Category Archives: History

Fatty and friends

Geriväg, his name was. Clear-Orf, to you English language readers. I always used to wonder what the original name might be, since at the time I read Enid Blyton’s books I didn’t know enough English to even begin guessing.

I’ve long been confused about the name of the series of books as well. (You’ll find I’m confused about quite a lot.) The Find-Outers seems to be the answer, except when I look at the book titles they are all The Mystery of… and that’s presumably why we called them Mysterie-böckerna in Sweden.

Enid Blyton, The Find-Outers - The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage

About the only thing I have really remembered all these years is the name Fatty for one of the characters. It wasn’t as unkind as it might seem. First, Fatty himself appears not to have minded too much. (Unless he did, weeping in secret every time the other children referred to him as Fatty.) Second, I didn’t speak English, so to me it was just a name. I understood it was a nickname, and there could even have been a footnote of sorts to explain what it meant. But the name wasn’t translated into anything like Tjockis. And I obviously mispronounced it.

So that’s all right…

Now he’s back, along with Larry and Daisy, Pip and Bets. Plus the charming Clear-Orf. And there are mysteries. I have in my hand The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage, and even though the years have passed, I do feel some of the old Blyton thrill when holding it, and checking out how clever and polite the children are. (I used to believe this was an English thing. Apart from calling your friend Fatty, then.)

I hope a new generation of readers will discover Blyton, for better or for worse. The cover illustration is up-to-date in a way I don’t care for, but I suppose that’s what modern children require. I prefer retro.

Losing it

You repeat something so often that you come to know it as a fact, whereas it could of course turn out merely to be a myth.

My old professor Alvar Ellegård reputedly lost his PhD thesis (on the uses of the word do) down the ‘sopnedkast’ and had to re-write the whole thing.

I’m not sure whether us students were told this as an amusing fact, or if it was intended as a warning never to tidy our flats. And maybe he never did throw his thesis away. But it’s what I remember him by. That, and a textbook I actually hung on to for a surprisingly long time.

Sopnedkast is a rubbish chute. It’s what we had in the semi-olden days for getting rid of rubbish. And PhD theses, obviously. Keys were also pretty good to chuck down this hole-in-the-wall, as not infrequently you’d need the aforementioned keys both to re-enter your flat, or to gain access to the rubbish room with the bins, where the keys had ended up. (I never did this.)

What with recycling and sorting your rubbish properly, the chutes are long gone. Well, not gone gone; just firmly shut. People simply have to carry their well-separated items down all those stairs.

These days there is always the delete button. (For theses. Not so much for milk cartons and newspapers.)

The Roman Quests – The Archers of Isca

It is reassuring that I am not yet too old for Caroline Lawrence’s books. Occasionally I wonder if I will be, seeing as I’ve been reading her Roman mysteries for well over a dozen years. But I am still a child at heart.

Caroline Lawrence, The Roman Quests - The Archers of Isca

The second of four books set in Britain in AD 95, we follow the eldest boy, Fronto, as he sets off to be a soldier. It’s what he always wanted, albeit perhaps not quite like this. In Rome he could have been an officer, while now he must begin at the bottom. But for a boy who likes rules and knowing what’s happening and what he should do about it, army life is perfect.

Meanwhile, his two younger siblings continue as they were, living with the local people. At least, until Fronto’s little sister Ursula is kidnapped.

As with all Caroline’s books, this story educates as it entertains. I have learned more about life in Roman Britain through these books than I ever did from more historical texts. What’s more, I suspect I might remember facts for longer as well.

There are Druids and Romans, we learn about Roman baths and Boudica’s famous battle, and we find out how people lived; what they ate and how they worked and prayed.

And we are getting closer to knowing what happened to Miriam’s twin boys.

Saga’s saga

Never underestimate the entertainment value of history, and especially not the history all around you, where you live. I hinted earlier at having read the manuscript of a children’s book, written by a friend. That sort of thing can be quite awkward, as they could turn out to have written something really appalling. But I felt safe with Ingrid (Magnusson Rading) because not only is she both interesting and intelligent, but she had already written a gorgeous coffee table book about our shared summer paradise. So I knew she could write.

And unlike the young witch who used to imagine herself writing a Famous Five type book set in Haverdal, because there were so many intriguing settings all over the place, where villains could roam and all that, Ingrid not only stopped dreaming and set to work, but she chose a much superior format; a quiet fantasy adventure set in today’s Haverdal with time travelling to the past, using much of the research she did for her other book.

Jättastuans hemlighet – as it is currently called – is about a girl called Saga, who just might be Ingrid’s as yet unborn granddaughter. Saga’s gran bears a suspicious resemblance to someone I know, as does her grandfather and the cottage where she’s come to stay for a week. Jättastuan is a sort of cave near the beach, and Saga’s gran shares a secret with her on that first day.


And before you know it, Saga has been transported to the 17th century, where life was pretty hard. Instead of your normal time travel, Saga actually becomes Ellika, a girl who lived back then, and we see the family’s struggle to survive bad winters and failing crops. Learning about history like this brings it to life and makes it relevant in a way that pure facts never do.

There is time travel in the opposite direction too, with some hilarious descriptions of life today, as observed by someone from five hundred years ago. And when the reader has loved, and suffered with, Ellika’s family, we meet some much more recent historical characters from about a hundred years ago, set in and around the quarry that covers much of the area. So that’s more people to love and identify with, and more facts that come alive.

I think any middle grade reader would love this book. I’d have liked it when I was ten. I certainly enjoyed it now. And I wouldn’t mind more of the same (I believe Ingrid has ideas for another period or two from the past). If children still learn about their local area for history at school, Jättastuans hemlighet [The Secret of Jättastuan] would be a fantastic resource for teachers. And what could be better, education and fun all in one go?

Very local children would also enjoy knowing exactly where Saga goes, as I did. It’s an added bonus, but not essential. But as has been said recently, we like to find ourselves in books, and this will firmly place Haverdal children in literature.

The Haunting of Jessop Rise

Danny Weston is back in North Wales. It’s the mid-19th century and recently orphaned William is just arriving in a desolate corner of Wales, having walked the five days from Cheshire. His rich uncle Seth has asked him to come and live at Jessop Rise. He just didn’t say in what capacity, or for how long.

Danny Weston, The Haunting of Jessop Rise

We soon learn that William’s only ‘choice’ is to work as a servant for his uncle and his cousin Toby (who I thought was all set to be Dudley Dursley meets Draco Malfoy). But like all good heroes William works hard and is polite and makes friends among the few staff in this big house.

What makes a good horror story? Do you need a mean, bad guy, or are you better off with a good ghost or two? Or how about a scary creature you don’t really know what it is at all? The Haunting of Jessop Rise has all three. The locals believe in the Gwrach, but William seems to mostly meet a mysterious woman whenever he goes out. Who is she and what does she want from him?

And then there is mean old uncle Seth, who is pretty ghastly at times, but who appears almost normal on other occasions. You just don’t know what to expect. Toby misses his mother, who disappeared a year earlier, and it makes you suspect you know what’s happened. Atmospheric stormy seas, thick fogs and a dangerous slate quarry all add to the perils William faces.

Nowhere near as creepy as Danny’s Mr Sparks, this is more a traditional, old-fashioned tale about families and what makes them do what they do. You don’t feel threatened by the ghost. You want to know its history, and you want things put right. And you know uncle Seth is capable of almost anything.

Master Will and the Spanish Spy

You can learn new things, even in the short 80 pages of a Barrington Stokes book. Here is Tony Bradman with another brief Shakespeare tale. This time it’s set while Will lives at home with his parents and siblings, going to school and getting bored and skiving off to go and see the theatre company come all the way from London.

He meets Mr Burbage, and although we can’t know what actually happened back then, it feels like true history is taking shape as Will gets to know the travelling actors, and meets ‘real’ people. The way he falls in love with the theatre is truly inspiring, and feels like it could have happened that way, and it would explain all those famous dramas we still have to enjoy.

Tony Bradman, Master Will and the Spanish Spy

The Shakespeare parents have their troubles, and life isn’t always easy or safe. Will sees something odd when he’s out and about, and feels it needs dealing with, just in case. Sensibly, he speaks to the older generation, and something can be worked out.

I had no idea that Spanish Spies could have such a devastating effect on both themselves and on others. And then there’s the plague…

Lit hotel

Take one old(ish) communist millionaire, allow him to have quite a lot of opinions about a lot of things, and you can work out that he will make enemies as he goes about his daily business. Which includes running a couple of hotels.

I have known [about] this owner of Hotell Gästis in Varberg for many years, and been vaguely acquainted with him since that literature module at university nearly forty years ago, but haven’t seen him except for a couple of years ago at Uncle’s funeral.

I have been aware of the hotel all my life, as it’s opposite the block of flats where GP Cousin grew up. But this was my first stay there, and I was intrigued to find owner Lasse Diding sharing his latest feud on facebook only a day before I travelled.

Hotell Gästis - wall art

He likes books, so is well suited to host a Bookwitch. The rooms are stuffed with books to read (and if you haven’t finished when you leave you can take it with you), and the corridors and the bar and the restaurant are even more stuffed. With books.

Hotell Gästis - book cover poster and books

So, the feud. I gather Lasse doesn’t get on with the leader writer on the local paper Hallands Nyheter. The latest trick is to uninvite him to sponsor the annual Book Day in town, where visiting authors have been put up in the hotel. It seems a shame, as this centrally placed book-hotel couldn’t be more ideal. (Well, perhaps anyone similarly afflicted to your Bookwitch might have opinions on the outlandish arrangements for ablutions in the bathroom, but we are not all like that.)

Hotell Gästis - the bath, shower?

(There is also a Lenin spa. Obviously.)

An earlier feud was over the statue Lasse bought and donated to the town. Some twenty years ago a woman somewhere in Sweden witnessed a neo-nazi march and got so furious that she hit them with her handbag. This has now been made into a statue, and not everyone is keen on it. It’s a shame, since we need more of this kind of courage.

Hotell Gästis - books

What I personally needed as I arrived, was plenty of tea. Lasse is not a member of the kettle in your room brigade, which I’m afraid I feel is a service that cannot ever be over-rated. There is a fridge. Books. Lovely period armchairs. Old-fashioned desk, and broadband. (The password is a literary one.) Books. Shoehorn. Magazines. Art on the walls. Fan. Outlandish bath/shower arrangement. Books. ‘Oriental’ rugs everywhere.

He does, however, include a buffet dinner in the room price. I drank a large cup of Earl Grey after dinner. Then another. Whoever chose that blend of Earl Grey should have a statue made of them.

Hotell Gästis - armchair

And if the coffee is as good, I can – almost – understand the local conservative politician who regularly calls in to steal cups of coffee and biscuits. I believe this is now in the hands of the law. I’d just about be prepared to nick some tea when passing through town. Except I wouldn’t. Just because someone is well off, and a communist, doesn’t mean we should steal from them.

But we could accept their statues.

There is obviously no way I will be helping myself to a book for the onward journey.