Category Archives: History

The Beatles

You certainly feel your age when Offspring come home from school, tasked to enquire whether their parents were alive when The Beatles were around. Does it make you very old? Or is it merely that teachers have grown disproportionately young? The one who asked this was actually very nice, and a good teacher. Nevertheless, I felt ancient. (Since when does pop music belong in history lessons?)

Because, yes, I was around, back when.

It doesn’t mean I know, or remember, every fact about The Fab Four, but I do recall the general feel of the era. Although I need to point out I was obviously very young when all this happened. Ahem. To prove it I can tell you I had to rely on Mother-of-witch to read what the newspapers wrote about the long-haired Liverpool lads.

For Christmas 1963 I was given a record player, and my first record, She Loves You. The Aunts disapproved of all this foreign stuff. After all, there were people around who sang in a language you could understand. But I sang happily along to She Loves You and all the others, without having any idea of what they, and I, were singing about.

Mick Manning and Brita Granström, The Beatles

Now my fellow countrywoman Brita Granström and her husband Mick Manning have produced a very nice illustrated reference book on The Beatles. I have learned things I didn’t know before. I have been reminded of what was so special about John, Paul, George and Ringo. And I remembered why I half ditched them in the end.

Brita’s pictures tell more of a story than words do, and together she and Mick have made a fab book about what came before The Beatles made it big 50 years ago, what happened once they did, and how it all ended. I know more now about their early lives (including getting some unexpected help with a quiz question I came across the same day I read the book), and I properly understand how the haircut came to be. I’ve even had a new and better explanation to their name.

Whether you’re the right side of 50, or just ten and wondering who The Beatles really were, this is the book for you. I happen to have a good friend who likes all things Beatles. I will not be passing my copy on to him.

Just thought I’d mention that. He can buy his own.

The Book of Dead Days

This has been the perfect in-between-days read. 270 pages of ‘dead stuff’ spread out over the five days leading up to New Year’s Eve. I managed to fit in my daily quota just as it was intended, which rather added to my feeling of satisfaction.

Marcus Sedgwick, The Book of Dead Days

I say ‘dead stuff’ and by that I mean suitably cosy horror; nothing too gruesome. Set in a nicely atmospheric fictional city somewhere in Europe – probably at the end of a fictional 19th century during those dead days after Christmas – there is snow and there are orphans and weird scientists. In short, everything you need during those days that are neither one thing nor the other.

Boy (that’s his name) is assistant to Valerian who works in the theatre. That’s where he meets Willow, who assists the fat lady who sings. Valerian grows rather strange in the dead days, by which we have to understand stranger than usual. He seems haunted, and he leads Boy and Willow on a hunt for something. Something that might save him. He’s got until midnight on New Year’s Eve.

It is cold, and it is dark, and Boy is hungry as usual. Valerian veers between his normal cruel behaviour and being almost kind and normal.

This is such a nice and easy and effortless read, while not being simple or intended for younger readers. Very, very enjoyable.

Darcy, death and the literary discussion

Death Comes to Pemberley sparked a literary discussion chez Bookwitch, and doesn’t that make us sound ‘intellectual?’ The Grandmother had read the book by P D James, and didn’t think much of it. She was keen to see what they’d done to it on television, though, and I am under the impression we all liked it.

That’s the thing with quality. A good book can be ruined on the screen and vice versa. You just never know. Daughter objected at first that we weren’t getting the 1995 cast from Pride and Prejudice, but warmed fairly quickly to this new Darcy. I didn’t know what to think of dear Wickham, because I need to dislike him, and I happen to like Matthew Goode…

But anyway, it made us talk books for a while (because we never ever mention the wretched things at any other time!)

Who counts as an author of classics? Jane Austen obviously does. Her books are really old. Victorians count. They too are old. But after that my ‘misguided’ companions wanted to put the classic label on all sorts of books by all sorts of recent writers!

I realise that classic-ness is a moving feast. What wasn’t a classic before, will become one at some point. My own gut measure is somewhere around the 100 years mark. If someone alive today was also alive when a novel was written, it becomes questionable. I know that the 1950s was a long time ago, but I happen to have personal experience of part of that decade and the people who wrote books then are not at all old, thank you very much!

So I’m not ready to consider Astrid Lindgren a writer of classic books, whereas I feel that Selma Lagerlöf might have been too recent fifty years ago, but is now definitely to be considered a writer of classics.

On the other hand, I see the flaws in this. Someone younger than me will share that same 100-year-old, but will also see Astrid Lindgren as dreadfully ancient. Is there a right way?

We’re on track

More or less, anyway. The morning will be spent sorting out desserts (because they matter) and putting vegetables in the oven. The rest was done days ago.

Our other main day for Christmas was yesterday, and it went well, despite – or possibly because of – lack of presents. The Resident IT Consultant went into town to pick up a pair of Cats, free of charge, which rather trumped Son’s 20% off his Clarks. So they count as almost presents. He also treated himself to a remaindered Historical Atlas, and has happily browsed through history.

Daughter went along to watch over the Cats, and managed to find a Quiz book to buy. Because we just didn’t have VERY MANY books in the house before!!

Anyway, her quiz book provided us with our Christmas Eve entertainment as we competed against each other to see who knew the least about whichever topic came up.

To keep us company over the evening grazing, Son found us an Ealing comedy about trains. And then he wanted to watch Due South, and with all of us at different points in its viewing history, we needed a ‘used’ episode. I can thoroughly recommend All the Queen’s Horses, and not just because it’s the craziest episode. It felt pretty Christmassy, what with the snow and the trains and those red Mountie uniforms. The horses. And the singing! ‘Gonna riiiiide, foreeever..!’

The Resident IT Consultant helped to finish the evening in style, as he’d missed last week’s Christmas episode of NCIS, and Son had been too busy to watch, which meant I got to watch it again. It was Santa who did it.

Gibbs

Don’t be late

You could interpret the above suggestion as a ‘don’t forget to return your library books on time,’ but there is also a slight warning about being dead, i.e. the other kind of ‘late.’

I’d not previously connected Christmas with ghost stories, but after the Christmas anthology I reviewed yesterday, I’m beginning to realise that some people do. I’m obviously not ‘some people.’

It’s been a while since Halloween, but I shall treat you to the recording of Helen Grant reading one of three ghost stories at Innerpeffray Library on the evening of October 31st. (That’s mere hours before Helen succeeded in getting stuck in the mud in a graveyard in the middle of the night…)

Here is Lilith’s Story. And here‘s Helen on her blog, enthusing about ghosts and Christmas. Whatever happened to light and happiness? (You might also consider very carefully if you really think becoming a librarian is a wise career move.)

Innerpeffray Library

At last!

I’m doing it! I’m actually, finally reading it! ‘It’ being An Oxford Book of Christmas Stories from 1986, edited by Dennis Pepper.

Dennis Pepper, An Oxford Book of Christmas Stories

Having bought the book well used from the school library ‘some’ years back, I always meant to read it over the immediate Christmas period. The one about ten years ago… The book emerged every December and waited hopefully by my side and then it retreated after yet another busy busy Christmas, where I got round to reading one book instead of the half dozen I’d fondly imagined I’d be relaxing with.

There are about 30 short stories, written by everybody from Dickens to Geraldine McCaughrean. (You have to remember the collection is 27 years old. Some authors hadn’t even been invented back then.)

I understand some stories were commissioned, while others have been chosen for their Christmassy theme from classics and elsewhere. Some authors I’d never heard of, while the story by Jacqueline Wilson is like no JW story you’ve ever read.

Jesus is there, from the school nativity to actual Bethlehem, but mostly you get a tremendous amount of carol singing, with a few ghosts and the odd vampire. More vicars and snowy landscapes than you can shake a stick at, so really very traditional. It’s nice. The stories are mostly no more than five pages each, so they make for quick nostalgic dips in between whatever else you need to do at this time of year.

I was especially happy to get re-acquainted with David Henry Wilson’s Jeremy James, who Son and I used to like a lot. Among the other names that I do know are Jan Mark, Sue Townsend, James Riordan, Laurie Lee and Robert Swindells. But as with so many anthologies you don’t need to know the writers. You simply discover new-old authors as you read along.

In a way it’s quite good I waited, because I’m enjoying myself. I’ve still got a few stories to go, but I’ve also got a few more days until I ‘must’ read a ‘mellandags’ book. I shall explain that one later.

The Green Behind the Glass

It wasn’t lost, exactly. Nor forgotten. But it was lucky I decided to sort through The Books Behind the Door the other day. Because that’s where I discovered The Green Behind the Glass by Adèle Geras. I’d like to think that its purpose in hiding there was to give me more pleasure when I found it again.

This brief volume of eight short stories about love is a true period piece. Published in 1982, the stories are typical of what fiction for teens was like back then, and I have to say (am I showing my age?) I miss that kind of story every now and then. And Adèle is very good with short stories. She’s good with love.

Adèle Geras, The Green Behind the Glass

It’s not all straigtforward love, either. Some of the stories end badly; others end unexpectedly, perhaps leaving the character(s) with a new kind of life to look ahead to. Not happy ever after. But hope.

The first story is about – possibly – unrequited love in WWI. Plus the fact that war was rather bad for other reasons. Then there’s the girl who helps a friend to write love letters, falling in love with the recipient of them. Paris when you’re young and poor, but can sing in the streets to earn some money. Paris = love. For some.

In one story the teenage girl and her mother both fall in love with the same, useless, man. Falling in love with the wrong person is a common problem, and there is more unrequited love in Monday.

Then we have the sixth former in the 1950s, at boarding school away from his home in Borneo (very nicely done, but then Adèle knows what she’s writing about), who meets a kind of Mrs Robinson. Or the young girl who leads such a  sheltered life that it’s a miracle there can be any love story at all.

Finally, the young unmarried couple who find they are pregnant, which was less acceptable thirty years ago.

This whole book was like a gift from the past. Which – literally – it was. Thank you Adèle! I shall try and keep better control of The Books Behind the Door in future.

Mansfield Revisited

I can’t but believe that Jane Austen would wholeheartedly have approved of what her colleague Joan Aiken did to her Mansfield Park characters. This reissued sequel is exactly what the doctor ordered for people who loved Fanny Price. I was one of them, because she was such an ordinary heroine, while also being so very extraordinary in her own way.

Joan removes Fanny and Edmund and sends them on a long journey, because we don’t need more from them. Instead we have Fanny’s younger sister Susan, who is now 18 and doing just fine with Lady Bertram. With the whole of Mansfield, in fact, apart from her cousin Julia who will never be pleased by anything.

Add a few new characters, such as the Rev Wadham and his sister Mrs Osborne, who stay in the vicarage while Edmund and Fanny are away. A serpent is also needed, so please welcome back Mary and Henry Crawford! Stir well, and you have yourself a book worthy of Miss Austen herself.

Joan Aiken, Mansfield Revisited

What I admire so much is the way Joan Aiken has adopted what to my untrained eye looks like the true language of the Austen era. It does not feel like a poor modern cousin. I’m sure Joan and Jane would have got on at least as famously as Susan and Mary Crawford do…

Now, it was hard to guess whether Mary was there to be redeemed, or to take up where she left off four years earlier. Plenty of possible future husbands for Susan. The Rev Wadham? Cousin Tom? Henry Crawford? Or someone else entirely? Or will Julia’s scheming for her horrible sister-in-law thwart any dreams she might  nurture? Perhaps Mary Crawford has her eyes set on one of the available men? There’s an interesting symmetry where things appear to mirror what happened four years ago.

Joan kept me guessing. This was a most enjoyable return to Mansfield, and although short, the book contains more than one romance.

Emily is back

Did you read Anne of Green Gables first? And when you’d read all the Anne books and was desperate for more, did you welcome Emily? That’s what I did.

L M Montgomery’s Emily trilogy is nowhere near as well known – or talked about – as those about our favourite redhead. But they are that marvellous thing; further reading by someone whose other books made you want more.

When you’re young (if you had the sense to read these books as a child – unlike me) you won’t know as much, so finding sequels and prequels and ‘new’ series by any author is like finding hidden treasure. The older reader might have heard of the other books, so will be expecting them. Or they will be aware that more books are a distinct possibility (unless the author’s name is Harper Lee, perhaps).

(When I was very young I was delighted to find Barbara Cartland had written more books than the ones I’d come across…)

I have no way of knowing if Anne is better than Emily. I don’t believe so. I was pretty old when I found the Emily books, and was mostly past the stage when you re-read like crazy.

L M Montgomery - The Emily trilogy

But I find myself wanting to, now that there is a new edition of all three Emily books. The covers are fabulous, and I can see how my hand is reaching out to stroke them, a little. I’m hoping the covers will tempt many new readers to try them, and perhaps seduce a mother, or grandmother, into buying the books for a girl close to them. (I’m really not trying to be sexist here…)

Suitcase

After a while I became afraid I’d lose ‘my group’ as we walked round Piccadilly station in Manchester yesterday. Despite the fact I know the station well, I could begin to understand the anxiety the children of the Kindertransport must have felt on arriving in Britain.

Suitcase - Hanni

It began with me feeling anxious I wouldn’t be allowed on ‘the journey’ because I’d booked too late and every place was already spoken for. And all I wanted was to watch a drama; not to save my life.

I became aware of the production of Suitcase only a couple of weeks ago, as it was about to premiere at Glasgow Central. A crowd-funded drama about the Kindertransport, it was free and it was coming to a railway station near me. Or you. I felt despondent when I realised my only opportunity of seeing it was on my way to Scotland, as I passed through Piccadilly. And then I couldn’t get a ticket!

A very kind person suggested I call at the ‘box office’ (a suitcase, actually) for returns, and I did, and then I was shunted aside and had to wait and that’s when my anxiety levels rose. Just like a refugee. But then the suitcase lady handed me my own numbered label and gave me permission to join the blue group.

Only an idiot like me would go to a promenade theatre performance wheeling a suitcase round with them. But that’s what I did. It seemed almost appropriate, although the superior – and nasty – English lady having tea frowned at it for being red. (And before you are up in arms over my rudeness; this woman was an actor, showing us how some British people didn’t want the refugees.)

Suitcase - English lady

We started under the escalators, where we witnessed the children’s tearful goodbyes, as well as their arrival here, being serenaded with cheery songs. At times the noise and bustle of normal station activities almost drowned out what the actors were saying, but that too fitted in with what it must have been like back then.

Suitcase - Railway porter

As we shuffled between various corners of the station for more intimate sketches with one or two people, refugees, host families, fundraisers and volunteers, it felt as if the real passengers at Piccadilly didn’t really notice us. Rather like it might have been for the original children.

Suitcase - Czech boy and host's daughter

There was the Czech boy who begged us to find work for his clever mother. The railway porter who collected money for the refugees. We met a sister and brother, arguing like siblings do, before they were separated forever. The boy was desperate for the toilet, but they were in a new and strange place.

Suitcase - Kurt

My suitcase lady who objected to the workshy foreigners coming here and ruining things for the English. The couple who ‘knew’ they were getting a young boy, but ended up with a much older girl. Who didn’t even speak English!

Suitcase - volunteer

The volunteer organiser, trying to keep track of everyone, and wondering what to do with the leftover children no one wanted. And at the end, the children writing home, and reading letters from their parents, exhorting them to behave. When the letters stopped coming.

Here one lady had to be led away on a friendly arm. It could easily be too much for anyone. I felt like crying, and my country wasn’t even in the war.

Most of the children assimilated eventually. But Kurt, the one who needed the toilet, never got over the loss of his sister, of having to be grateful all the time, and being passed round lots of families. Heartbreaking.

Suitcase - red

There was music, and there was dancing. They even offered round baskets of doughnuts at the end. And I picked up my suitcase and went to find a train, still wearing my label. I’m so grateful I was allowed to join in.