I Go By Sea, I Go By Land


I Go By Sea, I Go By Land is a funny little curiosity of a book. PL Travers is best known for writing the Mary Poppins books, which I loved as a kid but sadly didn't stand up so well to being revisited. Originally published in 1941, and reissued in this edition in 1966, it's an account of a pair of children who are evacuated to America in the early days of World War II, focusing mostly on their voyage across the Atlantic and then settling in with their foster family, who are family friends. They are nice middle class children and they are accompanied by another nice middle class family friend called 'Pel.' One can only assume, since it's stated that the book is based on a real experience, that the beloved, sympathetic, imaginative, utterly delightful Pel is based on P.L. herself! (Though Pel has a baby, which P.L. herself never did.)

For the most part, I Go By Sea is fascinating, packed with details about wartime travel and attitudes. However, I could have done without the casual anti-Semitism of the ship being packed with 'large-nosed' 'foreign men' who are 'only Tourists.' Eleven year old Sabrina, who recounts the story, and her younger brother James befriend some 'lower-decks' children along the way, which reminded me a little of Nikki Greenberg's A Detective's Guide to Ocean Travel, which is set about fifteen years earlier.

In parts I Go By Sea is quite moving, especially when the children receive some bad news at the end of the book, and it's here that the book's purpose as wartime propaganda is mostly clearly evident. The children are frequently reminded to display 'Love and Courage' even in their comfortable exile, and one can only wonder how much more those qualities would have been needed back at home. It's unusual to read an account like this written in the thick of events, rather than with the benefit of hindsight; Sabrina, James and Pel had no idea how their story was going to end.


The Haunting of Alma Fielding


English writer Kate Summerscale has carved out a niche for herself as the author of books which examine historical episodes -- a grisly murder, a scandalous divorce case -- which illuminate the social problems and tensions of the time. The stories she chooses are always fascinating in themselves, and she turns them into gripping narratives, though some are more gripping than others. How could I resist a book subtitled, A True Ghost Story?

The Haunting of Alma Fielding takes a case of poltergeist manifestation from the late 1930s which captured the attention of psychical researcher Nandor Fodor. Housewife Alma Fielding is the centre of energetic poltergeist phenomena -- plates flung across rooms, mysterious noises, toppled wardrobes. Fodor was convinced that the phenomena were genuine; but once he and the Psychical Research Society began investigating Mrs Fielding closely, it became clear that she was cheating in one aspect at least, by hiding small objects about her person which she then 'produced,' supposedly from another dimension. For some time, researcher and subject maintained an uneasy, almost flirtatious dance of deception and belief, all recorded in Fodor's case notes, upon which Summerscale has based her book.

Fodor trod a delicate line between credulity and sceptisism, believing that psychological disturbances in a subject could produce genuine physical manifestations (as opposed to the medium channelling spiritual forces from the world beyond). But he was gradually forced to admit that Fielding was, at least sometimes, playing tricks on him, though he never lost his sympathy for her. This highly-charged relationship is set in the equally highly-charged atmosphere of late 1930s London, still haunted by the last war and hurtling with dreadful inevitability towards the next. The Haunting of Alma Fielding is a rich and intriguing tale which combines spooky phenomena with subtle psychological insights. 

PS I forgot to mention that Shirley Jackson used Nandor Fodor's case histories when she wrote The Haunting of Hill House!


Laura's Summer Ballet


Memory is a funny thing. I haven't read or even laid eyes on Linda Blake's Laura's Summer Ballet for over forty years, but there are some elements of it that I remember vividly, while others have sunk without trace, and some that turn out to have been figments of my imagination!

I did remember this cover, with Laura posing in the red dress, though I hadn't remembered just how late-60s it looks! (It was published in 1968.) I remembered the London ballet school relocating to the seaside, the old house, the painting of the little girl gazing out the window which becomes the basis for the students' ballet, and the old lady giving them the original red silk dress to dance in.

I'd utterly forgotten the whole subplot of Doreen, the horseback dancer, who doesn't want to become a ballerina. I'd also utterly forgotten hot, brooding older student Scott who is kind of Laura's love interest, I guess -- at the age I first read it, I clearly wasn't open to forming a crush on him myself, and he is deeply annoying, with his dramatic manners, sarcasm and effortless charm. Shades of Sebastian Scott from the Wells ballet books!

I also weirdly remember the line: "When I die, they'll find the word 'arabesque' carved on my heart..." which, unlike Scott, made a deep impression. And then there was the scene that I really purchased this book for (spending way too much), and didn't find! I could have sworn there was a scene on the beach where one of Laura's friends confesses that she isn't as keen on dancing as she is on becoming a choreographer, and there was a whole section about the strange notation that choreographers use to write out the movements. I can't have invented that, surely, and for a while as I read this book, I thought I might have mis-remembered Scott in this part. But no, it just wasn't there at all! And now I'm wondering if this scene might have appeared in the first book, Ballet for Laura, to which Laura's Summer Ballet is the sequel? Does this scene mean anything to anyone? I don't want to spend another fortune hunting in vain for a scene that I might have dreamed up! Help!


The Gardener and the Carpenter

 I borrowed The Gardener and the Carpenter by Alison Gopnik from the library after reading Susan Green's review. I agreed with everything Susan said, so check out her opinion and I'll put ditto marks underneath it!

Like Sue and Alison Gopnik, I also chafe against the pressure of 'parenting,' as if there's only one correct way to do it and we're all striving to produce one kind of child at the end of the process (as if there is an end -- hah!) I really appreciated Gopnik's attitude that, rather than trying to shoehorn child-raising and education into the mould of other jobs or industries, we should try to use the model of the parent-child relationship to improve other caring relationships in society, notably looking after the aged. Just imagine what the world would look like if we prioritised caring for the most vulnerable instead of always thinking of the economic bottom line!

The Gardener and the Carpenter is full of practical good sense as well as carefully researched science. A rare combination!


The Picts and the Martyrs


Number eleven in the Swallows and Amazons series, and this one is an old favourite. The Picts and the Martyrs brings together an unlikely combination of the Blackett sisters and the younger Callums, and pushes both sets of siblings firmly out of their respective comfort zones. When judgmental Great-Aunt Maria arrives uninvited during Mrs Blackett's absence, Nancy and Peggy decide to protect their mother by acting as the perfect nieces -- which means white frocks, piano practice, reading aloud and best manners. Meanwhile the sheltered Ds have to retreat to a hut in the woods where they try their best to live as independently as possible.

It reminded me of watching Alone, seeing Dot and Dick valiantly stopping up holes in the roof with moss, cooking over an open fire, slinging their hammocks over beams and even tickling for trout in the stream. One episode which has stayed with me vividly over the years is poor Dot bravely skinning and cooking a rabbit -- there is no way I would attempt that now, let alone as an eleven or twelve year old! There is a lot of fun to be had here, with Nancy dolefully mowing 'No go' on the lawn; the postman, the doctor and others roped into the secret; Timothy being blamed for the burglary of Captain Flint's study (so tense! with Dick hiding in the armadillo hutch); and the horror of the Great-Aunt throwing all the mine samples overboard. It's a wonderful win-win ending when the Ds and the Great-Aunt are brought together at last.

I do love the Walkers but The Picts and the Martyrs doesn't suffer from their absence at all. This is one volume I'm happy to return to.


Who Gets To Be Smart


When Bri Lee visited her friend at Oxford, she found herself struggling with feelings of inferiority and discomfort -- was she really clever enough to keep up with this crowd, or would she be found out as an imposter? She says she'd spent her (short) life competing for the 'shiny tin pots' -- awards, scholarships, degrees, pats on the back from academia. But does winning those shining pots really prove anything? 

Who Gets To Be Smart is an engaging, passionate examination of the web of self-reinforcing structures that largely decide who ends up with privilege and power in this country. As I read, I kept being reminded of the front benchers of the Liberal party -- a cohort of middle-aged white men who went to the same private schools and the same universities, and who all genuinely believe that they arrived in Parliament on 'merit.' Lee herself went to a private school and cruised into university, and in some ways this gives her insight into how these institutions work. But, as a review in The Guardian pointed out, it would have been good to hear some more voices from those shut out of the ivory tower: the disabled, those entrenched in poverty, people who measure their own success by different metrics than 'shiny pots.'

This was an entertaining but ultimately depressing read. How do we start to dismantle this mess? I guess the first step is to take a long hard look at it, and that's what Lee does here.


The Thursday Murder Club and The Man Who Died Twice


Richard Osman is best known in the UK as the host of the quiz show Pointless; he is more familiar to me as a contestant on an early series of Taskmaster. But his TV career is rapidly being overtaken by his success as a novelist, with three volumes of The Thursday Murder Club already under his belt and hopefully many more to follow.

I've now devoured The Thursday Murder Club and its sequel, The Man Who Died Twice, and I'm impatiently 11th of 17 reservations for the next one, The Bullet That Missed. What can I say: these books are absolutely delightful. The mysteries are clever and neat, but the real joy is in the cast of characters. I'm not sure if this was deliberate (though Osman is clearly a very smart man) but his main four sleuths, all residents of a retirement village, are perfectly balanced. There's psychiatrist Ibrahim, intellectual and melancholic; Ron, former union activist, choleric and blunt; former nurse Joyce, sanguine and flirtatious (we are also blessed with extracts from Joyce's private diary); and the formidable Elizabeth, former spy, who is phlegmatic and utterly ruthless. (When Ibrahim is beaten up, someone asks what will happen to his assailant. 'Elizabeth will happen, I expect.' And she does!)

Best of all, the novels are hugely funny, warm and poignant. We are never allowed to forget that our four friends are in the autumn -- let's face it, probably the winter -- of their lives. They have nothing to lose, don't care what people think of them, and lifetimes of experience to draw on, all of which makes them terrifying opponents. Luckily for the more physical jobs they can also draw on friendly police officers Chris and Donna, as well as handsome Bogdan, who is equally capable of unblocking a sink, matching Elizabeth's husband at chess or quietly murdering someone if required. (Elizabeth sees him as the son she never had.)

Apparently The Thursday Murder Club was the most borrowed book from UK libraries in 2020-21 -- the perfect book to ease you through lockdowns and misery. May Elizabeth, Ron, Joyce and Ibrahim enjoy many more adventures.


Missee Lee

When I received the whole set of Swallows and Amazons for the best Christmas ever, there was one volume missing, and Missee Lee was it. I had to buy it myself much later in a different edition to complete the set. Missee Lee, like Peter Duck, was never a favourite anyway, I much preferred the stories where fantasy and reality blended to the full flight made-up adventures in exotic locales.

So. Where to start? Missee Lee is almost unreadable to modern eyes. In the first few pages we have "Rum lot, the Chinese,"and "Don't any of you speak English?" The Chinese "smell awfully funny,"  (though Titty says,"just foreignness"), and of course they speak "gibberish." Then once we encounter Miss Lee herself, powerful and dynamic and fascinating character though she is, a female pirate who loves Latin and longs to return to Cambridge, she is ruined by speaking like this: "velly stlong man... alithmetic, tligonometly... It is ploper to lead some Loman Histoly..." Aargh!

But on top of all this, Missee Lee is just... not very good, at least at the beginning. The incidents that kick off the plot, the fire on the boat, Swallow and Amazon drifting apart in the night (is there some sailor's reason why they wouldn't have tied the two boats together?), Captain Flint locked up by the pirates -- I know it's supposed to be a story they've all made up together, but none of it rings true. Miss Lee herself is wonderful, and in the end very poignant, but her dialogue is so painful to read. Roger being the star of the Latin class is fun, but seems unlikely from what we know of Roger, and why aren't any of the girls learning Latin? Also, given that our protagonists are four girls and two boys, why does the cover show only the two boys?

I must say I was glad to get this one out of the way. It was even worse than I remembered.


The Way to Sattin Shore


A book I've never come across before, written by one of my favourite authors? Described on the back as "Looks set to become the best novel for children published in this decade"? And all for a dollar at my local op shop? Yes, please!

Well, I'm not sure I'd agree with the gushing blurb. The Way to Sattin Shore is a weird little book, published in 1983, so too late for me to discover when I was the right age for it. There is a lot going on here -- a dead father (or is he?), a mother who seems to have retreated inside herself, two aloof older brothers, a possible new friend, a frightening grandmother, a creepy graveyard, a mysterious cat, an unexplained letter, a half-told story, a treasure in the attic -- and yet for chapter after chapter I felt that nothing was actually happening, and the events that did happen had no relevance to the plot, like a long section (well told, though) about tobogganing (Pearce writes beautifully about winter, just as she did in Tom's Midnight Garden). I also enjoyed the chapters where Kate rides her bike to the village of Sattin Shore in search of answers, doesn't find any (of course not) and then has to bike all the way home again even though she's exhausted.

If they had a telephone at home, and if she had the right change in her pocket, then she could telephone home, and her mother would answer the telephone, and she -- Kate -- could tell her where she was, and how tired she was. And if her mohther had a car, and could drive it, she would come in the car and pick her -- Kate -- up...

... and then she realised that none of it helped, because none of it was true, and she must get home by herself on her bicycle. She began quietly to cry... But no one came by, so in the end she stopped crying and got on her bicycle again and pedalled off, even more slowly than before. But she pedalled and pedalled and pedalled and pedalled...

And at last, long last, just before lighting-up time, she got home.

And then at the end, they all move to Australia! Very peculiar.

I read this not long after Secret Water and it was odd that the plot of this book also hinged on the creeping of the tide to flood an estuary. I guess it was set in the same part of the world. There are loads of different editions of Sattin Shore out there, but I'm afraid it won't be a favourite of mine.

And at last, long last, just before lighting-up time, she got home.


Light Perpetual


I've had a soft spot for Francis Spufford ever since reading his memoir, The Child That Books Built, in which he discusses with love and insight all the same books that I read myself as a child (well, a good handful of them). But I'd never read any of his actual fiction before. 

I'm pleased to report that Light Perpetual is an absolutely superb novel. Spufford begins with a bomb falling on a London department store in the Blitz, killing everyone including five young children. He then imagines the lives that those children might have led if they hadn't been obliterated, taking the reader on a journey through the whole twentieth century in five mostly separate, but sometimes interweaving, strands. (As it happens, the five children are exactly the same age as my mother!)

Light Perpetual proceeds in glimpses, beautifully crafted little chapters like sparkling jewels -- his prose is wonderful. While it's probably not a great thing that all the children are white, Spufford does take pains to increase the diversity of the characters as the book goes along. There is Ben, prey to obsessive thoughts; Jo, a singer; her twin Val, who becomes shackled to a white supremicist; clever Alec; and greedy Vernon. Of course a single novel can't touch base with every historical moment or movement over eight decades, but Light Perpetual does cover a lot of ground, and I was invested in the life stories of each of the main characters (we glimpse them about every fifteen years or so). It was a bit like the 7 Up docos in structure, a series I have loved and followed all my life.

Now I'd better look for Golden Hill, I suppose -- oh dear, the list of books I must read never gets any shorter.


The Big Six


Back on the Norfolk Broads, it was a pleasant surprise to find The Big Six much more enjoyable than I remembered, though again there is a bit of a slow start while the mystery is set up and the crimes committed. But once the Ds arrive, the story picks up pace. This really is Dorothea's shining hour. It's she, with her novelist's gaze, who has the psychological insight to predict what the villain will do next.

'You'd never think that Dot got such a head on her,' said Bill, as they climbed over the fence.

The three young Death and Glories are agonisingly slow to realise that they're being framed, and the reader (along with Dot) solves the 'mystery' much more quickly than they do; however, the delight of the plot is in trapping the villain and gathering the proof, rather than guessing whodunnit. It was rather shocking to be reminded what a faff taking photographs used to be, in the days before we could whip out our phones -- the flash, the exposure, the shutter speed, the chemicals, the darkroom -- it's slow and fiddly and cumbersome and frankly I'm not sure I could be bothered. Perfect for Dick, though. 

The Big Six (named after the 'Big Five' murder detectives of Scotland Yard, though this is never explained in the book) is a lot of fun.


The Old Ways

I've been looking out for a copy of Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways for a long time, and I was thrilled when it popped up on Brotherhood Books. Macfarlane's books are ones I want to own, not just borrow. They are to be sipped and savoured, not raced through, and I managed to stretch out The Old Ways for over a month. 

Macfarlane's prose is dense, thoughtful, evocative, considered. He mixes personal memories with nature observations, philosophical musings with provovative conversations with the people he meets on his travels. The Old Ways is subtitled A Journey on Foot, but one section consists of a sea voyage in a small boat through wild Scottish waters. Most of his walks occur in the British Isles, but he also walks in Israel, Tibet and Spain. Inevitably my mind was drawn to the songlines and Dreaming tracks of Australia, and Lynne Kelly's account of memory paths, and I held that awareness as I was reading, which gave Macfarlane's beautiful words an extra layer of resonance.

Is it weird that for me reading nature writing like this becomes akin to a mediation in itself, almost a spiritual practice? Lee Kofman quoted Robert Macfarlane in The Writer Laid Bare. I'm already looking forward to a time when I can pull one of his books from my shelf and immerse myself in re-reading.