Peter Duck by Arthur Ransome

Peter Duck cover

Peter Duck by Arthur Ransome is the third book in his Swallows and Amazons series, it was first published in 1932. This one seems to be very difficult to find in second-hand bookshops and a good friend of mine ended up buying me a new copy of it.

Peter Duck is an old sailor, commonly known as an old salt, he lives in Lowestoft and is spending his time at the harbour watching everything that’s going on and wishing he could go out to sea again while fearing that he never will. He has sailed all around the world in clippers with wool and tea, but his sailing in recent years has been limited to going up and down the local rivers with potatoes and coal.

When he realises that one of the ships in the harbour is on the serious business of stocking up on food, water and everything from the chandlers that they could possibly need for a long voyage he’s very interested. The Wild Cat is a schooner which is going to be crewed by Captain Flint alias Uncle Jim and the children of Swallows and Amazons fame – Nancy, Peggy, Titty, Susan, Roger and John, accompanied by Polly the parrot and Gibber the monkey.

When another adult crew member is unable to join them at the last minute Peter Duck steps in to fill the void. He’s thrilled to have the chance of getting on the high seas again.

But there’s another very smart schooner in the harbour and the captain – Black Jake – has been watching everything that has been going on. He’s an obvious baddy and after hearing Peter Duck telling a tale of his childhood experience of seeing treasure buried on a remote island he’s been determined to find it. So when the Wild Cat sails out of the harbour she’s closely shadowed by Black Jake’s schooner Viper. That schooner is crewed by ex-convicts, a violent bunch of desperadoes.

The Wild Cat heads for Peter Duck’s Caribbean island, named Crab Island by him, by way of the Bay of Biscay through heavy seas, and eventually manages to shake off the Viper. At one point the two ships had been so close that it looked like the crew of the Viper would be able to board the Wild Cat. The young red-headed lad called Bill who had been on the Viper manages to escape from it and is helped onto the Wild Cat by the Swallows and Amazons. He has led a dog’s life on the Viper being frequently whipped, but he’s a knowledgeable sailor and a great help aboard the Wild Cat.

This book is really an updated (for 1932) version of a classic tale of piracy, the children have a lot to learn about real sailing, not just rowing around on a lake. It’s a good old adventurous romp with some danger thrown in – just what I was needing really.

Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott

Eight Cousins cover

I loved reading the Louisa May Alcott books that most girls read when they were 10 or so, when I was that age anyway. I’m not sure how popular they are with youngsters nowadays, but back then I was under the impression that she had only written, Little Women, Good Wives, Little Men and Jo’s Boys. So when I saw some bloggers mentioning Eight Cousins over the years I thought it was one I’d like to get a hold of, but I never did trip over a copy in a secondhand bookshop. I only resort to the internet for books in desperation.

So how lucky was I that my blogpal Jennifer @ Holds Upon Happiness sent me a copy in a parcel of books that she sent me as an unnecessary but much appreciated thank you, especially given the price of postage nowadays?

Anyway, to the book. Eight Cousins was first published in the US in 1875. As in most children’s novels down the ages both of Rose Campbell’s parents are dead and she’s sent to live at the ‘Aunt Hill’ with six aunts and seven boy cousins. As you can imagine Rose is very despondent at the recent loss of her father, and her new home consisting of so many elderly aunts unused to girls isn’t really what she needs to comfort her. The aunts in turn feel that Rose isn’t like any other child they’ve known and they feel like they have been given the care of “a very low-spirited butterfly”.

Even being allowed to poke into all the rooms, cupboards and chests in the old mansion hasn’t perked Rose up at all. The invitation to Phebe another girl Rose’s age to come and play with her has been a failure, just as well really as Phebe seemed to be a bad influence.

Just when everyone was beginning to worry about Rose’s health and one aunt was predicting her early death, Rose is saved by her Uncle Alec’s attention and being able to romp around and have fun with her seven boy cousins. But when Rose regains her health and strength it’s the turn of her character for some attention from Alec, and although Rose has been left comfortably off with the death of her father Alec suggests that Rose might do worse than to study the art of housekeeping, a womanly accomplishment that no girl should be without.

So begins Rose’s domestic education with each aunt teaching her the ins and outs of their own accomplishments. It’s not exactly what Rose had hoped to be learning but the tasks set by the aunts and the time they spend with Rose are sources of pleasure for all concerned. Her male cousins make sure that Rose has plenty of fun which some of the more snooty members of their society might not approve of and in turn Rose has a hand in improving her cousins.

Eight Cousins is 145 years old now and was aimed at young girls who are now long dead, but really the exploits of the children in the book are there to show right from wrong morally – which doesn’t change. I think this sort of book is what taught me to be a decent human being, well a mixture of that and Scottish Calvinism, although looking around I suspect that being a decent human being doesn’t have much cachet nowadays!

Thanks Jenny!

A Stitch in Time by Penelope Lively

A Stitch in Time cover

A Stitch in Time by Penelope Lively was published in 1976. It won the Whitbread Children’s Book Award which isn’t at all surprising as it’s a lovely read. It was apparently aimed at readers between 11 and 14 but of course is for readers of all ages.

It begins with Maria and her parents driving to Lyme Regis for their summer holidays. Maria is an only child, her parents are rather old fashioned and staid introverts and it’s a lonely life for her. In fact she’s so lonely that she has conversations with inanimate objects with Maria supplying both sides of the conversation.

Her life changes completely when she becomes involved with a large and noisy family who are staying in the hotel next door. It’s a different world, but her parents are quite appalled by them, they can’t stand the mayhem, and Maria’s father can hardly recognise his daughter who is running around and having FUN.

Maria and Martin, the eldest boy in the family bond over their interest in fossils and spend time searching for them on the beach. When Mrs Shand the owner of Maria’s rental house discovers their interest she’s happy to show them her collection of fossils, but Maria is entranced by an old embroidered sampler on the wall, especially when she realises that the embroidered house in it depicts the house she’s holidaying in. Mrs Shand’s sister Harriet had embroidered the sampler and Maria feels that something bad must have happened to Harriet, she can almost feel her presence, and is it Harriet that she can hear playing on the non-existent swing?

I really enjoyed this one and it brought back memories of what it was like growing up in the 1960s/70s when loads of kids would pile into the back of a car to go on trips to the beach or wherever. No safety belts, just heaps of entangled limbs, laughs, shrieks and fun. We survived!

Flame – Coloured Taffeta by Rosemary Sutcliff

Flame-Coloured Taffeta cover

Flame – Coloured Taffeta by Rosemary Sutcliff is a Puffin book which was published in 1986. It was probably aimed at pre-teen children, but I intend to work my way through all of the author’s books – eventually.

The setting is the mid eighteenth century and the coastal south-west of England between Chichester and Selsey Bill. It was a time of on and off war with France and just five years after the failed attempt by Charles Edward Stewart to get the Jacobites back on the throne of Britain.

Damaris is a twelve year old girl who lives with her father and aunt on a coastal farm, an area which sees lots of smuggling activity, not that they call themselves smugglers, they’re known as Free Traders. Damaris is sure that she heard a gunshot during the night and she’s afraid that one of her local friends might have been shot, so she goes out searching her father’s farmland and discovers a young man, a stranger who has been shot in the leg.

She needs the help of her friend and neighbour Peter to get the wounded man draped across her horse and they take him to their hideout in a tumbledown cottage nearby. He’ll have to share the place with the wounded fox that they’re nursing back to health.

But have they done the right thing, is he a smuggler or is he perhaps a spy from France?

This is a very quick read with just 120 pages and it also has well detailed illustrations by Rachel Birkett.

I enjoyed this one, but then I do like stories featuring smugglers as many people do. I’m not sure if that’s a particularly British penchant/weakness or if it’s more universal. What do you think? Pirates are another weakness of course, maybe it’s just that ‘bad guys’ seem more interesting!

The Captain Hook Affair by Humphrey Carpenter

The Captain Hook Affair

I’ve always been interested in classic children’s literature and for that reason I bought a copy of a book called Secret Gardens – a Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature by Humphrey Carpeneter, so when I saw this book The Captain Hook Affair by the same author it was a must buy for me, because I also collect different editions of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, so this one sort of fitted into my collection. It was published in 1979 and has drawings by Posy Simmonds, her work is always so recognisable. I managed to buy a fairly cheap second hand copy of it.

As you would expect from a writer who was obviously an expert in children’s literature, Carpenter didn’t waste much time in getting rid of the parents, a must for any successful story.

Lizzie’s father had abandoned his wife and daughter when Lizzie was just 5 years old and since then things had been difficult. There was never any money and when Lizzie’s mother became ill it was decided that Lizzie would have to go into a children’s home until her mother got better.

At the same time Lizzie’s granny started to go downhill fast and when Lizzie was saying goodbye to her, granny asked Lizzie to get something out of a drawer for her. Lizzie was hoping that Granny would give her a bit of the lovely jewellery which she saw there but it was a wee silver pencil which Granny wanted Lizzie to have. Lizzie had never seen anything like it before, it was a propelling pencil and it wasn’t long before Lizzie discovered that if she pointed it at an illustration in a book then she was whisked off into the story.

In this way Lizzie visits the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Alice in Wonderland and various other stories but it’s the story of Peter Pan and mainly Captain Hook and his pirates who are the main characters.

There’s quite a lot of comedy involved, especially when Dr Max, a child psychologist insists that Lizzie and her friend are suffering from mental problems. He just can’t believe what he sees.

Sadly Humphrey Carpenter died not long ago but he left behind a fair amount of well written books, probably the most well known ones are about Mr Majeika, starring that great Scottish actor Stanley Baxter. Those ones were turned into a TV programme in 1988. My boys loved it when they were wee. Poor Humphrey Carpenter doesn’t even get a mention in the credits of the programme, presumably it was dramatised for TV by someone else.

Christmas Books

So continuing our no nonsense so no disappointments way of ‘doing’ Christmas gifts, I also got quite a few books which I had seen over the past couple of months and asked Jack to buy them for me and put them away for Christmas. I always forget exactly what has been bought so it’s the only way of getting a good surprise as far as I’m concerned.

The Grateful Sparrow cover

Here are a few of them, these ones are all children’s books:

The Grateful Sparrow by Angela Thirkell.

This is a children’s book – possibly the first she ever wrote and the only children’s one – and is apparently quite difficult to get a hold of but Jack got it for me at a very reasonable price from ebay. My copy is a 1935 publication and has 24 illustrations by Ludwig Richter. It does say that the tales are taken from the German by Angela Thirkell and the dedication is to the memory of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Berthold Auerbach and their translators, known and unknown. So it would seem that this book is more of a compilation put together by Angela Thirkell, rather than actually written by her. The illustrations are quite nice in a Germanic sort of way.

The Story of Peter Pan cover

The Story of Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie.

I have quite a collection of various Peter Pan editions, including a Mabel Lucy Atwell illustrated one, but when I saw this one at Ingliston fair, I snapped it up for all of £2. It’s illustrated by Alice B. Woodward, whom I hadn’t heard of but I like her work, especially the front cover. It was first issued in 1914 but my edition is from 1951.

Butter Scotia cover

Butterscotia (A Cheap Trip to Fairyland) by Edward Abbott Parry and illustrated by Archie MacGregor. I first saw this book in an antiquarian bookshop near York Minster but it was £30 which is more than I would normally pay for a book. I had a look on the internet and got it a lot cheaper. I feel slightly guilty about it because if the bookshop has disappearred the next time I’m in York I’ll feel that I’ve contributed to putting them out of business. But on the other hand we don’t have money to fling about and it doesn’t seem to be available as an ebook although I’ve just realised that it has been reprinted in paperback fairly recently. It is obviously influenced by Alice in Wonderland and seems to be good fun from what I’ve read of it. My copy is an 1896 one, complete with pull out map.

More Christmas books tomorrow.

Ian Jack Protests Too Much

For some reason I found myself reading Ian Jack’s column in the Guardian on Saturday which you can read here if you’re interested. It’s a bit of a long ramble about Anglophilia/phobia and Scottish independence amongst other things.

I have to say that I do like England and have lots of English friends and family, but I really can’t stand the sort of Scots who go down to England and have the attitude that they have somehow got one up on the rest of us who weren’t successful enough to get ourselves to the south. We tried it and didnae like it – so we took oorselves aff hame again.

Not for the first time I wondered to myself why Ian Jack is given space in the Guardian at all but this article seemed to be even more silly than usual. I think he feels guilty for being a Scot living in England, I can’t see why else he would write about famous Scots who found themselves living/dying in England. You don’t have to be brilliant to realise that lots of Scots have had to go to England at some point for work or career reasons. Most of us do want to get back home as soon as we can, especially if we’ve had the misfortune to pitch up in the very over-crowded south-east.

Poor R.L. Stevenson was in Bournemouth at one point apparently and Lewis Grassic Gibbon died in Welwyn Garden City (I managed to survive it – just!) It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Ian Jack that doctors routinely told their patients to move to a warmer climate when they had poor health, generally TB/consumption. The doctors knew that there was nothing they could do for them. If they were wealthy they took themselves off to Italy and died a wee bit slower than they would have in Scotland’s colder climate. Otherwise they went to the south of England where the weather was marginally better in the summer. However the worst two winters which I have lived through were way down south in Essex.

R.L. Stevenson who had been sickly even as a child, went all over the place trying to prolong his life in hot climates, but to no avail. John Buchan lived in Oxfordshire (shock horror) he had graduated from Oxford University but as a career diplomat he spent most of his life in Canada and became the Governor General there, he was steeped in all things Scottish as far as I can see.

But it was when Ian Jack mentions that Kenneth Grahame wrote The Wind in the Willows and describes it as “one of greatest Anglophile novels” – I thought to myself Ian Jack has lost it completely!

Kenneth Grahame had an idyllic childhood with his siblings in rural Perthshire, until the death of their mother. It wasn’t long after that shock that they were all moved down to England, where Kenneth was badly bullied at school because of his Scottish accent. I know that people who should know better point to a stretch of river and say that it is where Kenneth Grahame set the book. In reality the setting was his childhood, the characters his siblings and yes THE WEASELS were the English. They were the people who had pushed him around as a child – and he was getting his own back. It suited him at that very class conscious time to see the good guys – Mole, Ratty, Toad and Badger as English gentlemen and the weasels as common riff-raff, and no doubt for commercial reasons that was the right thing to do because the book wouldn’t have been published otherwise. Perhaps Ian Jack should read some books on children’s literature of the early 20th century.

By the way – the people I know who are the most ardent supporters
of Scottish independence just happen to come from Surrey and Oregon, but they live in Scotland so they’ll be voting, which is just as it should be. I have no idea what’s going on in the minds of the ex-pat Scots many of whom apparently want a vote when the time comes. Whoever heard of people having a vote in a country they don’t live in!

A A Milne – Happy Unbirthday

Alan Alexander Milne was born on the 18th January 1882 and I thought about writing a birthday post on that day but then I thought that an ‘unbirthday’ post would be more appropriate.

Although he was born in England A A Milne was from a Scottish Presbyterian background, like so many other authors of childrens’ fiction. The severely strict upbringing seems to have encouraged a wild imagination in those people feeling the need to rebel against such a strait-laced background. Hurrah!!

I didn’t actually read Winnie the Pooh until I had children of my own, and I loved it, in fact I went on a bit of a Pooh binge, reading The Tao of Pooh and Pooh and the Ancient Mysteries as well as collecting classic Pooh ‘stuff’.

Everyone I know seems to be a Pooh character. I think I’m a combination of Kanga and Tigger, depending on my mood, if you can imagine that. Two for the price of one as I keep telling my husband! Which character do you resemble most?

I love the original E H Shepard illustrations and I’m not mad keen on Disney as a rule but I have a soft spot for the 1966 Disney film which you can see some of below.

William at War by Richmal Crompton

There were quite a lot of children’s books that I didn’t get around to reading until I had children of my own, I think I went on to reading books for adults at quite an early age. I caught up with a lot of them when I had kids of my own and read Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, the Narnia books and lots more as my boys were growing up, but still I avoided reading Richmal Crompton’s books.

So when Niranjana (Brown Paper) mentioned that she had the full collection of Just William books I began to think that maybe I had missed out on something good. Niranjana appreciates E.F.Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books – always a good sign I think!

So I’ve started off with William at War, which as Niranjana said, seems to have been cobbled together from Crompton’s other Just William books. I did enjoy all the scrapes that William Brown gets into, always with the best of intentions really. I read an Enid Blyton book earlier in the year just to see how I felt about her writing nowadays and I have to say that compared with the Malory Towers book which I read, Crompton’s writing is much better. I think the vocabulary is much wider, even although William does seem to be saying ‘jolly’ and ‘ole’ constantly.

But I can see why I avoided the books for so long. It was just too much like real life for me as a youngster but now it’s quite a nostalgia trip. As the youngest of five children my nearest sibling in age was my brother William who is five years older than me, and although he wasn’t born until the 1950s he was just exactly like William Brown as a wee boy. So he was a complete nightmare as a big brother. Especially as he didn’t seem to have a rival gang of ‘Outlaws’ to torment – so I took the brunt of it all.

This book brought it all back – catapults, peashooters, bows and arrows and all. My brother’s catapult was a heavy metal thing with industrial strength rubber and he could quite easily have killed somebody (me) with it.

I’m pretty sure that my brother William didn’t read these books but he did balance a bucket of water on top of my half-open bedroom door once and of course when I pushed the door open I was drenched with cold water and hit by the bucket. William Brown planned to do this in the book too. But all such nonsense didn’t stop my brother William from being very much my mother’s favourite.

Spookily I resembled the characeter Violet Elizabeth Bott as a child with my red hair and even a lisp, and annoyingly I still have a lisp, which I hate but I’m quite happy with the red hair.

Now it’s just a laugh and my brother and I get on really well together so I can look back with pleasure. I’ve got another ten Just William books to read through now.

Classic Children’s Literature

I’ve made a bit of a study of classic children’s literature over the years and although I don’t count myself an expert on the subject, I felt I just had to write to The Guardian Review about last week’s article by A.S. Byatt.

So I was really pleased to see that they had actually published the letter yesterday and illustrated it with a cartoon.

Letters section of Guardian Review 6/3/10

For some reason the Review letters aren’t on the website so I can’t link to them. I took a photo of the page instead. Here’s a close-up of my letter and their cartoon which was by Tom Gauld.

In general it was quite a good article but I do think that Byatt might have made some mention of the fact that so many of the authors she mentioned were actually Scottish.

I find that people from England tend to take it for granted that the great children’s classics were written by English writers. However, J.M. Barrie, George MacDonald, R.L. Stevenson, Kenneth Grahame and A.A. Milne were all Scottish. In the case of Milne, I believe he was born in England but brought up by Scottish parents and had a grandfather who was a church of Scotland minister. Just thought I’d mention it.