The Tree That Sat Down by Beverley Nichols

The Tree That Sat Down cover

The Tree That Sat Down by Beverley Nichols was first published in 1945 and it’s the first of his books for children that I’ve read. Having said that – there are parts of this book that are probably aimed more at any adults who might read it.

Beverley Nichols describes it as ‘a fairy story and it’s a real old fashioned one, full of magic spells, wizards and transformation scenes. Maybe some of the characters have a modern touch … the witch for instance keeps a vacuum cleaner to assist her with her spells, but otherwise it joins all those other magic tales which begin once upon a time.’

The setting is a woodland where Judy and her granny have opened a shop to cater for the needs of the woodland animals – yes, it’s all very anthropomorphic. But then Sam and Old Sam open another shop nearby, with the intention of fleecing all the animals, conning them out of their money, and at the same time ruining Judy’s shop.

I enjoyed this book which is on one level a children’s fantasy tale and on another is a vehicle for the author to get some things off his chest, such as his feelings about how animals are treated by some humans, the over-commercialisation of society and mad consumerism – and his attitude to war.

Did you ever hear of such impertinence? It is an insult to the noble and peaceful family of Sheep. It is the Humans who go about in herds and don’t think for themselves! Look at the way they make War! Sheep would never be so foolish, nor would any other animal. Did you ever hear of a herd of sheep or any other animal leaving their homes and their pastures, and going off to fight say, a herd of zebras whom they’d never even met, just because some silly sheep had told them that the silly zebras wore striped coats, and that anybody who wore striped coats must be their enemy? That is exactly what Humans are doing all the time. Look at their dreadful way of waging war in the air. If I have a fight in the air it is because I am attacked. I fight for my life. But what would you think of me if I were to take a rock and fly off with it to a farmyard and just drop it into a basket of eggs.That is what Humans call “bombing”. They all do it, and they think it is wonderful, and they give medals to the Humans who break the most eggs. To me, it is all sheer folly and wickedness. I have very little hope for the Human race … very little. It will take them at least a million years to reach the level of animals … and long before then, I am afraid they will all have killed each other off.’

It’s fair to say that the previous six years of war seems to have left the author exasperated and a bit depressed I think. This is the first book in a trilogy, the other two are The Stream That Stood Still and The Mountain of Magic. I intend to get around to reading those ones – sometime.

Six in Six 2019 edition

six

I’m a bit late with this but I’ve decided to join in with Jo at The Book Jotters Six in Six, you can read about it here.

You look over the first six months of the year and choose six books in six different categories. So here goes!

Six Historical Fiction books

The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor
Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian
Dunstan by Conn Iggulden
The Steps to the Empty Throne by Nigel Tranter
Stormbird by Conn Iggulden
A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

Six books for children (of all ages)

Mary Poppins Comes Back by P.L. Travers
The Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden
Bonnie Dundee by Rosemary Sutcliff
The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff
The Exploits of Moominpappa by Tove Jansson
Emily Climbs by L.M. Montgomery


Six non-fiction books

The Love-charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel
To the River by Olivia Laing
Jane Austen’s England by Maggie Lane
Independence by Alasdair Gray
Off in a Boat by Neil Gunn
A Capital View by Alyssa Popiel

Six books by Scottish authors

The Chronicles of Carlingford by Mrs Oliphant
The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh
Homespun by Annie S. Swan
Gone are the Leaves by Anne Donovan
A Time of Love and Tartan by Alexander McCall Smith

Six crime fiction books

Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull
Murder with Malice by Nicholas Blake
Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh
Resorting to Murder edited by Martin Edwards
The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor
The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons


Six classics

Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope
Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Transformation by Mary Shelley
The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

This has been a good exercise for me. I knew that I had been reading more historical fiction than usual over the last six months, but hadn’t really thought that my crime fiction reading had tailed off quite so much. I intend to put that right over what is left of 2019.

Are any of these books favourites of yours?

Curtain Up by Noel Streatfeild

Curtain Up cover

Curtain Up by Noel Streatfeild was first published way back in 1944. The island of Guernsey had been home for the three Forbes children Sorrel, Mark and Holly. Their father had retired from the Navy when their mother had died, but when war was declared their father had immediately re-joined the Navy and the children moved into their eccentric grandfather’s home. He is a clergyman who is far more interested in writing a book about the animals that appear in the bible than he is about the existence of his grandchildren.

When a telegram arrives saying that their father was ‘missing’ they live in hope that he has been taken prisoner and hasn’t drowned. But then grandfather dies and the children are sent to live in London with their mother’s family who are strangers to them. They’re devastated to be leaving their schools, the one stable thing in their lives.

Things get even worse when they discover that their mother had been part of a large family of well-known actors and actresses, and it’s assumed that the children will go to an acting/dancing school. The children had no idea that their mother had been from an entertainments background and they’re not exactly thrilled by the idea.

This was quite an entertaining read which follows the main rule of children’s books – get rid of those annoying parents as quickly as possible. I can imagine that many of the original 1944 child readers would have been enthralled by the storyline which has the children eventually auditioning for BBC radio.

As you would expect – all’s well that ends well.

The Exploits of Moominpappa by Tove Jansson

The Exploits of Moominpappa cover

The Exploits of Moominpappa (described by himself) by Tove Jansson was first published in 1952, but I don’t recall ever reading any of the Moomin books as a child, or even to my own boys when they were wee. I thought I should have a look and see what they are about as I know the books are very popular, so when I saw this Puffin paperback in a second-hand bookshop in Edinburgh – I bought it.

I suspect that this one isn’t your usual Moomin book though, I have no idea what age the books were aimed at but this one seems more suited to adults really, certainly not very young children – not that there’s anything untoward in it. It reminded me of the craziness of Alice in Wonderland – Jansson obviously had a great imagination.

The Preface begins: I, Moominpappa am sitting tonight by my window looking out into my garden, where the fireflies embroider their mysterious signs on the velvet dark. Perishable flourishes of a short but happy life!

Moominpappa was abandoned as a youngster on the doorstep of an orphanage which was ruled over by a Hemulen – a very strict personage. Eventually, when he’s old enough he runs away and builds his own house, by a brook and soon he meets Hodgkins who has a houseboat called Oshun, Oxtra, it was supposed to be The Ocean Orchestra but the Muddler painted it and spelling isn’t his strong point and before long they sail off and meet up with various others on their adventure. It was a fun read, but I’m not sure that this one is a typical Moomin book. Have you read any of them?

Three Terms at Uplands by Angela Brazil

Three Terms at Uplands cover

Three Terms at Uplands by Angela Brazil was published in 1945 and it was her second last book before her death in 1947. I think her later books are slimmer than her earlier volumes.

Claire and Colin Johnstone’s parents have been killed in a car accident in Mexico where their father had been working as a mining engineer, so the children are sent back home to England to live with their grandparents. Their young Aunt Dorothy has sailed to Mexico to accompany them back and the children make friends with some of the people on board.

Back in England their aunt and grandparents cocoon them in love and the children eventually settle down to their new life, but times are hard as money is scarce and Aunt Dorothy who had been keen to study art in Cornwall with some talented artists ends up having to become an art teacher to help support the children.

Colin, being the boy is without question sent to the same private school that his father and grandfather had gone to. But when it comes to Claire she’s expected to make do with the local high school as there’s no money for her to go to a boarding school.

A stroke of luck leads to her getting a partial scholarship to Uplands which is apparently a very good boarding school, and so begins her journey from unsure new girl to a more confident personality who helps out with a younger girl.

This was a very quick read, entertaining and so true to life as I laughed (or should I say huffed) when Colin’s education was seen as being so much more important than Claire’s. The exact same thing happened to a schoolfriend of mine in the late 1960s – 70s. Mind you Morag did very well at the local high school along with the rest of us, whereas her brother ran away from his posh boarding school as soon as he turned 16 – and joined the Merchant Navy!

The Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden

The Peppermint Pig cover

The Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden was first published in 1975 and it’s one of the Puffin books that I bought fairly recently. It won the Guardian Award for children’s fiction. This book isn’t for the faint hearted as at the very beginning there’s a description of how Granny Greengrass had her finger accidentally cut off by the butcher. Then it’s mentioned that puppies used to have their tails ‘docked’ by having them bitten off by the groom at the Manor House.

The father of the Greengrass family is got rid of very quickly as after an incident at his work he decides that he should travel to America where his brother lives, in the hope of forging a new life for his family – eventually. The children and their mother end up having to leave their home in London and travelling to rural Norfolk to live with aunts until the time comes for them to leave for America. Life there is very different from London, they end up having a pet piglet, the runt of a litter which was offered for sale to their mother for a shilling.

In no time the piglet is house-trained, he’s clever and naughty and great fun, the children love their peppermint pig which is apparently what the runt of a litter is called. The piglet grows quickly, as the children were so fond of it I really thought that this was going to have a happy ending – but I was wrong!

The blurb on the back says: A charming and perceptive story by the author of Carrie’s War.

I imagine that it probably turned a fair few children into vegetarians – for a while anyway!

Bedknob and Broomstick by Mary Norton

Bedknob and Broomstick cover

Until I picked this book up in an Aberdeenshire secondhand bookshop recently I had no idea that Bedknob and Broomstick had been written by Mary Norton (of The Borrowers fame). It was first published in 1945 and although I’ve only seen short excerpts of the Disney film Bedknobs and Broomsticks, I think it’s fair to say that it must be very loosely based on the book. It was obviously written in wartime although it doesn’t really come into the story, the three children Carey, Charles and Paul have been sent to live with an old aunt who lives in Bedfordshire. This must have been a normal experience for many children in those days as fathers were off in the services and their mothers were also doing war work. It fits the perfect children’s book scenario, get rid of those annoying parents.

The house is old and square with a large hall and the children are quite intimidated by it. They’re also rather shy of their aunt and the old housemaid, but the garden is wonderful and even has a river running through it. The children have a whale of a time, they’re well behaved and all their days are alike – until they meet Miss Price. She’s an elderly lady who gets about on her bicycle, she’s very ladylike and teaches piano for a living, but in her spare time she’s a bit of a white witch. She’s really just a beginner at it and when the children find her in pain lying on the ground in local woodland it transpires that she has sprained her ankle as she has fallen off her broomstick!

She obviously needs more practice. Miss Price needs the children to keep quiet about her witchcraft, the locals wouldn’t understand, so she puts a spell on Paul’s bedknob so that when he twists it the bed will wheech them all anywhere in the world – or even into the past.

This book is aimed at children over the age of eight – I think I fit that description!

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 Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks

The Indian in the Cupboard  cover

The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks was first published in 1980 and probably just about everyone who is interested in reading it has already read it or seen the film, but I only picked it up because I noticed that it was written by Lynne Reid Banks. It’s over forty years since I read her L-Shaped Room trilogy and loved it – as did Jack and my mother, two people who would normally have very different tastes in books.

Omri is one of three brothers and when his birthday comes around his brother Gillon gives him an old cupboard for his present, not that he had bought it, he just found it lying around in the alley where the bins were kept. Gillon’s pocket-money had been stopped as a punishment, so that was the best he could do for a present.

Omri is quite disappointed by his presents, his best friend Patrick had only given him one of his old plastic figures – a Native American Indian. The cupboard has a lock on it and Omri’s mother thinks she might have a key which would fit it amongst a lot of old keys she has. Sure enough one does fit and when Omri decides that the best thing he can do with his Indian is store it in the cupboard – the magic begins. I know that the toys coming to life is a bit of a cliche but that’s probably because we’d all love it to happen.

This was a great read and Lynne Reid Banks managed to create a really authentic family with great interaction by the brothers.

Have any of you ever watched the film and if so – should I?

The Silver Bead by Helen Dunmore

The Silver Bead by Helen Dunmore was first published in 2003 and it’s the third in a trilogy, the only one that I’ve read though. It’s aimed at girls who are just about to move up to secondary/high school.

Zillah and Katie have just experienced the last day of primary school and are planning to have the best summer holidays ever. Zillah’s parents have a farm but things are tough and they’re diversifying so Zillah’s mum is serving cream teas to visitors, helped by Zillah and Katie who have been friends for years. But as often happens in life their plans are overtaken by circumstances that they could all do without.

This book is entertaining for females of all ages, I can’t imagine it would interest boys, although they would also benefit from the book’s attitude to people who are a bit different from others, such as those from the travelling community.