The Machine-Gunners by Robert Westall

The Machine-Gunners cover

The Machine-Gunners by Robert Westall was first published in 1975 and it won the Carnegie Medal.

We’re back at the Second World War in this book, the setting is the fictional town of Garmouth on Tyneside where the children were enthusiastically seeking out war souvenirs in the shape of spent machine-gun bullets, shrapnel and the tailfins from incendiary bombs. They’re vying with each other all determined to have the best collection. Chas McGill has the second best collection, the best is owned by the local school bully who takes great delight in bashing everyone up but of course he is really a coward.

Chas hits the jackpot when he discovers the wreckage of a downed German aeroplane deep in a local woodland. With the help of some friends he manages to free the machine-gun from it and with the help of a tremendously strong mentally challenged neighbour they all set about building an underground shelter for the gun – which expands and expands until it’s a large air raid shelter. The children become adept at nicking anything they need so it’s a real home from home. In fact as one of them lost both his parents in a recent Tyneside air raid the shelter has become his home, the authorities think he also perished in the raid.

At one point an escaped German prisoner of war stumbles across their hide-out and as they’ve somehow managed to jam the machine gun they realise that he can help them fix it. The prisoner is exhausted and ill and the children look after him, well they can’t turn him over to the authorities, he would tell them about their machine-gun.

This is a great read which at times has elements of ‘Dad’s Army’ about it with the Home Guard featuring and local enemies being much more annoying than the German prisoner who isn’t at all like a Nazi, he seems like a decent chap.

This book is very autobiographical, the author dedicated it to his father and mother who were the father and mother in the book.

He says: The bombing raids on Tyneside during the despairing winter of 1940-41 were appalling and relentless and The Machine-Gunners is a tribute to the endurance, courage and humour of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett

The Family from One End Street cover

The Family from One End Street and Some of Their Adventures by Eve Garnett was first published in 1938 and it won the Carnegie Medal that year. That must have been particularly sweet for the author, who also illustrated the book, as it was rejected by at least eight publishers.

Those publishers were probably put off by the fact that the book is so unusual in that it is apparently the first book to feature an ordinary working class family. The Ruggles family is a large one – seven children with mum Rosie taking in washing and ironing and the dad Jo being a dustbin man. They live in a small town in Sussex – as did Eve Garnett.

With so many children around there’s always something going on but to begin with we’re told how all the children appear and how they get their names.

The neighbours pitied Jo and Rosie for having such a large family, and called it “Victorian”; but the Dustman and his wife were proud of their numerous girls and boys, all -growing-up-fine-and-strong-one-behind-the-other-like-steps-in-a-ladder-and-able-to-wear-each-others-clothes-right-down-to-the-baby, so that really it was just two sets, girl and boy, summer and winter, Mrs Ruggles had to buy, except Boots.

I found this to be an entertaining read and as until it was published children’s books always featured very middle class children with ponies, bikes and boats and no thought to the clothes that they wore, it must have been a bit of an eye-opener to some people to realise that there were others who couldn’t afford to buy a school uniform for a child who was bright enough to get into the grammar school, and who were constantly taking their shoes to the cobblers to have them mended.

The author herself had a very comfortable upbringing but when she was asked to illustrate a book called The London Child by Evelyn Sharp she was appalled by the conditions that she saw, presumably when she was doing research for her illustrations. It led to her writing this book about an ordinary family struggling to make ends meet, but they’re a happy bunch and I’ll be looking out for the other books detailing their further adventures.

The Edge of the Cloud by K.M. Peyton

The Edge of the Cloud cover

The Edge of the Cloud by K.M. Peyton is the second book in the Flambards series and was first published in 1969.

Christina is now eighteen and she has been living with her uncle and her two male cousins who are a bit older than her. Her uncle is determined to marry Christina off to her eldest cousin Mark and so keep Christina’s money in the family. Her uncle and cousins are cash poor but do have a large house and estate where horses and hunting are the only things of importance. Christina is in love with the younger cousin Will, and unlike the rest of the family he is terrified of horses and riding, flying aeroplanes is his obsession.

Christina can’t get her hands on her money until she is twenty-one and she and Will can’t get married until then either, as Uncle Russell will never consent to their marriage, so they run off to stay with Aunt Grace where Christina has to help her with the sewing by which she earns her living. Meanwhile Will has managed to get a job as a mechanic at an airfield and is living in a shed, it’s not what he wants, he dreams of becoming an aeroplane designer and flying them. Eventually he does begin to teach other people to fly and earns much needed money by taking part in air displays, looping the loop and such like.

Christina is terrified of flying and of course lives in fear of Will being involved in an accident, neither of them can understand the other’s fear of riding/flying. Inevitably accidents occur.

This book is set in 1913 when flying was all new and wildly exciting. A note at the beginning of the book states that the first loop the loop was demonstrated in England by Pegoud in September 1913. The first British pilots to loop were B.C. Hucks and G. Hamel later in the year. Forty-eight British pilots were killed in various accidents from the beginning of flying in 1910 up to the outbreak of war in 1914.

The Edge of the Cloud won the Carnegie Medal in 1969 and the trilogy won the Guardian award in 1970. It was published by Penguin as a Puffin Book so was meant to be read by older children, but it’s a good read for children of all ages.

I loved the Flambards series when it was shown on TV years ago, that was aimed at adults. There isn’t much in the way of horse riding in this book but if you’re keen on early aviation you might find this one interesting.