A Pony To Jump by Patricia Leitch

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  I read all Patricia Leitch’s Jinny/Shantih books in the 1980s, but I’d outgrown them by the time that the Kestrels series, of which this is the second, came out.   This is along similar lines -pony book, lower middle class families rather than the upper class/upper middle class families usually found in pony books, slight touch of mysticism.

The two main characters actually rather annoyed me.  One of them had a badly behaved dog which caused havoc everywhere.  Think Bruno Maynard in the Chalet School books.  There are few things which I dislike more than badly behaved dogs.  The other one called her grandmother “Narg” because it was “Gran” spelt backwards.  Why??!  Why not just call her “Gran”?

However, as a short pony book for a child of primary school age, it’s quite entertaining – there’s a bit about learning to jump, as the title suggests, and some drama with feuds at the riding school, a charity pageant, a famous showjumper turning up and a horse being stolen.   I won’t be bothering with the rest of the series, but, if I’d read this when I was 8 or 9, I’m sure I would have done.

 

Ariadne by Jennifer Saint

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Novels retelling Greek myths and legends from the viewpoints of some or all of the women involved seem to be all the rage at the moment.  I’m quite pleased about this- with most schools no longer teaching the classics, these ancient stories might have been at risk of dying out in the English-speaking world, which would have been a great shame.  When I was about 7, I had a book of Greek myths (I think it must have been the one by Enid Blyton), and I loved it.  I also loved the way that Colleen McCullough wove Greek myths into The Thorn Birds, but that’s beside the point.  I read this one for a Facebook group reading challenge, but I was going to read it anyway.

I may well be reading something into nothing here, but I sensed a mental health theme in this book.  There’s a *lot* of talk about the gods cursing women with “madness”, of having your mind taken over or taken away – first with Pasiphae, then with the Maenads, then with the women of Argos; and it’s strongly suggested that Ariadne’s sister Phaedra was suffering from post natal depression.   I might just be oversensitive on this issue, but this theme did seem to keep recurring.

Women generally come off badly in Greek myths and legends.  They’re rarely given a voice, and they’re treated pretty badly by gods, by mortal men, and even by jealous goddesses.  Ariadne was the daughter of the King of Crete, Minos, and half-sister of the Minotaur, who was born as a result of her father Minos disobeying Poseidon, and Poseidon taking revenge by making Minos’s wife Pasiphae fall in love with a bull.  Minos, after defeating Athens in war, demanded that Athens send seven young men and seven girls every few years (the number of years seems to vary!) to be fed to the Minotaur, who was kept in a labyrinth designed by Daedalus.  Theseus, a Greek prince,  volunteered to be one of those sacrificed, but killed the Minotaur with Ariadne’s help.  They sailed off into the sunset together … or so Ariadne thought, until Theseus abandoned her on the island of Naxos.   Theseus, of course, is known as one of the greatest Greek heroes, and his treatment of Ariadne is never counted against him. 

The book’s told in the first person, but some of that’s by Ariadne, and some of it’s by her Phaedra, who was later married off to Theseus.  The title’s a bit misleading, really, but maybe it just sounded more catchy than “Ariadne and Phaedra” or “The Princesses of Crete”.  It would have been interesting to have had Pasiphae telling her story too, but I suppose that only so much could be fitted into one book.  How women did suffer in Greek myths.

There are various versions of the various myths.  And, because most books have each myth as a separate story, you don’t always realise how they all fit together.  Medea, who ran off with Jason, was the stepmother of Theseus.  Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, had a child by Theseus.  Daedalus and Icarus, when they escaped and Icarus flew too close to the sun, were fleeing from Minos.  Dionysus went to war with Perseus, who killed Medusa and then married Andromeda.  Most versions show Dionysus wanting to marry Ariadne and therefore forcing Theseus to abandon her, and look unfavourably on Ariadne for betraying her father, but, in this version, it’s made clear that both Minos and Theseus are bad lots – Minos in general, and Theseus in his treatment of women.  Theseus is shown as raping Hippolyta, whereas in some versions they’re in love.  And Ariadne’s sister Phaedra, usually depicted as a villainess who tried to seduce her stepson and then made false claims about him, is shown as feeling betrayed because Theseus lied to her, telling her that Ariadne was dead, and not telling her about his son Hippolytus – and the false claims element of the myth is neatly sidestepped in this book, by showing Theseus getting the wrong end of the stick.

Because the book generally follows the myths, it wasn’t possible to show either sister as having a happy ending.  Phaedra took her own life – in this version, in despair.  Ariadne married Dionysus, aka Bacchus, the god of wine, and was happy with him and their children for a while, but she also met a sorry end. 

There are various different myths about what happened to her.  Jennifer Saint, who seems determined to paint most men as baddies, has chosen the version in which Ariadne fell victim to a war between Dionysus and Perseus.  However, in this book,  she first of all made the discovery that Dionysus was whipping his female followers, the Maenads, into a frenzy, and asking for first animal sacrifices and then the sacrifices of human babies.  I’m not familiar with the story about the babies at all: I’m not sure whether it’s the author’s own invention or a rather obscure myth.  I suspect the former, as Google didn’t seem to know about it either!   And Euphrosyne, usually the goddess of joy, was brought into this as a desperate woman seeking help and sanctuary, and the Maenads as doing the same.   

The war between Dionysus and Perseus is “canon”, though.  In this book, a lot of emphasis is paid to Dionysus caring more about trying to win the women of Argos, the city ruled by Perseus, as followers, than he did about Ariadne and their children.  I think that Colleen McCullough would have approved of that: a big theme of The Thorn Birds is men being more interested in their own aggrandisement than in their families.  And, as this was the version of events chosen, it ended – very abruptly, as if the author was rushing to finish the book – with Perseus killing Ariadne with the head of Medusa, another woman who fell victim to the jealousy of the gods.

All in all, it was an interesting read, although rather rushed at the end.  But it was also a bit depressing.  In The Thorn Birds (yes, I do realise that the two books have nothing to do with each other), Justine succeeds where Meggie didn’t, in being a strong independent woman and also in finding a man who puts her first.   At the end of this, both sisters end up dead because of the actions of men who didn’t care about them enough.  But, hey, that’s Greek myths for you – they don’t tend to end happily!

This is Jennifer Saint’s first book, and, for a first book, it’s not bad at all.   Recommended.

 

 

 

The Stone Rose by Carol McGrath

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This is the final book in Carol McGrath’s trilogy about unpopular medieval queens of England; and it’s about Isabella of France, who’s probably better-known than either Eleanor of Provence or Eleanor of Castile.  The title relates to a fictional character who’s the daughter of a stonemason, but it’s an odd choice.  It rather makes the reader imagine Isabella singing alongside Ian Brown, maybe about how her glorious marriage to the English heir turned out to be fools’ gold, or about telling Roger Mortimer that she wanna be adored …er, right, let’s leave it there, because “This Is The One” and “Waterfall” are both used as football songs at Old Trafford, and that’s all a bit painful at the moment and I’m just hoping that Erik ten Hag’s tenure will see The Resurrection.

OK, OK, Isabella of France.  You know the story.  The She-Wolf of France and her lover, Roger Mortimer, overthrow her gay husband, Edward II, and get someone to murder him by shoving a red hot poker up … well, you know that bit of the story without my having to spell it out.  Then they’re overthrown in turn, when her son, Edward III, takes control.  And there’s that thing about the Scottish bloke in the cave with the spider.  However, most of what we think we know about those times is what was written years later.  What actually happened?  Well, we know the basics, that Edward became unpopular because of the defeat at Bannockburn and the influence of his favourites, and that he was deposed by Isabella and Mortimer, but we don’t really know the detail.

Carol McGrath’s done a very good job of creating a novel from what did happen and what may have happened.  My one real issue with it is that it’s too short.  There’s a huge amount of English political history in the book, plus a certain amount of social history, plus some nice little titbits about fashions, the growing popularity of knitting and life at court, plus some of the history of France at the time – she doesn’t go into the dissolution of the Templars et al, but she does include the history of the Capetians, as they were Isabella’s family – and that, alongside the development of the characters and their relationships with each other, is a lot to fit into a novel of fewer than 400 pages.  But saying that you wish a book had been longer is surely a great compliment to it.

Incidentally, we don’t see Robert the Bruce, with or without his spider.  I just mentioned that story because I like it!

There’s a fairly recent theory that Edward II escaped to Italy.  We don’t actually know.  It’s not talked about very much.  The Princes in the Tower seem to have cornered the market as far as royal mysteries and conspiracy theories go.  But there is a theory.   On top of that, the term “She-Wolf” wasn’t used about Isabella until Elizabethan times, and it really isn’t clear from the sources from the time whether Isabella and Mortimer were lovers, nor whether Edward and Piers Gaveston were lovers, nor whether Edward and the younger Hugh Despenser were lovers. There’s also the fact that, whilst Edward was probably bisexual, people in the Middle Ages didn’t really identify as straight, gay, bisexual or anything else related to sexuality.  As for Bannockburn (and this book doesn’t actually show Robert the Bruce, with or without a spider), yes, it was a disaster, but Edward II’s reputation’s also suffered from being his sandwiched in between Edward I and Edward III, whose reigns both saw huge military success.  Pretty hard to compete with those two.

This book is generally very, very good.  Yes, it’s sympathetic towards Isabella, and it makes the point (perhaps a little too often) that she was a strong, independent woman,  but it’s not overly biased against Edward.  Someone once said that Charles I was “a very silly man”.  So was Edward II.  He allowed himself to be overly influenced by Gaveston and the Despensers, and, because of that, he became alienated from his wife, from other members of his family, and from the nobility in general.   He was a weak man, with very little common sense and that’s what this book shows.   Isabella is shown not as a “she-wolf” but as an intelligent woman who wasn’t willing to be dominated by men … which, unfortunately, is how some men would define a “she-wolf”.  Does any strong, independent woman risk being labelled a “She-Wolf”?  Maybe not a She-Wolf, but female politicians are inevitably labelled “bossy” and “domineering”.  Isabella’s certainly not shown as being callous and calculating, and I think that that’s fair enough.

There are also various sub-plots.  One involves Agnes, the fictional character mentioned above, and her future husband Gregory.  The main plot only covers the period from 1311 to 1330: Agnes and Gregory, in 1352, tell the reader what happens after that.  Another is the story of the Tour de Nesle affair, which saw her two sisters-in-law and their alleged lovers executed.  And another is the story of the de Clare sisters, who all played prominent roles at Edward II’s court.  And then there’s the romance between the future Edward III and Philippa of Hainault.

Overall, it’s a fascinating book.  The history’s spot on, insofar as it can be – I won’t give away which versions of events Carol McGrath chooses for her book – ,the characters come across well, and there’s a lot going on.  As I said, my one and only real criticism of it is that it needed to be a bit longer.

 

Shadow Girls by Carol Birch

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I’m afraid that I was rather disappointed by this book.  I was quite excited by the idea of a book set in a girls’ day school in Manchester.  From the location, I think the school’s based on the old Central High School.  It had closed down by my day, but I know people of my parents’ generation who went there, and obviously I know Manchester city centre and the other locations mentioned.  If anyone reading this *does* decide to try this book, then yes, Boggart Hole Clough is a real place, and that’s its real name!   And, yes, Lewis’s was a real shop … it was a lovely shop, and I can’t quite believe that it’s been twelve years since it closed down.

And I knew that there was a supernatural element, but I thought that that might work quite well.  A lot of teenagers are interested in the supernatural.  I know that some girls at my school did try using ouija boards, although that was possibly due more to the Morrissey song than anything else!  However, unfortunately, the style of writing in this book was rather poor, and the storyline was rather weak and didn’t really hang together.

The book’s had some good reviews, so maybe I’m missing something; but I just wasn’t very impressed by it.

It started off as a poor man’s Judy Blume book, with a lot of talk about X being friends with Y, X and Y not liking Z, parents and teachers thinking that X was a bad influence on Y, and so on.   The protagonist, Sally, was friendly with a girl called Pamela, who was seen as being a bit rough.  They didn’t get on with a girl called Sylvia, and Pamela played a nasty prank which caused Sylvia a lot of distress.  However, there was also some talk about ghosts in the toilets (why would ghosts be in school toilets, of all places?), and Sally started to think that Sylvia had a doppelganger, because she was sure that she’d seen her in two places at once.   Then, apparently under the influence of the fake Sylvia, Pamela took her own life by jumping off the school roof.  Sylvia had a nervous breakdown and left school.  It was clear that something was very wrong with both girls’ home lives, but we never really found out exactly what.

We then fast forwarded through Sally’s university years, to a time when the school had closed down and the building had been converted with flats, and Sally had reunited with Rob, her old boyfriend from her schooldays.  And, whaddaya know, he was living in one of the flats in the old school building.  Sally moved in with him, but kept thinking that she could feel a supernatural presence there.   Rob tried to help by tracking down Sylvia, and it ended up with Sally tripping down some stairs to her death, and Rob and Sylvia getting together.

Sorry, but I didn’t get it.  I think we were meant to feel that the portrayal of Sally’s terror and her uncertainty about what was real and what was her imagination were very powerful, but it just didn’t work for me.  Oh well, we can’t all like the same things!

The School in the Woods by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

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This is the second book in Dorita Fairlie Bruce’s “Toby” trilogy, coming in between The School on the Moor  and Toby at Tibbs Cross.  It’s a school-story-cum-spy-story published in 1940, one of several books in this genre published during the two world wars, but this one’s a bit different in that it’s set before the outbreak of the Second World War, in what I suppose is an alternative universe in which Dick Trevor (Toby Barrett’s future husband, although we don’t know that in this book) and his father develop a gas which could potentially be used to destroy entire armies, which they hope will act as a deterrent and prevent the outbreak of war with Nazi Germany, and any future wars.

The spy element comes in the form of traitors who are plotting to steal the formula, and this involves a mysterious girl at Toby’s new school.   Of course, all’s well that end’s well … but the reader, unlike the characters, knows very well that it isn’t, because this gas didn’t exist, and war is going to come.  And, in 1940, they don’t know what the outcome of that war will be.  In the next book, there isn’t actually any mention of this gas – war has come, Toby is working as a land girl, and Dick is involved in other war work.  So I’m not entirely sure where DFB was going with this book, unless maybe she wrote it before war broke out and it was wishful thinking.

There’s a lot of talk in this wartime book about the importance of the Empire and the idea of the Pax Britannica.   The “goodie” characters, and presumably DFB herself, all believe that, if this gas were in the hands of Britain/the British Empire alone, it would do nothing but good – it would bring about world peace by deterring “baddie” countries, which we presumably understand to mean Nazi Germany, from being aggressive.   Everyone firmly seems to believe that, as things stand (i.e. without the gas), war is inevitable – which seems a bit odd, given how many people genuinely bought the “peace for our time” idea.

People have all these ideas about what can bring about world peace.  One superpower.  Two rival blocs, based on ideology or, in the past, religion.  Nation states.  A federal Europe (I am adamantly opposed to this idea, but I do understand that some people genuinely think that it’s a good one).  A balance of power involving a number of different states.  And not one of them flaming well seem to work.  I suppose that DFB’s idea of some sort of very powerful fatal gas foreshadows the development of nuclear weapons, but even they don’t seem to be keeping the peace any more, because everyone seems to assume that the other side wouldn’t use them.   Maybe this fictional gas would have been better, because it wouldn’t have been as destructive or threatened civilians, so there might not have been the assumption that it wouldn’t be used.  But anyway.  It’s only a story.

In terms of the actual school element, not much happens.  Toby’s old school has been merged with another school, there are the usual issues in which the two groups of girls find it hard to combine, there’s a “them and us” feeling, and there’s a rather pointless subplot about a younger girl who keeps having hysterics. There’s also a local woman with whom Toby becomes friendly, and who eventually agrees to act as guardian to the aforementioned mysterious girl, who’s an innocent party in her elder siblings’ dastardly doings.   The main point of the book is the storyline about the gas.  And I really would love to know whether the book was actually written before or after war broke out.

 

The Player’s Boy and The Players and the Rebels by Antonia Forest

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These two books, set in the final decade of Elizabeth I’s reign, feature Nicholas Marlow, an ancestor of the Marlow family of the Kingscote books, as a young man running away from home and joining a group of theatrical players.  The final chapter shows him going away to sea, which if I recall correctly is mentioned in one of the Kingscote books, but the rest of the story shows him as one of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – a friend of William Shakespeare, an acquaintance of Walter Raleigh, and an associate of the Earls of Essex and Southampton.

This, of course, is the period of Essex’s Rebellion.  I’m afraid that I’ll always associate it primarily with Essex barging in on Elizabeth before she’d put her make up on, but obviously the fact that he did actually plan to seize control of London and force the Queen to dismiss Cecil was rather more serious than that.  Well, probably.  I hate to be seen with no make up on.   There’s so much focus on the events of the late 1580s, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots and, of course, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, one of the defining moments in English history, that the period from 1588 to 1603 tends to be rather neglected, so it was an interesting idea to set the books at this time.   And it’s rather convenient that Christopher Marlowe’s surname was very close to that of the Marlows, and that Essex’s steward shared the surname of Merrick with the Marlow’s neighbours.

There genuinely was a link between the theatre and the rebellion, and that’s what we see in these books.  The Earl of Southampton was Shakespeare’s patron, and a performance by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men of Shakespeare’s Richard II, showing an anointed monarch being deposed, did cause a fair amount of controversy.

The GGBP editions of these two books have a number of forewords, one of which was written by the late Joy Wotton.  I was fortunate enough to know Joy via Facebook, and to meet her at the Harrogate Book Fair a few years ago.  She was a lovely person, and it was quite poignant for me to read her words.  Hilary Clare’s foreword points out that Antonia Forest got some of the historical details, notably the relations between different social classes, wrong, but that she got the actual course of events spot on.   What we don’t know is where Shakespeare actually was during the 1590s.  I go with the idea that he was at Hoghton Tower – OK, OK, spot the Lancastrian! – but we don’t know, and he may well have been with a group of players.

I can’t say that these are the greatest historical novels that I’ve ever read, and I doubt if I’d have read them had it not been for the Marlow connection, but they’re not bad at all, especially bearing in mind that they were meant for children/young adults; and, as I’ve said, this period of Elizabeth I’s reign tends to be neglected.   Nicholas came across very well, and the lives of real people and fictional people were interwoven pretty much seamlessly.   They also give a fascinating picture of theatrical life at a crucial time in the development of English theatre.  I rather enjoyed them!

The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier

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  Remember the ridiculous Krystle/Rita storyline in Dynasty?  If your child, sibling, partner or parent had been replaced by a lookalike, do you not think you’d notice the difference?  And Rita had at least been coached by Sammy Jo in Krystle’s history, the family history and Krystle’s mannerisms.  In this book, we are expected to believe that a British history professor is tricked into taking the place of a French count who drugged him a short time after they met by accident at a railway station, and that the count’s mother, wife, brother, sister and daughter all failed to realise that this wasn’t actually their guy, just someone who looked like him?  I mean, seriously??!!

The dog realised that it was the wrong guy.  So, eventually, did the guy’s mistress.  But no-one else did.  The said count had got his life in a mess.  The terms of his wife’s dowry were that the money would only be released if she either produced a male heir or died before the age of 50.  One daughter, one miscarriage, now expecting again but terrified that something would go wrong.  He was supplying his mother with morphine, his sister didn’t speak to him because he’d had her fiance murdered during the war, and his young daughter was having some sort of religious crisis.  Also, his finances were a mess and putting a lot of people’s livelihoods at risk.

Our friend, John, did his best to sort it out, but the wife committed suicide.  Meanwhile, Jean, the real count, was in London, helping himself to John’s money.

Why didn’t John just go to the police and say that he’d been drugged and kidnapped and he wasn’t actually Jean?!  Did he enjoy being caught up in this very messy life, just because his own was so boring?  And how on earth did even Jean’s closest relatives fail to notice that he was the wrong person?   Even if he genuinely looked very like Jean, he wouldn’t have sounded like him, and the fact that he knew nothing about Jean’s life must surely have been obvious.   The story of Jean’s family was interesting, but the idea that no-one would have realised that John wasn’t Jean was just too silly.

 

A Free Man on Sunday by Fay Sampson

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We all know see that the title of this book comes from “The Manchester Rambler” by Ewan MacColl, right?   “I may be a wage slave on Monday, but I am a free man on Sunday.”  In addition to being a singer-songwriter from Lower Broughton, and the father of the late, great Kirsty MacColl, Ewan MacColl was one of the leaders of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, the 90th anniversary of which will be marked on Sunday, April 24th.  Anyone who’s ever felt trapped in a workplace, especially in a densely-populated urban area, and especially if they’ve ever suffered from mental health problems, will be able to identify with that feeling … and that’s partly why a group of mainly working-class people from Manchester and Sheffield, largely organised by Benny Rothman from Cheetham Hill (let me get the North Manchester bit in there!) campaigned so hard for walkers in England and Wales to be given access to the countryside.  As they put it, it was a “working class struggle for the right to roam versus the rights of the wealthy to have exclusive use of moorlands for grouse shooting”.

Opinions on the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass vary.  Some people think that it was a big turning point as regards public access to the countryside, and was what led to the creation of the Countryside Code and the National Parks.  Some people think that it wasn’t a big deal.  A lot of people admire the Trespassers, but some people from landowning backgrounds point out that trespassing is inappropriate – five of the trespassers were jailed for public order offences – and say that mass trespasses hindered the movement towards greater access.  I’m from North Manchester, OK.  My paternal grandfather was the same age as Benny Rothman and grew up in the same part of town as he did.  Maybe they even knew each other. In fact they may well have gone to the same primary school, maybe been in the same class.  I love North Manchester, but it’s a very built-up, densely populated area, and it’s extremely important for me to be able to get out into the countryside for some “green therapy”.  So I was always going to identify with the Trespassers:  I’m not going to pretend to be unbiased about any of this!

During lockdown, there were a lot of pictures in the papers of crowded public parks in Manchester and other cities, and tut-tutting about the number of people there.  Well, that was because we weren’t allowed out of our local areas and, wonderful as our parks are, there are a lot of us living near them.  For the number of people, we don’t have a lot of green space.  And we need it, especially during tough times – and 1932, in the middle of the Depression, was a very tough time, just as lockdown was.  We need access to the countryside.  Thank you again to all those who helped to win it for us.

And I was hoping to be able to say that I loved this book.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t very good.  But it tried.

It’s a children’s book.  It says that it’s aimed at children aged between 10 and 13.  Our heroine is Edie Ramsden, who lives in a fictional town called “Oldway”.  I tried to work out where it was meant to be, but I couldn’t.  The surnames are all very Lancastrian, and yet there’s a mention of someone having worked at the Yorkshire Evening Post, and there’s also reference to the best-known climbers in Derbyshire and being on the other side of “the county”, so maybe the author was trying to show that this was a joint effort.  Or maybe the author, who comes from Devon, doesn’t actually know that much about Northern England, and I’m totally overthinking things!  TBH, that’s probably accurate.  Everyone works in a cotton mill and goes to chapel.  I was just waiting for the cloth caps and whippets.  Oh, and apparently they can see both Kinder Scout and the Mersey from Oldway, which is, er, interesting.  It really does read like a book written by a Southerner!   But never mind.

Edie’s dad is very involved with rambling, but they are a chapel-going family, and her mum and their friends are rather shocked by the idea both of rambling on a Sunday and of the involvement of the Young Communists in the rambling/trespassing movement.  That’s obviously a perfectly valid viewpoint, but I found it a bit odd.  The whole point of being “A Free Man on Sunday” (and the author does acknowledge that the song hadn’t actually been written at the time of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass) is that you can do what you want on a Sunday.  Sabbatarianism doesn’t really mesh with that, other than not actually doing your job of work.  A lot of the people involved were communists, and or Jewish, and the others presumably weren’t bothered about either attending Sunday morning services or strict Sunday observance in general, or they wouldn’t have been going on long Sunday rambles.  I’m not quite sure why the author chose to bring Methodist sabbatarianism into it.  I’m not criticising it, I just don’t really think it fits with the main plotline, i.e. the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass.

OK, enough moaning.  On the positive side, the book makes a big effort to emphasise how important access to the land is to working-class people.  And it points out that a lot of the ramblers were women: it wasn’t just a male thing.  It also makes the point – and this is something which came up a lot in 2020 and 2021, with so many people “staycationing” – that visitors to the countryside need to respect it.  It doesn’t belong to anyone: it belongs to everyone.  No swinging on gates and possibly breaking them.  And, although the book didn’t mention either of these issues, no dropping litter and no letting horrible dogs attack sheep.  But it also shows that the Trespassers were treated very harshly by gamekeepers.

Edie’s dad goes off to join the Trespass.  Edie decides to follow him.  She has a problem with the wheel of her bike.  Two men stop to help her – and they’re none other than Benny Rothman and his mate Wolfie Winnick.  They all reach the top of Kinder Scout … and Edie’s dad is one of those arrested.  The book ends with him being one of those jailed for public order offences, and Edie dreaming of the day that he’s free again and they’re all free to climb Kinder Scout.

It wasn’t the greatest of books, as I’ve said, but very few books do address this important event in the history of the British countryside, so I’m grateful to Fay Sampson for doing so.   Thank you to her, but, most of all, thank you again to all of those who fought for the right of the public in England and Wales to enjoy the countryside.   It’s a very important right, and may it never be taken away.

Toby at Tibbs Cross by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

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This book sees Toby, the heroine of The School on the Moor, working as a Land Girl (well, sort of) in 1940.   There are surprisingly few books showing Girls’ Own heroines doing war work, so this one is very welcome.  Toby isn’t with the official Land Army, but is effectively doing the work of a land girl on a farm owned by Charity Sheringham, who features in some of DFB’s other books.  There’s quite a bit of information about farming, but not so much as to be boring, and love interests for both girls, so that all works rather well.

However … in keeping with the the Raiders of the Lost Ark storyline in The School on the Moor, Toby soon finds that a disease killing local farm animals, and which nearly kills her dog – which, incidentally, is referred to as “Master Algy” by Charity’s maid – is being caused by the local vet, who is in the pay of the Nazis and is injecting all the animals with poison.  Right.  And the only person who is able to save the animals is a gipsy horse doctor.   It turns out that, whaddaya know, the gipsy horse doctor is none other than Toby’s admirer in disguise, trying to catch the baddie vet out.

Meanwhile, Charity’s beau has gone missing during the Dunkirk evacuation, but he returns in a German plane, which he was able to nick as its pilots had left it unattended whilst they went to the pub.  As you do.

There’s a dramatic conclusion in which Toby’s admirer is beaten up by the baddie vet, leaving Toby to do the catching and apprehending … and a very sad sub-plot which sees the vet’s disabled niece die.   Both couples get engaged, and presumably live happily ever after – the two men being exempt from further military/police service due to the importance of their farming.

I think it’s important to remember that this was intended as a children’s book.  A lot of children’s books written during both world wars feature spy stories and derring-do, and young readers would probably find a book which was just about farming and romance rather boring.  So, although it seemed rather OTT, it was probably right for the audience for which it was written – and the actual writing was very good.  Now I just need to get hold of the middle book in the “Toby” trilogy!

80s Kid by Melanie Ashfield

Standard

 

Mum and dad born at the end of the Second World War, two kids born in the mid-1970s, grandparents who made it through the Depression and the war and now hoped to enjoy their retirement in a bit of comfort which they never had when they were younger, living in the suburb of a big city.  Yep, that was us, and that was also the Ashfield family – although, in their case, the city was Birmingham.  This is only a short book, but it’s a wonderful exercise in nostalgia.  I read the entire book very quickly, nodding and laughing and saying “Oh yes”!   Especially when the author said that she herself, as a child, was always very interested in “the olden days”, because she was always busily reading about them in Enid Blyton books.

Did you collect Panini football stickers and smelly rubbers?  Wear a Fergie bow in your hair?  Tape the Top 40 off Radio 1 on a Sunday night?  Learn things from Judy Blume’s Forever and the Just Seventeen problem page which you never learnt anywhere else?   Yep, that was me, and that was also the author of this book.  It really did give me a good laugh!

It’s subtitled “A memoir of growing up in the last decade before technology took over” – and, yes, that’s true.  All right, I’m not saying that, when we were kids, we were out roaming the great outdoors, eating macaroons and drinking ginger beer, but we certainly didn’t have mobile phones, we only had basic computer games, and a Walkman was the height of sophistication!  But, as the book says, any sort of new gadget was very exciting, and people thought they were really something if they got one for their home.  The author devotes most of a chapter to the family’s first microwave.  I have no idea why I remember this, but we got our first microwave on the weekend that Tom Watson won the British Open.  So it must have been either 1982 or 1983, because he won it in both years.  And the fact that I remember that just shows what a big deal it was when your family got their first microwave!

And, as the author says, grandmas and great-aunts were not overly impressed with microwaves.  They liked to cook things properly.  Specific reference is made to lemon meringue pies.  Oh yes.  My maternal grandma was always making lemon meringue pies.  People who were not so devoted to cooking, on the other hand, served up Angel Delight.   We used to get this at primary school.  It was always the chocolate flavour.  Someone nicknamed it “mud pud”, and the name stuck.  The author writes at length about how utterly vile primary school dinners were in the 1980s.   They were indeed.

I was more interested in the primary school nostalgia than the secondary school nostalgia, probably because I was a very shy and boring teenager but, as our primary school was so small, everyone there was part of the in crowd.   She talks about it being a big deal when one black kid arrived at the school, but I have to say that that didn’t resonate with me, because my primary school was always very multi-ethnic.  Other things did resonate with me, though.  Having to go to school even in the bleak midwinter.  If you slipped in the snow, hard luck!   And picking up the litter in the playground being regarded as a mark of high status rather than as a punishment.  I’d completely forgotten about that, but it was true!   There was a girl in the year below me called Claire, and Claire was obsessed with being one of the people chosen to pick up the litter in the playground!   I was never that keen on it myself, but I’d never have got a look in anyway, because Claire and her mates were always in there first, so excited about getting to pick up crisp packets left lying on the ground.  I mean, why??

And the collections.  Rubbers.  We had two huge sweet jars full of rubbers.  Being a rather anal kid obsessed with record-keeping, I kept a list of rubbers, and every new rubber which my sister and I acquired was entered on to the list.  I am not making this up.  Panini football stickers, of course.   Care Bears.  And My Little Ponies.  We even had a My Little Pony game at our primary school.  Girls only.  Each girl was assigned the name of one of the ponies.  I was Applejack.  My sister was Seashell.  My then best friend was Bubbles.  No, I have no idea why I remember this, either.

Dads and grandads, meanwhile, dreamed of winning the pools.  The author writes quite a bit of this.  Our pools man came once a week, to collect the money.  My dad put on the same numbers every week, and, to this day, I can still remember most of them.  My maternal grandad, meanwhile, always talked about how, when he won the pools, he was going to buy two racehorses.  He’d even chosen names for them.  Needless to say, he never did win the pools.  Nor did anyone in the author’s family.  But we had our dreams!

Another chapter is devoted to Wimpy parties.  Now, I don’t remember ever going to a Wimpy party, but Wimpy parties and McDonald’s parties were much the same thing, and McDonald’s parties were really big round our way in around 1984.  I had one myself.  You and your friends all went to the local McDonald’s, and the staff even organised games for you.  And it meant that your mum was not left with a load of mess to  clear up at home.   So cool!  *So* cool!

Less cool were those mental arithmetic tests with which some teachers were obsessed.  I’m so glad to learn that this didn’t just happen at our school!   Our headmistress used to yell “Right, mental arithmetic test, number down 1 to 100,” and then fire questions at us so quickly that you were usually still trying to work out the answer to question 1 when she was on to question 3.  These days, it’s probably all computerised.

There were all sorts of other bits, too.  Mr Frosty machines.  Monogrammed hankies!   Fergie bows.  Watching Bullseye.   And then all the things you did at secondary school.  As I said, I didn’t get as much from this, because I was a bit of a saddo at secondary school, but plenty of it was still very familiar.  Fake IDs.  I’m not sure how it worked elsewhere, but, in Manchester, there were under 16 bus passes and 16-19 bus passes.  Kids aged 13, 14 and 15 would photocopy their birth certificates, change the date with Tippex to make it look as if they were 18, photocopy the copy, and then get a 16-19 bus pass.  The staff at the bus station shops must have known jolly well that the said kids were nowhere near 18, but I don’t remember anyone ever being questioned about it.

Forever, by Judy Blume.  Yes, we all read that.  To this day, I find it very hard not to snigger if I meet anyone called Ralph.  There are very few people under 50 called Ralph, despite the fact that it was the name of the hero of The Thorn Birds.  I think Judy Blume killed the name off.  The Just Seventeen problem page.  The constant fad diets – generally tried by mums and aunties.

And, according to the author, a lot of girls wanted to be models.  Now, I remember Aveline in Bread and Georgina in Grange Hill both wanting to be models, but I think that that particular trend must have passed my school by.  OK, a fat kid like me was never going to aspire to be a model anyway, but I don’t remember any of the pretty girls being interested in modelling either!

Taping the Top 40 off the radio, though – now that was something which we definitely did.  The snag was that, unless you had a fancy combined radio and cassette thing, those old cassette players recorded everything, and you could guarantee that a parent or sibling would barge into your room and start talking just as your favourite song came on!  Video rental shops were a big thing too.  My then best friend’s parents actually owned a video rental shop, so we got the pick of all the newest videos.  And hanging around in town on Saturday mornings.  I think calling the city centre “town” is a specifically Mancunian thing, and the author just talked about hanging around in the city centre, but, yes, everyone did that!   These days, people go into town to have a drink and something to eat, but, back then, there weren’t anything like the number of eating places that there are now.  And we didn’t go shopping.  We just hung around.

I suppose everyone thinks that the decade in which they grew up was something special.  It’s where you get your soundtrack from, as well.  I can hear a song from 1989 and know exactly when it was from, and what was going on in my life at that time.  With songs which were released later than … probably 1995, the year I graduated from university, I just haven’t got that.  I rarely listen to any music from any time later than the mid-1990s.  Because the time when you grow up’s special.  We’ll always be 80s kids.

Loved this book!   Really, really loved it!