Category Archives: History

The Borrowers

Let me bore you with some irrelevant facts.

Back in July 2000 I was standing in a Stockport bookshop. I can’t tell you which one, and by that I mean I can’t recall what name it was trading under at the time. It kept changing, as chains bought each other. It was the one near Sainsbury’s, and I was at the back of the shop, in the children’s books department. I know when, because I was there with my visitors from Sweden, who desperately needed new books. As you do.

They had a table featuring books from one publisher, with a two for one offer. I’m terribly ‘economical’, so felt this was a good offer and I should make the most of it. I seem to recall buying eight books, paying for four. Most of them I had no idea what they were, and simply picked the ones that looked the least bad.

I know. How very negative of me.

Mary Norton, The Borrowers

And one of the books was The Borrowers by Mary Norton. Being somewhat foreign, I’d never heard of either her or the book. But I did like it when I came to read it. I also realised that the story about these tiny people, living somewhere near you, is a bit of a classic.

The things you find out.

It’s been reissued again, and now comes as a lovely clothbound hardback, looking precisely as you’d expect an old classic to look like. It has the original Diana Stanley illustrations, and is simply an attractive little book. And this time I know about it, too.

Until We Win

Linda Newbery’s new book title for Barrington Stoke – Until We Win – takes on even more meaning than perhaps was intended when she wrote her short but engaging story about the suffragette movement. We keep being reminded of how important it is not to waste the vote, that so many women worked so hard to win for us.

Don’t be complacent and stay at home, in the belief that voting doesn’t matter. It does, and we are seeing the effects in spades these days.

Linda Newbery, Until We Win

Lizzy works in an office when she meets a couple of suffragettes and is taken on by their group. At last there is something vital that she can do! Lizzy marches and ends up in jail, where she goes on hunger strike.

At work Lizzy befriends another young girl, whose life also changes with the help of the older suffragettes. And in the midst of their campaign for votes, war breaks out and they have other work to do.

Linda’s story is fairly low key, but all the more powerful for it. We need fairness more than ever, and those who are looked down on must be given equality.

(Another gorgeous embroidered cover by Stewart Easton, in purple, white and green.)

Silver Stars

Absolutely splendid!

Not a word I normally use, but in this case I must. It’s a nod to one of the characters – a token semi-Brit amongst the GIs – in Michael Grant’s Silver Stars. This is his second book about these soldiers, in an almost true to history WWII. (I hesitate to use the word beginning with the letter a that I’d usually choose, as it has been abused recently.)

Michael Grant, Silver Stars

We return to where we left our friends in North Africa, where they are waiting to be sent on to somewhere else where their lives will be on the line. Again. They are young, but by now they are no longer green, and that makes a difference. Even the girls go out and get drunk and have bar fights.

Another thing I’d never considered, but which Michael points out, is that promotion has its negative sides. You need to lead, possibly send your friends into danger, and this is while you are still learning the ropes yourself. In war, promotion often comes because someone else went and got themselves killed.

Rio, Jenou and Frangie are fighting a more traditional kind of war, while Rainy has to live with the secrecy and dangers in military intelligence. Frangie must deal with the war as well as the prejudice against blacks. Rainy needs to tread carefully and not let the Germans discover she is Jewish. Rio wants to stay friends with Jenou, sort out her romantic problems and escape a rumour that she actually enjoys killing people.

It is funny, and it is horrible. There is so much mud and darkness and shelling and not enough food or soap. I had heard that Monte Cassino was no picnic, but only now I understand what it might have been like.

And when things go well, I was appalled to discover how much less positive the experience is for Frangie. Because she is black. But all our female soldiers are true heroines and role models, even at times when things are FUBAR (Google it).

The worrying thing is that as opposed to last year when I read the first book, things weren’t too FUBAR in ordinary life. Now, I don’t know what to think.

Other than that Silver Stars is the best book I’ve read this year. OK, it’s February, but still.

Tilt

Mary Hoffman’s new book for Barrington Stoke is about the leaning tower of Pisa. You’d sort of guess that from the title, maybe.

Mary Hoffman, Tilt

I now know an awful lot more about the tower than I did before. In fact, I have never really known much, and I’ve not been to see it. But it is iconic, and you feel you own the image, knowing it so well from photographs.

While teaching the reader about the tower, Mary provides a truly inspiring story about a young girl in Pisa, who wants what was unthinkable back in the 13th century. Netta’s father is a sculptor and stone-carver and it is his task to work out what to do to stop the tower from leaning so much, and to prevent things from getting worse.

Netta finds this fascinating and wants nothing more than to follow in her father’s footsteps. But she’s a girl.

This is great stuff. The background to why the tower leans is really interesting, and Netta is the perfect role model for generations of girls to come. You can have it all. Not that girls should have to want to wash and cook, of course.

It’s made up, but I feel it could have happened exactly like this.

The New Road

It’s Burns Night, and while we do not yet have any Haggis in the house, we do have a Resident IT Consultant, who not only has plans to walk the length of the country (Scotland), but has taken to reading Scottish books. More Scottish books than before, I mean. Here he is:

“On my return to Scotland after nearly forty years in England I decided it was time to seek out some of the Scottish classics that I was vaguely aware of but had never had the time to read. At school I read Kidnapped and The Thirty Nine Steps (thanks to an English teacher who knew how to pick books that would appeal to twelve-year-old boys). Some time in my twenties, thirties or forties I read Sunset Song, Waverley and quite a bit more Buchan but otherwise my reading of what I regard as classics (books written before, say, 1950) was restricted to English, American and European writers.

Neil Munro, The New Road

I decided to start with Neil Munro’s The New Road. I had always been aware of Neil Munro as the author of the Para Handy tales but knew nothing of his other books. Munro was born in Inveraray in 1863 but spent most of his adult life working as a writer and journalist in west central Scotland. He became editor of the Glasgow Evening News in 1918 and died in 1930. The New Road was published in 1914, was his last novel and is widely regarded as his best.

Set in 1733, the novel has much in common with Kidnapped. It has a young protagonist, Aeneas Macmaster, who, like David Balfour, has his naïve view of the world transformed by an adventurous journey through the Highlands. He is accompanied by an older, more experienced companion, Ninian Campbell.

Though Ninian is a Campbell only for the sake of expediency; his father was one of the proscribed Macgregors of Balquhidder. There’s a stronger romantic element than in Kidnapped, and it’s better developed than the romance in Stevenson’s sequel to Kidnapped, Catriona.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. The characters are very well developed and the plot cunningly built through a series of twists and turns that only come to fruiting in the last few pages. If you’ve enjoyed reading Kidnapped try the New Road.”

There. That sounds so good I’m almost tempted to have a go myself.

Wildthorn

Jane Eagland, Wildthorn

Wildthorn was Jane Eagland’s first novel, and what an absolutely marvellous story it is! I’m so glad I read it, after being aware of Jane’s writing for several years.

I’m not quite sure when it is set. I’m guessing the 1870s or 1880s. 17-year-old Louisa Cosgrove is travelling to stay with the Woodvilles to be a companion to a young lady. Instead she finds herself at Wildthorn Hall, where they address her as Lucy Childs.

Thus begins her nightmare, and Louisa discovers she’s been put in an asylum. She doesn’t at first know by whom or why, and she believes the ‘mistake’ will soon be rectified.

Interspersed with what happens to her at Wildthorn Hall, we learn what’s been going on in her life up till now, and the reader begins to guess.

There is much unpleasantness as Louisa’s life goes from bad to really very bad, with most of the staff more jailers than nurses, and many of the other patients either insane or also put there by family who for some reason wanted to rid themselves of someone inconvenient.

For that is what Louisa is. She wants to be a doctor. She doesn’t want to get married and have babies. And she loves the wrong kind of person.

That was enough to be put away, back then. (And I’d say it’s not always all that different today, in some ways.)

Louisa is strong, and intelligent, and she eventually makes what needs to happen happen. And she meets someone who helps her and believes in her.

Horrifying, yes. But also so enjoyable. Women needed to stand up for themselves, and they still do.

Pride

You can’t go wrong with solidarity on a day like today.

And when there isn’t as much of it about as we could do with, it can be necessary to timetravel.

I watched the film Pride over Christmas, because it was on television. If you’ve seen it you know how heartwarming it is. How warming of just about anything it is. And how much we need this right now.

This week has been hard in several ways, and the only solution I could come up with was to introduce the Resident IT Consultant to Pride, while it’s still available on iPlayer. (Five more days, people!) I could tell he had his doubts as we started, but by the end we blubbed side by side, the way you do when you’ve been watching an extraordinary film; one based on true events.

I’m sorry to say I was far too unaware of this when it happened in the mid-1980s. I wish I’d realised quite how big it was. But glad I had no idea how much we’d need this today, when things have changed for the worse.

If you need something to take your mind off things today; try Pride.

Pride