Look What I Got!

My dear friend Judy B is clearing out her house before she and her husband move to the country, and she offered me 'a box of old children's books you might like.'

Well, the box arrived, and I do like, very much indeed! The top layer included some gorgeous old books, including school stories, some Lorna Hill titles (I have to pass these on to Judy's daughter, once I read them), the first Billabong novel from Mary Grant Bruce and LM Montgomery's Emily of New Moon, which bizarrely I've never read, despite my enduring adoration of Anne of Green Gables

Most of these were originally given as Sunday school prizes to the young Judy, and I'm reminded that there used to be a whole category of children's books specifically written for this purpose. My mother tells me that there used to be a special shop in the city that sold books for Sunday school prizes (as well as other ecclesiastical supplies, one presumes).

But underneath these Sunday school novels was another, unexpected layer of delights -- half a dozen annuals. See how gorgeous they look on my display shelf? Here is a close up view:

The annuals are from the 1950s and they are chock full of fabulous stories, comics, nature articles, poetry and crosswords. Aren't the cover girls great -- sporty and wholesome, and not a fashion item in sight! I wonder when annuals disappeared? I remember getting an annual one Christmas in the late 70s -- it might have been Jackie, or Princess? So they were still around then. Does anybody out there know?

One thing I noticed is that the print is extremely small. Which means you can fit in more glorious content, I suppose, but it also decreases the chances of modern kids actually reading any of these lovely old books. Shame.

Thank you, Judy. They are wonderful.


Veronica and Sebastian

On our recent trip to Tasmania, I found a couple of battered Lorna Hill ballet books in a second hand shop at Salamanca, and they were two that I'd never actually read. Of course I pounced.

Well. Sometimes it turns out that there are good reasons why books end up languishing in second hand shops. I knew from reading later novels that Veronica and Sebastian (spoiler alert) end up together. (One of the things I really like about the Wells books is the sense of the baton being passed from one ballerina to another as the series progresses. Veronica is inspired by Margot Fonteyn, and goes on to inspire Jane Foster in her turn, then Jane acts as a mentor to another young dancer, and so on.)

Sebastian initially presents as quite an attractive character -- flippant and charming, but underneath it all, clearly very serious about his music, and obviously (to the reader) smitten with Veronica. So I wasn't prepared for the massive row that Veronica and Sebastian have partway through the book, in which Sebastian behaves like a complete pig.

Veronica has just received the thrilling news that she's earned a part in one of the company's ballet productions and has to rush back to London. Unfortunately this means she'll have to miss Sebastian's concert. Sebastian is not happy.
...I burst out, 'You know quite well I've got to go back. It's my career. You'd go back if it were your career, wouldn't you, Sebastian?'
'Of course. I'm a man.'
'What difference does that make?'
'Quite a lot,' Sebastian said, turning his back on me... 'Men are forced to have careers. Women just barge into them. It's just silly for a woman to give up everything -- friends, beauty sleep, peace of mind -- even marriage -- for a stupid thing like ballet.'
'It's not stupid!' I yelled, almost crying. 'It's my life!'
'Then it ought not to be,' declared Sebastian.
To her credit, Veronica sticks to her guns, despite parting with Sebastian on very bad terms, even after he flings the revelation of his love for her in her face ('I was going to kiss you... But don't worry, I shan't do it now...'). She goes back to London where her career takes off and she becomes the latest ballet sensation. However, as the rest of the book unfolds (they don't see each other for a couple of years after this), Veronica is tormented by the memory of this terrible fight. Not because it's been revealed that Sebastian is a selfish loser, but because she's worried that he won't 'forgive' her!

In the last pages, just before Veronica's ultimate triumph, they are reconciled when he sends her a big bunch of red roses with the label 'Sebastian'.
Just that! No word of apology or good luck. I gave a wry smile. How like Sebastian!... He was brilliant, and witty, and arrogant. Above all, he was proud... Still, my heart glowed. We were friends again, and he had meant me to know it.
Oh, well, that's all right then.

Okay, I admit, this was written in 1951, but still. He didn't have to be quite such a knob about it.

There is an interesting ongoing tension through all the Lorna Hill books between the protagonists' dedication to ballet (almost religious at times) and their need for lurve. More often than not, the women themselves don't seem to realise that love and romance is something they should want! They believe they're quite fulfilled by their passion for their art, and the rigorous demands it makes upon them. They have to be forced to see what they're 'lacking' by the attentions of the men who have fallen in love with them, whereupon they wake up from their dream and realise that they're just like ordinary, non-ballerina women who just want to get married and be adored and taken care of (this is the role of men in the Lorna Hill universe). Now I like a touch of romance as much as anyone, but it's a shame that it always seems to play out the same way. However, I must admit that weirdly, in later books, Sebastian seems very supportive of Veronica's career and writes music for her -- it's a creative partnership. That's what I'd like to see more of -- not the dancers having to choose between love and work, as Jane does later on.

I might keep this one on a high shelf, I think; I wouldn't want it to fall into the wrong hands!


Cricket By Night

I love the Ashes (even when Australia is playing so badly). I especially love the Ashes when they're in England, because then I can lie in bed with the radio murmuring in my ear all night and listen to the sonorous (never excitable) BBC coverage, drifting in and out of sleep and rolling over occasionally to catch the score. Michael and I first bonded over cricket, so even though it doesn't sound like it, it's actually quite romantic for us to lie there listening to Test Match Special together in the darkness.

Like everyone else in Australia, I fell in love with Ashton Agar during his marvellous innings in the First Test. He's young and dashing and good-looking, and he played with such grace and joy. You could see it on his face that he was just loving every minute at the crease, so grateful and happy to be there that it didn't matter that he was making run after run, living out every child cricketer's dream and saving the match. He came in at no. 11! He nearly made a hundred!

And then came the Second Test, and we were hopeless again.

I'm not saying it's entirely because of Agar that I picked up Netherland, which has been patiently sitting beside my bed for quite a while. And I'm not even halfway through. But so far, I'm relishing this brooding story of a cricketing Dutchman (yes, they do play cricket in the Netherlands), living in New York in the months after 9/11, who discovers the shadowy but thriving community of cricket players in the land of baseball. Invisible to most of the population, these cricketers are West Indian and Indian and Pakistani, and on tiny, unsuitable grounds all around the city, they passionately pursue their sport, inhabiting an underground, parallel world. Apparently this novel is 'in conversation' with The Great Gatsby; another exploration of American myth through an unexpected lens.

I remember being surprised when Jo and Laurie played cricket in Little Women. It's weird and wonderful to think that the spirit of cricket is still alive in America. Even if, at the moment, it's struggling in Australia.


The High Life

We are getting an attic!

To be precise, we are converting part of our roof space into a sealed room, which will hopefully be spider- and rat-proof, unlike the current creepy, gloomy space. We are also installing a skylight to let in some sun. (I say "we" but it's actually our lovely builder Mick who's doing all the hard work.) I should point out, our attic will be nothing like as big as the one in the picture! But it's still pretty cool.

Ladder access is from Alice's bedroom, the smallest room in the house, so she's looking forward to using the new attic as a bit of a hangout. She keeps urging us to throw out more stuff, to reduce the space we need for storage and free up more room for her.

I have to say I envy her. I've always craved an attic, and I once almost rented a very grotty house purely because of one unfeasibly small bedroom under the eaves. I remember Polly and Diggory crawling from house to house in The Magician's Nephew, and Sara Crewe's magically transformed garret in A Little Princess. The Marlowe sisters scored an attic dormitory for one hectic term at Kingscote, in Antonia Forest's The Attic Term (natch, as they would say). And of course, Jo always did her best scribbling up in the attic in Little Women.

When I was about Evie's age, I used to climb up into the top cupboards of built-in wardrobes and pretend I was in an attic. There was something so unspeakable romantic about the idea of that space, sandwiched between the safety of the house and the freedom of the wide sky, something secret but sheltered. It's one of those in-between hidey-holes that encourage reading and dreaming and musing, a perfect nest for creativity.

But I think you need to be twelve to really make the most of it.


Holiday At The End Of The Universe

Very lazy winter holidays happening at our house (though I'm determined to get out of the house today!)

We've had a couple of lovely idle days where we've all lounged around while I've read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to the girls (a good choice) and they've played on the computer -- mostly Minecraft, which is an oddly appropriate accompaniment to a story involving the building and destruction of planets.

Now we've started The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, which I can't remember at all. Fair enough, I reckon, because it would be a good thirty years since I last read it.

The only annoying thing is that the edition we have (ex-library) is a compendium of all four books in the series, and it is absolutely riddled with typos! Which is very off-putting to the reader-aloud. Poor form.