‘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.

‘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

‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ by Diana Wynne Jones

I have had a mixed reaction to the novels of Diana Wynne Jones so far. I enjoyed Dogsbody, I thought Charmed Life was okay, I loathed Fire and Hemlock. I was also a bit put off by DWJ’s fans, some of whom display almost religious levels of devotion to her. This obliges them to not only promote her work assiduously, but also disparage anyone else who’s had the audacity to write children’s fantasy, especially if those writers manage to sell more books than their idol. (I mean, didn’t J. K. Rowling realise that Diana Wynne Jones was the only British author ever allowed to write about orphans attending magic school?)

'Howl's Moving Castle' by Diana Wynne JonesHowever, I’ve just finished Howl’s Moving Castle and finally understand what DWJ’s fans are going on about, because this book was utterly charming – funny, clever, warm-hearted and featuring some of the most endearing characters I’ve come across in children’s fantasy. The dreaded Wizard Howl, rumoured to suck the souls from innocent young girls or maybe eat their hearts, turns out to be far less evil than suspected, although with enough flaws to fill a (moving) castle. There’s also Calcifer, his adorably grumpy demon, Michael, the anxious apprentice and Sophie, the valiant heroine placed under a curse by a wicked witch. The author has a lot of fun playing with fantasy conventions – seven-league boots, magical disguises, mysterious spells, supernatural battles, kings sending magicians on dangerous quests and so on – although my favourite part was when the magical world collided with the real one. In one chapter, Sophie and Michael accompany Howl to his original home in the “land of Wales”. Sophie is baffled by the clothes (Howl dons a baggy jacket with the strange inscription “WELSH RUGBY”) and by the technology, which includes magical boxes with moving pictures, the boxes growing “on long, floppy white stalks that appeared to be rooted in the wall”. Throughout, the plot twists and turns in a very inventive and complicated manner, but it all ends as it should, with evil vanquished and the good living happily ever after.

The edition I read had some excellent illustrations by Tim Stevens (the scarecrow is especially creepy) and a lovely cover with Howl looking supernaturally handsome and his castle looming darkly in the background. But then I remembered this book was made into a much-loved animated film and went looking for the trailer and it looks TERRIBLE. The castle is all wrong! Everyone speaks American! The story looks more like a Disney princess romance than anything else! It doesn’t seem like the sort of film that even mentions “WELSH RUGBY”. However, if any of you have seen it and think it worth watching, I may give it a try. Also, if you have any recommendations for Diana Wynne Jones books that are just like Howl’s Moving Castle but nothing like Fire and Hemlock, I would be very interested to hear them.

‘Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists’ by David Aaronovitch

Party Animals is a fascinating memoir about growing up in a British Communist family during the Cold War, written by David Aaronovitch, the son of Sam Aaronovitch, Communist Party worker and Marxist economist, lecturer and writer. (David Aaronovitch also happens to be the eldest brother of Ben Aaronovitch, author of the Rivers of London series1, who makes a brief appearance in this book, aged three months, attending his first May Day rally.) As David Aaronovitch explains, being a Communist in the 1960s meant living a life set apart from most of their neighbours:

“We didn’t believe in God, go to church, stand up for the Queen in the cinema when they played the national anthem (which in any case, wasn’t our anthem, our anthem being the Internationale). We didn’t moan about strikes, because we liked them, and we would complain about South African oranges in the local greengrocer’s when most people had no conception of food being political.”

'Party Animals' by David AaronovitchDavid and his siblings attended Socialist Sunday School (where “much of the time was taken up with writing and rehearsing plays with a suitably socialist or anti-fascist theme”), played with folksy wooden toys imported from Eastern Europe, celebrated the success of Soviet cosmonauts, went on Party-sponsored camping holidays to Bulgaria and of course, took an active part in weekly marches and protest rallies. His account of his childhood is remarkably balanced. He is able, for example, to admire the Party’s commitment to social justice and education, while bitterly regretting that his parents refused to allow him to apply for a scholarship to Westminster or even attend the local grammar school (he was sent to a Party-approved comprehensive secondary school, where he was bullied and his academic performance plummeted). He also writes approvingly of how his parents and their comrades fought against racism, at a time when no one else in Britain (especially racist trade unions) seemed to care much about the rights of non-white British workers, let alone take any interest in the US civil rights movement or anti-apartheid protestors in South Africa.

However, he also questions how the adults who brought him up – mostly thoughtful, compassionate, intelligent people – could give such unquestioning support to the Soviet Union for so long. Somehow these people had managed to ignore any misgivings caused by the 1930s Soviet purges, Stalin’s 1939 pact with the Nazis, Stalin’s subsequent backflip in 1941, the Katyn massacre and other wartime Soviet atrocities. But then came indisputable evidence of Soviet evil – the 1950s show trials, the invasion of Hungary, Kruschev’s famous speech denouncing Stalin as a murderous despot, the invasion of Czechoslovakia – and still Party members refused to admit they’d ever been wrong. It was, the author decides, not unlike a deep religious faith. He notes that his mother, in particular, valued loyalty above all and despised anyone who was cowardly enough to leave the Communist Party:

“In a way everyone was right. It could be cowardly to leave and courageous to stay. The leavers no longer had to face those Cold War battles in which they were always on the wrong side of received opinion. The stayers, on the other hand, maintained their commitment in the face of everything the bourgeois media could throw at them.

But it could also be cowardly to stay and courageous to leave. The leavers went from the comfortable if constricting shape of a life in the Party, their certainties and their relationships all abandoned. The stayers carried on in the familiar routines, buying the Party paper, attending meetings, knowing exactly where they were on almost any issue in any country of the world.

And, to an extent, the longer you’d stayed already and the more you’d endured, the longer you would stay and endure […] If you’d suffered for the cause, you thought more highly of it. This is one reason why being rude to someone whose political ideas you think are stupid – however truthful you are being or however satisfying it is to do – is more likely to confirm them in their opinions than change their mind. The greater the sacrifice, the greater the commitment.”

His mother’s belief in duty, loyalty and sacrifice – and her firm denial of the truth – extended to her marriage. Her husband was often absent on ‘Party business’ (which included affairs with Party women), leaving her to bring up three children by herself on very little money. Her own childhood had been marked by loss and abandonment and she was an intelligent woman who’d been denied an education. She took out her frustrations on her eldest son, which led to the whole family ending up in psychotherapy with Robin Skynner, who used them as a case study in one of his famous books, One Flesh, Separate Persons: Principles of Family and Marital Psychotherapy. This book, in combination with his late mother’s diaries, allows Aaronovitch to examine how his mother and others “insisted on being lied to” in many aspects of their lives, although this section is frustratingly brief. I would have liked to have learned how this affected the author himself in later life, in both his political beliefs and personal life, and I would have loved to have heard more from his siblings. I can understand someone might be reluctant to explore such a personal topic in great depth, but in that case, why choose to write a memoir? Despite this quibble, I found Party Animals engrossing, thoughtful and often very funny. It will appeal to those interested in Cold War politics, but I also think it will resonate with any readers brought up in religious and/or dysfunctional families.


  1. Speaking of which, the publication date of the next Rivers of London novel, The Hanging Tree, has been pushed back yet again, this time to September 2017. What is going on, Gollancz? WE NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

What I’ve Been Reading : Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

For various reasons, I haven’t felt up to reading anything new lately, so I’ve been working my way through old favourites from my bookshelves. This has included a whole shelf of novels and short stories by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. I find her work consistently engrossing, although I’m not sure why, because she wrote the same story over and over again. Generally a Westerner – someone from America or Britain, usually with German parents or grandparents – arrives in India with great enthusiasm and is either gradually or suddenly disillusioned. Often there is a guru involved, who may or may not be as benevolent as he initially seems. In her later work, the setting is New York or London and the master is a tempestuous Central European musician or psychiatrist or academic, but the theme is the same – that the characters must efface themselves to reach true fulfilment, which rarely turns out to equal true happiness.

Her fiction always seems very autobiographical and in her introduction to Out of India, entitled ‘Myself in India’, she wrote:

'Out of India' by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

“I have lived in India for most of my adult life. My husband is Indian and so are my children. I am not, and less so every year […] There is a cycle that Europeans – by Europeans I mean all Westerners, including Americans – tend to pass through. It goes like this: first stage, tremendous enthusiasm – everything Indian is marvellous; second stage, everything Indian is not so marvellous; third stage, everything Indian abominable. For some people it ends there, for others the cycle renews itself and goes on. I have been through it so many times that now I think of myself strapped to a wheel that goes round and round and sometimes I’m up and sometimes I’m down.”

She was particularly interested in religion and “whether religion is such a potent force in India because life is so terrible, or is it the other way round – is life so terrible because, with the eyes of the spirit turned elsewhere, there is no incentive to improve its quality?” The heart of her problem, she said, was this:

“To live in India and be at peace, one must to a very considerable extent become Indian and adopt Indian attitudes, habits, beliefs, assume if possible an Indian personality. But how is this possible? […] Sometimes it seems to me how pleasant it would be to say yes and give in and wear a sari and be meek and accepting and see God in a cow. Other times it seems worthwhile to be defiant and European and – all right, be crushed by one’s environment, but all the same have made some attempt to remain standing.”

'The Nature of Passion' by Ruth Prawer JhabvalaThis author is probably best known for her Booker Prize-winning novel, Heat and Dust, and her Academy Award-winning script writing for the films of Merchant and Ivory. I like Heat and Dust, a book that contrasts historical and modern British attitudes towards India, and the film is pretty good, too. But my favourite Ruth Prawer Jhabvala novel about India would have to be The Nature of Passion. It’s a clever, droll, beautifully constructed story about a family in New Delhi in the 1950s. Lalaji is one of the new super-rich, a man who has acquired millions of rupees by a combination of ruthless scheming, graft and sheer hard work and believes his security lies in sticking to traditional Hindu values. His youngest offspring, however, have opposing ambitions. Chandra is trying to establish a squeaky-clean career in the Civil Service, Viddi wants to travel to Paris to be an art critic, and beautiful Nimmi longs to be modern and independent and marry for love. A crisis looms for Lalaji when a politician begins a campaign against bribery and corruption:

“Bribery and corruption! These were foreign words, it seemed to him, and the ideas behind them were also foreign. Here in India, he thought, one did not know such words. Giving presents and gratifications to Government officers was an indispensable courtesy and a respectable, civilised way of carrying on business. It was a custom, a tradition even, and hence should be respected; not tampered with by upstart Deputy Ministers who had been abroad and brought home unsuitable ideas.”

For those who prefer short stories, Out of India is a good representative collection of her work, although I also like A Stronger Climate because it divides the stories into two useful categories, ‘The Seekers’ and ‘The Sufferers’. I also enjoyed My Nine Lives: Chapters of a Possible Past, in which the nine stories, set in India, America and Britain, explore fictional “alternative destinies” for the author.
'Shards of Memory' by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

When it comes to her novels set (mostly) outside India, the one I keep returning to is Shards of Memory, a family saga involving a wealthy Anglo-German-Indian family living in New York and linked to a mysterious spiritual Master. I don’t know why I like it so much, because it’s certainly not flawless (for one thing, it ends too abruptly). I think it must be the characters, who are so complicated and eccentric and oddly endearing. I especially like Henry, the young man who reluctantly accepts his destiny as the Master’s heir, and Henry’s grandfather Graeme, a cynical British diplomat – and also, possibly, a spy…

National Bookshop Day 2016

'Love your bookshop 2016' logo

Fellow Australians1, it’s National Bookshop Day this Saturday!

This celebration of our nation’s bookshops is especially important this year because the Australian Booksellers Association is one of the organisations campaigning against our government’s proposed changes to Australian copyright laws:

“That’s why this year the National Bookshop Day celebrations will coincide with the release of #SaveOzStories. Published by Melbourne University Press, #SaveOzStories is a collection of some of Australia’s finest authors writing about the threat the removal of PIRs poses to our local writing culture. #SaveOzStories will be available for free at all good bookshops on Saturday 13 August.”

That’s right, a free book, full of contributions from your favourite Australian writers. There’ll also be lots of cool events at bookshops around the country. For more information, see Love Your Bookshop on Facebook and NatBookshopDay on Twitter.

'Save Oz Stories'


  1. If you’re not Australian, you are still allowed to visit a bookshop this Saturday. Especially if you’re planning to buy one of my books.

Miscellaneous Memoranda

– There’s a great interview with E.B. White in this 1969 edition of The Paris Review, which includes his thoughts on writing for children:

“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly. I handed them, against the advice of experts, a mouse-boy, and they accepted it without a quiver. In ‘Charlotte’s Web’, I gave them a literate spider, and they took that.”

– I was also interested in this article at The Guardian about a new exhibition of Soviet-era children’s books. “The idea was to abolish fantasy literature and illustration because they were seen as bourgeois and unhelpful to the revolution,” says Olivia Ahmad, the curator of the exhibition:

“In one cautionary tale called ‘Ice Cream’, by writer Samuil Marshak and illustrator Vladimir Lebvedev, a bourgeois capitalist eats too much ice cream and freezes to death. In ‘Red Neck’, a poem by Nicolia Aseev, a faithful Young Pioneer (the Soviet youth group) refuses to take off his red neckerchief even when attacked by a raging bull, thus demonstrating doughty revolutionary commitment even in the face of an unpleasant goring.”

The Guardian is also running a series about recipes for fictional food, including strawberry and peanut butter ice cream from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and raspberry cordial from Anne of Green Gables. I also liked this blog post at Pop Goes The Page about a DIY Harry Potter party, complete with Hogwarts letters, house banners, snowy owl balloons, floating candles and of course, pumpkin pasties, chocolate frogs and butterbeer.

– From the world of publishing, here’s a depressingly accurate article about how authors who are “hard to look at” (that is, not conventionally attractive) are less likely to find a publisher for their work. This only applies to women writers, of course (as one commenter notes, “Only one name is needed to mention here: George R. R. Martin”). And here’s an essay by a New Zealand editor, Stephen Stratford, entitled “The book didn’t sell and yes, I was mean-spirited enough to rejoice”: An essay on the dark arts of book editing.

Copyright protection for creators has been in my thoughts lately, so I was interested to read this discussion of the “Monkey Selfie” case, in which a US judge eventually ruled that “a non-human was not capable of owning copyright under current US law”. (It is a great photo, though.)

– Finally, for those students feeling stressed about school and exams, “one Canberra school has invited a local kitten rescue to bring cats into the classroom in a unique bid to mitigate pre-exam anxiety”.

'The Globe kittens' by Ernest J Rowley (1902)