No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton

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This is a very well-written children’s book, telling the story of a family of Syrian asylum seekers in Manchester in the style of a traditional ballet book, with the Mary Martin/Miss Arrowhead role of the fairy godmother ballet teacher poignantly being filled by an elderly lady who came here as a Jewish refugee from the Nazis.  It really does get across the messages of the situation in Syria and the issues faced by asylum seekers – and also the teacher’s experiences as one of the Kindertransport children eighty years earlier, making the point that there are refugees in every generation – in a way that the intended audience, probably children aged around 9 to 12, will be able to understand. Older readers will get a lot from it too.

11-year-old Aya, her mum and her baby brother have come to Manchester from Aleppo: what’s happened to her dad isn’t explained until later on.  At the start of the story, they’ve already been here for several months, but there are flashbacks to what happened in Syria.  I’m not normally keen on books which jump around like that, but I can see that starting in Aleppo and describing the war there might have been too much in a children’s book.  Like many people fleeing Syria, they’d led a happy and comfortable life there, the dad being a doctor – who’d spent some years working in the UK and spoke fluent English, which he’d taught Aya.

They came to the UK via Turkey and Greece, so, because they should have claimed asylum in Greece, the first EU member state they came to, their claim for refugee status in the UK is complicated. I don’t want to get political – and the issues around the asylum situation are far more multifaceted than the author seems to want readers to believe, even allowing for the fact that she’s writing for children – but I don’t think anyone could argue that the asylum claim process isn’t inefficient and doesn’t take too long; and we see that the family are in limbo for months whilst they wait for a decision.  They receive help from volunteers at food banks and advice centres, but also meet with some hostility from their landlord when they cannot pay their rent.  The author’s keen to make the point that her characters have their pride: when a kind girl gives Aya some old leotards and ballet clothes that she’s grown out of, Aya feels uncomfortable about being seen as a charity case.

The book doesn’t try to explain all the complexities of the war in Syria and who’s on which side and why – does anyone, never mind a child of around 11, actually understand that? – but it explains that attacks on peaceful protests spiralled into civil war, and it doesn’t shy away from describing bombings and telling us that Aya lost friends in the bombings, and that other people she knew were detained and haven’t been seen since.  Children in the intended readership age group are old enough to know about this, and fiction is a very good way of getting the message through.

We learn that Aya was injured by shrapnel and has a permanent scar as a result, and also that her mum is struggling physically and mentally after leaving Syria too soon after the difficult birth of her son.  The combination of that and the fact that she (the mum) doesn’t speak English puts a huge amount of responsibility on Aya’s shoulders.  What can bring joy and hope back into her life?

And that’s where we get this fascinating mix of genres – the title of the book is an obvious act of homage to Noel Streatfeild, and this is a very 21st century story combined with a traditional Girls’ Own story.  In the community centre where they go for advice, ballet classes are being held in another room – and we learn that Aya had ballet lessons back in Aleppo and was very keen.  There’s a moving scene later on in which some of the girls in the class are surprised to learn that there were ballet classes in Syria, a country they only associate with war, and Aya is sad that they don’t initially realise that life there was once perfectly normal.

In true GO style, Aya goes to watch the lessons, is invited to join in, and is so brilliant that Miss Helena, the teacher, offers her the chance to attend classes without paying – but, evidently understanding that she doesn’t want to be seen as a charity case, invites her to pay her way by helping out in the classes for younger children.  We later find out that Miss Helena, who was originally from Prague, came here on the Kindertransport, alone, and became a world famous ballerina.

Having Miss Helena in that role of what I’ve called the “fairy godmother ballet teacher”, a classic ballet book trope, is inspired.  She later tells Aya all about her own experiences – and this again is something that’s so important for children in the intended readership age group to know – and the point is made so well that war and persecution and refugee crises happen in every generation, over and over again.

Aya makes friends with a girl called Dotty, the daughter of another world famous ballerina – who wants her daughter to follow in her footsteps. There’s a sub-plot about how Dotty doesn’t really want to be a ballerina.  That’s very Lorna Hill – think Mariella Foster and Vicki Scott.  And the girls in the class arrange a concert to raise funds for the refugees – that’s very Girls’ Own too.

In some ways it is a classic children’s ballet book, and yet at the same time it’s a million miles away from Ballet Shoes or A Dream of Sadler’s Wells.  It’s all woven together very cleverly.  Aya and Dotty get locked in at the ballet studio after staying late to practise, standard enough storyline … but then Aya has a panic attack, and we learn about how she and her family travelled from Syria to Turkey in a container on a lorry, and nearly suffocated.  And about the conditions in the refugee camp.  It doesn’t spell out the dangers there, especially for women and girls, but there are mentions of it being unsafe to go out at night, of screaming, and of Aya feeling uncomfortable at the way some of the men look at her.

It is a children’s book, despite some of the hard-hitting subjects it covers, and adult readers will need to suspend disbelief over some aspects of it.  If Miss Helena started attending ballet classes before the Second World War, she must be the oldest ballet teacher in the world!  And would Dotty’s posh family, who live in a mansion – in an area near woodland, so does that suggest Alderley Edge? – be sending their daughter to ballet classes in a community centre in an underprivileged area miles away?  But try to ignore all that – it’s necessary for the story!

Dotty’s family have got their own swimming pool.  Dotty invites Aya to swim in it with her … and that brings about another flashback, this time to the flimsy boats making the crossing from Turkey to Greece, and that’s when we find out that the boat Aya’s family were in overturned, as so many did, and her dad drowned.  There are all these juxtapositions – from a ballet studio to a refugee camp, from a swimming pool in a mansion to people drowning whilst being taken across the Aegean in boats that aren’t fit for purpose, by unscrupulous traffickers who care nothing for human lives.

And Dotty, and another girl in their ballet class, are auditioning for the Royal Northern Ballet School.  Sadly, this doesn’t actually exist 🙂 .  But think Sadler’s Wells/Royal Ballet School, but based near Manchester.  If Aya can get a scholarship there, she’ll be entitled to stay in the UK because she’ll get a study visa.  She’s missed the preliminary auditions, but Miss Helena manages to swing it so that she can be seen anyway.

Just as an aside, it doesn’t specify which part of town any of the action’s taking place in, but there are some definite clues on the journey to the ballet school.  They seem to be heading across town on the Mancunian Way, and then out on to Chester Road, past the two Old Traffords 🙂 .  So they must be based on the north side of town, to need to cross town to get to the south side … which suggests the Cheetham Hill/Crumpsall area.  Then they keep going, so that’ll be straight down the A56 in its various incarnations south of the city centre, and it sounds as if the ballet school building is based on either Dunham Massey or Tatton Park.  I just had to try to work that out!

As Aya rehearses for the audition, she remembers dancing in the refugee camp, and thinks about how dancing is universal.  I’ve also seen videos of little kids in refugee camps playing football, just like little kids do in Manchester and Madrid and Munich.  Football, dancing, singing …  they don’t care who you are or where you are.

Of course, the audition is on the same day as the final asylum hearing.  Aya’s overcome with anxiety, and also with feelings of guilt at the thought that, if she succeeds, she’ll be granted a student visa but her mum and brother may still be deported.  And – this is very Girls’ Own, in a very un-Girls’-Own scenario – she faints in the middle of it all.  She doesn’t feel that she can go on, until Miss Helena explains that she lost her parents and sister in the Holocaust and turned round all the survivor guilt into believing that she had to make the most of the chance that she’d been given and that dancing was her way of making something beautiful out of the saving of her own life and the loss of theirs.  The pairing of the two characters who’ve both been through so much, in the traditional ballet book roles of the poor but brilliant student and the fix-it teacher, is a very clever touch, and very well executed.

I won’t give away the ending.  But I will mention the afterword, in which the author talks about “lightbulb books” for children, and how that’s the sort of book she’s tried to write.  She’s certainly ambitious: she talks about aspiring to write something that’s like When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and The Silver Sword and also like Ballet Shoes, The Swish of the Curtain and the Sadler’s Wells books.  Time will tell how this book’s received, but I do hope that a lot of people will read it, and get a lot out of it.  It uses the term “the kindness of strangers” over and over again.  That’s something that we should all aspire to.

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Bookworm by Lucy Mangan

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I feel as if I’m back in the third year infants, with the teachers complaining that I read too many Enid Blyton books and the other kids thinking I’m weird for always, always choosing reading during “reading and drawing” sessions 🙂 .  This book was quite some nostalgia fest!  I’m just amazed that Lucy Mangan had the discipline to fit her memoir of childhood reading into 336 pages.  I’d want to include so many books, so many observations and so many anecdotes that it’d end up making War and Peace look like a Ladybird book.  How would you even start?  Every time I think about it, names of books come tumbling out of my head so quickly that I can’t even begin to keep up with them.  Did I spend my entire childhood with my nose in a book?  No wonder I was so fat and everyone thought I was odd!   You know how normal people have early childhood holiday photos of themselves frolicking in a pool or on a beach or in the countryside?  There’s one of me, in my Marks & Spencer’s swimming costume, sat on a sunbed, clutching a copy of The Secret Mountain.   It says it all, really. How wonderful to be reminded that, no, actually, it wasn’t just me.  Especially when the author’s a very similar age to me, and a lot of the books we read and loved were the same ones.

I would love to write and write about all the books that were important to me as a kid, but even just writing a list of titles would take hours.   The Chalet School books, all the zillions of different Enid Blyton books, the Little House books, the Sadlers Wells books, the Jinny books, the Noel Streatfeild Gemma books, the Chronicles of Narnia, Nancy Drew, Trebizon, the Little Women books, the What Katy Did books, the Anne of Green Gables books … and those were just my favourite series, before even starting to list all the other series and the one-off books.  I’m very impressed that Lucy managed to choose … well, I won’t say “a few books”, because she actually includes rather a lot, but that she managed to choose at all: I bet she could have included dozens more.

And all the anecdotes. Lucy Mangan includes loads of anecdotes relating to particular books, but how would you choose which ones to put in and which ones to leave out.  I’m sure no-one wants to know about how I used to know all the Noddy books off by heart and would howl with indignation if my tired mum or dad tried to miss a few pages out when reading me my bedtime story, my friend’s mum buying me Jo of the Chalet School, how the same friend and I tried to stick notes on other kids’ backs as was done to Elizabeth Allen in The Naughtiest Girl in the School or the time I reserved Dear Shrink from Whitefield Library and the person who had it out on loan was another friend.  Nor indeed about how narked I was when someone beat me to getting the Ladybird book about Florence Nightingale out of the class library in the third year infants (I’ve got no idea why we had a class library in the third year infants, when we didn’t in any other year at primary school), how I used to nick my big cousin’s Gemma and Carbonel books or how I once insisted on reading The Last Battle whilst the hairdresser was trying to cut my hair.  And definitely not – how’s this for TMI? – about how I threw up all over The Secret of Kilimanjaro on one occasion and Ella at the Wells on another.  I take travel sickness tablets before going anywhere near a plane these days.

But, if I was writing a memoir of my childhood reading, I’d have to put in all these tales, and umpteen more. Fortunately, Lucy does it in a much more interesting and amusing way than I do.  But none of her anecdotes are about having wild adventures, because bookworm kids don’t generally have wild adventures.  We read about them instead!   And that’s much more exciting.  The sort of things that happen in children’s books did not generally happen in 1980s British suburbs.

I did rather hope that Lucy, being of almost exactly the same vintage as me, clearly like-minded, and, although born and bred in London, apparently classing herself as an honorary Lancastrian (as both her parents are from Preston) would have read all the same books as me, and that I’d be shrieking with excitement all the way through this. That was a pretty stupid thing to hope.  For a kick-off, as I’ve already said, a lot of my childhood faves were not even remotely specific to my generation.  And there’s no way that everyone’s going to be into, or indeed even come across, the same books.

It’s strange how kids come across books. It could – in my day – be via bookshops, presents or loans or suggestions from relatives or friends, school libraries, public libraries, recommendations at the back of other books, or the Puffin Club (Lucy isn’t entirely sure whether or not she was a member of the Puffin Club, but I definitely was).  Often it was purely by chance.  I stumbled across a copy of Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School in the primary school library.  I mean, imagine if that hadn’t happened!  OK, there were loads of Chalet School Armadas around then, and I’d have seen one in a shop sooner or later, but … just imagine if I hadn’t.  I go hot and cold just thinking about it 😉 .

The bookshops of my bookwormish childhood! What happened to them all?  There’s only really Waterstones now.  Lucy Mangan mentions Dillons a lot – what happened to Dillons?  Ah, Wikipedia says that it was taken over by Waterstones.  And Sherratt and Hughes: I think they merged with W H Smith.  Then there was Willshaw’s, the bookshop beloved by all Manchester schoolteachers.  I’m sure it only stocked the same books as Sherratt & Hughes and Dillons, but teachers were always telling us to go there.  My primary school headmistress spoke about the place as if it were some sort of temple.  My secondary school gave book tokens as prizes, and the book tokens were always for Willshaw’s.  Good old Willshaw’s!  It’s long gone now 😦 .

We did get recommended reading lists at secondary school, and, being the sort of obsessively minded kid who absolutely has to tick things off on lists, I read practically all the stuff on the one for first years, once I’d started on it. Some of the books on there were great.  I’m so impressed that the teacher included the Sue Barton books.   Others were not.  Yes, OK, I suppose they had to put Alan Garner on there because he was an Old Boy of our brother school, but I really don’t do fantasy novels!   I don’t particularly remember the teachers recommending books when we were at primary school.  Well, apart from The (wretched) Hobbit!  I’m sure they must have done, in between telling me what not to read, but I evidently didn’t take any notice.  I gave up on the secondary school lists fairly quickly as well, and just read what I wanted.   Kids should not be driven mad about what they should and shouldn’t read.  Just be glad that they’re reading!

I’d heard of pretty much all the books Lucy read as a very young child, but, apart from Richard Scarry (and she never even name-checks Huckle the Cat!) and the Mr Men, they hadn’t been part of my life.  No mention of Chicken Licken!  And she says that she didn’t started reading Enid Blyton books until she was about six, so she’d missed the ones meant for the youngest readers.  That’s a shame.  It’s not just Noddy, it’s all the others – the Faraway Tree books, Mr Twiddle and Mr Pink Whistle, the Wishing Chair, et al, and, of course, Amelia Jane.  We had a big armchair in the hall.  I don’t know why, because no-one ever sat in the hall, but we did.  I used to pretend that it was the wishing chair.  Unfortunately, it never sprouted wings.  And I used to drive my dad mad to make up stories about Amelia Jane, because I’d read the canon ones so many times and wanted more.  My mum was also a childhood bookworm, and had read a lot of the same books that I did, but my dad was the champion at making up Amelia Jane stories!   Anyway, getting back to Lucy –  once she got a bit older, now, that was more like it!   Well, more like me, I mean.

OK, not entirely. I don’t think I’ve ever read The Phantom Tollbooth, and, whilst I remember reading Private-Keep Out! and its sequels, I can’t even remember what they were about.  She only mentions the Little House books in passing, never mentions Sadlers Wells, Heidi or Charlotte Sometimes once, doesn’t mention anything by Joan Lingard, and, worst of all, barely even mentions the Chalet School.  But so many of the books she does mention brought back so many memories!   Milly Molly Mandy. My Naughty Little Sister.  The Worst Witch.  The Borrowers.  The Blyton books, obviously.  Little Women.  The Secret Garden.  The Katy books.  The Anne books.   Pony books, even if she doesn’t actually mention Jinny.  Noel Streatfeild books, even if she doesn’t actually mention Gemma. Charlotte’s Web.  The Just Williams.  The Melendy books.   Narnia.

And even the books she wasn’t keen on. I know we’re all supposed to love Roald Dahl, but Fantastic Mr Fox made me cry, and I had nightmares about the Vermicious Knids from Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. A lot of Roald Dahl’s books are just nasty!  She did rave about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and I’m OK with that, but, in general, she is not keen on Roald Dahl and nor am I.  And neither of us can see the attraction of The Hobbit.  When I was in the third year juniors, the teacher read bits of The Hobbit out to us, and went on and on about how wonderful it was.  No.  I didn’t get it.  I should probably have another go at reading it some time, but I really don’t want to.  I don’t do “high fantasy”, and I don’t do sci-fi.  I can cope with Narnia, but nothing that goes much beyond that.

Am I looking at this the wrong way 🙂 ?  Should I actually have been looking for suggestions of new books to read, rather than squeeing over the fact that a published author of a book about books likes the same books as me?  There are a lot of children’s books that I didn’t read until I was an adult.  I always feel vaguely wrong about describing myself as an adult, even though I’m now over the hill and halfway down the other side; because I still feel like a kid.  And I’m always open to suggestions of new ones.  But I think I was looking for some sort of validation with this.  Hey, it was not just me!  I was not the only kid who would always choose reading if given a choice between reading and drawing during wet playtimes.  I was not the only kid who just wanted to be left in peace to read.  Strangely, kids in books never just get left alone to read.  The aforementioned Eustacia gets into all sorts of trouble for being in the library when she isn’t meant to be.  Kids in books are always off having adventures, or, at least, “joining in”.  The kids who read about them aren’t.

So, yes, I was delighted to find a lot of my own faves in this book. I’m also delighted to be able to say that Lucy’s overwhelmingly positive about them.  In the 1980s, “Girls’ Own” type books were a bit of a no-no amongst teachers; and anything written by Enid Blyton was a definite no-no.  I’m still annoyed about the fact that one of my primary school teachers told my mum and dad to stop me reading so many Enid Blytons.  Couldn’t she just have been pleased that here was a child who actually wanted to read?!   She even said that I wrote like a miniature Enid Blyton.  I wish!   Imagine having all Enid Blyton’s success!   (Anyway, I was way too fat to have been a miniature anything.) And, as Lucy says, a lot of our childhood favourite books are now, even more than they were then, being pulled to pieces for being sexist, racist, snobbish, over-moralistic and so on and so forth.

And, yes, to some extent that criticism’s justified. It’s rather unfair to criticise authors for showing girls taking traditional female roles and boys taking traditional male roles at a time when no-one would have questioned that, or for only showing white characters in an environment where there would only have been white characters, but it’s hard not to cringe when reading Enid Blyton’s comments about “gypsies” or Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s comments about how no-one learns anything much at “village schools”/”council schools”, and Elsie J Oxenham’s insistence that the evil Konrad Abrahams wasn’t intended as a Jewish stereotype doesn’t ring entirely true.  And, again as Lucy says, some of these books don’t stand up well when you re-read them as an adult.  The bullying at Malory Towers and St Clare’s is horrendous.  At the age of six or seven, I used to imagine fondly that, had I gone there, I’d have been best mates with all the in crowd.  An introverted fat kid with a Northern accent?  Best mates with all the in crowd?  Are you having a laugh?  They’d have made mincemeat of me!

But, as Lucy says, you don’t see it like that when you’re a kid, and I don’t believe that anyone turns into a sexist snob because of something that Julian Kirrin said in a Famous Five book, or a racist because of comments made by Ma Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie.  As for all the religious stuff – well, again as Lucy says, you don’t see it when you’re a kid.  I honestly had no idea that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was some sort of religious allegory until everyone started talking about it when the 2005 film came out.  And, when I first read Little Women, I had no idea what “The Pilgrim’s Progress” was.  I think I thought it was some sort of game the March girls played, like Hide and Seek.

Having said which, I can quite see that some of the language and attitudes in older books can be offensive, and I can certainly see the need for more diversity in books. It wasn’t until I was a bit older, and reading books by Judy Blume and Paula Danziger, that I came across non-white characters being part of the main group. And the first openly gay character – as opposed to “coded gay” characters such as Nancy and Kathie in the Chalet School books, or Bill and Clarissa in the Malory Towers books – I came across in a children’s book was probably Nigel, the best friend of Adrian Mole, and those books weren’t written until the 1980s – and aren’t for younger children anyway.  There are disabled children in older books, but they inevitably get miraculously cured – think Clara in the Heidi books, Colin in The Secret Garden, or Naomi in Trials for the Chalet School.  So, yes, there’s certainly a need for more diversity.  But that doesn’t make the older books invalid, or mean that children shouldn’t read them, and I’m very glad that Lucy feels that way too.

Oh, and that awful sinking feeling you get when you first realise that some of your beloved books have been abridged, or updated. Lucy talks about it in terms of the Dimsie books.  I didn’t get any of those until I was older, and knew about the evils of abridgement and modernisation, and I was lucky enough to find second-hand hardbacks going fairly cheaply on Amazon.  But I lived from the age of 8 until the age of 29 in blissful ignorance of the fact that my childhood Chalet School Armadas had had bits of the original text missing out of them.  It was a very hard lesson to learn!

However, owt’s better ‘n nowt, and at least I had the Armadas.  They were widely available in the 1980s.  And Enid Blyton’s school stories were everywhere.  But, even then, you didn’t see Dorita Fairlie Bruce books, or my mum’s childhood favourites, the Elsie J Oxenham Abbey books, in bookshops.  Lucy says that she doesn’t think the popularity of what are generally known as Girls’ Own books will ever return.  I hope she’s wrong.  OK, it won’t be what it was in the ’50s, or even the ’80s, but there are clubs and internet fora and Facebook groups and book dealers … and, yes, some of the members are only in their 20s, and older members try to get their daughters, nieces, granddaughters, great-nieces, young cousins etc into reading the books.  So I live in hope!

And so to secondary school, and books for older children – or, as they’re now called, “Young Adult books”. I hadn’t been at secondary school for long before I also started reading ’80s blockbusters (I said “blockbusters”, not “bonkbusters”!).  Barbara Taylor Bradford.  Maeve Binchy. Half the class was obsessed with Virginia Andrews, but I never really got into her books.  And, of course, historical fiction.  Loads and loads of historical fiction.  But I was still reading children’s books as well.  OK, that included historical fiction too, but, somehow, there never seemed to be that much historical fiction for children.  More of that later, because Lucy talks about it in a footnote. But Lucy got into dystopian fiction.  I didn’t.

But then, hooray, she gets back to my world. Antonia Forest.  I must have started on the Marlow books when I was very young (only the school stories, at that point, because they were reprinted in the ’80s and the others weren’t), because I distinctly remember trying to read The Prince and the Pauper when I was seven, on the grounds that it was adapted by the Marlow twins and their friends for a school play.  It’s not really meant for seven-year-olds: I think I read it again when I was ten.  Lucy raves about the Marlow books.  I can see where she’s coming from, but they don’t hold the place in my heart that the Chalet School books do.

Then “1970s realism” books. I read some of those too.  All I can remember about A Pair of Jesus Boots is that a classmate saw me with it and thought it was some kind of religious thing, but I remember being really keen on K M Peyton’s books about Patrick Pennington … although Lucy doesn’t mention that one.  And Dicey’s Song (1980s rather than 1970s).  Lucy didn’t like that one.  My main recollection of it is that Dicey pretended to be a boy called Danny, because people would’ve fussed if they’d thought a girl was in charge, and had to use the boys’ toilets in order to keep up the pretence.  Why do I remember that?!  And then Sweet Valley High.  Despite being the right age for those, I never read them.  They just never appealed, somehow.

Trebizon did, though.  I was actually going to read a passage from a Trebizon book when everyone in the class had to read a passage from a book of their choice out to the class.  Mum persuaded me that it might not be exactly what the teacher was looking for.  So I chose No Castanets at the Wells instead.  I don’t think that was what the teacher wanted either.  Also, the bell rang in the middle of my reading, and the teacher told me to carry on until I’d finished.  We had PE next, and the PE teacher hit the roof if you were late.  All the other kids were frantically looking at their watches.  I was hideously self-conscious anyway, and having to read out loud at the front of the classroom when you know that everyone else just wants to get out of there would faze even the most confident of kids.  It was a disaster.  Oh well.

At least none of us decided to read from a Judy Blume book. But we all read them. Everyone (I should probably point out that this was an all-girls school) read them.  This was not just me!  Same at Lucy’s school. Everyone read them!

She does mention a few more books, but more interesting for me’s the footnote in which she says how little historical fiction there was for children of our generation. I was a historian from a very early age 🙂 .  I was obsessed with the Ladybird books about historical figures, and I loved books like the Little House series, which, whilst they hadn’t been written as historical fiction, were historical by my time.  But where was all the historical fiction?  I read a book called Through The Fire, set during the Great Fire of London, when I was six, and there was The Children of the New Forest, and there were a few Rosemary Sutcliffs; but not much, for a kid who was so interested in history.  I don’t count Second World War books like Carrie’s War: “historical fiction” means set in 1914 at the latest!

Lucy’s theory is that there just wasn’t much available in the 1980s, and she’s got a point. We “did” The Crown of Violet in the first year of secondary school, but I don’t remember seeing Geoffrey Trease books in shops.  Nor Joan Aiken books.  Very odd.  Oh well, I’ve made up for it since.  Nearly all the books I read now are historical fiction!

She finishes by talking about how books connect people. To the people and the worlds in books.  All the words and phrases you learn from books.  All the life lessons you learn from books.  Not to mention the history that you learn from books!   All the time you spend in the world of books – the times and places that you go to.  The escapism.  The imagination!    Lucy, like me, wasn’t a big fan of fantasy books, but even books set in the real world are actually taking you to different worlds … the worlds of ballet schools, pony riding, and, of course, boarding schools.  And most of them are set in the past.  Very little of my childhood reading was set in the 1980s, or even the 1960s or 1970s.  They were mostly set in the late 19th century, the early 20th century or just after the Second World War.  OK, that’s hardly historical, but boarding schools in the 1950s, especially if they were in Switzerland, were still a world away from a North Manchester suburb in the 1980s.

And they connect you to other readers. I’ve written way too much here, but, if you have ploughed through all this, then the chances are that you’re a fellow bookworm!  Maybe you’re one of the many lovely people whom I’ve met through book clubs and online book groups/fora.  Books – where would we be without them?  Thank you so much to Lucy Mangan for putting so much of what so many of us think and feel about reading into this book, for a glorious nostalgia fest, and for a reminding me that, no, I wasn’t the only person who spent so much of their childhood (I did do a lot of other things too, I should just point out!!) with their nose in a book.

A Fortunate Term by Angela Brazil (Facebook group reading challenge)

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Angela Brazil very briefly attended my old school, when her family first moved to Manchester.  Her horrified mother withdrew her on discovering that the girls there behaved with “perkiness”, bought sweets from corner shops and even, horror of horrors, ran along the pavements.  There was not one person considered suitable to be asked chez Brazil for tea.  Good job that Mrs Brazil never knew the place in my day, some of the language we used and all the complaints that the bus company made about us!  Dear Angela was consequently sent to a very select establishment, known as a “ladies’ college” rather than anything as plebeian as a “school”.  So I think I can be forgiven for not having the most positive of images of her – but I read this as part of a reading challenge, and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it, and there was actually very little snobbishness in it.

Having said which, I was spitting feathers after reading the first page, which involved a girl who addressed her mum as “Muvvie” (seriously – Muvvie?!) and a lot of negative remarks about the evils of northern industrial landscapes.  Dark satanic mill type stuff.  Ooh!  If there’s one thing I can’t be doing with, it’s people making negative comments about northern industrial landscapes!   OK, there are lots of things I can’t be doing with, but that’s certainly one of them.  It was particularly galling given that Angela Brazil’s dad (or maybe that should be Farvie?) worked in the Lancashire cotton industry, a fact which Angela tended conveniently to ignore.  However, our friend and her sister – Mavis and Merle – didn’t have to stay amongst the dark satanic mills too long, because they were off to stay with their uncle in “Devonshire”, land of witches and pixies.  After that, they pretty much shut up making negative comments about the North.  Hey, they even acknowledged that we have our own mythical creatures – boggarts.

Off to Devon.  It’s interesting how Girls’ Own authors seem to have this idea of the Celtic Fringe (I just mistyped that as “Celtic Fridge”) – yes, I know that Devon isn’t Cornwall and isn’t generally classed as being Celtic, but I’m not sure that Angela Brazil did, and Elinor M Brent-Dyer seemed to think that the two rival counties were actually interchangeable! – as being all fey and mystical.  I suppose it was a combination of the Celtic Revival and the interest in the Scottish Highlands brought about by Queen Victoria and Sir Walter Scott.  Clotted cream got mentioned several times as well – although it was referred to as “scalded cream”.  I am a big fan of clotted cream, but have my scones the Cornish way, jam first!  And there was a local festival to mark a local saint’s day.

Anyway, off they went to Devon, to stay with the uncle, who, like the dad, was a doctor.  Girls’ Own authors are very keen on doctors.  Darrell’s dad in Malory Towers is a doctor, the eponymous heroine’s husband in the Dimsie books is a doctor, and all good Chalet School girls and mistresses get to marry doctors.  I got a bit annoyed at a snooty comment about “trippers” dropping litter, but it was only the one comment.

Like a lot of Angela Brazil books but unlike a lot of other Girls’ Own books, this one involved a day school, and there were two main storylines – one about the school, and the nasty girl who had the headmistress and the other teacher (the unfortunately named “Miss Fanny”) fooled into thinking that she was all sweetness and light, and one outside school hours, involving a mysterious boy called Bevis, who’d been brought up by foster parents after his mum had dropped dead at a local hotel without leaving any clue as to who she was.  As you do.

Contrary to the image of Angela Brazil books being snobby, it was stressed that Bevis, despite his humble upbringing, was a really nice lad, and that it was fine for the girls to be friends with him.  We were clearly meant to approve of him, but not of the rich boy whose family were renting the local squire’s house (the squire, an elderly man with no heirs, being abroad).  Well, OK, there was some snobbishness there, in that the nouveau riche family were clearly to be detested, and you just knew that the poor-but-noble-minded Bevis was going to turn out to be the scion of some upper-class family, but there certainly wasn’t the sort of snobbishness that you get from, say, Julian in the Famous Five books.

Nor was there any of the gushing that people associate with Angela Brazil books.  None of the girls went around kissing each other, hugging each other, developing grand passions for the prefects, writing soppy notes, bursting into tears every five minutes or anything else along those lines.  Even the language wasn’t that bad.  There was some strange slang, such as “Judkins”, but nothing too daft.  Anyway, all schoolkids use weird slang; and, for some reason, the word for “silly person” (which is what “Judkins” appears to mean) tends to change every term or so.  We went through wally, plonker (thank you, Only Fools and Horses), berk, prat, dork (thank you, Neighbours), derbrain, dweeb, dormant, nob, neb and assorted other terms, none of which were really any worse than “Judkins” 🙂 .  And some of the descriptions of the countryside were extremely well-written and a genuine joy to read.  Someone did get extremely ill from being out in the rain, but even Jane Austen uses that trope.

Needless to say, the nasty girl, one Opal Earnshaw – a very northern-sounding name for a Devonian! – eventually showed her true colours, and the teachers saw her for what she was.  Equally needless to say, it turned out that Bevis was the long-lost heir to the local squire, the house being rented by the nouveau riche types (the son of whom turned over a new leaf and became quite a nice bad) and most of the other land and property in the area.

So it was all a bit cheesy and predictable, but, OK, I wasn’t expecting it to be deep and meaningful.  The main characters were genuinely likeable, and it certainly didn’t fulfil the stereotype of the early school story that gets mercilessly parodied in something like Daisy Pulls It Off.  It’d been a good few years since I last read an Angela Brazil book: I must read a few more of them.

The Chalet School Annexe by Adrianne Fitzpatrick

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This is a fill-in that’d been waiting to be written!   It’s very frustrating that EBD, having set up the Annexe and located some of the main characters there, never showed us anything of Juliet’s time as a mistress, Juliet and Grizel working together, Madge’s temporary return to teaching, or Robin’s maturing from a rather irritating “Engelkind” to the girl who braved a crowd of baying Nazis to try to help Herr Goldmann.   Robin’s the central character in this book, which I think is probably what most readers would have expected.

(Although this is set in the 1930s, and therefore classes as being historical even though there’s no history as such in it, nothing I’m saying will make much sense to anyone who doesn’t read Chalet School books.  I’m just indulging myself by writing it.  It’s “Twixmas”, after all!)

Jo barely features.  Hooray!  I don’t dislike teenage Jo, but I do dislike the way that, as the series progresses, she’s placed at the centre of everything, even in situations which shouldn’t involve her at all. I’m very fond of Madge and am always sorry that she’s shoved into the background, quite probably so as to leave centre stage free for Jo; so it’s great to see her involvement here … although it can’t have lasted for long, as Sybil was born at the end of the following term.  There’s such a nice scene in which Madge gently ribs Juliet about being so keen to make the Annexe seem like the Chalet School that she insists on referring to a tiny little room as “Hall”, and it really does get across that lovely lightness and humour that we get in the early books, before the School starts taking itself and its institutions too seriously.

Juliet, despite her youth and inexperience, manages things very well, although we do see her being nervous early on.  Strangely, there’s not a single mention of Donal, or the general fact that Juliet will only be teaching until she and he can afford to get married.  I can’t stand the man and wish Juliet had sent him packing, but it does seem a bit odd that there’s no reference to him.  Oh well.  The interaction between Juliet and Robin comes across very nicely, and Gertrud’s absence – we were originally told that “Grizel and Gertrud” would be helping Juliet, but then Gertrud never appeared!  – is satisfactorily explained as being due to a ski-ing accident.  I have such great admiration for the way in which fill-in authors work their way round EBD-isms 🙂 .

I’m sorry that Grizel, although it’s nice to see her getting a chance to teach Games as well as music, is portrayed unfavourably, though.  I’m sure it’s exactly what EBD would have done, because she always seemed keen to insist that Grizel disliked Robin and was jealous of her, but I think Grizel gets a raw deal in the later Tyrol books.  Surely anyone would be upset if they invited an old friend for a catch-up and just got “Can’t.  Where’s my Robin?” in response, without so much as a “Sorry” or “Maybe another time”, or if they had to hear of an old friend’s engagement second-hand?  Grizel put herself in considerable danger to rescue Robin in Head Girl, and that gets forgotten about.  As I said, I’m sure the way Grizel’s written here is the way EBD would have written her, had she written a book about the Annexe, so it’s no criticism of Adrianne Fitzpatrick, but I do think it’s a shame.

Most of it’s about the girls, though, as you would expect, not the staff.   EBD never named most of the twenty-two pupils of the Annexe, so a fill-in author was free to guess at them.  It’s great to see Lilias Carr included: we hear very little about the school-age pupils at the San.  I’d like to have seen more of Stacie, but I suppose there’s only so much you can fit into a book of this length.

The main plot is one which EBD liked and used several times – in New, Bride, Oberland and Feud -, that of a group of Chalet School girls and a group of girls from another school/other schools having to find a way to come together.  Seeing as EBD used it no fewer than four times, it’s hardly original, but it’s good to see Robin and Amy, two of the central characters of the early days, at the heart of it, along with Signa.

There are also a whole load of minor plots.  We see, very realistically, that some girls aren’t at all happy with being moved to the Annexe.  EBD, who didn’t like to criticise either the school or the doctors, never really hinted at that, but surely it was inevitable.  Amy misses Margia.  Inga misses her friends.  Renee is worried about her music lessons.  Irma feels that she’s missing out on all the excitements at the main school.  They must have felt like second-class citizens, and that must have been hard for everyone – and it must also have been strange knowing that most of the girls hoped to be moved to the main school ASAP.  And, yay, one girl rebels and has a hot bath!  I always find it very unrealistic that no-one in the entire canon series ever does that!

There isn’t that much about “delicacy” and health issues.  We’re told that they only have short lessons, and are encouraged to go out for fresh air in between lesson periods, which is interesting, and there are some references to medicine, but there’s not actually that much sense of it being a special school in any way.  Doctors are barely mentioned!   However, it would have been pretty miserable if it’d been some kind of set-up in which no-one was allowed to do anything in case they hurt or tired themselves – and that wouldn’t have fitted with the emphasis on fresh air and exercise anyway.  And, as the author pointed out, Jem would definitely not have wanted them sleeping outdoors in all weathers, which was the way it worked at some “health” places at the time J.

There are no major accidents or disasters, but there’s a lot of the usual Chalet School stuff that we know and love!  Cookery lessons, making stuff for the Sale, expeditions, etc.  It’s very well-written, and it reads a proper Chalet School without ever slavishly following EBD’s use of language or syntax.  There’s no point at which you think that that wouldn’t have happened, or that that character wouldn’t have behaved in that way, but, at the same time, it’s different, because a lot of the characters are unfamiliar and the whole Annexe set-up is unfamiliar.

It’s not particularly exciting, in that there aren’t any dramatic incidents/accidents, but, quite frankly, it all gets a bit too much in some of the Swiss books, where there are meteorites landing on cricket pitches, sudden blizzards and avalanches every five minutes and people lying “still, grey and to all appearance dead” all over the show!  There’s more than enough in the plots and the characters here to hold the reader’s attention.  The only things I’d moan about are criticisms of the Chalet School (I love it to bits, but nothing’s perfect!) rather than of this book, i.e. the portrayal of Grizel and the repetition of the two-become-one plot.  It’s a really enjoyable read – and the Tyrol-era Chalet School books are so good that anyone who can write a book that genuinely feels like one of them deserves a lot of credit!

Camping and Tramping, Swallows and Amazons by Hazel Sheeky

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“Camping and Tramping, Swallows and Amazons: Interwar Children’s Fiction and the Search for England” – to give it its full title.

I felt like playing The Manchester Rambler on loop after reading this!  In fact, if I wasn’t so unfit and lazy, I’d have felt like coming the Cheetham Hill communist and re-enacting the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass 🙂 .  All right, we all know that, as the author discusses at length, most pre-1960s 20th century children’s fiction is horrendously snobbish; but, whilst I can take a lot of it, on the grounds of the past being a foreign country etc, all that Campers and Trampers versus Holidaymakers and Day Trippers stuff always makes my blood boil.  I nearly exploded when the author quoted a bunch of upper-middle-class Southerners in one book talking about “ghastly places in Lancashire”.  Ooh!!

This was a PhD thesis, and the author spent quite a lot of time bemoaning the fact that she didn’t have room within the word limit to say everything that she wanted to.  I believe she has now written a book on the subject, but it probably costs a fortune, so reading this’ll have to do!  Being a thesis, it was inevitably full of methodology and explanation about what she was trying to get at, which wasn’t very interesting – but, OK, it wasn’t meant for a general audience.  It was also a bit confused: it wasn’t particularly clear exactly what it was that she was trying to get at.  And the concluding section referred to children’s literature between “1930 and 1960”.  Excuse me for thinking that the inter-war period was from 1918 to 1939!

The general idea seemed to be to argue against people who’ve said that children’s fiction from the first half or so of the 20th century was a load of rubbish – do not get me started on the primary school teacher who tried to get me to stop reading Enid Blyton books (I took no notice) – and also to argue that it wasn’t overly romantic or fantastical but was in fact realistic and part of the wider culture of the time.  It also seemed to be to discuss whether it was trying to create a myth of nationhood.  The author’s views and arguments didn’t really come across that clearly, but the arguments and debates themselves, the issues involved, were very interesting.

Unfortunately, I haven’t read most of the books mentioned, apart from some of the Arthur Ransomes and a few of the Malcolm Savilles.  Enid Blyton’s Famous Five novels were dismissed as not being “properly” Camping and Tramping, and Lorna Hill’s Patience and Marjorie books (which, like Enid Blyton’s, would count if going up to 1960) didn’t get mentioned at all.  But hopefully I’ve got the general idea!

These books are, as the author says, generally about the middle-classes – but I prefer the term “upper-middle-class”.  Being middle-class in the inter-war period to me means a suburban semi and, if your family could afford it before paid holidays came in, a fortnight in Blackpool every summer.  It does not mean going to boarding school, owning a boat and or a pony and having a dad who’s an officer in the Royal Navy : there’s nothing very “middle” about that!

People do like to read a lot into children’s fiction, and there are various theories about “camping and tramping” novels of the inter-war period, and indeed the interest in nature and the countryside in general, being something to do with trying to colonise the countryside now that Britain’s imperial power was on the wane.  No, me neither!   The author neither.  Britain’s imperial power actually wasn’t really on the wane in the 1920s and 1930s, for one thing.   Other theories involve in being about building a myth of nationhood, stressing rural and maritime traditions.

Well, they do work better, but it was a combination of things, and it went back well before the Great War.  It wasn’t just a British/English thing, either.  It’s probably best not to dwell too much on it, but the Nazi youth movements in Germany were very into the countryside.  The idea of access to the countryside being available to all was also important elsewhere – notably in Norway.

Various things, then.  Well, for a kick-off, the Romantic poets and artists.  Merrie England, rural idylls, folk dancing, maypoles, etc, but mainly the romantic ideas of the countryside, the green and pleasant land.  Whilst I will not have anyone criticising mills as being dark and satanic 🙂 , I buy into the romantic countryside thing completely.  Every April, you will find me going to Grasmere to see the hosts of golden daffodils!   Yes, I have all sorts of romantic notions of the countryside – and I’m talking lakes and mountains, not farms.  I can’t be doing with animals.  Too noisy and too smelly.  Does that come across in “camping and tramping” books?  No: I don’t think it does.  It comes across far better in something like the Chalet School books.  Camping and tramping books are too active!   Too much doing and not enough looking and dreaming!

The Victorian Romantics sadly don’t get much of a mention in this book, although Whitman and Thoreau do.   I can’t really be doing with all that wilderness stuff.  Lakes and mountains and daffodils are much better.

Then there was the Victorian fresh air and exercise thing.  “Muscular Christianity” to build an Empire.  Combined with that, the wake-up call given by the poor health of many of the working-class men who volunteered to fight in the Boer War – not only did it help to bring about Lloyd George’s welfare reforms, but it also led to an increased emphasis on fresh air and exercise for all.  Think the famous images of the Duke of York, the future George VI, singing “Underneath the Spreading Chestnut Tree” at boys’ camps.  And people in inter-war children’s books seem to be able to walk miles and miles without ever getting tired.  Not to mention eat vast amounts without putting on weight!

Then, and this was specifically inter-war, there was the idea of the countryside as a peaceful place, an antidote to the horrors of the Great War.  I recently read a review of the new Christopher Robin film, written by someone who said that AA Milne would have been horrified at the thought of taking Winnie The Pooh & co to London, because the whole point was that they were supposed to be in the countryside.   And, as the author says, there’s an argument that the set-up found in most of the books is a reaction against the imperialism/militarism of organisations like the Scouts and the Guides and the Boys’ Brigades.  No-one’s marching or wearing uniforms; and there are no formal organisations, just groups of siblings, cousins and friends.

So, are the books about imperialism or national mythology or upper-middle-class values, or whatever?  Well, the argument in this thesis really isn’t clear.  There’s a lot of information in it, but most of it isn’t clearly linked to either the introduction or the conclusion.  I don’t particularly think it is.  I think everyone’s got rather obsessed with trying to find imperialism in everything.  The author does come back to this in a later section, about maps, and argues that, when the Swallows and Amazons crew rename all the places around Coniston with the names of far-flung places around the world, and talk about discovering them, they are displaying an imperialistic attitude and trying to impose their power and control on the countryside.

And here was me thinking it was just a bunch of kids using their imaginations to try to make their summer holidays seem a bit more exciting!   Someone – I think it was Dan Brown – once said that you can invent a conspiracy theory by looking at the pattern of letters in the phone directory, if you try.  People read into things what they will, but I’m really not convinced that giving places exotic-sounding nicknames indicates a desire to take over the world.

Another of the big issues was whether or not the books are realistic.  The author seemed keen to argue that they were, but a lot of the subject matter was contradictory.  Arthur Ransome’s books do not belong to the same category as, say, AA Milne’s or Kenneth Grahame’s.  Well, seeing as that they don’t involve talking animals, that’s probably a given.  But a more relevant point was that, unlike in Enid Blyton’s books, no-one ends up chasing spies or rescuing kidnap victims – and I think a lot of people were very annoyed that a spy story was shoved into the recent film adaptation of Swallows and Amazons.  But she then said that you do get wild adventures in Malcolm Saville’s books, which contradicted the arguments that the whole genre’s realistic.

To some extent, it’s a pointless argument.  None of the books are realistic, with young kids being allowed to go off on their own.  It’s like the arguments about the lives of characters in soap operas being unrealistic.  The reality of daily life is not very exciting.  No-one wants to read a book or watch a TV programme about it!    But, no, the books aren’t set in … well, this image we have of the Long Golden Edwardian Summer, this time of innocence before the Great War, “It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910” and all that kind of thing.

The reality argument was then contradicted again, in a section about how the books treat the countryside as a playground, with rural people only appearing as, say, rosy-cheeked farmers’ wives who produce enormous amounts of home-made food every five minutes, with very little about the harsh reality of rural life and how hard farming people had, and still have, to work.  There was also quite a bit about the idea of both boats and caravans as symbolising freedom.  They always sound so great in books, don’t they?  Both Enid Blyton and Noel Streatfeild had me longing to go off in a houseboat or a caravan.  Ugh!   I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes!   Again, romance trumps reality – and possibly defeated the argument that everything in the books was realistic!   However, the author did argue again for realism by pointing out that the characters in The Wind in the Willows soon find out that life on the open road isn’t very exciting at all – although I’m not sure how valid it is to argue that a storyline involving a talking toad in a flat cap driving round the countryside shows that a book reflects reality!

It was also, rather amusingly, pointed out that no-one in these books ever roughed it!   The Swallows, in particular, take vast amounts of stuff with them, and always eat rather fancy meals.  There were pages and pages in the thesis about the symbolism of Susan Walker’s campfire as showing her establishing her control over the countryside and defining The Great Outdoors as a domesticated space.  Again, I think that might be reading too much into it all!   There was also a section about Geoffrey Trease showing the Lake District as being devoid of people and buildings, which apparently also showed people wanting to establish their power and control over the countryside.  I’m not sure how any of this was meant to fit with the arguments that the books all reflected reality, but never mind!   They were good points about the genre in general.

Then we got to the part that wound me up!   To me, the importance of the countryside in the inter-war years, linked in with the increased affordability of public transport and bicycles, is everything that The Manchester Rambler says: it’s about people from urban, industrial areas being able to get out into The Great Outdoors and enjoy the freedom and the beauty of it.  And, no, that isn’t realistic at all, because it isn’t about rural people and rural life!   But, as the author says, most of the characters in the books aren’t rural people, living rural lives: they’re on holiday.

No, sorry, they aren’t “on holiday”.  Nothing so common.  They’re Campers and Trampers, and the books are full of snotty remarks about “day trippers” and “holiday makers”.  I hate that.  It really, really does my head in.  It’s Them and Us.  The author does try to argue that it’s not about snobbery, and that it’s more about people who appreciate the countryside versus those who don’t.  It’s pointed out that some of the Not The Right Sort characters in some of Arthur Ransome’s books are clearly well-off, whilst some of the Author Approved characters are the offspring of boat-builders, and that being The Right Sort is sometimes indicated by clothing, or general appearance, or traits like the volume at which you speak, rather than by social class.

Hmm.  I’m not convinced!   The characters in the books always have weeks and weeks to spend on holidays.  The “day trippers” and “holiday makers” don’t.  And that’s the point.  “I may be a wage slave on Monday, but I am a free man on Sunday.”  The thesis does quote a historian acknowledging that “it was the northern working-class groups that escalated the power for access reform” – but, bizarrely, the said historian apparently said that this was because the Northern working-classes had so much time on their hands due to the high levels of unemployment during the Depression!  That is one of the stupidest things I have ever heard!   How exactly were people who were struggling to put food on the table supposed to pay for train tickets to the Lakes, the Peaks or the Dales?  No, no, no!   “I may be a wage slave on Monday, but I am a free man on Sunday.”  There was a rather more sensible quote, from a different historian, about the links between socialism and the importance of the countryside and access to it being available to all.

There are some examples in the books of characters acknowledging that access to the countryside should be available to all.  A Geoffrey Trease character said that “The hills, the rivers, they must be free to all”.  But, ugh, the snobbery!   As the author pointed out, characters often seem to think that working-class characters in the books, especially those on farms where they’re staying, are just there to serve their needs.  Characters in Explorers on the Wall by Garry Hogg – a book I shall not, ever, be reading! – apparently apparently whinge about going through “ghastly places in Lancashire”, and even specifically refer to Manchester as “a grim place” – never, ever, shall I read this book!!  And characters in The Compass Points North by ME Atkinson apparently make similar comments about the mining areas around Newcastle, as they pass through it on the train.

Is this snobbery, or is it just the dark satanic mills versus green and pleasant land thing?   Is it about the idea of a creating an adult idea of a pastoral elegy, as the author suggests?  Well, those of us who live in the land of the dark satanic mills are as keen on the green and pleasant idea as anyone.  Maybe more so – you can’t really be a Manchester Rambler if you live in the sort of area that the characters in these books do.  But to dismiss places as “grim” and “ghastly” like that – ugh!!

Again, the thread of whatever argument there was didn’t really follow, but I’m so glad that that section was included, even if there was no direct reference to the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass.  There was then a related section about whether or not Arthur Ransome meant to show that sailing was affordable for all.  As the author said, that was partly more about location than class or financial situation – but the “cruising” boats featured in most of the books would certainly not have been affordable for most people.  There were also some comments about the snotty pre Second World War attitudes towards the Merchant Navy as opposed to the Royal Navy.  Two members of my family (on the Liverpool side) were amongst the Merchant Navy men killed in the Great War, and I find that snotty attitude extremely offensive!

Then came a section about how John Walker is meant to symbolise the sense of duty and responsibility associated with the Royal Navy, and how the storylines in the books are part of his character training.  Fair enough.  That arguments works with school stories as well – not particularly in terms of the Navy, but in terms of character building and leadership skills and so on.  It’s a big feature of children’s literature in the period in question.  But I was less impressed by the argument that the Swallows and Amazons books are intrinsically sexist, and that Nancy Blackett is undermined by John and forced to submit to female gender stereotypes and roles.  A lot of children’s books of the inter-war and post-war era do feature bossy boys, and girls being left out of adventures entirely or else forced to accept a lesser role; but I’d never said that the Arthur Ransome books fitted that category.

It did end with sailing, and an argument that the books were meant to promote a Britannia Rules The Waves type national mythology.  I’m not convinced.  The author had said earlier that ships were a symbol of freedom.  And that’s what I think these books are about – freedom.  Freedom from the ordinary routine of daily life.  Freedom from adult control.  And the whole idea of the countryside as freedom.  That’s what The Manchester Rambler’s about.  And that’s why all those comments in the books about the evils of “day trippers” annoy me so much, because they’re about people wanting that freedom for themselves, because they think they’re the Right Sort of People, but not for others.

As I’ve said, this wasn’t meant to be a mass market read, or even a general academic read, and it’s not particularly coherent and it’s not particularly clear what it’s getting at – but it does contain some very interesting and thought-provoking stuff.  Thank you so much to Janice for recommending it!