Category Archives: History

Judith Kerr

With the death of Judith Kerr on Wednesday, we have lost another star in the children’s books world. When the great ones like Judith reach such a high age, I always want to wrap them in cotton wool, to protect them and make them last longer, while being very grateful they have made it this far.

But by all accounts Judith didn’t need the cotton wool, continuing to live life as she always had, getting about on her own. I first saw her in Edinburgh ten years ago, and found her seemingly frail, but most entertaining. Then when I discovered I was sitting behind her in the audience at Waterstones Piccadilly five years ago, I was astounded to realise that she was just like anybody else, going to events she wanted to go to and mixing with people.

Judith was one of the ‘older greats’ that I would have loved to meet and maybe interview, but somehow I never felt quite grown-up enough.

I hoped she would go on for much longer, but 95 is a respectable age. Especially if you’re not ill or needing looking after.

I very much hope her end was like that of Mog, and that they are together in some magical place.

Advertisements

A Girl Called Justice

We meet young Justice on her way to boarding school for the first time. It’s the 1930s, her mother’s just died, and this is Justice’s first ever school. You kind of wish she’d been sent to a safer one. Where dead baby* is not on the menu daily. Even a school where they have heating occasionally.

Elly Griffiths, A Girl Called Justice

I didn’t know Elly Griffiths, but I understand she has written adult crime novels before tackling the popular 1930s boarding school crime trope. At first I thought that the plot was a little slow, and I wondered if we could place young detectives somewhere different from a boarding school in the past. But I didn’t come up with an answer to that, and from the acknowledgements I learned that Elly based the book on her mother’s time at such a school. Hopefully one with fewer corpses.

And you know, I got drawn in. People are dying or disappearing all over the place, and then comes the deep snow and they are cold and hungry and can’t escape. You wonder how many victims you can have in a crime novel for the young, set in a school with limited resources, so to speak. As with Midsomer, if there are more books, will there be a big enough supply of more victims and more murderers?

I hope so. Well, I obviously don’t. Not even the more obnoxious pupils deserve to be murdered out there on the Romney Marshes. But where’s the fun in having introduced Justice if she is to sleuth no more?

*I gather it’s some sort of food.

The Titanic Detective Agency

We should at least be safe from sequels. The fact that Lindsay Littleson’s crime novel is set on the Titanic sort of rules that out. The days are limited as it is, with three child passengers on this famous ship finding mysteries and setting out to solve them, unaware that time is even shorter than the official expected arrival in America.

Lindsay Littleson, The Titanic Detective Agency

As one of the few people on earth who have not seen the film, it was interesting to learn about travelling on the Titanic; the different passenger classes, for instance. And interestingly, Lindsay didn’t make up her characters. They are real passengers (and the fact that they were, does in no way guarantee that they survive), and this makes everything more realistic.

Like Johan from Knäred. I was gratified to find someone who could have been practically a neighbour, on the Titanic. Johan was poor, so travelled in third class, on his way to join his father and older sister, having left his mother and younger siblings behind in southern Sweden. He speaks no foreign languages, but still manages to befriend Bertha from Aberdeen and her young friend Madge.

It’s not the mysteries that matter; it’s the Titanic and the lives described. You meet people and even though you know what will happen, you have no way of knowing who will die and who survives, or what will become of the survivors, for that matter.

Learning about a catastrophe in this way brings home the awfulness of both the voyage, but also of how people lived and why they travelled and what they were hoping for, or fearing, in America.

The Time Travel Diaries

I had such a lot of fun with Caroline Lawrence’s Time Travel Diaries that I kept returning to the book until I found out what happened and how it ended. Which I’m obviously not going to tell you about.

Caroline Lawrence, The Time Travel Diaries

And it’s not Caroline who’s time travelling, but her new main character Alex. At least to begin with, I felt he spoke rather like a hardboiled private eye, albeit as a Y8 London school boy who is a bit of a wimp.

What helps is that he speaks [modern] Greek because of his gran, with whom he lives, and Latin because of school. So he’s quite handy to have around if you suddenly encounter people from the olden days. In this case, Roman London.

Yep, Caroline hasn’t exhausted her knowledge of those days yet, and there is plenty to learn about old London. Or is there?

I can’t really tell you how or why Alex suddenly goes back in time, nor what happens when he does. But it’s fun. And you know things won’t go entirely to plan, because what would be the point of that?

Speaking for myself, I like seeing what it was like a long time ago, in places that I know today. Especially as I am not expecting to actually end up there, with their bad teeth and plagues and stuff.

It’s a bit of a mystery, and although you might feel for technical reasons that this time travel lark isn’t something to be repeated, even if Alex were to survive, it does seem as if this isn’t the last we’ve heard of him.

D-Day Dog

It’s possible to like war too much. Maybe you don’t stop to think about what war really means, or you get carried away by the excitement of weapons and explosions. And there is that idea of patriotism, duty to your country.

Tom Palmer, D-Day Dog

In Tom Palmer’s D-Day Dog 11-year-old Jack loves all things to do with war, as does his Reserve soldier father. They play war games at home, and Jack just knows that to serve your country is the greatest honour.

Then comes the school trip to the battlefields, and his father is called up, and life turns upside down. The children are told to find a dead soldier to read up on; someone whose grave they can visit. Because Jack has a dog, Finn, which he loves more than anything, he is pointed in the direction of a paratrooper who served in the war with his dog.

And suddenly it all becomes too real and Jack begins hating war.

There are probably many boys who love the idea of war and violence, and this book will be a good way of finding out what’s important in life – and death – and why people do what they do. It also brings attention to the Falkland war, Afghanistan, and Syria, where one of the girls in Jack’s class comes from.

Behind everything on the trip we see Jack’s love for Finn, for his dad, and his fear of what might happen to his family. For anyone unfamiliar with the details of D-Day, or with any war for that matter, this is a powerful little story.

And you know, they have dogs in Syria too. It’s just that Jack had no idea.

Total Recall

Total Recall is one of my Sara Paretsky gold nuggets; picked up second hand and kept until such a time as I needed more Warshawski to read. This last week was it, and I was struck by how Sara introduced her story with a mention of Oxford (just as I was leaving that place) and the Resident IT Consultant’s old college.

Sara Paretsky, Total Recall

The book is almost twenty years old, and deals with two things. First the crime, which is insurance crime in Chicago, and I couldn’t help noticing how it pre-dates the things we are so concerned with today. You can put a few bad guys in prison, if they survive their brush with V I, but they don’t run either the local police department, or the country. People’s lives are in jeopardy, and their money, but there is less of the wholesale fear for your existence that we see today. And mobile phones were not what they are now.

So I enjoyed the crime, if one can say that. It seems that lightning can strike in the same place twice.

The second topic of the book, which underlies all that happens, has to do with Lotty Herschel’s past in Vienna and her time in London after being evacuated. Anything that goes back to the Holocaust is harrowing, but in some way I see Lotty’s current suffering as being more that of anyone looking back to a point in their childhood and youth. It’s the child’s fears, and the lack of control you had as a young person when things happen.

Partly told in Lotty’s own words, we learn many new facts about her and Max, and others previously mentioned in these books. (This makes me wonder how it works when an author starts writing. Sara couldn’t have known everything about the characters she put in the first story. And as the author makes new facts, and then more new facts, it’s fascinating how it all fits in, and makes that person more of who she or he is.)

There are many wise words and sentiments about loss and death and guilt and all those bad things we sometimes believe in. I hope Sara can remember them for herself, but then we are always our own worst enemy, as proven by Lotty in this book.

The nines, ten years later

By the third evening I wanted to be home, alone. But instead I sat down on the suitcase-unpacking surface in the hotel room and stared into space. It sort of worked.

Ten years on from this event, we were back in Oxford. And isn’t it amazing how similar we all are? OK, the people from Bangalore have bougainvillea in their garden. I do not, but wish I did. And it sounds like the Indian ID [card] system is far superior to the Swedish one.

It was also very English – and in this instance I don’t mean British – with college gardens, afternoon tea and chats about Roedean. The trees blossomed by the side of the streets and it was all I could do to not move to Oxford there and then.

Because it was ten years since the last celebration, our hosts – yet again – offered us a Ceilidh, although it was more English dancing than Scottish, and everyone made fools of themselves, except for me and Aunt Scarborough (because we sat it out). Only one guest needed to join in via Skype, from the top of some volcano, the other side of the world.

The 2019 Ceilidh

It was, as many of you will know, unseasonably warm. This was due mostly to the fact that I had brought my padded jacket, the same one I’ve worn all winter. I know that such a hot Easter is a bad sign, but it was actually quite nice, except for those who turned over-pink in the process.

But oh, the luxury of sitting outside like that, and the balmy evenings!

The day before, the Resident IT Consultant and Daughter accompanied me to, lightly, grill Linda Sargent and Mr ‘Sargent’ over Easter Sunday lunch. Well, roof terrace type of places are likely to do that. We had such a good time and sat for so long, that we had to be asked to leave as they were closing. But not before we had moved tables to achieve more shade.

Also discovered a place that serves enormous Kransekager, so I will just have to return. Or move to Oxford.

If all this sounds nice, let me tell you how nice it is to be home. Alone.