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.

Back in Time for School – BBC 2 (final episode)

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I’m going to sound like a grumpy old dinosaur here, but I found parts of this episode extremely annoying.  Traditional teaching methods were summarily dismissed as being “far from inspirational”.  What an insult to generations of hard-working teachers!  Instead, apparently, pupils need virtual reality simulators, to enable them to form an “emotional connection” with Second World War fighter pilots.  Is no-one encouraged to use their imagination any more?  And who’s supposed to pay for all these things?!  Also, they need to be educated in a “non-threatening way” to eat cinnamon.  Since when was cinnamon threatening?   And PE lessons need to be like Pokemon Go challenges – well, that’d certainly be better than hockey or netball, but it’s hardly very practical.  The kids and most of the teachers have been great throughout this series, and made some very interesting points during this episode, but the BBC is just so obsessed with pushing its own agenda.  Oh, and, apparently, the reason I’m too fat is not my fault.  It’s Maggie Thatcher’s.  So there!  It did get better towards the end of the episode, though!

The episode started with Sara Cox saying that the kids should all be doing brilliantly in history lessons, now that they’ve lived through it all.  OK, OK, it was only a joke, but it still got on my nerves!  Could we get past this idea that history lessons all need to be about the 20th century, please?  Then into all this idea that lessons in which teachers do the talking are bad.  No discussion – just the BBC saying so.  This series has continually pushed the idea that all kids want to stand up in front of the class and speak out all the time.  No.  They do not.  And, quite frankly, it used to get very annoying when teachers did let certain kids – and it was always the same teachers, and the same kids! – talk about their experiences and opinions all the way through the lesson, and we didn’t actually learn anything!   Everything in moderation 🙂 .

The idea of this episode was to look at ideas for how schools might develop in the future, but apparently some schools have already got these virtual reality things.  The example here involved video coverage of fighter jets in 1943 being turned into some sort of computer simulation thing.  I was just waiting for Marty McFly and Bill and Ted to turn up, because, apparently, kids are unable to understand history unless they can feel that they’ve actually lived through the past.  It’s the only way they can form an “emotional connection”.  What??  There’s certainly room for watching videos in class, although maybe more so in geography and RS lessons than history lessons – although my A-level group did have great fun watching the Helena Bonham Carter and Cary Elwes film about Lady Jane Grey – and I can see how these computer games would be fun, but you don’t need IT to be able to understand things.   Apparently, the VR simulator enabled the kids to understand that fighter pilots might have been scared.  Well, could they not have worked that out anyway?!

And how much must these things cost?  This series has continually pushed the use of IT in schools.  This episode again went on about robots in schools in the 1980s.  We did not have robots in schools in the 1980s, OK!   And, yes, of course IT’s important, but the Department of Education has not got a money tree!   See, I said I was being grumpy!  But most of my textbooks at school – used by teachers, who, yes, actually talked to the class! –  were years, even decades, old.  Who’s going to fund all this technology?!

Next up, food!   This involved a session in which kids were blindfolded and put pegs on their noses so they had no idea what they were eating, and tried different things.  I would actually hate that, because I won’t eat anything unless I know what it is, but I can see how that would be fun.  I keep using the word “fun”, but the BBC does seem to think that education should be all about making lessons “fun”!   The idea was to encourage people to expand their tastes in food.  Yes, that sounded great – but the BBC then had to turn it into yet another excuse to have a go at the governments of the 1980s and early 1990s.  The reason that so many people in the UK are overweight is apparently all because school dinners in the ’80s and early ’90s were unhealthy.  Seriously?!

I’m just going to have a brief rant here about food prices!  It was my birthday on Monday, so I was supposed to take cakes into the office.  I considered taking in some fruit as well.  However, a punnet of seven (seven!) strawberries costs £3 in Tesco.  For £3, I could get eight chocolate eclairs.  OK, February is not the best of times for buying fruit, but even so.  Maybe everyone would eat more healthily if healthy food wasn’t so expensive./rant

Anyway.  People’s food choices are governed by many things.  What they used to get for school dinners are not generally amongst them.

Then on to PE.  One kid observed that PE lessons are “just for fun”.  You get that attitude in Girls’ Own books, where PE lessons are regarded as being all jolly hockey sticks, as opposed to academic lessons.  Maybe if you’re slim and fit and sporty.  Not if, as I was, you’re fat and useless and completely self-conscious!   The “futuristic” idea in this was for kids to run round town/city centres, navigating on their smartphones, and touching in at certain points, a bit like Pokemon Go.  I certainly think that would appeal more than hockey and netball and so on, but not everyone’s got a state of the art smartphone, and there’d always be issues with kids whom other kids didn’t want on their teams.  And, again sounding old and grumpy, I’m not sure that having groups of kids running round town would really work for everyone else!  But it was an interesting idea.

Then some talk about gender stereotyping.  The boys in this have been really good about talking about equality.  OK, they probably daren’t say anything else, when it’s being filmed, but most of the boys I knew at school were horrendously sexist!!   Hopefully they’ve all grown out of that now 🙂 .

Next came the ongoing issue of to what extent education should be geared towards equipping children for the workplace.  This is a very interesting and important area, and it’s hard to find an answer to it – but the BBC has continually criticised traditional academic education and praised vocational education, rather than trying to present a balanced view.  They did that again here, when talking about the idea of University Technical Colleges – but most of the pupils and teachers actually disagreed, saying that specialising too early could present a lot of problems.  It’s very difficult.  Employers keep saying that schools and universities are not equipping children with the appropriate skills for the workplace, but at what point do you make career choices?  And shouldn’t education be about more than looking towards the world of work?  But then everyone needs to earn their living, and workplaces need people who have the appropriate skills.  Every generation grapples with this issue, and this series has done a good job of showing that.

Finally came the idea of lessons being taught by Artificial Intelligence, with each child having a computer which tailored lessons to their individual needs, fed back a load of data to the teacher, and even monitored kids’ facial expressions and then generated algorithms to adapt the work accordingly!   My first reaction was that this was ridiculous, but then I thought that, hey, maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea after all.  A fundamental problem with education is that every child is different and there is no curriculum or teaching method that’s going to get the best out of everyone, and no way that a teacher can give their full attention to each of thirty or so pupils at once.  I think it’d be a bit weird, though.  You’d end up feeling completely detached.  Neither the kids nor the teachers were that keen.

The series finished with the children saying that it had made them feel grateful for the opportunities they’d been given, and the teachers saying that it had helped the children to bond, which was lovely.  It would have been much better had the BBC not tried so hard to politicise it, but it’s still been a great series, and I’ve enjoyed watching it.

Back in Time for School – BBC 2 (episode 7)

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I was still at school at the beginning of the 1990s, but most of this episode on that decade seemed a million miles away from my day. All that technology in the classroom!  I was way too old to have a Tamagotchi, and I only watched the odd episode of Byker Grove.  I recognised all the music, though, so I was obviously still “with it” – well, as far as I ever was!    It was good fun to see some of the Cool Britannia stuff again.  Oasis over Blur every time: it’s a Manchester thing!   But the BBC’s obsession with pushing their political agenda has really marred this series.  Claiming that everyone in the ‘80s was far too self-obsessed to raise money for charity?  They should be forced to issue a formal apology to Bob Geldof for saying that.  And what was all that rubbish about the government stifling creativity by making people draw wheels?   Also, why does the BBC seem to think that everyone wants interactive lessons with as much pupil participation as possible?   What about all those of us who just wanted to fade quietly into the background?!

Hearing teenagers refer to the 1990s as “back then” and say that their parents had been at school in the 1990s made me feel about 100, but at least it was said to the background music of a Happy Mondays song. No reference to the whole “Madchester” phenomenon, though.  Boo!  I remember going on a school trip to the British Museum in 1990, and – uniform not being worn on school trips, presumably to make sure that no-one’d be able to identify the school if anyone did anything terrible – everyone turning up in hooded tops and Joe Bloggs jeans, and strutting round thinking how incredibly cool we were compared to people in London!   We did, however, get Italia ’90.  I was doing my GCSEs then.  I had three exams – three!! – on the day of the group match between England and the Republic of Ireland.  Very stressful day!   It was good to see that the kids knew all about it.  Italia ’90, I mean, not my GCSEs.  And those wonderful Panini sticker albums we all had.  We also heard about Game Boys.  Not being very technologically-minded in those days, I never had one – but my sister did, so I used to play Tetris on hers!   And about all that awful modern art – unmade beds and stuffed animals.  I didn’t get it then, and I don’t get it now.  Give me a nice landscape painting any day!

Back with the actual school stuff, we were reminded about the introduction of school league tables. Ah yes.  If I remember rightly, the first league tables came out during my first year at university.  They’d somehow made a mistake with the points for my school, so it appeared far lower down the league tables than it should have done.  The headmistress hit the roof – understandably – and my school ended up all over the headlines of the news!   Needless to say, the programme, and especially that one really irritating teacher (the one who claimed she’d never heard “Jerusalem” before) did nothing but moan about the National Curriculum and the league tables.  The kids featured in this all seemed very bright and well capable of formulating their own opinions, but Sara Cox was clearly trying to lead them towards saying what the BBC wanted them to say, which really did annoy me.    What on earth was all that whingeing about creativity being stifled by being expected to draw a wheel in art lessons?  What exactly do you expect to do in school art lessons?  I can barely draw a straight line with a ruler, so I never had any artistic creativity to stifle 🙂 , but it all seemed like a lot of moaning about nothing.

The moaning about the school dinners was more justified. I appreciate that the government was trying to cut costs, but it really wasn’t one of their better ideas.  But, again, the BBC had to politicise it by encouraging all the kids to say that the government was being hypocritical by allowing vending machines in schools at the same time as they were trying to encourage kids to do more exercise.  Yes, it was a fair point, but a) it all seemed very sanctimonious, b) Sara Cox was clearly trying to put words into the kids’ mouths and c) the BBC is supposed to be politically neutral.  Going back to the point about exercise, Jet from Gladiators – a programme I could not bear! – turned up to take the PE lesson.  There’s been a lot in this series about PE lessons.  How I hated PE!   I would have hated it in any generation!

There seemed to be a lot more about social change and popular culture than about actual school life in this programme – although, to be fair, they did try to tie it into education. The introduction of the National Lottery – and, yes, some of the money did go to schools – was very exciting at the time, although I do now have a nostalgic yearning for the days when everyone did the pools, which were never the same again after the Lottery came in.  No mention of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, strangely.  The reaction to it all was ridiculously OTT, but it was a very, very big thing at the time.  The Spice Girls got a brief mention.  I’m not sure that the “Girl Power” thing actually influenced society, but it certainly got a lot of attention.   The “coming out” storyline in Byker Grove in 1994  was also covered.  As I’ve said before and have said again, soap operas and similar programmes have done far more to change attitudes over LGBTQ issues, and many other issues, than any sort of official campaign ever has.  And, as much as I often criticise the BBC, kudos to the EastEnders scriptwriters for tying in the recent storyline about the death of Dr Legg with references to the worrying rise in anti-Semitism both in the 1930s and today.

There was also a load of rubbish about how the 1980s was all “me me me”, whereas the 1990s was all about raising money for Comic Relief. Er, what?!   I do remember raising money for Comic Relief at school.  Some of the teachers did “The Stonk” in assembly, which, given that my school was quite formal and old-fashioned, was quite an event.  But schools were involved in raising money for charity in the ‘80s, as well, and long before the ‘80s.  My school chose a different charity every term, and tried to raise money for it.  Saying that no-one in the “Thatcherite ‘80s” was bothered about helping other people, when you think about Live Aid, and all the money raised for disaster appeals both in the UK and abroad (the ‘80s was very much the decade of the charity single), not to mention the BBC’s own Children in Need appeals, and the 1988 ITV Telethon, was just disgusting.

One of the fundraising ideas was a fashion show. Ugh, ugh, ugh!   I cannot think of anything worse.  Maybe it would’ve been great fun if you were slim, glamorous and confident, but … I feel ill just thinking about it.  I suppose that anyone wanting to take part in a reality TV series is going to be confident, but what about all the people who aren’t?  Earlier in the programme, they’d been going on about how wonderful drama lessons were.  Not if you were the sort of kid who just hoped no-one’d notice you were there, and was convinced that everyone was laughing at you behind your back because they thought you were fat and weird, they weren’t!

On to the 1997 general election. They were very positive about Tony Blair: given the general tone of the programme, I’m amazed they didn’t slag him off for not being far left enough.  I completely fell for the whole Tony Blair New Labour thing.  I genuinely thought that he was a decent bloke with a real vision for the country.  Hah!  These days, I change the channel the minute he appears on TV: the very sight of his face makes me want to slap it!   I wish we could get back that feeling of optimism about politics, though.  If a general election were to be called tomorrow, it’d be a case of trying to decide which party was the least bad, not of voting for any positive reason.  Both main parties are a disgrace, and I cannot think of even one politician whom I’d genuinely like to see as Prime Minister.  The positivity of 1997 seems a very long time ago.  Well, it was a very long time ago.   22 years! Bloody hell – how did that happen?!  I was rather put out that they didn’t mention the truly great leader of the 1990s – the one and only Sir Alex Ferguson.   Unlike Phoney Tony, he never let us down!

Most of the rest of the programme was about technology, and made me feel like I was a dinosaur because we had none of it when I was at school. I never used Encarta.  I remember having CD roms for professional exams in about 1998, but certainly not when I was at school.  Web design lessons.  CDs giving advice on job options – and the only mention in this episode of gender-based educational differences, with a comment that the CD never even asked the user’s gender.  Tamagotchis – I remember the craze for them, but I was way too old to have one!  And dial-up internet – which I still had until … about 2010, I think.  The kids seemed to think it was all like something from a completely bygone era.  That made me feel very old!   Hooray for the Take That music, though.  I shall be going to see Take That in a couple of months’ time – I may be a child of the 1980s, but I can do the 1990s too!  Well, some aspects of the 1990s.

Asked which decade they preferred, neither the kids nor the teachers seemed very sure. The general opinion seemed to be that there were good aspects and bad aspects of each of them.  That’s life, I suppose!   There’s one more episode of this to come, but that’s going to be about imagining school life in the future: the exploration of the past’s over.  It’s been very interesting, despite the BBC’s political machinations, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they choose for the next “Back in time” series.

Back in Time for School – BBC 2 (episode 5)

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I think this series, covering the 1970s this week, has lost the plot – which is a great shame, seeing as it’s doing the 1980s next week. Seriously, how many schools let kids skive off PE and spend the time in a meditation sanctuary room instead?   If only!   I’d have been the first one in there.  Not to mention missing lessons to play golf for “personal fulfilment”, calling teachers by their first names, and serving up the produce of home economics lessons for school dinners.  And please would someone tell the BBC that not all kids want lessons that involve role play and “active participation”?  Confident, outgoing kids might, but give me the set-up from the 1950s episode any day!  And did your old school have loudspeaker systems like Rydell High?  Mine certainly didn’t!   But, hey, they did mention Grange Hill!  Good old Grange Hill 🙂 .

I’ve been getting increasingly annoyed over the way the BBC’s used what began as a very interesting series to push its own political agenda; and it reached ridiculous proportions this week, when we were informed that the introduction of comprehensives was part of the same cultural shift that included women’s lib and the Race Relations Acts. What??  The most sensible comment in the entire episode was when one of the teachers said that education was constantly being used a political football.   I don’t think anyone would disagree with that, but need the BBC use programmes about education as political footballs, as well?  And every episode of Casualty and Holby City now revolves around criticising the NHS.  Enough!

Anyway. Back to the point!  I think this was the first time we’d seen inside a staffroom.  In between looking at copies of The Sun and discussing page 3 girls – the circulation of the aforementioned newspaper apparently doubled when the page 3 pictures started, which says rather a lot, and none of it good – the teachers commented that the loudspeaker system reminded them of Rydell High.  That was my reaction as well.  Did schools in the ‘70s actually have loudspeaker systems?  My school certainly didn’t have one even in the 1990s.  Announcements were made either in assembly or on notes sent to classrooms.  Assembly in this programme involved singing Kum Ba Yah.  The original version, not the one that goes “He scores goals, my Lord, he scores goals”.

Then on to a “commerce” lesson, in which everyone had to pretend that they were on an aeroplane. The BBC enthused about how brilliant this was.  I have no idea why.  What was it supposed to achieve?  And the gender division issue raised its head again, with girls being told that they couldn’t take the roles of pilots.

More interesting was the tuck shop, selling sweets. Oh yes!  We had one of these for a couple of years, although it was something to do with the Young Enterprise Scheme rather than actually being run by the school.  My then best friend and I – although this was in the ‘80s, not the ‘70s – used to buy X number of sweets each to eat on the bus on the way home, and we had a series of “landmarks” at which we ate the next sweet.  No wonder I was always so bloody fat!

Then on to decimalisation and school banks. This bit was fascinating.  By my day, we didn’t have school banks.  The big banks had all started running accounts for children, and tried to appeal to us by offering rewards or free gifts.  I had all the Nat West piggies.  Other kids had free schoolbags given away by the Midland – which was incredibly confusing, because it meant that umpteen people had the same bag.  I quite like the idea of a school bank, although it must have meant a huge amount of admin work for the staff.  Having said which, would you really want teachers knowing how much money you had or didn’t have?  Maybe not.

We then moved on to that staple of British school life – the lectures about how your hair was too long (for boys) or too messy, and how you shouldn’t be wearing make-up for school.   I’m amazed they didn’t add lectures about customising the uniform.  This is one that pretty much everyone in every generation will have memories of.  Being fat and uncool, I once decided that I was going to make myself look cool, just for once, by turning up at school wearing bright orange nail varnish.  One of the other girls told me that I looked as if my hands had been hit by the fallout from Chornobyl.  So much for looking cool 😦 .  The teachers weren’t impressed either.  Then there was the time that two of the lads at the boys’ school decided to see if it was true that, if you went for weeks without washing or cutting your hair, it would start cleaning itself.  Our jumpers were too long.  Our skirts were too short.  Our coats were the wrong colour.  Yep.  We’ve all been there!

In this programme, three kids were banned from going on a school trip because of issues around hair and make-up. Why are schools so obsessed with how kids look and dress?!  They are, though.  This bit was very realistic.  The trip wasn’t very exciting, though – it was to Spaghetti Junction.  Apparently, this was typical of a geography field trip in the 1970s.  How horrendously boring!

After that, the programme went a bit berserk, as the BBC tried to make out that the 1970s were all about schools letting kids do whatever they wanted. Student councils.  Were these common in the ‘70s?  And schools where kids called the teachers by their first names, and got to choose whether or not they even turned up at school, and, if they did, whether they went to PE lessons or sat in a very lavishly-decorated “sanctuary”.

PE in the ‘70s was apparently supposed to be about “personal fulfilment”. I have to say that that wasn’t a bad idea.  I was worse than useless at team sports, and something like golf or archery might have suited me better – but was it really practical?   A couple of kids go to the nearest golf course, or presumably the nearest municipal golf course as I can’t imagine private golf clubs wanting schoolkids wandering around their courses, others go to the nearest archery butts (if indeed there were any nearby archery butts), and so on?  I don’t really see how it would have worked.  Surely only very few schools can have done this?  I appreciate that the BBC was trying to make this entertaining, but I’d rather have seen something that was typical rather than something that was extreme.

There were also “Black Studies” lessons. Again, I don’t know how common these were – and two people who were called in to discuss them said that there’d been no such things at their own schools in the 1970s!   It was an interesting concept, though.  It was a genuinely well-meaning attempt to promote race relations by teaching about Afro-Caribbean culture, but there was something quite discomfiting about the idea of teaching “Black Studies” as if black culture was somehow “other” and apart from the mainstream; and that was how both the children and the teachers, of all ethnicities, seemed to feel as well.  It was meant well, but it just wasn’t the best of approaches.  It was mentioned that some schools had Afro-Caribbean carnivals, and these seemed to work much better.

Next up, home economics. This series is obsessed with home economics!   They made curry, which was then dished up for school dinners.  Hmm.  I know this happens in books, but I’m very glad that the stuff I made in the home economics room never got served to the other kids.  My mum and dad and sister had to help eat it, and I think they’d rather it’d all been chucked in the bin.  This was the first time that home economics lessons were co-ed.  Good to see – although this concept hadn’t reached our schools even by the time I left in 1992.  Although CDT lessons started at the girls’ school whilst I was there, cookery and sewing were not taught at the boys’ school.  But ours were fairly old-fashioned places, it has to be said!

Then, in line with the gender equality thing, we were told that, with far more mothers working, after school clubs were started. And the after school club was shown an episode of Grange Hill!   I loved Grange Hill.  I wish it’d never been scrapped.  It was great!  Even in the late ’80s, when everyone got obsessed with Neighbours and Home and Away, we still watched Grange Hill as well.

And, to finish up, a school disco. Er, yep.  As with role play and “active participation”, teenage discos were great if you were a confident, outgoing kid, but rather less so if you were the shy fat kid hiding in the corner or the toilets!   Mind you, if you’re the sort of kid who’s going to be on a reality TV series, you’re not going to be the sort who hides!

The teacher who complained last week that she’d never heard “Jerusalem” before said that she’d found this week “inspiring” and had taken a lot from it. It figured.  None of the other teachers were very impressed, and the pupils weren’t that keen either.  And now I’m waiting to see what they do with my era, the 1980s.  From what the preview showed, it’s going to suggest that all classrooms in the ’80s were full of computers, synthesisers and robots.   No.  They weren’t.  Any more than schools in the ’70s let you skive off PE to sit in a “sanctuary”.  This series has gone a bit mad!

The Adventures of Alice Laselles by Alexandrina Victoria aged 10 3/4

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Word PressI love the idea of the 10-year-old future Queen Victoria writing school stories :-).  It’s something that I should imagine a lot of 10-year-old girls do.  I seem to remember that I was always wildly over-ambitious and used to make long lists of characters, planning a full-length book and preferably a series, but never finish the stories. I remember planning one, on a little pad of paper that my dad had got free from a pharmaceutical rep, during an episode of Coronation Street involving the feud between the Duckworths and the Claytons – why do I remember that?!  Google informs me that that would have been in 1985, so I’d have been 10 at the time, the same age as Victoria was when she wrote this.  Victoria, who evidently had a lot more sense than I did J, stuck to something relatively short and simple!

It is very obviously written by a child – the story is short and simple, and some of the syntax and punctuation are in dire need of correction – so don’t be expecting the sort of school story you’d get from Elinor M Brent-Dyer, Elsie J Oxenham, Dorita Fairlie Bruce or Enid Blyton J, but it’s really pretty good for someone so young.  There are some lovely descriptive passages in it.  And what’s particularly fascinating is how this story, written by a 10-year-old c.1830, would, if expanded, fit right into the classic age of girls’ school stories a century later.

Alice Laselles is packed off to boarding school when her mother dies, her father remarries, and her new stepmother takes a dislike to her. That’s very Brent-Dyer!   She’s then wrongly accused of something she didn’t do, but the truth comes out in the end.  That’s pretty Blyton-esque – although Alice’s response, that she knows she’s innocent and so she’s not going to get upset about it, is more reminiscent of the attitude taken by Susan Coolidge’s Katy Carr.  Two of the eight girls at the school are twins – a trope beloved of both Elinor M Brent-Dyer and Elsie J Oxenham.  There’s also a wild Irish girl – classic Angela Brazil.  And this is in a book written by a young princess in 1830.

Queen Victoria’s own childhood sounds like the start of a school story, really. Her mother and Sir John Conroy kept her practically kept locked away in Kensington Palace for much of the time.  If her life had been a book, and a century later, someone would have made sure that she was sent away to school, where she’d have made lots of jolly friends, as happened to various princesses who appear in school story novels. Maybe it was something she liked the idea of?  We’ll never know.  But this is a sweet little story.  It’s only been published because it was written by the future Queen Victoria – it’s the sort of thing that gets passed round proud grandparents, aunties, uncles and friends at Christmas or birthday gatherings, rather than the sort of thing that you’d usually expect to find in a published book – but it’s interesting because it was written by the future Queen Victoria, and, which I wasn’t really expecting, it’s also interesting to see how all the classic elements of the school story already seem to have been in the mind of a young girl as far back as 1830.  Worth a look!

Champion of the Chalet School by Adrianne Fitzpatrick

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I have great admiration for people who write Chalet School “fill-ins”, because they’re required to keep their style as close to (the publishers’ view of) Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD)’s as possible, and trying to write in someone else’s style can’t be easy. Not to mention the need to work round the many “EBD-isms” (inconsistencies) during the series! This book actually isn’t as “EBD-ish” as some of the other fill-ins are, but I think that, given some of the storylines, it benefits from that. EBD was writing for a very young audience, long before the days when people had the wealth of the information superhighway at their fingertips, so she was able to get away with describing people as being “delicate” and making cryptic remarks about “displaced” organs and mysterious illnesses which required operations that couldn’t be performed because “the heart wouldn’t stand it”. Nowadays, especially to an adult audience, that sort of thing gets rather frustrating. Adrianne Fitzpatrick, by contrast, portrays a pupil suffering from asthma, a condition never actually mentioned in the EBD books. The storyline’s dealt with well – especially in its very positive links to the work of Jem Russell, a character whom I feel doesn’t always get the credit that he deserves.

The “champion” of the title (I have to say that I don’t actually like the title, because it keeps making me think of Champion the Wonder Horse, but never mind) is Betsy Lucy who, as the author points out, gets rather neglected in the CS books compared to her sisters Julie and Vi. Betsy’s time in the sun should have come during the second year in Switzerland, when she was Head Girl, but she got completely overshadowed by Our One And Only Mary-Lou and never really got a decent storyline of her own. Betsy in this book is an Upper Third, along with Anne Whitney, the girl with asthma, and various others, many of whom are troublemakers. I do have to say that I was expecting to meet a lot of old friends and was slightly disappointed to find so much attention given to girls whose names I didn’t even recognise – Jane Thomas, Margaret Hart, Lorna Wills, Mary Brown, etc. However, to be fair to the author, many of the major characters in Betsy’s year – Carola Johnstone, Katharine Gordon, Lalla Winterton – didn’t arrive at the school until later on. It would have been nice to have seen more of Sybil Russell and Blossom Willoughby, but I appreciate that the author didn’t want to show them as “baddies”; and it was good to see a positive portrayal of Sybil, whom I feel gets a rather raw deal from EBD.

The reason there’s so much trouble going on is that this book’s set just after the “failure” of Marilyn Evans as Head Girl. I have a lot of sympathy for Marilyn, because I feel that the school asks far too much of its prefects, especially given that they’re likely to be studying for public exams. It’s a difficult issue to tackle without suggesting that – shock horror! – the school made the wrong choice of Head Girl, and I think that Adrianne Fitzpatrick manages it fairly well. And, oh, what a joy to see Madge attending a staff meeting, and Joey given only a minor role in the book! Peggy Burnett’s the person who takes over as Head Girl, and, after Betsy, is the major character in the book. Very nice to see a mention of the fact that the Burnetts were Rosalie Dene’s cousins: I think EBD forgot about that! Also interesting to see the prefects split between the Peggy faction and the Marilyn faction – other than Deira’s dislike of Grizel, the prefects are generally shown as all being bezzie mates and working wonderfully well together, and I’m not sure how realistic that is!

Peggy and in particular Betsy do sometimes come across as being a bit priggish, with all the For The Good Of The School talk and Utter Horror at the breaking of rules. That’s not uncommon in school stories, but I think it did go a little bit far here. However, all in all it’s a very good read. And it was all about the school, which was wonderful – no-one was rescued from a lake by a doctor, or rushed off to ask Joey to solve whatever the latest problem was! It can’t be the easiest part of the school’s history to write about – so may of the storylines rely on the weather and the landscape, and Herefordshire isn’t exactly like the Alps when it comes to any of that – and Adrianne Fitzpatrick’s done a good job. I do have mixed feelings about the whole concept of “fill-ins”, but I thoroughly enjoy reading them all the same!

The Lark in the Morn by Elfrida Vipont

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I went to the same school as Elfrida Vipont – the city of “Chesterham” in this book is, of course, Manchester – and, like her, went on to study history at university. However, she dropped out of her history course to train as a professional singer, whereas I absolutely loved being a history student and have been told by innumerable people that I’ve got the worst singing voice they’ve ever heard! Music features rather a lot in the book (which wasn’t set very far in the past when it was written, but is a historical novel to the modern reader), which sees the main character, Kit Haverard, brought up by a widowed and rather remote father and a rather bossy and over-organised cousin, “discover” herself and decide that she wants to become a singer.

It is partly a boarding school story, but it’s far more gentle than your typical boarding school story. There are no floods, fires or avalanches; no-one is pushed in the pool fully-clothed, scores a last-gasp winner in a crucial lacrosse match, catches measles just before a big exam or runs away at dead of night; and there aren’t even any cleverly thought-out pranks or midnight feasts. There is one incident involving a burglar, but the burglar cheerfully hands over his loot and runs off as soon as he’s apprehended. It’s also set partly at Kit’s home, and partly at the homes of her great-aunts (wise old lady types) and cousins (cousins do tend to feature an awful lot in these sorts of books, don’t they?). Plus there’s quite a bit of role-playing and running about with friends, in “Thornley”, which is on the outskirts of “Chesterham”. I can’t quite decide where “Thornley” is … Didsbury, maybe? Or possibly Wythenshawe, in pre housing estate times, because there’s mention of an old hall. I must see if I can find out.

Not very much actually happens, there’s a lot of talk about religion, and in many ways it seems more like a Louisa M Alcott or Susan Coolidge book than a book written by a British author after the Second World War; but in other ways it’s a very British coming-of-age story, and it’s a nice, gentle read. I’m not sure how much it would appeal to modern teenagers, but I rather enjoyed it.

The Marlow books by Antonia Forest

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I’ve just read all ten of these books, having read Autumn Term and The Cricket Term many moons ago when I was only about seven. I could have sworn that I’d read The Attic Term as well, but nothing about either it or End of Term rang a bell, so I think I must have just read the two.

These aren’t historical novels as such, but there are a couple of things which I really felt like waffling about! The books have been much discussed – the way in which the time in which they’re set moves around, the way in which they’re far more modern than most boarding school stories, the mixture of different genres, etc – but the two things which I really wanted to waffle about were Karen’s marriage and the religious aspects of The Attic Term.

Karen, the eldest of the six Marlow sisters, is the brightest of the bunch, wins a scholarship, and goes off to Oxford to study classics. Five months later, she drops out of Oxford to marry Edwin Dodd, a forty-one year old man with three children. His estranged wife, the children’s mother, has only very recently died, and there are some strong hints that he’d been hoping that they might get back together. None of Karen’s family have even heard Edwin’s name mentioned until Karen arrives home and announces that she plans to have a very quiet, rather hole-in-the-corner (no wedding dress, no wedding cake, no bouquet, no bridesmaids) wedding, without even waiting until her grandmother, her aunt, her eldest brother or even her father, who’s away on naval duty, can get there. We don’t “see” Commander Marlow in this book, but imagine how hurt the poor man must have been :-(.

It seems to be Karen rather than Edwin who’s pushing for the marriage to take place so quickly, and it’s hard to disagree with the view taken by one of her sisters, that she’s worried that if they don’t get married now then he’ll employ a housekeeper and or a nanny and decide that he doesn’t need a second wife. That doesn’t say very much for the relationship between the happy couple. Neither of them seems very happy, and Edwin is a rather unattractive character who seems to be constantly in a bad mood and even hits Karen’s younger brother with a horse whip.

Mrs Marlow, understandably, isn’t very happy about it, but is afraid to risk a huge family falling-out by trying to stop the wedding from going ahead. So it duly takes place, but it all seems so depressing and, at the end of The Ready Made Family, the reader’s left with the uncomfortable feeling that Karen’s made a big mistake. We don’t see much of Karen and Edwin thereafter, so we don’t really know how things work out. It just all seems very unsatisfactory.

Having said which, it’s entirely Karen’s own choice. In Prefects of the Chalet School, Len Maynard becomes engaged to Reg Entwistle; and most Chalet School fans seem to find that relationship very objectionable. However, as Reg is “only” ten years older than Len (who, at 18, is only a year younger than Karen is when she marries Edwin), and a bachelor with no children and no baggage, and it’s agreed that the marriage should wait until Len’s got her degree, on the face of it it’s a much less controversial match than Karen’s with Edwin is. Yet it seems even less satisfactory, partly because Len has so little life experience but partly because of the feeling that Len’s been pushed into it.

I don’t know what conclusions I’m drawing from all this: I just wanted to write something down!

The other issue is the way in which Antonia Forest – real name Patricia Rubinstein, daughter or a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, and herself a Catholic – uses The Attic Term to put forward her opposition to the reforms made by Vatican II. There’s an awful lot of talk about how the Merricks, the Marlows’ friends and neighbours, aren’t happy with the reforms, and Patrick Merrick ends up being expelled from his Catholic school because he is a traditionalist, opposed to the reforms, and the headmaster isn’t happy about it.

It was something that Antonia Forest clearly felt very strongly about, but I just feel that it’s not very appropriate for an author to use a children’s book, especially when it’s the ninth in a series which has previously focused on other things, to put forward their personal views on such an emotive and divisive topic. If a schoolteacher or a television programme did so, I think there’d be a lot of complaints. Obviously it was something that did affect her very deeply, but I don’t think that this was a very appropriate way of expressing her opinions.

OK. Waffle over!