Midnight on Lundy by Victoria Eveleigh

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This is a children’s book written in the 21st century but set in the 1960s, part pony book, part school story, and part tale of life in a small, close community.  It took me a while to get into it – the style of writing seemed to improve as the book went on – but I rather enjoyed it.  The school story section worked very well: rather than being a member of the in crowd and thinking that school was too marvellous for words, our heroine Jenny took several weeks to settle in, locked herself in the toilets for a bit of peace and privacy, and became part of a quiet group who thought the in crowd were pretty bitchy (as in crowds at schools often are!).  The pony book element was unusual – it wasn’t about a girl and her adored pony, like the Patricia Leitch “Jinny” books which I was very keen on back in the day, but about a notorious, badly-behaved stallion called Midnight and how Jenny kept faith with him and it all worked out well in the end.  And the depiction of life on Lundy, a small island off the coast of Devon, was lovely.  There aren’t too many Girls’ Own books in which everyone spends half their time down the pub!

At the start of the book, Jenny was living on Lundy with her father.  Her mother had died young, and there was a sub-plot about her father meeting someone else and Jenny struggling to come to terms with it.  I loved the depictions of life on Lundy, the landscape, the wildlife, the lighthouse, and everyone being part of a close community.  There does seem to be this nostalgic view of the ’50s and ’60s as a time when everyone was best mates with their neighbours and communities were very close, but there is certainly a lot of truth to it, and that must have applied so particularly on a small island.

Pony books often involve people from very wealthy backgrounds, but, in this case, Jenny was from a fairly ordinary family, and we saw her helping out at a hotel during the busy summer season, and becoming very friendly with a slightly older boy called Ben, who’d got a summer job on the island.  I’d never heard of Lundy ponies before, but apparently there were a lot of wild ponies there between the late 1920s, when the owner of the island began breeding them, and the 1980s – and Midnight was based on a real stallion who was seen as being dangerous and troublesome.

Jenny and Ben tried to tame Midnight by giving him sugar lumps, but it all went wrong when he started chasing tourists and local kids to see if they’d feed him, and he was shipped off to Devon.  Jenny was soon also shipped off to Devon, having won a scholarship to a boarding school there.  Conveniently, Ben lived nearby, and the two of them tracked down Midnight and kept sneaking off together to see him – until one of the bitchy in crowd girls found out and shopped them to the headmistress.  However, hooray, the headmistress was sympathetic, and Jenny became quite a heroine at the school as stories of a boyfriend with his own car and taming a wild horse spread.  Hooray!  I did really like that bit: it can be quite frustrating how school stories focus on the in crowd and the misfits are always the losers, and it was great to see Jenny win out!

She’d hoped to take Midnight back to Lundy with her, but realised that he didn’t want to go.  However, conveniently – this was all a bit too convenient, but never mind – Ben’s auntie had a big estate and lots of ponies, and Midnight was able to go and live there … along with Jenny’s late mother’s pony, whom it turned out was there too!

This wasn’t the best-written school story or pony book I’ve ever read, but it wasn’t bad at all.  I love traditional “Girls’ Own” books, but I know that some people struggle with the fact that all the characters are from very privileged backgrounds, and that no-one has boyfriends or girlfriends, or ever needs the toilet!   Like the Anne Digby Trebizon books, this one made a conscious effort to get away from that but without subverting or mocking or generally being negative about GO traditions.  Victoria Eveleigh isn’t Elinor M Brent-Dyer or Enid Blyton or Patricia Leitch, but this isn’t a bad book at all.  And the Kindle version was going free!

 

Curtain Up/Theatre Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

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It’s over 35 years since I last read this book, and I’d forgotten how infuriating Noel Streatfeild’s over-use of Cockney rhyming slang is.  “I’m worn to a shred by the time I’ve laid the Cain and Abel, and when it comes to dishing up I never know how to drag my plates of meat up the apples and pears.”  Seriously?  Not even Mick Carter in EastEnders talks like that.  It sounds like a sketch by The Two Ronnies.  As for “putting your hand in your sky rocket” … don’t even go there.  However, if you can endeavour to ignore that, this is a very good book.  All three of the main characters are genuinely nice – the stock annoying brat, in this case their cousin, is only a minor character – and very realistic.  It’s also interesting because of the wartime setting, which includes the news that Petrova Fossil from Ballet Shoes is helping to build aircraft for the war effort.  Petrova is a star. I remember all the fuss about Charlene in Neighbours being a Girl Mechanic, and that was in the 1980s!  As a kid, I wanted to be Pauline, rather than Petrova, though.  Pauline, or Sorrel, or Gemma.  I can’t sing and I can’t dance, but (in those long-ago days when I actually had the confidence to stand up on a primary school stage) I used to think I could act.   I can’t.  But kids in Streatfeild books are always talented.

Our three kids – Streatfeild likes families with three or four kids – are Sorrel, Mark and Holly Forbes, who have been living a Terribly Respectable life with their vicar grandfather, their mum having died and their sailor dad being missing in action.  When their grandfather dies, they have to go to live with their unknown maternal grandmother, who turns out to be the matriarch of a theatrical dynasty.  The grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins are all fairly stereotypical theatre sorts, but, apart from the grandmother herself, they aren’t too OTT.  One of the cousins is a brat, As I’ve said, but there’s nearly always a brat in a Streatfeild book – think Lydia Robinson, Nicky Heath, etc..

The grandfather had been paying their school fees, and the schools apparently can’t wait until his will’s gone through probate and his funds have been released.  The grandmother, despite living in a large house and employing the rhyming-slang-talking housekeeper, and now the grandfather’s housekeeper as well, is broke.  So the children go to a theatre school run by a friend of hers, Madame Fidolia of Ballet Shoes fame, and receive financial assistance from the Fossils of Ballet Shoes fame (why??).  Sorrel turns out to be good at acting.  Mark is good at singing, but is eventually allowed to return to his original plan of following his dad into the Navy.  Holly is meant to be good at dancing, but turns out to be a comedienne, whilst their nice cousin Miriam, daughter of a comedian, turns out to be a dancer.  The nasty cousin, Miranda, is also an actress, but Sorrel outperforms her in The Tempest – hooray!!  My brain always gets the production of The Tempest in this book mixed up with the one in the Antonia Forest Kingscote books, for some reason.  Maybe it’s because they both involve characters called Miranda.

There’s a lot of whingeing about being poor, but, more interestingly, we see the effect of rationing and wartime shortages on their ability to buy the items required at a theatre school.  That’s surprisingly unusual in GO books.  However, there’s an absolutely cringeworthy scene in which Madame Fidolia tells the other pupils that they should feel sorry for the Forbes kids, because they’ve got no-one at home to see that they look nice (rather insulting to the two faithful family retainers, who bend over backwards to help the kids).  This is apparently meant to be a positive thing, but how mortified would you have been at your whole school being told to feel sorry for you?!  We also see the theatre school kids putting on performance for injured service personnel in hospitals, and for service personnel on leave – a nice wartime touch.

The three children all come across quite well, especially Sorrel.  I always quite like Streatfeild’s responsible older kids, and Sorrel is particularly appealing – sensible and responsible but without having any of Ann Robinson’s prissiness.  Mark refuses to be pushed into a career that he doesn’t want, and Holly is very stoic when told that Posy Fossil’s dancing scholarship is to go to Miriam rather than to her.  Everyone seems fairly realistic, despite the luvvie-ishness (is that a word?) and eccentricities of some of the family members: there’s nothing in the books that really grates.

I don’t know how I missed this one when I did my Streatfeild re-read around 10 years ago, but somehow I did.  Oh well, I’ve re-read it now.  Very good book!  Or do I mean “fish hook” 🙂 ?!

 

 

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!