What I’ve Been Reading

There are times – for instance, when the world appears to be heading to hell in a handbasket – when even the most politically engaged, newspaper-addicted reader needs to escape into some frothy fiction. And fortunately for me, two of my favourite writers happened to have new novels out.

'The Hanging Tree' by Ben AaronovitchThe Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch was a very satisfying new installment of the Rivers of London series. It was good to see Peter back in London where he belongs, solving crimes, making new enemies and nearly getting killed in various dramatic and supernatural ways. He’s assisted by all the old crowd – Stephanopoulos, Guleed the Somali Muslim Ninja, the Rivers, Dr Walid, Kimberley the FBI agent – and it’s nice to see the subtle development of his relationship with his boss, Nightingale (who is actually observed smiling, and at one point, even winking, at Peter in this book). There’s also not one, but two new groups of magicians introduced, who may or may not be Peter’s allies, and there are important revelations about the Faceless Man and Lesley. With the author juggling so many characters and subplots, it’s not surprising that he occasionally drops one, kicks it under the sofa and pretends it never existed. What, for example, has happened to Abigail? But Peter’s narration is so entertaining and the action is so exciting that I honestly didn’t mind the odd plot hole – and in fairness to the author, he does tend to address these sorts of issues eventually, even if it does take a few books before you find out who, exactly, that strange fox-obsessed guy is, or what’s happened to the Quiet People. I also really enjoy the bits where the author goes off on tangents that have absolutely nothing to do with the story – for example, there’s a hilarious scene where he pokes fun at the sort of pompous old white men who keep getting short-listed for the Booker Prize, which makes me wonder whether Ben Aaronovitch ever had an unpleasant encounter with, say, Martin Amis at the BBC one day (although really, the fictional novelist could be based on any number of British male writers). Anyway, The Hanging Tree was well worth the wait and I think I might need to check out the Rivers of London graphic novels while I’m waiting for the next book.

'Vinegar Girl' by Anne TylerAnne Tyler also has a new book out, this one a modern retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. It’s part of a series commissioned by The Hogarth Press, with Jeanette Winterson doing The Winter’s Tale, Margaret Atwood The Tempest, Howard Jacobson The Merchant of Venice and so on. Now, I really, really hate The Taming of the Shrew, but I figured if anyone could find some charm and humour in the story, it would be Anne Tyler and indeed, I did enjoy a number of scenes, particularly the ones in which Kate, in this version a preschool assistant, interacts with her four-year-old students. The problem is trying to make modern-day Kate’s situation plausible, while staying true to the events of the play. Tyler decides to make Kate the intelligent, strong-minded 29-year-old daughter of an eccentric Baltimore scientist, Dr Battista. His brilliant Russian assistant’s visa is about to expire, so Dr Battista starts a “touchingly ludicrous” campaign for Kate to marry the young man, enabling Pyotr to qualify for a Green Card. This makes no sense whatsoever. If Kate is so smart and stubborn and independent, why is she still living at home acting as an unpaid servant for her selfish father and younger sister, and working in a dead-end child-care job she dislikes? Why does she have no friends and why has she never had a boyfriend (or girlfriend)? She’s not even particularly shrewish, just a bit tactless. If she wants to improve her life, which she does, there are dozens of ways to accomplish this without having to marry a man she barely knows, and who rapidly reveals himself to be a sexist jerk with no social skills. All the characters are paper-thin, but I kept reading, mildly engaged with the story, until the climactic scene in which Kate gives a speech that nearly made me throw the book across the room. Hey, did you know that it’s totally fine for men to be verbally and physically abusive, because “it’s hard being a man”? They just get frustrated because they have to be in charge of everything and have all the power and success in society! They just don’t get enough practice expressing their feelings and their “interpersonal whatchamacallit”! Then Kate and Pyotr live happily ever after, the end. So if you haven’t read any Anne Tyler before, please don’t start with this book. I don’t know what she was thinking. Unless she thought a vile misogynist was about to become President of her country…

‘Autumn Term’, Part Eight

Chapter Seventeen: The Prince and the Pauper

Exams are over (“Third Remove had consoled one another by remarking loudly that they’d all done equally badly”) and the day of the play dawns. Even though I’m not that interested in theatre, I enjoyed reading about the girls’ ingenious solutions to the problems of putting on a play with a small cast and almost no budget. However, Tim is starting to worry, especially when Miss Cartwright asks if they’re ready:

“…for [Tim] was uneasily conscious that perhaps she had been almost too successful in keeping Cartwright at a distance; and if, by any evil chance, the play should collapse dismally, she had no doubt but that Cartwright could, if she chose, be a formidable antagonist. The Pomona row would be nothing in comparison…”

Luckily, Nicola has organised posters, programmes and tickets, which Tim had completely forgotten about (“Nicola was really an excellent person to have around,” thinks Tim, YES TIM, SHE REALLY IS). Then the twins go off to meet their parents, who don’t even know there is a play because apparently they never read their children’s letters. But at least Mrs Marlow doesn’t embarrass the twins by wearing gaudy make-up or a fancy hat or trying to kiss them. The older Marlow sisters seem to have very low expectations for the play, assuming it will be a sweet tale about fairies and talking animals and anyway, “no one can ever hear what Thirds say unless they sit on the stage, practically.”

Backstage, Lawrie is sick (literally) with nerves and even Lois looks “white and highly strung” as they prepare for the curtain to rise. Nicola is polite to Lois, but still hasn’t forgiven her:

“But one couldn’t, thought Nicola stubbornly, suddenly like people because everyone else did, or forget that they had been fairly swinish, even if they were doing their best now; and she would be glad when the play was over and she needn’t even smile at Lois in corridors.”

At last Tim switches on the ‘radiogram’, puts on a record of Greensleeves (her aunt’s favourite song), the curtain goes up and … it all goes beautifully. Lawrie is even better than she was in rehearsals (“she was liking the audience”), the twins work well together, Pomona is really good, Tim works all the lights and curtains and music on cue. Marie does get a bad case of stage-fright, but the others, especially shy little Elaine, ad lib effectively to cover this up. Then comes the final Coronation scene and the curtain falls:

“No curtain calls, Tim had said in a moment of pessimism, forestalling the possibility that none might be required. But she had not been prepared for the sudden roar of applause which came from the body of the theatre; it would be ill-mannered not to answer that. She signalled to [the cast] to stay put and raised the curtain again, watching Nicola’s face break from its expression of rapt gravity into a sudden grin of pleasure.”

Rapturous applause that goes on and on. Then the audience calls for the producer. Tim, stunned, is forced onto the stage to take her bow and I might have got a tiny bit teary at that point.

Chapter Eighteen: Marie Puts Her Foot In It

Backstage there’s jubilation, then Third Remove have to “subdue their faces and voices to the proper expressions of modest unconcern” when they go to meet the parents and rest of the school in the Assembly Hall. The senior Marlows tell the twins they enjoyed the play, but Ann blunders when she says out loud that Lawrie was marvellous, better than Nicola. The others are horrified, but I’m not sure if it’s because they think praise will go to Lawrie’s head and she’ll become unbearable (a plausible concern) or they’re afraid Nicola will feel hurt (but Nicola impatiently says of course she knows Lawrie is better). Later, when the twins are alone, Lawrie remarks:

…that she wished their father and mother would say how frightfully good they’d been instead of just looking calm and pleased.

‘But they never do,’ protested Nicola. ‘You know they don’t if it’s anything proper. Even when Kay got Matric with distinction in practically everything, they just said it wasn’t bad and she must keep it up. You don’t want them to make a special fuss like when we got our Brownie Wings, do you?’

‘Yes,’ said Lawrie candidly, ‘I do. I like being told.’

Anyway, Commander Marlow quickly turns the subject to whether Third Remove really did do everything themselves, with no help from the seniors or staff. Rowan, honourable as ever, admits Lois did a brilliant job with the reading, then they all learn that Tim did practically all the work:

Karen and Rowan looked at one another.

‘Produced it–’ said Rowan.

‘Wrote it–’ said Karen.

‘Press-ganged Lois Sanger–’

‘And saw that her form-mistress gave no trouble,’ concluded Karen. ‘Next term someone had better keep a very special eye on T. Keith.’

‘Why?’ asked Lawrie.

‘Dangerous,’ said Karen, grinning at her father. ‘Organizing ability highly developed. Too much spare time owing to present position in school. Highly explosive combination unless superfluous energy directed into constructive channels.’

Yeah, good luck with trying to direct Tim into ‘constructive channels’, Karen. Although it’s nice to see Karen showing some perspicacity at last – until now, she’s been portrayed as academic, but fairly clueless about everything else in life. Finally I understand why she was made head girl.

After the parents leave, Miss Keith and Miss Cartwright congratulate Third Remove on their “corporate form effort” that wasn’t “merely the work of one or two enthusiastic people who ran around doing everything while the rest waited hopefully to be told what to do next”. As usual, the teachers don’t have any idea what was really going on. But Miss Keith does say they might do some scenes on Speech Day, which is a tremendous honour, and Miss Jennings comes up to congratulate Nicola on their backdrops and Nicola’s performance.

Nicola, by now feeling a bit overwhelmed, escapes backstage to tidy up, followed by Marie who is being over-friendly to make up for her awful performance in the play. Then Lawrie arrives with Miss Redmond, the Guide Captain, who announces grandly that the insurance company has determined the twins didn’t cause the farm fire. (Mind you, she doesn’t apologise or ask the twins to come back to Guides.) Nicola, who knew perfectly well they hadn’t set the fire, says a brief and polite thank you, and Miss Redmond departs, a bit disconcerted by the lack of gratitude. But then Marie accidentally reveals she hadn’t been inside the farm that day, which leads to the revelation that she lied at the Court of Honour.

It’s a lovely way of showing how much Nicola has matured since the start of term, because she accepts Marie’s confession calmly, with apparent indifference. She doesn’t lash out at Marie or rush off to tell Miss Redmond, as she would have done a few months earlier. Lawrie gloats about how they’ve got something to hold over Marie as a threat now, although Nicola points out if Lawrie could get over Lois’s treachery, she could get over Marie’s as well. Lawrie, typically, avoids the question of Lois. And then Lawrie points out that, with the success of the play, the twins finally have something they’re good at, just like the other Marlows.

‘So we are,’ said Nicola, much struck by this. ‘That’s very odd. It feels quite natural, somehow, doesn’t it?’

And on that soothing note, they go to bed.

Chapter Nineteen: Holidays Begin Tomorrow

End of term! Which Kingscote celebrates with a two-hour assembly at which Miss Keith reads out the list of exam results, honours, form trophies and so on. Sounds riveting. Why can’t they just stick lists up on the noticeboards? It isn’t even the end of the school year. Lawrie, basking in her new fame as theatrical star, enjoys a conversation with the Sixth Formers in which they marvel over this year’s Third Remove, the oddest they can remember and filled with “brilliant eccentrics”. One Sixth Former predicts Tim’s future:

‘I can foresee the most frightful things happening when that Tim child is head girl. Nothing will ever go wrong exactly, but everything will be hideously unexpected … The staff will have a ghastly time.’

I don’t expect they have anything as democratic as student elections at Kingscote, which probably means the head girl is selected by Miss Keith. But maybe she’ll think the responsibility will do Tim good?

The one last excitement for Third Remove is that they’ve won the Tidiness Award, to Tim’s disgust (“We’re not that kind of form at all”). Also, it turns out Nicola has been awarded honours for her exam results and everyone else has failed spectacularly. Also, Miss Keith gives Tim a tiny compliment when she says the play’s performance justified her faith in Tim – although Tim points out that the headmistress “nearly frightened herself into a fit saying that when she thought of all the awful things it might do to my character”. It just occurs to me that Tim’s parents didn’t come to the play. Did she even go home for half-term? She’s had about two conversations with her aunt all term, so it’s not as though she has the consolation of a supportive relative at school. Poor Tim, no wonder she’s a bit spiky.

The Marlow sisters pack to go home and Nicola unwraps a parcel that’s just arrived – a photo of Giles’s new ship signed “Affec – G.A.M.”, so “it was good to know he wasn’t still furious”. Not that he actually apologised or anything. Lawrie is busy planning next term’s triumphs (winning the junior diving medal and so on) but Nicola is older and wiser:

“It was probably better to let things happen as they wanted to, instead of trying to arrange them, without knowing all the circumstances … much more interesting … much less disappointing …”

THE END.

Except it’s just the beginning of the series and I know they’re going to go home and get caught up in exciting adventures with spies and smugglers and drug-dealing pigeons. And what will happen next term at school? Will Nicola get moved up into IIIB or even IIIA, away from Lawrie and Tim? Will Ann coax the twins back into Guides? Will Ginty ever stop being a pain? And will the simmering tension between Rowan and that “boyish and handsome” Lois Sanger ever spark into romance? (There’s Marlow fanfiction out there, isn’t there? I bet there is. But it’s bound to be spoilery, so I can’t read any till I’ve read more of the books.)

In conclusion – Autumn Term was great! Funny, insightful, well-paced and highly recommended for those who enjoy British boarding school books.

_____

You might also be interested in reading:

‘Autumn Term’ by Antonia Forest
‘Autumn Term’: Part Two
‘Autumn Term’: Part Three
‘Autumn Term’: Part Four
‘Autumn Term’: Part Five
‘Autumn Term’: Part Six
‘Autumn Term’: Part Seven

‘Autumn Term’, Part Seven

Chapter Fifteen: A Form Meeting

Third Remove have a meeting to discuss the play and figure out the casting, even though Tim hasn’t finished writing it yet:

“Tim liked doing things which could be finished in a swift, concentrated rush; and she had found, with some dismay, that a play demanded sustained effort.”

(You probably shouldn’t try writing a novel, then, Tim.) Anyway, Tim explains what the play’s about, which is helpful because although I’ve read The Prince and the Pauper, it was such a long time ago I can’t remember much of it. Lawrie is going to play Tom Canty, the beggar boy who changes clothes with Prince Edward for fun, then finds himself stuck in the Palace and regarded as the prince after Edward is mistakenly thrown out by the guards. When King Henry dies, Edward has to fight his way back to Westminster Abbey to be recognised as the true King and be crowned. Nicola is Edward, of course, Pomona is Henry, Marie is John Canty and the rest of the form play a variety of beggars, guards and courtiers. Tim is going to be the narrator and do the lighting and curtains and direct everyone. To Tim’s annoyance, Pomona turns out to be really good at acting. No great surprise, she’s had more experience than anyone else…

Chapter Sixteen: A Question of Elocution

This is such a good chapter! Nothing terribly exciting happens – they just rehearse their play – but there’s so much going on in terms of characters interacting and revealing fascinating parts of themselves and how their little society works. Even the minor characters start to blossom in unexpected ways (for example, “Elaine Rees, who at her own request had been given the smallest parts available, was gradually achieving courage enough to speak above a whisper”). Tim has the pleasure of watching her words (well, her and Mark Twain’s words) come to life on stage and Lawrie is revealed to be a genuinely gifted actor. Nicola’s devotion to duty comes to the fore and she enjoys painting all the backdrops, with the help of Miss Jennings, the art mistress. (Miss Jennings is the Cool Teacher. She is “ruefully amused” at her students’ artistic incompetence, telling Third Remove “that their efforts, poor as there were, were too funny to be depressing.”)

There is only one problem, but it’s a big one. Tim finally takes her part in rehearsals to read the prologue and it’s a disaster:

‘Your voice is all wrong,’ said Lawrie, too distressed on the play’s account to consider Tim’s feelings. ‘I can’t explain, but you don’t make one see things. D’you remember how Lois read on the hike, Nick? That’s the proper way. Yours is awful.’

I can see why Third Remove like Nicola more than Lawrie. Lawrie’s so self-absorbed. The play is her thing and she doesn’t care about anyone else’s feelings. And whenever there’s a crisis, she just bursts into tears and expects Nicola to do all the work of fixing things. You can tell Lawrie’s always been the baby of the family.

Nicola tries to help Tim, but can’t really explain how Lois Sanger read so well. Tim bravely decides she’ll go and ask Lois for some tips. “Even the Upper Fifth have the elements of humanity in them, I suppose,” she thinks dubiously. (Remember when you were in Year Seven, or First Form, or whatever it was called at your school, and the senior students seemed so grown-up and terrifying? And then you finally got to wear a blazer and have your own common room and treat the juniors as adorable idiots – uncomfortably aware that you were about to enter the adult world and would soon be starting at the bottom all over again?)

Anyway, Lois agrees to listen to Tim read (and agrees Tim is awful) and provides a demonstration (and Tim sees what the twins mean, but knows she’ll never be able to read as well as Lois). Tim is sunk in gloom. Will they have to give up the play? And listen to the other Third Formers gloating about Third Remove’s failure? But then, a miracle! Lois says:

‘Look. I’ve been reading this. I think it’s immensely good. If you can’t think of any other way, would you like me to do the reading for you?’

Of course, there’s lots going on under the surface. By doing this tremendous favour, Lois gets to help the “Marlow brats” without having to acknowledge the injustice of her actions at the Court of Honour. It also turns out the rest of her Guide patrol are now passive-aggressively undermining Lois, presumably because Jill, the second-in-command, told everyone what happened. (Except why didn’t Jill say something at the Court of Honour? She knew the truth.) Tim is pleased because the play is saved and having a senior involved will soothe Miss Cartwright, who’s starting to make anxious noises. There’s a lovely bit where Tim and Lois separately acknowledge how alike and Machiavellian they are. Lois ends the chapter

“…with a faintly uneasy twitch of nerves that Tim’s mental processes and her own were not unlike. And it was disconcerting and not too pleasant to hear it done aloud.”

Next, Chapter Seventeen: The Prince and the Pauper

‘Autumn Term’, Part Six

Chapter Twelve: Tim Loses Her Temper

Poor Nicola is feeling a bit left out as Tim and Lawrie plan their play, so she throws herself into her Tidiness Monitress duties with excessive zeal. Meanwhile, Tim is feeling under pressure, especially as Pomona – the star of her mother’s theatrical extravaganzas at home – keeps criticising Tim’s decisions and wants to know what she’s going to be:

‘That,’ said Tim, ‘is one of the mysteries of the future.’
‘I mean in the play,’ said Pomona.
‘So do I,’ said Tim.

Tim is often unkind, but most of the class find her funny. She does one of her nasty Pomona drawings on the blackboard and is furious when Nicola insists on rubbing it off before a tidiness inspection. Tim accuses Nicola of being after the Tidiness Award because Nicola has failed at everything else:

‘It’s a mistake,’ continued Tim, who, on the infrequent occasions when she lost her temper, surprised herself unpleasantly by the things she found to say, ‘it’s a mistake to try to be distinguished when you haven’t done anything to be distinguished with. It makes you look foolish. People laugh.’

They have the sort of fight that can only happen between best friends who know each others’ weak spots, made worse for Nicola when Lawrie takes Tim’s side. When I was at school, girls had these sorts of bitter verbal conflicts, whereas boys just punched one another, but it was only the boys who got in trouble with the teachers. I wonder if the girls’ fights were more painful and damaging in the long run.

Also, Tim and Lawrie make their quarrel obvious by sitting apart from Nicola at breakfast, which makes her think that:

People ought to keep these things to themselves, very secret and private, so that outside people shouldn’t be able to lean across and say: ‘What’s up with you and Lawrie?’ in the silly, nudging kind of voices people used when something mattered a great deal to one person and was only something to be gossiped over by the others.

It is all too much for Nicola so she decides to run away to sea.

Chapter Thirteen: Operation Nelson

Okay, Nicola can’t really run away to sea to join a ship, but she can visit Giles, who’s currently with his new ship at Port Wade, about ninety minutes away by train. After all, he’d told her to be bad. The punishment for being out of bounds will be severe, but that wouldn’t matter:

“… she imagined the meeting with Giles, the enormous tea at some small dark-windowed inn which had once been a meeting place for smugglers … and just, just possibly seeing over his ship … at the very thought of so much glory her eyes clenched tightly shut for a moment.”

Things go surprisingly well at first. True, she doesn’t have enough money for a return train ticket and she’s too honourable and proud to borrow or steal it from Lawrie, but she can afford a single ticket and some sweets and she enjoys her trip and then has a fascinating wander along the docks. It’s only when she reaches the end of the docks that she comes back down to earth with a thud. Giles’s ship is far out to sea, she hasn’t bumped into him on the docks and worse – she suddenly realises she is stranded in Port Wade without the train fare home!

Chapter Fourteen: A Part for Pomona

Nicola, in a wild panic, considers which of her possessions she can pawn (although she doesn’t consider pawning her knife, or for that matter, getting on the train without a ticket). She has a moment of “ecstatic relief” when she spots Giles in the street, but he is furious at her. Just a reminder, it was Giles himself who encouraged Nicola to break bounds at school and be as bad as possible. He does buy her a sandwich and a train ticket and sees her onto the train, I suppose, but only after a cold, curt dressing-down. Nicola humbly takes his side:

“It had been idiotic of her to forget that Giles would loathe having his family around unless he had invited them specially; particularly loathe to have them turn up when he was engaged on official business.”

Actually, I think he was just on his way to the pub with his mate. Although maybe it sounds worse than it was because it’s being narrated by Nicola when she’s filled with self-loathing. Anyway, she has a miserable trip back and has to take a terrifying short-cut through the dark fields to get back to school. But her luck holds and it turns out Lawrie has covered up for her absence. Even luckier, Nicola missed out on a flaming row when Miss Cartwright finally realised the whole class (except for Marie) had been bullying Pomona all term:

‘And it isn’t even true,’ said Lawrie, bouncing on the bed, wrathful and indignant. ‘Bullying’s twisting people’s arms and roasting them and things, isn’t it? And we’ve never laid a finger on the little beast, have we?’

I’m glad this has been addressed. We only see Pomona’s treatment from the point of view of the bullies, so it would be easy for readers to think that it’s just a joke or that Pomona deserves it because she’s so annoying – we don’t get to see her crying in her dorm, for instance. Third Remove are punished by having a day’s silence and Tim has to give Pomona a proper part in the play. Tim says Pomona can be Henry VIII because “she lies on a sofa and looks fat and she dies practically when we start”. I don’t think Tim has quite got the anti-bullying message, but at least she, Lawrie and Nicola are all friends again, their fight “swallowed up in the greater stressors of the moment”.

By the way, I’ve been trying to figure out where Kingscote is and realised the town names are all made up – there isn’t a Port Wade in England, for one thing. But the town’s cathedral has a tomb with a knight holding his lady’s hand so I wondered if it’s a fictional version of the Arundel Tomb in Chichester Cathedral (although Philip Larkin didn’t write his poem about it until about 1956).

Next, Chapter Fifteen: A Form Meeting

‘Autumn Term’, Part Five

Chapter Nine: Half-Term

It’s half-term and the Marlow sisters go home for a long weekend. Over breakfast with their parents and their brother Peter, the twins’ school reports are discussed. Surprisingly, the teachers say they’ve made a “good start”. (I should note here that we know almost nothing about the twins’ school work. We learn they’re being taught to salt their greens in domestic science, and there’s an offhand comment somewhere about Nicola being bad at history, but I want to know what, exactly, they’re studying – especially as they seemed to know almost nothing when they started school. But I guess the author figured that schoolgirl readers would be more interested in extra-curricular activities and social dramas than descriptions of maths lessons.) The report does mention the twins got suspended from Guides and this leads to important revelations.

Firstly, Karen says the headmistress blamed Miss Redmond for the hiking disaster (good). Then Ann is horrified to learn the truth about Lois Sanger’s mismanagement of the hike and the injustice of the twins’ suspension. Rowan says it’s typical of Lois, who’s a “poisonous female” who pretends to sprain her ankle before each netball match, so that if she plays badly, she has an excuse. This, it turns out, was the cause of the infamous Rowan-Lois post-match row. Lois claimed her pretend injury was due to Rowan pushing her, whereupon their coach interrogated the team, realised Lois’s injury was fake, and said Lois shouldn’t have played if she wasn’t fit, demoting her to the Seconds. Lois is such a Slytherin.

But their father says there’s nothing Ann can do now to set the record straight in the Guides because the whole thing is “dead and buried”. After five days? Seriously, it’s this mentality that leads to cover-ups of military misconduct. Let’s not ever create a fuss or challenge authority figures, even when they’ve clearly got things wrong! Then Commander Marlow pressures the twins into abandoning any hope of seeing justice done:

“They thought on the whole they would rather like to be cleared in a blaze of glory and have their badges handed back and Lois Sanger’s nose rubbed in the dust; but Father obviously thought it wasn’t worth making a fuss about…”

Luckily, Nicola’s favourite sibling Giles turns up on unexpected shore leave because his ship has collided with another British ship. Karen, Rowan and Ginty give him a ‘hilarious’ account of the twins’ thwarted school ambitions, which makes Nicola cry (‘I suppose this is how Lawrie always feels,’ she thinks) so Giles takes the twins to the cinema to cheer them up. Over a rather sickening-sounding tea (lemonade, sandwiches, ice-cream, cakes and coffee with cream), he tells them they might as well stop trying to be credits to the family and ought to try being really bad – breaking bounds to go to the circus, for instance. Oh, well done, Giles. I’m not feeling very impressed with the wisdom of British naval officers at this point.

Lawrie, still traumatised by the Court of Honour, vows to be good and quiet for the rest of her life, so Nicola says she’ll be bad all by herself. I can see absolutely no way this can go wrong…

Chapter Ten: Kitchen and Jumble

Back at school, everyone is preoccupied with the Christmas bazaar the Third Formers are holding to raise funds for the library. There’s another nice bit of psychological insight here from the author:

“Tim, who for five weeks had hoped that something would happen which would force Lawrie and Nicola to drop Guides, was affected by the queer, uncertain feeling of guilt which arises from seeing one’s secret ill-wishing with regard to other people come true; and because she felt guilty and in an odd way responsible, she was a little afraid Nicola might think she was pleased the row had happened. All this lent her manner an unfamiliar heartiness when talking to Nicola, which irritated them both.”

The Third Remove come up with lots of exciting ideas for the bazaar, but when Jean and Hazel come back from the combined Third Form prefects’ meeting, it turns out IIIA and IIIB have bagged all the best stalls. Third Remove only have two of twelve stalls, which are Kitchen and Jumble – deemed “quite good enough for Third Remove”. Uproar in Third Remove! Tim declares they shouldn’t do either – in fact, why not do something of their own? Like … put on a play! In the school theatre! Yes, the play’s the thing! All they need is staff permission. Tim rushes off to ask her Aunt Edith, who is non-committal until Tim blurts out the truth – that Third Remove is fed up because they always get the worst of everything. This seems to come as a surprise to the headmistress, even though she’s the one who banned them from playing netball. But she gives Tim permission and even agrees to talk Miss Cartwright into it. Hooray! Tim can go back to Third Remove in triumph, except … which play are they going to do?

Chapter Eleven: Tim Needs a Note-Book

The play needs to have twins in it, but Tim doesn’t want dull old Twelfth Night because everyone always does Shakespeare. She has a vague recollection of some play with young identical princes in it, so goes off to the library to look for it. (By the way, this is the first time anyone in Third Remove is seen entering the library. I think there’s a reason they’re all in the Remove.) Karen and her friend Margaret help her find what she’s searching for – Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, about a beggar boy who changes places with Edward, son of King Henry VIII. Unfortunately, it’s a novel, not a play. But why shouldn’t Tim adapt the work into a script?

“It isn’t as if I’d got to make it up. It’s mostly there. It only needs pulling together a bit. I don’t see why that should be so awfully difficult…”

Lawrie comes in and she and Tim enthusiastically discuss their (very ambitious) plans. They have six weeks to write a play, rehearse it and make all the costumes and sets. Tim starts to have doubts, but Lawrie is absolutely certain they can pull this off. It is very uncharacteristic of Lawrie to be so confident about anything, Tim points out, but I think Lawrie has finally found her passion in life. She did say after her cinema visit that she wanted to be a film star…

Next, Chapter Twelve: Tim Loses Her Temper

‘Autumn Term’, Part Four

Chapter Seven: A First Class Hike

Before we get to the hike – it turns out Lois Sanger has been demoted to the netball Seconds after the Firsts’ catastrophic loss. Even though Lawrie loftily claims the Marlows don’t gossip (‘Aren’t we noble?’ remarks Marie), the twins are deeply interested in Jean’s insider knowledge, via her older sister Pauline. Apparently Rowan is a good, steady player but Lois is inconsistently brilliant, and Rowan lost her temper at Lois after the match because Lois happened to be having an off day.

Lawrie starts to think Rowan has been rather beastly to poor Lois, and that the twins ought to make it up to Lois by being super-good at Guides. Nicola accuses Lawrie of being fickle for liking Lois while still having a crush on Margaret, the games captain. Lawrie counters that at least she likes real people, unlike Nicola who’s been “wallowing in Nelson” for years. Then Karen comes along and takes points off for talking after lights out and Lawrie remarks sadly:

‘You would think she could turn her deaf ear to the telescope sometimes, wouldn’t you?’

Oh, Lawrie. She’s a bit dim, but she has a big heart.

(Can I just make a diversion here to talk about food? For supper, the twins had “bread and butter and stewed fruit” with a glass of milk. The seniors had macaroni cheese. So far, breakfast has been porridge, bread and marmalade. They have sugary buns for morning tea and “tea and bread and butter and plain cake” for afternoon tea. On the train, they had chocolate, then afterwards Nicola was treated to Raspberryade and a peach sundae by Rowan at a teashop. I don’t know what the students are served for midday dinner, but I’m hoping it involves protein and green vegetables. It’s a wonder the girls aren’t fainting all over the place from anaemia and hyperglycaemia. At least in Enid Blyton books they get to eat hard-boiled eggs and ham rolls and potted-meat sandwiches.)

Anyway, Lawrie’s brilliant plan is that the twins will use their initiative on the hike to help Lois get her remaining First Class badge. But things go wrong from the start. Lois can’t read the map properly and they get lost. The twins, trailing behind with Marie, start playing with matches. Lawrie suggests to Lois that the twins take an illegal shortcut across a farm to the beach, so they can set up the fire for the others, saving time. Lois half-heartedly agrees, then changes her mind and sends Marie after them. Marie, terrified of animals, hides near the farm gate for a while, then rushes back to Lois to claim she shouted but the twins didn’t hear her. On the beach, they all cook lunch (for the record, fried bacon, sausages and potato, plus ‘campers dreams’ filled with jam and butter) and listen to Lois reading a story, but then DISASTER STRIKES.

Farmer Probyn turns up and accuses the Guides of setting fire to his hayrick! Nicola, who cannot tell a lie, owns up to running through the farm with Lawrie. Marie pipes up to say the twins were playing with matches and Lois pretends the twins ran off without asking her. So unfair! But perhaps the truth will come out at the Court of Honour…

Chapter Eight: A Court of Honour

This section captures the moral complexity of the situation beautifully and highlights the advantage of using third-person omniscient point of view. We get to understand the issues from the perspective of the twins, Marie, Lois, even their exasperated Captain. Everyone has made mistakes, but the individuals deal with the consequences in characteristic ways. Lawrie falls to pieces and sobs helplessly, relying on Nicola to sort things out. Nicola, expecting those in authority to be as honest and straightforward as she is, gets confused when Lois tells half-truths (“It was so nearly what had happened that her own vision of what had taken place was blurred”) and fails to explain adequately, not helped by the very intimidating atmosphere. And Marie, having had lots of practice in making up stories to explain away her failings, manages to lie very convincingly.

After some deliberation, Miss Redmond calls the twins back in to announce the verdict. Although the cause of the fire is still in the hands of the insurance company, the Guide leaders have decided the twins broke three rules: they played with matches, they disobeyed Lois by running away through the farm and they disobeyed Lois again by lighting a fire on the beach. Of course, the twins are guilty of only the first of these sins, and it could be argued that was Lois’s fault for not supervising properly. But the poor twins are suspended from Guides for a year and have to hand in their badges!

Once everyone else has gone, Miss Redmond does admonish Lois and point out all the ways Lois could have behaved more effectively as patrol leader, finishing up with “my dear Lois, you behaved as though nothing mattered but your badge test.” Except the whole Guiding experience, with all its badges and tests and certificates, is set up precisely to encourage this sort of behaviour. Anyway, if Miss Redmond understands most of what happened, which she seems to, why is she punishing the most junior patrol members so severely while allowing the most senior to escape any penalty?

Lois, by the way, actually has the nerve to ask if she passed her hiking test! Then she privately decides she’ll use her Matric exam as an excuse to give up Guides if things don’t go perfectly for her from now on.

Grrr! I’m glad we’re only halfway through the book and there’s still a chance for justice to be done.

Next, Chapter Nine: Half-Term

‘Autumn Term’, Part Three

Chapter Five: –And Nicola Loses It

A storm is brewing in Third Remove! Nobody much likes Marie, so she makes friends with ghastly Pomona and they plot to unseat Nicola from her prize desk at the front of the classroom. Actually it’s mostly Marie doing the plotting (“Marie remembered her defeats, sucking persistently at the memory as though it were a particularly hard, unpleasant-tasting toffee”). An approach to Miss Cartwright fails but Marie is not deterred, “being possessed of a dull obstinacy which could carry her successfully through any number of snubs”. She comes up with the bright idea of simply swapping all Nicola and Pomona’s books over during midday dinner, thinking that Nicola is bound to accept this fait accompli. Yeah, that’s really going to work, Marie. I can see why Marie is in Third Remove.

Anyway, the twins and Tim come back early, Nicola chucks Pomona’s books on the floor, Pomona tries to pull Nicola out of her chair and after a tussle, “desk and combatants fell sideways in one final, glorious crash”. Naturally the prefect who arrives to investigate is Karen, who doesn’t listen to explanations and says Nicola should have the place and Pomona the desk (which is damaged now anyway). Karen thinks she’s been fair and impartial; most of Third Remove thinks she’s been a “silly ass”, but they’re too polite to say. So unfair!

Chapter Six: A New Patrol

More complete and utter unfairness! It turns out Third Remove aren’t allowed to play netball, because the headmistress regards them as “delicate, gentle souls who aren’t strong enough to romp in rough games like netball”. All they can play is boring old rounders. Lawrie is devastated because “this was absolutely the very worst thing that had ever happened”, even worse than when she accidentally tore up her father’s important papers or Nicola got mumps the day they were supposed to go to the circus. How are the twins going to become netball stars now? Are all their plans ruined?

The twins tell Tim, who is not exactly devastated by the news. I have to say, I’m with Tim. I’d be ecstatic about not having to play netball. (I’m not sure if netball is a thing in America, so I’d better explain here that it’s a bit like basketball, but with even stupider rules. It is pretty much mandatory for Australian schoolgirls, so much so that it’s claimed you can predict an Australian woman’s personality based on which position she played on the netball court. I was Wing Defence, “the Jan Brady to [Wing Attack]’s Marcia”, which I chose because with a bit of luck, I could get through an entire game without touching the ball.)

Anyway, the twins decide they’d better join the Guides, so at least they’ll be triumphant in something. After all, they were really good at Brownies! Tim refuses to have anything to do with it, especially when the twins sing her the Brownie song:

We’re the Fairies glad and gay,
Helping others every day!

Also, Pomona and Marie are joining the Guides. Also, Ann, the twins’ annoyingly helpful sister, will be their Patrol Leader. Also, their Captain is Miss Redmond, the domestic science teacher, who only that morning “told Lawrie she would never catch a husband if she couldn’t remember to put salt in her greens”. (Take note, ladies, that’s what men really want – well-salted greens. Although if she’s Miss Redmond, what would she know about catching a husband?)

But the twins pass their initial Guide tests and everything is going smoothly until DRAMA!

First, Rowan’s netball team unexpectedly loses a cup match and is out of contention for the County Shield. Then rumours fly around the school that “Rowan and Lois Sanger had fallen on one another foaming with fury and had had to be parted by the umpires” (this rumour courtesy of Tim, of course). Then it turns out there are so many new Guides they have to create a new patrol and the patrol leader is none other than Lois Sanger! Who hates all the Marlows! Then it’s revealed that Lois only has to do one more test before she passes First Class, and that’s to take her patrol on a hike and bring them all back intact! WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?

Next, Chapter Seven: A First Class Hike

‘Autumn Term’, Part Two

Chapter Three: A Form Examination

The twins meet up with Tim in the garden and Tim offers them delicious juicy pears, which she cheerfully admits she stole from the headmistress’s private garden. As the twins are trying to get Tim to understand the gravity of this crime, another new girl arrives and Tim is horrified to see it’s her ghastly neighbour, Pomona. Here’s why Tim despises Pomona:

– Pomona is sweet and gentle and charms all the grown-ups
– Pomona is “stout” and dressed by her mother in sandals and a silk tunic
– Pomona’s mother is “frightfully artistic” (unlike Tim’s father, who paints in a masculine and professional manner)

Pomona is bound to be put in Third Remove because she is “delicate and highly-strung and backward” and Tim wishes the twins were going to be in Third Remove too, so the three of them could start an Anti-Pomona League. Nicola is sad that can’t happen because “of course, Marlows always did go into an A form. You couldn’t alter that.”

Nicola, you just keep digging that hole…

Apparently, students don’t have to do any sort of entrance examination before enrolment? All the new girls go off to do the Form Exam on their second day and the twins are horrified to realise they can’t even understand the questions, let alone answer them (“I kept staring at the beastly thing and wondering if it would look better upside down”). The results are posted a few hours later (how do the teachers grade them so quickly?) and big surprise, the twins, Tim and Pomona are all in Third Remove. But I’m really starting to appreciate the psychological insight the author is weaving into her narrative. Ginty (of course) makes a stupid joke to her friends about Nick and Lawrie being stuck in the Dimwits class and here’s Nicola’s reaction:

Nicola, misunderstanding, thought the laughter directed against herself and Lawrie. A lump rose perilously in her throat and she glanced hurriedly at her twin: but Lawrie’s expression was one of dazed bewilderment rather than dismay; it sometimes took time for disaster to penetrate her fully; in an hour or so she might burst into tears; until then she would probably assert violently that it was a mistake and that Miss Cartwright would tell them so in the morning.

Nicola swallowed secretly. One could not, of course, cry here, in front of all the crowd. Probably it would be better not to cry at all if it could be managed. And certainly one must not plunge for the door head down; one must wait until the crowd began to break up and then stroll nonchalantly away in company with anyone who cared to come. Nicola stuck her hands through her girdle, whistled softly between her teeth, and turned her head to give Tim a quick little smile. Tim smiled back quickly too, but as though she were embarrassed. She thinks I mind, thought Nicola crossly and correctly; and said rather loudly: ‘It’s pretty good, I think. We can have the A.P.L. anyway.’

Isn’t that good writing? In two paragraphs, we learn so much about three of the main characters. The question is, has Nicola learned anything from this experience?

Chapter Four: Tim Bags a Desk–

At breakfast the next day, Nicola and Lawrie are surprised but relieved to find they “cared a good deal less”, thanks partly to Rowan’s sympathy. Tim is eating another illegal pear and when told off by a teacher, lies that she’s brought it from home and anyway, wants “special privileges” because her aunt is headmistress. Miss Cartwright attempts to squash Tim, but Tim seems unsquashable. Nicola goes off to collect their books, deeply disturbed by Tim’s stealing and lies, but she manages to convince herself that it isn’t really an important crime and she’s sure Tim would confess if directly questioned. Hmm… Back upstairs in their new classroom, it is revealed that Tim got up early to bag the best desks at the front of the classroom. The other students are not happy. Tim uses the privilege argument again:

‘…me being Miss Keith’s niece and Nick and Laurie the head girl’s sisters. I mean to say, obviously we sit in front.’

There was a slight quiver in Tim’s voice as though she badly wanted to laugh, though Nicola couldn’t see why.’

That’s because Nicola isn’t an wily, scheming nonconformist. I like Tim, but I hope she starts to use her powers for good rather than evil.

Tim gives Nicola the nicest desk, a shiny new one. Although I’m not sure why they want the front row seats because surely they’ll get into more trouble if they’re right under the teacher’s nose? Anyway, the other students send a delegate, Marie, to argue with Nicola about the new desk. Nicola refuses to move. Marie goes off to brood about this and plan her revenge. Tim incites the others to tease Pomona about her name (which is a bit rich, considering Tim’s name is Thalia, but Pomona doesn’t help matters by throwing a foot-stamping tantrum). Miss Cartwright comes in and appoints Jean and Hazel form prefects. Tim and Lawrie are Flower Monitresses and Nicola gets Tidiness. Finally, Miss Cartwright tells them not to feel bad about being put in Third Remove:

‘So don’t feel, any of you, that you’ve been put in Third Remove because you’re outstandingly brainless. Just tell IIIB from me that there are far more really stupid people amongst them than there are here.’

They don’t make teachers like that any more. Thank goodness.

Next, Chapter Five: –And Nicola Loses It

‘Autumn Term’ by Antonia Forest

After hearing a lot of praise for Antonia Forest’s Marlow books, I was happy to find a reasonably-priced copy of the first in the series, Autumn Term, originally published in 1948. I had high expectations for this book and so far, a few chapters in, I’m liking it very much – and also having a lot of thoughts about it, so I’ve decided to blog about it as I read. If you aren’t much interested in British boarding school stories, you might want to avert your gaze from Memoranda for the next little while.

Chapter One: A Knife with Sixteen Blades

'Autumn Term' by Antonia ForestSo, the story begins with twins Nicola and Lawrie Marlow, aged twelve, on a train, nervously heading off for their first ever term at school. The twins are in a compartment with their sisters, of whom there seems to be a vast number. Karen is head girl, Rowan is a netball star, Ann’s a Girl Guide Patrol Leader, Ginty is … actually, I don’t know what Ginty’s talent is, but it’s definitely not being nice to her younger sisters. Admittedly, Nicola is bouncing around, making a nuisance of herself by asking a lot of questions about school. But the twins have the huge weight of family expectations on their (identical) shoulders. They have “an awful lot to live up to”. And they are reminding me a lot of Ron Weasley …

Nicola and Lawrie go out into the train’s corridor where they meet a dark-haired girl who’s all alone, is happy to share her stash of chocolate and is quickly revealed to be the Chosen One headmistress’s niece. Tim hasn’t been to school either, but at least she has an excuse because her father is a painter who travels the world and she does speak a lot of languages. The twins, though, haven’t been to school properly because “every time we started we always caught something” (contagious diseases, Nicola means, not fish or fire). So they haven’t attended school for the past seven years because they keep getting sick? Hopefully, they’ve had lots of home tutoring, because they’re expecting to be placed into Form IIIA – not IIIB and certainly not the dreaded Third Remove, which is for utter idiots. Tim is cheerfully resigned to being put into Third Remove, but Nick and Lawrie have decided they’re not just going straight into the top form, they’re going to be credits to their family in many, many fields of endeavour:

“…first we’ve got to get into the junior netball team, so that next year Nick can be captain and me vice. And then – we’ve been Brownies at home, you know – so we’re going to pass our Tenderfoot and fly up and get our Second Class badges all in one term.”

I have a sneaking suspicion that things are not going to go as planned for the twins.

Tim goes to have a peek at the famous Marlow sisters and the twins explain there are also two Marlow brothers, one in the navy and one at Dartmouth. So that’s eight of them – Giles, Karen, Rowan, Ann, Ginty, Peter and the twins. Their father’s a commander in the navy. Presumably their mother is slumped on a chaise longue, recovering from giving birth to at least eight children in ten years. It seems a very large number of children for an upper-middle-class English family in the 1940s. Are they Catholic? Is Kingscote a Catholic school?

Anyway, back in the train corridor, chocolate is munched and confidences are shared. Tim has a horror of being “quiet and dreary” and is planning to take advantage of her relationship with her headmistress aunt at every opportunity. Lawrie has a big crush on Margaret, the games captain, who’s Karen’s best friend. (I really hope there are actual lesbians in this book, but that’s probably expecting too much.) Lawrie got a nice watch for their going-away-to-school present, but Nicola proudly displays a super-duper knife with sixteen blades. Then the train jolts and the knife flies out the window! No, it’s okay, it’s resting on a ledge. They’ll retrieve it when the train stops. Wait, the train’s going through a tunnel. And when it emerges, THE KNIFE HAS DISAPPEARED!

Chapter Two: ‘A Fine of Five Pounds…’

‘In an emergency,’ Commander Marlow was given to telling his family, ‘act at once.’ On occasion he amplified this, saying that it was also necessary to think clearly and sensibly and not act upon impulse. Nicola, however, had absorbed only the dictum that she was to act immediately.

Nicola pulls the cord, stops the train and bounds off down into the tunnel. There is general uproar on the train because no one knows what is going on. Karen, head girl, is calm and sensible until she realises Nick has vanished. Lawrie becomes unhelpfully speechless. Nicola re-appears, luckily not squashed flat by another train, and is dragged back on board by the guard and Miss Cromwell, a nasty teacher who proceeds to berate poor Karen. Then Rowan comes to her rescue. The Marlow sisters regather in their compartment. Karen has a nervous breakdown and Ginty continues to be a giant pain:

‘I must tell Peter,’ burst out Ginty irrepressibly. ‘He’s always been absolutely wild to pull a communication cord or smash one of those things that stop elevators…’

‘Be quiet, Ginty,’ snapped Karen, without looking round.

‘You needn’t bite my head off,’ retorted Ginty. ‘For once, I haven’t done a thing.’

‘Oh, Gin, for heaven’s sake,’ said Rowan. ‘Don’t talk as if you were the tomboy of the Remove. All through the holidays you kept trying to give the impression that a mild case of bounds-breaking had brought you to the edge of expulsion. I could have throttled you.’

‘There was a row,’ said Ginty indignantly. ‘An awful row. Miss Keith said –’

‘I know you went round weeping for days after whatever Miss Keith said,’ said Rowan pitilessly, ‘but that still doesn’t make you the naughtiest girl in the Fourth.’

Rowan is the best. She walks Nicola up to school (while the others take a taxi) and shares some words of wisdom with her little sister. Nicola belatedly realises she could have been killed, or worse, expelled. When they reach school, they encounter an unfriendly presence:

‘Two more of your illustrious family to bring honour to the dear old school … And one of them stopped the train, I hear. Such a clever and original way of making the Marlows conspicuous the very first day.’

It’s Malfoy! No, it’s Lois Sanger. There is clearly bad blood between her and Rowan, but what could possibly have needled easy-going, sensible Rowan? Something netball-related? Meanwhile, Miss Keith, the headmistress, ticks off Karen, then Nicola. Chastened, they head upstairs to unpack.

All the sisters except Karen are sharing a dormitory together, which seems a bit weird. Wouldn’t it be more helpful for new girls to be in a dorm with their classmates? Ginty, in addition to everything else, is UNTIDY. I’m really not seeing the point of Ginty so far, but maybe she has hidden talents. Also, each girl is permitted two framed photographs on her dressing-chest and Nicola has a portrait of Nelson and a photo of her brother Giles’s ship! Not Giles, just his ship.

Okay, so I’m wondering whether this is actually set in the late 1940s? There’s no mention of the war or rationing or Blitz damage. And if it was post-WWII, wouldn’t Nicola worship a more recent naval hero than Nelson (not that I can think of any particularly stellar performances by the British Navy during WWII, off hand). Also, where is this school? They take a ‘southern region’ train, there’s a cathedral in the town and it’s by the sea. I suppose it could be fictional, but I’m going to try and figure it out.

Malfoy Lois Sanger has the last word in this chapter, as the twins rush past her on their way downstairs to meet Tim. ‘I always feel it must be so gratifying to be a Marlow,’ she says sarcastically. I have a feeling Lois is going to cause major trouble at some stage …

Next, Chapter Three: A Form Examination.

_____

You might also be interested in reading:

‘Autumn Term’: Part Two
‘Autumn Term’: Part Three
‘Autumn Term’: Part Four
‘Autumn Term’: Part Five
‘Autumn Term’: Part Six
‘Autumn Term’: Part Seven
‘Autumn Term’: Part Eight

‘The Genius of Birds’ by Jennifer Ackerman

'The Genius of Birds' by Jennifer AckermanCould there be a book title more perfectly designed to appeal to my interests? Jennifer Ackerman’s new book is a fascinating exploration of bird intelligence, which begins with a description of the New Caledonian crow’s amazing ability to make and use tools in a variety of contexts. Of course, other birds also use found objects – to hook food out of holes, to carry water or honey to their nests, even to fight off enemies (with one documented case of a crow and a jay having a ‘sword’ fight with a sharp twig). However, tool use is just one of an awe-inspiring array of abilities displayed by birds.

I was especially interested to read about the complex social skills of different bird species. Birds tease one another, play together, teach useful skills to younger birds and console family members after an upsetting event. Some of them spy on and steal from their rivals, kidnap baby birds or feign injury to fool an enemy. They are sensitive to injustice and, just like dogs and primates, will refuse to work for a smaller reward than their peers. They can choose to delay gratification to receive a bigger reward later (which many humans struggle to do) and will bring gifts to those who have rescued or fed them (although not necessarily gifts that most humans will appreciate – one girl in Seattle received buttons, screws, hinges, a tiny plastic tube and a rotting crab claw).

Bird song is also complex, with many similarities to human language. Just like humans, young birds have an instinctual urge to vocalise, with an ‘optimal period’ of learning. Like humans, they learn by imitation and practice, although some birds are far superior to humans in the number of ‘languages’ they can learn and show amazing acoustic consistency when singing a particular song. Birds sing the dialect particular to their local area and can show ‘speech defects’, such as a stutter.

Other human-like abilities include architectural and artistic skills. There’s a wonderful description of an Australian satin bowerbird building not a nest, but a boudoir for attracting and seducing females:

“First, he furiously clears debris from an area about a yard square and then sets about diligently collecting twigs and grasses, which he distributes evenly to make his ‘platform’. From this collection, he selects choice twigs to plant in two neat rows, creating a kind of avenue carefully positioned to catch the morning strike of sun. At the northern end, he arranges his bed of fine twigs, evening it out. This will serve as the background for his panoply of decorations – and also as a sort of dance floor, where he will later offer up some showy pirouette and song.

Next comes the business of collecting treasures. Not just any object will do. This bird is bullish on blue: cornflower-blue tail feathers from a parrot, lavender lobelia blossoms, shiny blue fruits from the quandong tree, purple petunias, and blue delphiniums stolen from a nearby homestead, along with fragments of cobalt glass or pottery, navy blue hair ribbons, bits of turquoise tarp, blue bus tickets, straws, toys, ballpoint pens, that [turquoise glass] eyeball, and his prize, a baby-blue pacifier pilfered from his neighbor. These he arranges artfully against his twig canvas. If his flowers wither or his berries shrivel, he’ll replace them with fresh ones. Watch for a few more days, and you might see him paint a chest-high band on the inside of his twig hall, using dried hoop pine needles he has chewed and crushed in his beak.”

Other birds build ingenious nests from natural and human-made materials, with sparrows even adding cigarette butts (which contain chemicals that repel bird parasites).

There’s an engrossing discussion of how pigeons and migratory birds manage their extraordinary feats of navigation and memory, which leads to a critique of our biased, anthropocentric definitions of ‘intelligence’. The author ends with a sober warning about how human activity – hunting, deforestation, pollution and climate change – is already threatening some bird species. Within a few decades, the effect on bird diversity could be catastrophic and this book demonstrates just how much we would lose.

Anyone with the slightest interest in birds will find this book fascinating, but it will also appeal to those interested in the wider field of human and animal cognition. Highly recommended!

You might also be interested in reading:

‘Alex and Me’ by Irene M. Pepperberg