Flickerbook by Leila Berg

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I absolutely love the fact that a fellow Old Girl of my school had her books banned from Listen With Mother for being “a corrupting influence” -the issue being that the characters in them did such terribly shocking things as coming down the stairs backwards.  Listeners were so horrified by this subversive behaviour that they complained, and the BBC decided that the books had to go.  Janet and John, and Peter and Jane, would never have dreamt of coming down stairs backwards.  Leila Berg did end up winning the Eleanor Farjeon award in 1974, though, so evidently, everyone had come to terms with kids coming down the stairs backwards by then.

Unfortunately, this book, her autobiography of her early years, doesn’t go that far, only up to when she was in her early 20s.  It’s not very coherently written – I think the idea is that it sounds like a child or young adult talking, rather than “sounding” like prose – and anyone who isn’t familiar with Higher Broughton will probably be thoroughly confused by the first third or so of it.  If you do know Higher Broughton, and know exactly where she means when she talks about Bury New Road, Great Clowes Street, Leicester Road et al, you’ll love this; but it’s very localised and very much a personal memoir.  She hasn’t even changed the names of her neighbours.   If you know Manchester/Salford in general, you’ll love her descriptions of walking round town, especially all the references to Sherratt and Hughes bookshop (sadly no longer with us); but, again, if you don’t, you may just feel rather confused.

The later chapters, about her involvement in the radical movements of the inter-war years, may be of more interest to everyone – although probably particularly so to people who know the area.   Everyone’s heard of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, and the National Trust is actually a bit obsessed with it, but no-one talks much about the backgrounds of those involved, and you certainly never hear much about there having been women and girls involved.  And British involvement in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War – Leila Berg didn’t go to Spain, but two of her boyfriends were killed there –  has become associated with either intellectuals like George Orwell or well-to-do people like Jessica Mitford, and there isn’t as much focus as there could be on the many “ordinary” people who joined up.

It’s not a very readable book, because the style’s so rambling, but it’s quite interesting.

She does seem to have been very keen on coming across as a rebel.  “Nice” girls in the inter-war years did not use mirrors to look at all bits of themselves, and did not “carry on” with various different boyfriends and write about it.  Even when she’s writing about herself as a young child, she seems rather obsessed with toilets, which you wouldn’t normally write about – too much information!   Her brother does what he’s supposed to – wins a scholarship to our brother school 🙂 , and then goes on to university.  Leila refuses to go to university, drops out of teacher training college, and spends most of her time hanging around at meetings of the Young Communists.  She does a lot of name dropping, but I’m going to assume that she did actually meet all those people.   She certainly had an interesting time of it.

And I do miss Sherratt and Hughes!  It was originally taken over by Waterstones, so at least it was still a bookshop, but then it was turned into a branch of W H Smith when the main W H Smith had to close because of the IRA bomb.  Then that went as well.  But some of the little bookshops in Shudehill, which she also talks about, are still there.  I think she must have been a fan of E J Oxenham, because some of the books she mentions definitely sound like “EJO”s, and she talks a lot in general about expecting secondary school to be like school stories.  That’s all so conventional, but then she turned out to be very unconventional.   And the Listen With Mother ban really does amuse me!

This is probably of limited interest to people who don’t know the area, but it kept me entertained.

 

(Sorry, double-posted because I messed up the Facebook link!)

Flickerbook by Leila Berg

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I absolutely love the fact that a fellow Old Girl of my school had her books banned from Listen With Mother for being “a corrupting influence” -the issue being that the characters in them did such terribly shocking things as coming down the stairs backwards.  Listeners were so horrified by this subversive behaviour that they complained, and the BBC decided that the books had to go.  Janet and John, and Peter and Jane, would never have dreamt of coming down stairs backwards.  Leila Berg did end up winning the Eleanor Farjeon award in 1974, though, so evidently, everyone had come to terms with kids coming down the stairs backwards by then.

Unfortunately, this book, her autobiography of her early years, doesn’t go that far, only up to when she was in her early 20s.  It’s not very coherently written – I think the idea is that it sounds like a child or young adult talking, rather than “sounding” like prose – and anyone who isn’t familiar with Higher Broughton will probably be thoroughly confused by the first third or so of it.  If you do know Higher Broughton, and know exactly where she means when she talks about Bury New Road, Great Clowes Street, Leicester Road et al, you’ll love this; but it’s very localised and very much a personal memoir.  She hasn’t even changed the names of her neighbours.   If you know Manchester/Salford in general, you’ll love her descriptions of walking round town, especially all the references to Sherratt and Hughes bookshop (sadly no longer with us); but, again, if you don’t, you may just feel rather confused.

The later chapters, about her involvement in the radical movements of the inter-war years, may be of more interest to everyone – although probably particularly so to people who know the area.   Everyone’s heard of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, and the National Trust is actually a bit obsessed with it, but no-one talks much about the backgrounds of those involved, and you certainly never hear much about there having been women and girls involved.  And British involvement in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War – Leila Berg didn’t go to Spain, but two of her boyfriends were killed there –  has become associated with either intellectuals like George Orwell or well-to-do people like Jessica Mitford, and there isn’t as much focus as there could be on the many “ordinary” people who joined up.

It’s not a very readable book, because the style’s so rambling, but it’s quite interesting.

She does seem to have been very keen on coming across as a rebel.  “Nice” girls in the inter-war years did not use mirrors to look at all bits of themselves, and did not “carry on” with various different boyfriends and write about it.  Even when she’s writing about herself as a young child, she seems rather obsessed with toilets, which you wouldn’t normally write about – too much information!   Her brother does what he’s supposed to – wins a scholarship to our brother school 🙂 , and then goes on to university.  Leila refuses to go to university, drops out of teacher training college, and spends most of her time hanging around at meetings of the Young Communists.  She does a lot of name dropping, but I’m going to assume that she did actually meet all those people.   She certainly had an interesting time of it.

And I do miss Sherratt and Hughes!  It was originally taken over by Waterstones, so at least it was still a bookshop, but then it was turned into a branch of W H Smith when the main W H Smith had to close because of the IRA bomb.  Then that went as well.  But some of the little bookshops in Shudehill, which she also talks about, are still there.  I think she must have been a fan of E J Oxenham, because some of the books she mentions definitely sound like “EJO”s, and she talks a lot in general about expecting secondary school to be like school stories.  That’s all so conventional, but then she turned out to be very unconventional.   And the Listen With Mother ban really does amuse me!

This is probably of limited interest to people who don’t know the area, but it kept me entertained.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr

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Judith Kerr, who died yesterday, fled Nazi Germany with her family at the age of ten, eventually settling in Britain and becoming one of our best-loved children’s authors. This book’s based on her childhood experiences. Most people (if anyone’s reading this anyway!!) will know this book, but I just wanted to write something about it, to mark the passing of a great author.   Most of the tributes in the media are referring to her as “The author of The Tiger Who Came To Tea”, and she’s also known for many other books, notably those about Mog the cat, but this is the stand-out one for me. I’m better with history than animals, even illustrated animals! It’s a near-perfect example of how to explain difficult subjects to young children in an “age-appropriate” way.

How do you get “Hitler” and “pink rabbit” into the same book title? We see it all through the eyes of Anna, Judith Kerr’s alter ego, nine years old and part of a secular Jewish German family. The book starts off in Berlin in 1933, with elections looming and the Nazis set to take power.  Her father, a journalist, has written articles criticising the Nazis. They have to flee.  Anna and her brother Max each have to choose one toy to take with them. Anna chooses a woolly dog. Later, she regrets it, and wishes she’d taken her pink rabbit instead. When people start talking about the Nazis going through their house and taking their things, she imagines them taking Pink Rabbit. It’s part of a trilogy of books, the second set during the Second World War and the third set during the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, but this one’s special.

At the beginning of the story, Anna, at nine, doesn’t really understand that anything’s going on.  Max and his friends, at twelve, have heard things, names, but don’t understand the potential consequences.  They have fights in the school playground, Nazis versus Sozis, but it’s more a case of each gang wanting to beat the other than knowing what either label stands for.  And everything’s normal.  They go to school.  They play out.  They go home and tell their parents about their day.  And they haven’t grown up with the mindset of being part of a persecuted minority, or even any minority at all.  This isn’t Anatevka, where one community lives apart from another.   Like Sarajevo, like so many other places before all hell broke loose, everyone just lived together.   And Anna and Max’s family are assimilated: they don’t even really bother with religion.

Judith Kerr shows so well how normality can just fall apart.  One minute, Anna and Max and Mama are sat round the table eating apple strudel for afters.  The phone rings.  The next day, Papa’s gone, and they’re planning to go too.  Just like that – leaving their entire lives behind them.   They go to Switzerland, just outside Zurich, and they settle in there, and everything seems to be OK … until some Germans come there on holiday, and the kids aren’t allowed to play with Anna and Max because they’re Jewish.  Meanwhile, a price has been put on Papa’s head.  Again, Anna doesn’t really understand what it means.  Just that it’s not good.

Then they up and leave again.  This time, it’s for Paris.  Another new country, another new school.  New friends.  This time, a new language too.  They’ve just got settled there, and Anna’s doing really well at school, and then a film script that Papa’s written is bought by a film director in England.  So it’s another new country, another new language, another new start.

On the final page of the book, Anna ponders whether or not she’s having a difficult childhood.  She decides that she isn’t – because she’s always been with Mama and Papa and Max, and because it’s all been interesting and some of it’s been funny.

That was Judith Kerr.  She lived this, and yet she could say that, in this wonderful book that she created.  A lot of it’s funny  – their grandma’s obsessed with her annoying dog, the train journey to Switzerland is enlivened by a woman with a cat in a basket, and, when they’re on the train in England, they see adverts for Bovril at every station along the way and think it’s the name of all the places.  But there are struggles too, like their father’s shame when Anna is given a coat by a relative who works for a charity providing clothes to poor children.  And there are moments of real horror, like when they hear that Onkel Julius, a family friend who stayed behind in Berlin and fell foul of the Nazi anti-Jewish laws, has committed suicide.

It’s not bitter. It’s not preachy.  Unlike some articles (it tends to be articles rather than books which do this) written by people who have never even faced persecution or been refugees themselves, it doesn’t try to make the reader feel guilty. Like so many things written by wonderfully brave people who have faced persecution and been refugees themselves, it’s so astoundingly free of self-pity that it humbles you.  It tells a story – and it does it so incredibly well. Children’s books are written by adults, which is problematic because it’s not easy for an adult to speak like a child, think like a child and reason like a child, especially about one of the most difficult subjects in world history; but Judith Kerr managed it.

Rest in peace, Judith. My Facebook newsfeed was flooded with tributes to you within minutes of the announcement of your death.  Your books meant a lot to very many people.  And you were an inspiration in yourself – an inspirational person who led an inspirational life and wrote inspirational books.