Cherry Tree Perch by Josephine Elder

Standard

This is the second of the three “farm school” books, and the title comes from a cherry tree with two “perches”, where Annis and her best friend Kitty go for a bit of peace and quiet.  We’re told that there are various “dens” around the school grounds, used by individuals or groups of friends, and that everyone else respects that they’re someone’s do not disturb territory.   That sounds wonderful!   The lack of privacy is the worst thing about most fictional schools.  As a little kid, I used to think how wonderful it would be to go to the Chalet School or Malory Towers, but the lack of any sort of private space would have done my head in very rapidly.

There are several dramatic-ish incidents, including several small fires and a grand show, but there’s no big storyline, just a generally entertaining read about a summer term at the Farm School – the fruit-picking (which, oddly, all seems to take place at the same time as year), animal husbandry, pony riding and lessons.  The book emphasises over and over again how wonderful the Farm School is: the teachers are all wonderful (we’re told that they’re *not* perfect, but they’re praised to the hilt), the lack of rules doesn’t seem to cause any problems (although this is tackled in the final book of the trilogy) and helping on the farm is a far better use of time than anything which kids at ordinary schools might do.   But at least there’s plenty of emphasis on the need for hard work and passing exams, which there isn’t in some school stories.

There are some ups and downs in Annis and Kitty’s friendship, mostly involving Kitty’s admiration for newcomer Miss de Vipon, on whom Annis isn’t so keen.  That’s perhaps the theme of the book, the need to learn to share, be that people or things.

It turns out that the fires are being started by Kenneth, Kitty’s brother who has what would now be called special needs.  That storyline doesn’t sit very well with modern sensibilities, but the book’s over 80 years old, and Annis shows great understanding in accepting that he meant no harm, and hushing it up in case people started saying that he should be sent to an institution.

Annis accepts Miss de Vipon in the end, but Miss de Vipon obligingly moves away, and Annis and Kitty’s friendship continues on its way.  And the final chapter also includes a scholarship win and an engagement.

I’ve really enjoyed the Farm School series.  It’s not going to become a big part of my life, but these are three very enjoyable books and I’d recommend them all.

Strangers at the Farm School by Josephine Elder

Standard

This is one of the sequels to Exile for Annis,  set at the Farm School which is one of several unconventional fictional schools inspired by Summerhill School.  The school has expanded, and amongst the new pupils are Hans and Johanna, two children brought from Germany to Britain on what we now call the Kindertransport.  Both they and the other new pupils initially struggle to fit into life at the Farm School, and, whilst of course everyone settles in in the end, what happens is quite interesting and thought-provoking.

The timing with the Kindertransport’s actually a bit out, because they arrive at the start of the 1938/39 academic year, three months before the transports began.  That can be forgiven, though.  The book was published in 1940 and, with most children’s authors either writing spy stories or ignoring the war and the build-up to war, this book, with its focus on refugees, would have been something different.

We see contrasting attitudes from the children.  Johanna is happy and grateful to be in Britain, but Hans is initially suspicious of the British due to hearing Great War stories whilst growing up; and, the children being from a wealthy family, he resents the fact that they no longer live in a big house with servants and luxuries.  That’s very interesting.  It’s not unrealistic that a child might have felt like that, but I think that an author today would be afraid to present a refugee in a negative way for fear of a backlash, even though it’s explained that Hans is reacting like this because he’s afraid and unsettled and struggling to come to terms with what has happened to him and his family..

Meanwhile, Annis has been elected as the first female president of the school.  The book is very supportive of women’s rights: Annis learns to drive, and insists that girls should be allowed to play whatever sports they like.  We also see that several female former pupils have gone on to university, and that Annis herself is hoping to go to Cambridge, to study sciences.  We also get arguments in favour of food and drink using only natural ingredients, with mutterings about not wanting beer produced in test tubes: that again seems like a very modern view in a book from over 80 years ago.  Comments about “peasants” and “gippos” are more dated.  I’m not trying to judge the book by today’s standards, just interested in the views on these issues, especially given what an “in” topic women’s sport, in particular, is at the moment.

Other than Annis, no-one actually seems to do very much schoolwork!   They’re either doing farmwork, learning to ride, watching hop-pickers or playing sport.   Very little time seems to be spent in lessons, something which the new pupils find strange and objectionable. To be fair, people with exams coming up are excused from some of the farmwork, but they still seem to do an awful lot of it.  But then there’s trouble when some of the new kids don’t want to get stuck in.

Of course, everyone eventually decides that the school is wonderful, but I’m not sure how realistic it is that people would have sailed through external exams after so little preparation.  And there’s a happy ending for Hans and Johanna.   But it’s not a simplistic book: there’s a lot in it to make the reader think.   The idea in a lot of Girls’ Own books is that everyone should learn to fit in and subjugate their own interests to the common good, but, using beehives as a metaphor, Annis suggests that that would be like living in a totalitarian state, and makes it clear that a balance has to be found between personal interests and group interests. But that’s easier said than done: they run into trouble with packing the apples because there are no rules about it and not enough kids volunteer.   But then is it OK to miss group work to pursue, say, a talent for art?

It’s a very interesting book, which goes a lot deeper than some school stories do.  Of course, all turns out well in the end, but it takes a while to get there.

Jennings Goes To School by Anthony Buckeridge

Standard

   This is the first Jennings book and my first Jennings book, read for a Facebook group challenge.  I enjoyed it, but not so much so that I’ll be rushing to buy all the others.  The book sees Jennings and his friend Darbishire starting at prep school and having to get used to the written rules, the unwritten rules and the slang.  In sitcom style, Jennings takes everything very literally, there are a lot of mistakes with words, and various misunderstandings result.

It was genuinely funny and I enjoyed reading it.  And I loved our boy saying that he wanted to play for United.  But, as I said, I don’t particularly feel the need to read the rest in the series – although I can see why people do.  Genuinely funny.

Top Secret by Elinor M Brent-Dyer

Standard

This is the last of the five “Chudleigh Hold” books and, unusually for Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD) is an adventure book written about a young man, presumably with a target audience of boys.  Nobody is described as being “dainty” or “delicate”, and the only major female character is a wonderful, feisty elderly lady who runs her own business and has never married because she was too busy doing other things.   I didn’t have very high hopes for this book when I started reading it, because I couldn’t imagine a Boys’ Own book written by EBD, but it was actually very, very good!

Hawk Chudleigh, the brother of the Chalet School’s Gillian Culver (I’m hoping at some point to acquire copies of the other Chudleigh Hold books, but I gather that even they don’t explain why the Culver/Chudleigh family haven’t got the same surname as they have in the Chalet School books) has been dispatched to Australia, to work as an engineer but also to carry “Top Secret” papers detailing how future wars can be prevented using some mysterious thing which won’t hurt anyone.  If only such a thing existed.  Dorita Fairlie Bruce’s Toby at Tibbs Cross contained a similar idea about a mysterious way of preventing wars: I don’t know whether or not EBD had read that.

Of course, some baddies are on to Hawk.  But, before they can do anything to him, the ship he’s on explodes, apparently due to a Japanese landmine remaining from the war years.  (The book’s set in the 1950s.). But he and another lad are sleeping in a lifeboat as their cabins were too hot (as you do), and the lifeboat’s set adrift, and eventually came to an island on which was a well-to-do family’s holiday home, easy to break into and well-stocked with food.   OK, nobody said that adventure books had to be realistic!   It’s written so well that the story genuinely doesn’t seem silly, even to an adult reader, though.

The island was off the coast of New Zealand, and how they got there when they’d been sailing SW from Tasmania is, er, anyone’s guess, but never mind!  The family then arrive; and are totally cool with the two lads having broken into their home.  Everyone’s getting along jolly well when, whaddaya know, there’s a hurricane.  Then, during the clean-up operation, a group of armed baddies arrive.  They’re led by an old university pal of Hawk’s, turned traitor.  This is Cold War stuff:  the group are working for the Soviets.

The baddies then torture our boys and their friends (the houseowners).  It’s quite nasty, worse than is usually found in a children’s book.  But, hurrah, the secret papers have already been sent away, concealed inside a gardening catalogue, and one of the family escapes to fetch help, from a ship conveniently positioned nearby.  The baddies are, needless to say, overpowered.

And then it turns out that Hawk’s friend from the ship that blew up is the great-nephew of the houseowning family’s amnesiac adopted son.  Of course he is.  EBD did love a long-lost relative story!

It sounds a bit bonkers, but children’s adventure books always are.  I could imagine G A Henty writing something like this, if he’d been around in the 1950s.  I wasn’t expecting much, but I should know better than to underestimate EBD.  I loved this, and am on a quest to find affordable copies of the other Chudleigh Hold books ASAP.

 

 

Flight of a Chalet School Girl by Katherine Bruce

Standard

The only time I’ve ever enjoyed an exam was when one of my General Studies A-level papers asked for the historical background to the war in Yugoslavia.  I love Balkan history.   I even love the history of fictional Balkan countries, so I’m delighted that, as a change from school stories, Katherine Bruce has written a book about Crown Princess Elisaveta of Belsornia’s flight from her homeland, as Nazi German troops prepare to invade, to safety in Britain.

We’re given the outline of the story of Elisaveta’s journey by Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD), and it has to be said that it’s one of several rather silly and unlikely episodes in the wartime Chalet School books.  For a kick off, Belsornia moves from the NW Balkans to the SE Balkans.  Then, on arrival in Britain, the princess takes a job as a charlady until she can afford to kit out herself and her children with clothes from a second-hand shops, and then takes a taxi to Armishire!   I mean, what on earth?!   Why didn’t she just report to the authorities?   Or send a telegram?  And who would employ a well-spoken woman, and one who probably had a foreign accent, as a charlady anyway?  Plenty of Continental royals sought refuge in Britain during the war, but none of them worked as charladies!

However, Katherine’s made a brilliant story out of the brief account of the long and extremely eventful journey, and has clearly done a lot of research into the situation in Europe and North Africa at the time.  She’s even made sense of the charlady affair, and generally made everything as realistic as a book about an unlikely journey made by a Ruritanian princess could be.  We even, touchingly, see Elisaveta going to London to sign the Allied Declaration condemning the treatment of Jews by the Nazis.

At the beginning, we see the visit of Elisaveta, her fiance and his aunt to the Tiernsee, and then we see the royal wedding, both of which are referred to by EBD after the events, not actually shown.   GGBP “fillers” are consistent with each other, but Bettany Press books evidently aren’t included, because neither Madge Russell nor Jack Maynard attend Elisaveta’s wedding in this book, although they did in Two Chalet Girls in India.  However, we do get some senior Yugoslavian and Bulgarian royals there, bringing Belsornia and Mirania into the real Balkan world.  It may be a Ruritanian country, but there’s nothing Ruritanian about the Second World War.  We jump forward to 1941 by means of letters exchanged between Elisaveta and Jo, and then the “adventure” part begins.   It all comes across very well and very realistically, as we hear that German troops are massing on the Miranian border and will in all likelihood soon reach Belsornia, and Elisaveta, her children and her maid are leaving, initially planning to go to Turkey and take ship from there, until things went wrong.

The name “Constantinople” is used even though the city had officially been called Istanbul since 1930; but, to be fair, EBD did that too.   And I could have done without the repeated use of “England” for “Britain” and “Russia” for “the Soviet Union”, but both were and are very common.  EBD sometimes even used “England” when referring to places in South Wales!  Also, the afterword mentions that a family with whom they travel are Armenian, which isn’t clear in the text as they had Turkish names.  Sorry, I’m a right nitpicker.  There are only minor nits to be picked, though!  The one big EBD-ism/KB-ism was saying that Jem Russell had been knighted.  He wasn’t knighted: he was created a baronet.  But what would a Chalet School book be without an error?   It’s all part and parcel of Chalet lore!   Having said which, Hilda Annersley would ban computerised spell-checkers, which don’t pick up typos such as borders for boarders or miner’s for miners’.

There’s a lot of careful detail about how they manage for food and shelter on their journey through Turkey and North Africa, and also about the ups and downs – literally! – of sailing on a small boat.  Arletta must have had superhuman strength to have been able to carry both the boys, but there wasn’t really an alternative: EBD doesn’t seem to have considered the practicalities of travelling with a newborn baby and two small children!  Just as an aside, my first ever piece of Chalet School fanfic featured Freddie Helston, Elisaveta’s eldest son, as the hero, so I was very pleased to see him in a “real” book.

The section about their time in Spain and Portugal is a bit rushed, but it would have been a bit samey to have heard any more about trekking and looking for food and shelter.   There’s no suspense element because we know that they’d make it safely to Armishire in the end, but then you kind of know anyway that children’s adventure books will have happy endings, and it doesn’t make the exciting bits any the less dramatic.  And Katherine’s done an excellent job of making sense of what happened when they arrived in Britain, by saying that the six week wait was due to quarantine after coming into contact with a scarlet fever case, that the charring job was shared with a woman with whom they travelled from Portugal, and that they only took a taxi from Armiford station to Joey’s!  She’s also shown Elisaveta being in touch with Belsornian officials in Britain, and other Belsornian exiles, which EBD curiously never does.  Much more realistic than the idea that an exiled Crown Princess would just have a jolly time living with an old schoolfriend.

I thoroughly enjoyed this.  I wonder if we’ll see more “fillers” along this line, a bit of a spin-off.  I think all the missing terms have been “filled” now, and books retelling the story of a “canon” term from a different viewpoint are limited as to what they can say because the story’s already there.   I’d certainly read anything else like this one: it was excellent.

 

Maybe, at some point during her stay in Britain, Elisaveta got to meet the young Princess Elizabeth.  I am so saddened by the loss of our beloved Queen.  May she rest in peace.

My Fair Lady by J P Reedman

Standard

This is a novel about Eleanor of Provence.  Unlike The Silken Rose, which it predates, it covers Eleanor’s childhood, and also her life after the death of Henry III.   It’s pretty much historically accurate, allowing for the fact we don’t really know whether incidents such as Eleanor of Castile sucking poison out of her husband’s wound really happened, shows life at the courts of Provence, France and Scotland as well as England, and is generally very enjoyable.

However, it’s very biased in Eleanor’s favour.   Only a couple of lines are devoted to her mistreatment of Jews on her lands, the de Montforts are very much shown as being the baddies, and no criticism is attached to her over the number of her relatives given important positions.   It’s told in the first person so that’s perhaps inevitable, but, as much as I dislike the de Montforts, I’m not a great fan of Eleanor, so that grated on me a bit.  It’s a good historical novel, though, and there aren’t many books about Henry III and Eleanor of Provence so it was good to find another one.

The Affairs of Ashmore Castle by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

Standard

I’m pleased to say that this was a distinct improvement on the first Ashmore Castle book.  I loved the author’s Kirov trilogy and liked her War At Home and Morland Dynasty series, but The Secrets of Ashmore Castle was a bit disappointing.  This one was much better – a glorious, if sometimes a bit rose-tinted, depiction of Edwardian rural England.

The series is clearly intended to try to ape Downton Abbey, rather than to be particularly original; but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, given good characterisation and good plotlines.  The plotlines in the previous book were rather silly in parts.  Those in this book were more like it.

I was, however, nearly put off very early on: I’d only got as far as page 10 of this before I found a historical blunder.  The book stated that Ernest of Hesse was the brother of the Queen of Romania.  No, no, no!  He was the brother of the Empress of Russia.  The Queen of Romania was his ex-sister-in-law!  Errors like that are extremely annoying.  There were a few spelling mistakes as well.  Spellcheck doesn’t pick up on errors if the incorrect spelling’s a word in itself, and editors don’t seem to read things properly any more.  However, in general, this book was a return to the sort of form expected from Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.

Like the War at Home books, there were a *lot* of characters and a lot of different storylines going on, so it was quite bitty.   And very much one in a series rather than a stand-alone book: ends were not tied up neatly – the book finished so abruptly that I checked the number of pages to make sure that my copy hadn’t got any missing – and readers really needed to have read the first book in the series in order to be able to follow that one.   As a slight aside, were some of the names meant to be a joke?  Bunce the farmer is very Roald Dahl.  And Trump the dog?!

No spoilers, but, as with the first book, we had various members of the Stainton family – the earl, the jam heiress countess, the dowager, the earl’s younger brother, the earl’s two younger sisters and the earl’s uncle – plus the countess’s middle-class friend and her husband, and various servants and other locals.   A few famous names were mentioned, and we even got to meet the King and Queen at Cowes; but there was little mention of national or world events: it was about the domestic, family and love lives of the characters.  And the countryside – glorious rural England in what we think of as the Golden Age before the Great War.  Of course, it wasn’t glorious for everyone, and the book didn’t really show much of the poverty that existed; but it’s period drama escapism … like Downton Abbey.  The descriptions of both the landscape and the grand houses were wonderful.  And the clothes.  Lots of detail about fashion!

Don’t be looking for too many thrills from this, but, as a domestic period piece, it really was good.  Roll on the next one in the series!

The Girl in the Pink Raincoat by Alrene Hughes

Standard

This isn’t a particularly well-written book, but it was on a cheap Kindle offer; and there’s an awful lot of local interest in it for anyone from the Manchester area.   It includes some very evocative scenes of the Manchester Blitz.  It also covers the largely-forgotten story of the internment camps at Warth Mills (in Radcliffe, near where Newbank Garden Centre is now), where many members of the local German/Austrian-Jewish and Italian communities were taken during the Second World War, and how many of them were tragically killed when the SS Arandora Star, taking them to Canada, was torpedoed.   There are also some vivid descriptions of Heaton Park before the war, of town, and of the factories both in the Strangeways area and in Trafford Park.

The storyline’s not particularly convincing, but it’s all right.   Gracie Earnshaw works in a raincoat factory, where she becomes involved with the boss’s nephew, Jacob Rosenberg.   His family aren’t keen, because he’s Jewish and she isn’t, but the two agree to marry … only for him to be taken off to an internment camp just as she was waiting at the registry office.   Without wanting to post spoilers, the story then develops with two other men, with an unlikely switch from war work to working in the theatre, and with a secret long kept by Gracie’s mother.

It’s not the best of books, as I said, but it’s worth reading for the descriptions of the local area and the local communities, and also for the inclusion of the story of the Warth Mills camp.  The author makes good use of real events, and her descriptions of Manchester are very much Manchester.  Overall, not bad!

Alex by Tessa Duder

Standard

 

Having watched a lot of swimming during the Commonwealth Games and European Aquatics Championships, I decided to look for a “Girls’ Own”-type book on the subject, and people kindly recommended this one, written in the 1980s but set in the 1950s, by New Zealand Empire and Commonwealth Games silver medallist Tessa Duder.  Fifteen-year-old schoolgirl Alex wants to make the New Zealand swimming squad for the 1960 Olympics, but there’s only room for either her or her rival Maggie Benton, and Maggie seems to have the advantage.

Unlike a lot of fictional characters, who are entirely devoted to music, ballet, ice-skating or whatever it may be, and have to be persuaded to do other things too, Alex wants to be in the school play, be in the school hockey team, do ballet, pass her piano exams, do well in her School Certificate and also spend time with her boyfriend Andy.

Like a lot of fictional characters, she suffers an accident (in a hockey match) which upsets her training, but it isn’t really a big deal: she just gets on with things.  And we don’t even see that much of her actually in the pool.  So it’s quite an unusual book.  And very 1980s – first person, lots of internal monologue and short half-sentences, and a lot of angst and anxiety.  Alex isn’t super-confident like so many heroines of books are, and spends a lot of time worrying about all aspects of her life and about what other people think of her.

Also, this is national news.  This isn’t just a tale of someone at a school: there’s continuous press coverage of the rivalry between the two girls, who actually get on OK.

Then something truly horrific happens, but Alex vows that it’ll drive her on … but, instead of a big showdown at the end, we’re just told that both Alex and Maggie will be going to the Olympics.   That ending was inevitable, but it’s strange that it just happens like that, rather than with a dramatic account of a very close race.

It’s very 1980s, as I’ve said.  Had it been written in the 1950s or the 1920s, there’d have been a big showdown at the end.   And Alex would probably have been devoted to swimming at the expense of everything else, or maybe had to choose between swimming and one other thing.   Quite unusual.  But I did really enjoy it.  Thank you so much to the people who recommended it!

 

 

 

Wonderland – Sky Arts

Standard

This series is an interesting look at the “Golden Age” of British children’s literature.  That’s obviously an extremely subjective topic, but the twelve authors specifically mentioned were J M Barrie, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Lewis Carroll, Erskine Childers (the only one with whose books I’m not really familiar), Kenneth Grahame, Rudyard Kipling, A A Milne, E Nesbit, Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome, Noel Streatfeild and J R R Tolkien.  The idea was to cover the 71-year-period from the publication of Alice in Wonderland  in 1866 to the publication of Lord of the Rings in 1937.  You can argue at length about who should and shouldn’t have been included: a four-part series can only cover so many authors.   And they’d chosen quite a range of authors, meaning that most of what was said only applied to some of them: you can’t really compare Ballet Shoes with The Hobbit, or Toad of Toad Hall with Swallows and Amazons.  But a lot of thought-provoking comments were made.

The starting point was chosen as being when children’s books moved from moralising to entertainment; and they had to choose an end point somewhere … even though it meant excluding both Enid Blyton and C S Lewis.  The fact that the authors were all so different inevitably made the programme rather bitty – Ransome’s dealings with Lenin and Trotsky one minute, AA Milne’s differences with his son Christopher Robin the next – but I don’t know how else they could have done it.  Carroll, Ransome and Milne were discussed at some length in the first episode: presumably it’ll be three authors apiece in the three remaining episodes.

For a few awful moments, I thought that the whole thing was going to consist of the woke brigade slagging off all the old favourites, BBC 2-style – but one of the speakers made a point about how annoying it is when people do that, and how it’d be better to discuss any class or racial issues which people may find in the books, without just slagging the books off and saying that kids shouldn’t read them.  Hooray for a bit of common sense!   Another point made was that there are now abridged versions of classic books available for younger children, and how those tend to miss out the “nasty” bits – because all these books have difficult bits, and don’t just set out to create idylls for children to enjoy.

It was suggested that some authors saw childhood as a “protected area”, but others thought that children deserved more respect than they often got.  And a lot of comments were made about how many of the featured authors had suffered tragedies in their own lives, often involving children or their own childhoods- was that why they chose to write children’s books?

A good point was that rural locations are, in most cases, preferred to urban locations – Streatfeild’s books being an obvious exception.   It’s sometimes suggested that that was part of the mentality brought about by trying to recover from the Great War, but even the books written pre-1914 tend to be set in rural areas.  Are the books meant to be a safe space, and is that connection with rural settings?   Or are they meant to be challenging?  Well, probably a bit of both.  Beatrix Potter’s books, with their sweet little illustrations, can be very scary!

There was certainly quite a lot to think about.  My preferred childhood books were the “Girls’ Own” books of the mid-20th century, but I read most of the children’s classics as well, and I like hearing them being the subject of in-depth and serious discussion.   I know that some people don’t like detailed analysis of childhood favourites: each to their own, but I do like to talk about them, and I like to think that the authors would be very flattered to know that their books are still were being discussed so many years after they were published.   Thank you to Sky Arts for this: we get a lot of adaptations of children’s books, but not that much talk about them.  Well, there’s plenty of talk about them in our lovely fora and Facebook groups, but it was nice to have some on TV for a change!

ETA – I’ve gone bang off this since the second episode said that Frances Hodgson Burnett grew up in Leeds. She grew up in Manchester! How on earth did they get that wrong?