolly and his great-grandmother make a very long walk to attend the midnight church service. It’s unusual to have a hero as young as seven in a book of this kind, and Tolly’s stamina and independence (we first meet him travelling across country alone by train) feel quite strange to the 21st century reader. I’m not sure how realistic it was even for the mid-20th century child.

This is another world (see Narnia) which wouldn’t be the quite same to me without the striking original monochrome illustrations by Lucy Boston’s son Peter, which enhance the uncanny aspects of the tale.

One of my favourite passages is the enchanting scene where Mrs Oldknow butters Tolly’s hands and shows him how the wild birds come down to feed from them. This would have been quite magical enough for me as a child – my ideal was to be like Dickon from The Secret Garden – but I didn’t discover this book until I read it to my own children. I’ve yet to catch up with other books in the Green Knowe series, but I have two more waiting on my bookshelf.

Narnia – where it’s always winter but never Christmas

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe C. S.  Lewis

Ok, so it’s the last day of 2013 but Twelfth Night isn’t here yet so I can still get in my other Christmassy book. It was the first of the Narnia Chronicles I came across as a child, therefore the right place to start my re-reading. The young man behind the counter in the Age Concern shop where I bought it recited their proper sequence to me in a solemn voice – clearly a fan. But blow the recommended reading order suggested by C. S. Lewis! The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe was the first he wrote. It was published in 1950, and The Magician’s Nephew (the creation story of Narnia) didn’t appear until almost last.

This book was read out loud by my class teacher in junior school, in the precious 15 minutes at the end of every school day when we could just sit and listen to a story.* I must have sought it out afterwards to relish by myself. The copy I read then had this joyful cover art by Pauline Baynes, whereas my current one – still with the evocative Baynes illustrations inside – has a very different feel on its cover (by Julek Heller).

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C S Lewis cover art by Pauline Baynes Puffin books

I was surprised to find that what I remember as an epic is quite short, just 200 small pages with plenty of pictures. It’s fast-paced and the tension keeps up. After a quick and absolutely classic set-up – parents ditched (actually they don’t even get a mention, the children are just sent away from London ‘because of the air-raids’), despatched to rambling country house, adult supervision largely removed – Chapters 2 and 3 contain the stand-out scenes which cement this story in my mind: Lucy’s encounter with Mr Tumnus and Edmund’s with the White Witch. The good/evil dichotomy is convincingly established. And we’re introduced to the icons of LWW: the snow, the lamppost, the Turkish Delight. I’m convinced that at least half my love of Turkish Delight springs from this scene. It’s shown as the ultimate desirable food, and yes, it did used to come at Christmas in a round box, tied with ribbon, and there was never enough. I don’t think chocolate or toffee would have worked nearly so well.

Another surprise is that Mr Tumnus, so fondly remembered as a major player, has a very small part in the action. After Chapter 2, he doesn’t appear again until he’s discovered, turned to stone, in the Witch’s palace, and then doesn’t do much at all.

In fact, quite a few aspects of the book were thinner than I remember. This is a beloved classic of children’s literature, but it’s not perfect. I don’t think I ever felt Lewis created very interesting characters, but as an adult reader this was really noticeable. Edmund is the only one with any complexity, if you can call it that, and only because he’s not straightforwardly nice. Early on we learn that he is ‘spiteful’ and prone to telling lies. Poor kid, he’s already gone over to the dark side before the Witch begins her work!

But somehow Lewis makes his actors memorable – animals more often than humans – without giving them much substance. Although it’s Lucy’s story – she is the good, active force that starts it off – she and Susan are soon pushed into very conventional girl roles: caring, loving, healing (Lucy’s bottle), calling for assistance (Susan’s hunting horn), and definitely not fighting. ‘Battles are ugly when women fight,’ says Father Christmas, handing Peter his sword and shield. As if they’re not ugly when men do. Lewis was a young soldier in the First World War; surely he must have known this?

He dwells only briefly on the fighting, unlike the film version where the final battle goes on at length with all the usual CGI thwacks and grunts and even more ‘protect the girls’ business than in the book. I had to turn back a page to check the Witch’s fate, as Lewis almost skips over this momentous event. The grisliest scenes concern the Witch and her mob taunting Aslan at the Stone Table and are really harrowing.

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C S Lewis Puffin papaerback cover by Julek Heller

Julek Heller’s cover illustration

Peter is assigned the traditional role of the oldest brother: sensible, responsible, and required to be brave. At least he’s allowed to admit he doesn’t feel brave. It’s all very conventional, as if Lewis doesn’t want to give the four children much thought, or simply wants them to represent clear good/bad roles. There is a very strange passage – all stiff upper lip and ‘don’t mention the war’ – when Aslan has a talk with the repentant Edmund which we’re not allowed to overhear but ‘which Edmund never forgot’. If it’s that blinking memorable, why can’t we benefit from it too? I demanded petulantly. Then Edmund shakes hands with his siblings and Aslan instructs them, ‘There is no need to talk to him about what is past.’ And they don’t. I expect as a child I saw this as a fair-enough response to an awkward situation, but at this distance it just feels really constrained and emotionally illiterate. But we are in the 21st century now!

The children’s speech is strikingly banal, too, and of its time, apart from the olde-worlde-speak they develop at the end because that’s how princes and princesses must talk! (If this is a joke, it goes on a bit.) I did wonder if I’m just used to much quirkier, smart-mouthed characters in modern children’s fiction, but then Oswald Bastable, William Brown, Dido Twite, and even for younger readers Pooh Bear, have a joyous command of language and their speech tells us a lot about the inner workings of their minds. There is some gentle humour in LWW but it tends to come from the non-human characters.

So what remained of the book I loved as a child, and read at least twice? The wonderful fairytale feel of a land where it’s ‘always winter but never Christmas’. The thrill of the thaw when it comes, along with the tinkling bells on Father Christmas’s sleigh. Deep magic and deeper magic are pretty persuasive. Aslan remains impressive, and, although it struck me as an odd mix of borrowings – and the internal logic not quite sound – I found the mash-up of characters from European folktale, Greek myth, Victorian Christmas, and jolly British wildlife endearing. But most satisfying was still the idea that by hiding in a wardrobe you might accidentally find yourself in another world: that really grabs the imagination. After all, it could happen to anyone, couldn’t it?

* Maybe ‘reading for pleasure’ wouldn’t be such an alien concept if the school curriculum allowed this unheard-of luxury to all primary school children, every day. It was a much-needed wind-down time, let teachers share their favourite books without any demonstrable learning required, and turned us on to new stories. Or let us just daydream, which is no bad thing.