Category Archives: books

‘Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life’ by Peter Godfrey-Smith

'Other Minds' by Peter Godfrey-SmithOther Minds is an engrossing account of how intelligence and ‘consciousness’ might have evolved in animals, specifically in cephalopods – that is, octopuses, cuttlefish and squid, those fascinating sea creatures who are “the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien”. Peter Godfrey-Smith, a professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Sydney, writes in a clear, accessible manner about this very complex subject, with a great deal of warmth and humour and creativity (for example, he describes scallops as “swimming castanets” and cuttlefish as wearing “animated eyeshadow”).

He begins by discussing how neurons (nerve cells, the building blocks of the nervous system) might have evolved in our earliest common ancestors, then looks at how the cephalopods developed their vulnerable soft bodies and why they might have ended up with such large and complex nervous systems. An octopus has about 500 million neurons, comparable to a dog, but these are not distributed in the same way. Dogs and other vertebrates, including humans, have a large brain that directs the actions of the body using neurons, which branch off from a spinal cord. However, the octopus “is suffused with nervousness; the body is not a separate thing that is controlled by the brain or nervous system”. Its arms can act on the direction of its brain or can act completely independently of the brain and each other.

Octopus behaviour is as mysterious and strange as its neuroanatomy. They can perform well in experiments – learning how to navigate a maze, unscrew jars or operate a lever to receive food rewards – but they also have a tendency to cause mayhem. In one experiment in the 1950s, an octopus named Charles decided to break the lever he was meant to be pulling, snapped off the lamp above his tank, and directed jets of water at the experimenter. Octopuses in captivity often escape, cause floods or short-circuit the lights. Even if they decide to hang around and cooperate, they can recognise individual humans, are aware of when they’re being observed, and can behave in ways that seem deliberate:

“Octopuses love to eat crabs, but in the lab are often fed on thawed-out frozen shrimp or squid. It takes octopuses a while to get used to these second-rate foods, but eventually they do. One day, [Jean] Boal was walking down a row of tanks, feeding each octopus a piece of thawed squid as she passed. On reaching the end of the row, she walked back the way she’d come. The octopus in the first tank, though, seemed to be waiting for her. It had not eaten its squid, but instead was holding it conspicuously. As Boal stood there, the octopus made its way slowly across the tank toward the outflow pipe, watching her all the way. When it reached the outflow pipe, still watching her, it dumped the scrap of squid down the drain.”

Fortunately, most of the observations described in this book are not of poor captive octopuses, but octopuses in the wild, notably at an unusual site off the east coast of Australia, which the author and his colleagues named ‘Octopolis’. Although octopuses are usually solitary creatures, the octopuses living at Octopolis have built a little town, perhaps for protection from predators, and they interact in fascinating ways. The researchers make a point of not interfering with the octopuses, but the octopuses are curious about the divers and their camera equipment, and even make ‘friends’ with one particular researcher, Matt Lawrence:

“Once at a site close to this one, an octopus grabbed his hand and walked off with him in tow. Matt followed, as if he were being led across the sea floor by a very small eight-legged child. The tour went on for ten minutes, and ended at the octopus’s den.”

There’s also an intriguing chapter about the giant cuttlefish, which can change its skin colour and shape in seconds – as camouflage, to communicate with predators or prey or its own species, even as random patterns when resting. Remarkably, it can match its skin colour to its surroundings, even though the two eyes in its head seem to be colourblind. What it does have are thousands of photoreceptor and colour cells all over its skin, which can detect and reflect changes in light and then activate colour cells in response – in effect, ‘seeing with its skin’.

So much about cephalopods is still unknown, and a lot of this book consists of questions and tentative attempts at answers. Why do cephalopods need such a complex nervous system when most of them barely seem to communicate within their own species? Why do they have such enormous brains, when they have such short life spans to use those brains? How can a tree live for two thousand years and a boring rockfish for two hundred years, when the splendidly colourful cuttlefish and curious, clever, playful octopus live for only two years? (Also, who knew that there was such a thing as a vampire squid?)

Other Minds is highly recommended for readers interested in animal intelligence, and in cephalopod intelligence in particular. It would probably help readers to have some basic knowledge of the theory of evolution and how human cognition works, but I think the author does a good job of explaining complex ideas in an accessible way. There are some lovely photos in the book and the author has posted some interesting videos on his You Tube channel.

‘Aunts Up The Cross’ by Robin Dalton

“My great-aunt Juliet was knocked over and killed by a bus when she was eighty-five. The bus was travelling very slowly in the right direction and could hardly have been missed by anyone except Aunt Juliet, who must have been travelling fairly fast in the wrong direction.”

'Aunts Up The Cross' by Robin DaltonSo begins this highly entertaining memoir about a rich and eccentric Sydney family in the 1920s and 1930s. The author’s many older relatives tend to die in unusual ways: Aunt Juliet’s husband was killed when he fell through the dining room floor and broke his neck; Uncle Spot fell off a ladder while attempting to change a light bulb; Uncle Luke tumbled backwards off his office chair; Aunt Eva ate too many green apples; Aunt Jan died “from blowing up a balloon”. Even a visiting plumber dies of a heart attack after catching sight of the author’s ravishing mother, who’d “emerged naked from her dressing room en route to take a bath”.

There are also a number of unbalanced servants, pets and permanent house-guests, as well as an interfering grandmother who lives downstairs with batty Aunt Juliet (before Juliet gets run over by the bus) and a doctor father with a gambling habit who manages to shoot his own knee off (by accident, in his consulting rooms, while seeing a patient). The author claims “it was the clash and mingling of the Irish [on her father’s side] and Jewish [on her mother’s side] temperaments which provided this climate of high dramatic comedy. The fact that the doors were open and everybody joined in was pure Australian.”

Aunts Up The Cross was first published in 1965, long after the author had moved to London, and it shows (the author is particularly scathing about Australian architecture and the state of Australian theatre). The edition I read, however, was the 2001 Penguin re-release, which includes dozens of fascinating photographs of the various aunts and uncles and grandparents, the author’s extremely good-looking parents and the author herself as a pretty and indulged only child. There are also photos of the family mansion in Kings Cross, which burned down during the Second World War and is now the site of Fitzroy Gardens and the El Alamein Fountain.

My only criticism would be that this book is so short, a mere two hundred pages. I’d have liked to have learned more about the author herself, who went to a day school with the Governor’s daughter, then a posh country boarding school before working for the U.S. Army office in Sydney during the war and getting engaged multiple times. However the author, now ninety-six, has a new memoir out entitled One Leg Over, apparently about the many men who fell in love with her over her long and eventful life, so I have that to look forward to.

‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Eight

Saturday Night: Foley’s Folly Light

Now we’re back to Peter, in the lighthouse’s lantern room, watching the girls carry out the first phase of their plan. A few days ago he’d been questioning his future at Dartmouth and taking absurd risks to try to prove himself, but now he seems more confident and thoughtful:

“All his life he was going to have to be prepared to make plans which would risk other people’s lives as well as, or even instead of, his own. And the older he got, and the more important, the more it would happen to him. Besides […] it wasn’t as if the alternatives at the moment lay between danger of their own making and eventual safety at Foley’s hands. If they waited, they were almost certain to be killed when the U-boat’s crew got hold of them. And besides–Peter blushed rather, for it sounded pretty pompous as soon as you put it into words–it was probably a thing they ought to do–to do everything they could to prevent that oilskin package falling into enemy hands. And you couldn’t fight the enemy without taking some risks.”

He goes out onto the narrow, wind-shaken walkway to watch Ginty and Nicola almost drown, then once the crisis is over, suddenly remembers his terrible, paralysing fear of heights. He finally manages to crawl inside the lantern room, berating himself all the while (“how jolly silly he must look, crawling painfully along a gallery which Nicola, for instance, would simply have run round”), but then – Foley comes in! Peter shoots out onto the gallery and tip-toes around it, keeping himself on the opposite side of Foley until Foley gives up searching the rocks below and goes back downstairs. Hooray, Peter’s fear of heights has now gone! So that’s one good thing Foley has achieved.

Peter now has a long wait till night falls and the fleet returns, so he passes the time reading the horrifying diary of Fabian de Noyes Foley, the wrecker ancestor – a book which Lewis Foley keeps in the lantern room, although, given how much he worships his ancestor, you’d think he’d store the diary in a more secure place. It’s good to see Peter showing a proper respect for other people’s books, though:

“…that book had made him feel so absolutely furious that if it hadn’t belonged to someone else, he would have dropped it over the rail to be pulped and pounded to pieces by the sea.”

It doesn’t matter if people are traitors – don’t damage their books, especially irreplaceable historical records.

At last, Nicola and Ginty arrive (Nicola is very relieved to see that Foley hadn’t shoved Peter off the top of the lighthouse that morning) and they start sending out their SOS as soon as the fleet appears. But it’s rainy and the fleet is far away and there’s no answering signal. (Typical of those adults.) So poor Peter and Nicola (Ginty is being useless again) keep signalling into the night, knowing it’s hopeless – except all at once, there’s a response! They send their message and are asked to repeat the bit about the U-boat’s arrival time and then they read the signals “message received” and “R”. (Is it Robert? Frankly, he’s the only adult I have any faith in at the moment.)

Meanwhile, Ginty is on the stairs thinking of all the dreadful things that could happen to them – getting shot, having to go in the U-boat, being carted off to Siberia – when she hears Foley running up the steps. She doesn’t even have any weapons, but she resolves to do her best:

“She never doubted he would overwhelm her in the end, whatever she did, but she might have been able to hold him off, just long enough for the others to get the message through.”

Aw, now I like Ginty again! And I like her even more when she throws her paraffin lantern in Foley’s face, causing him to lose his footing and tumble all the way down the stairs. Unfortunately, he’s still alive, just badly injured. Peter gets the package of secrets off him and Nicola locates the key to the transmitting room, although Ginty is busy feeling “more worried than a good counter-spy should over an enemy agent who has been put out of action.” She administers first-aid while Peter retrieves the revolver from the transmitting room and locks it.

Things are looking up! The only problem is, Peter suddenly realises that they don’t know who responded to their signal. What if it was the U-boat? (It’s okay, Peter. I’m sure it was Robert. Well, fairly sure.)

Sunday Morning: Ships in the Bay

Foley regains consciousness and is rather surprised to see Peter is alive. Foley is also not very happy to learn that the children have signalled to the navy, especially when Peter says he’s thrown both the secrets and the downstairs key into the sea. Foley is now doomed, but the children’s fate depends on whether the U-boat or the navy reaches the lighthouse first. And then a fog rolls in. Oh, the suspense…

Now a boat is approaching! But is it friend or foe? Nicola dashes off “with a relishing piratical look” to fetch knives for her and Ginty:

“Ginty stared at the knife in her hand without any relish at all. It was quite plain that whatever sort of fight Peter and Nicola intended to put up against the U-boat crew, Ginty meant to go quietly.”

Poor Ginty. Especially as the boat carries the U-boat crew. Ginty goes inside and puts her hands over her ears because “she simply wasn’t going to see or hear anything until they came to take her.”

But Peter and Nicola are made of sterner stuff. They watch Foley getting berated on the beach for failing to kill the children and losing the secret information – foiled by those pesky kids! – and then Peter loudly defies the enemy leader’s orders for the children to get down on the beach. The enemy leader brandishes a revolver at Nicola and worse, calls Peter a “little boy” who needs to be taught a lesson.

So Peter shoots him dead with Foley’s revolver.

Don’t mess with the Marlows!

Then the fog rolls away, revealing not just the U-boat but three Navy destroyers. Well, it’s about time they showed up. In an immensely exciting scene, the men on the beach, including Foley, try to get back to the U-boat, but the Navy blows up the U-boat and Foley and capture the surviving U-boat crew. But even in the midst of the action, the author makes space for astute observations of characters’ reactions:

“‘Oh, Binks,” [Nicola] said half-sobbing. ‘Why didn’t you stop him? He’ll be killed, I know he will.’
‘He’d rather be,’ said Peter, grabbing her, ‘I should think. Get down, Nick. They’re firing.’
Nicola, however, put her head up. She was still, though she hadn’t the least idea of it, sobbing in a breathless way because Foley was dead, or about to be, but at the same time she was intensely interested in what was going on.”

Eventually the children are taken aboard one of the destroyers to tell their story to Commander Whittier and Nicola is only mildly surprised, at this stage, to find Robert Anquetil on board. Whittier tells them about Lawrie’s accident and Nicola says her father will be furious that Lawrie didn’t have her bus fare and didn’t look before she ran across the road (which is, in fact, what he says when he finds out). Then Whittier says “that sounds like Geoff Marlow.” So Whittier actually knew Commander Marlow personally and still said the Marlow children were expendable! (Heaven knows what he’d have done if it’d been a group of working-class non-navy children – probably used any surviving children as live bait for his next useless spy-catching scheme.)

Whittier also says they’re to forget everything that happened and not to speak about it again, not even amongst themselves. Well, that’s really going to help Ginty’s post-traumatic stress disorder. He also mentions that Johnnie Thorpe “knows more than he should” and that Johnnie’s also been warned to keep silent forever. Then Nicola thinks to ask Whittier who saw their signal and is gruffly told it was Robert:

“But it was quite obvious there was a grandmother and a grandfather of a row on, so she said sturdily: ‘It was jolly lucky he was there. ‘Cos we were signalling when the Fleet passed and they never saw a thing.’”

Then she stares Commander Whittier down until he agrees with her and apologises to Robert. Yay, Nicola! Then she gets to spend the rest of the voyage on the destroyer’s bridge and she doesn’t feel a bit seasick. Really, it’s Nicola who ought to be at Dartmouth.

Also, Whittier asks Peter what he said to the enemy leader, then explains that man was the Nazi equivalent of a Rear-Admiral:

“So just remember, when some haughty sub in your first ship is telling you what a low form of life you are, that you once gave a Rear-Admiral his marching orders.”

And, you know, shot and killed him. But it doesn’t even seem that there’s going to be an inquiry into that. At least Peter is happy that he still has a naval career and that his vertigo is cured.

Finally, the children meet their relieved mother and they go off to see Lawrie in hospital, where Lawrie is being Lawrie:

“Whatever had happened to the others, Lawrie didn’t think it could have been nearly as impressive as what had happened to her. Fractured bones, broken bones, concussion–Lawrie felt they would have to produce something pretty remarkable to compete with that.”

Oh, Lawrie. What a goop.

Final random thoughts:

– What happened to Ida Cross? Did they arrest her? How did a woman like that even get mixed up with Foley? Assuming she wasn’t a fervent Communist and it wasn’t her idea, did he seduce her into this plot? If so, he’s even more despicable. He gets a noble suicide and she’s left to face the consequences.

-Has Robert Anquetil now blown his cover as an intelligence agent? Won’t the locals notice if he turns up at port on a navy destroyer? Hadn’t they noticed something before this? Anyway, he ended up being my favourite adult in this book. When he broke the rules, at least he was doing it to save the children.

– I really hope David was kicked out of the navy for attacking Robert, locking him up and taking over the boat. But he probably wasn’t. I mean, the navy didn’t seem to do anything to Foley for getting eighteen men killed.

– I don’t really see the point of Johnnie Thorpe. I wondered if he’d be shown to be brave and helpful, just to show the Marlows were being superficial snobs when they ostracised him, but he remained an idiot throughout.

– I was also kind of hoping the Thorpe daughters would play a useful role, thereby proving that even young ladies who wear tight, colourful trousers can be brave and helpful, but no, they might as well not have existed in the story. I’m starting to think that Antonia Forest’s idea of a heroine is a tomboy, because any girl character who displays any stereotypical girl behaviours, like being interested in clothes, always turns out to be useless. I have nothing against tomboys (I was one myself), but it would be nice to see a bit more variety when it comes to portrayals of heroines. I’ve only read two of her books though and maybe I’ll have a pleasant surprise in later books.

THE END (for the moment)

You might also be interested in:

‘The Marlows and the Traitor’ by Antonia Forest
‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Two
‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Three
‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Four
‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Five
‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Six
‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Seven

and

‘Autumn Term’ by Antonia Forest

‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Seven

Saturday Morning: Peter Makes a Plan

Peter’s plan is that he will hide in the lantern room at the top of the lighthouse and Ginty and Nicola will pretend he’s drowned during an escape attempt. Then that night, Peter and Nicola will signal to the passing fleet while Ginty keeps watch. Ginty is appalled by her proposed role and confesses that she failed to act the last time she was meant to be keeping watch, at Mariners. There’s a nice bit of sibling bonding as Nicola and Peter console her, saying it wouldn’t have made any difference (probably true) and Peter even says it isn’t worse than “the boat thing”. Ginty has no idea what “the boat thing” is, but suspects they still think her “a bit of a dope” (also probably true).

She has a chance to prove her courage during the first phase of the plan, when she and Nicola have to take the dinghy through the secret tunnel to get to the sea. And Ginty does it in stoic silence! Well done, Ginty. Then Nicola hops out and Ginty rows the dinghy into the wild waves, far enough out to wreck it. There’s a terrifying section when she nearly drowns trying to swim back in, but it’s also the first time I can recall Ginty showing much care for anyone else:

“She struggled on furiously, watching Nick wade slowly forward, slip, recover and come on, and was so absorbed by her fear that Nicola might stumble and be swept away that she barely noticed how close in she had come …”

Mind you, it’s possible that Ginty’s just worried about her parents’ reaction if they ever find out she let Nicola drown. (I should point out here that Nicola can barely swim and can’t row, which seems a bit odd for someone as obsessed with sailing as Nicola is. But she and Lawrie did seem to spend many of their early years being invalids.) Then Nicola, striding “confidently forward”, steps straight into the sea, but luckily Foley has turned up and hauls her out of the water. Ginty, on the verge of a panic attack, then does a very convincing job of explaining Peter has drowned. Her general uselessness does have some use here – Foley doesn’t even question her story. In fact, he finds her uncontrollable sobbing “thoroughly unnerving” and ends up banishing her from his presence.

Back at the lighthouse, Foley goes up to the highest room, the lantern room, to see if Peter has washed up on the shore. Unfortunately, the lantern room is where Peter is hiding. Nicola, petrified, tries to stall Foley, but fails. Foley comes back down after “a long silence” and shakes his head at her. But what does that mean? She’s seen how good he is at playing chess, she knows he must be good at telling lies (“A traitor would have to be”). Is he playing with her the way a cat plays with a mouse?

“Besides, if Foley had found Peter, they would have to make another plan. At least–she would have to make another plan. There wasn’t anyone else.”

Just as it seems Nicola must have super-human reserves of resilience and fortitude, she falls asleep while she’s meant to be watching Foley and sleeps through the whole day, “like the dormouse in Alice”. (I like all the little references to the books she’s read. Even though she claimed not to be a reader in Autumn Term.)

So we still don’t know whether Peter’s safe or not. Oh, the suspense!

Saturday Afternoon: Mutiny in the ‘Golden Enterprise’

Meanwhile, Robert and his two colleagues, David and Bill, are making their slow way towards the lighthouse. Except Bill, who wasn’t feeling well when he came aboard, now has a fever and possibly appendicitis. David insists on turning back to Oldport at once. Robert wants to keep going because there’s the chance that the U-boat will turn up.

“‘But I keep telling you,’ shouted David. ‘The U-boat’s barely a possibility at the moment. If you weren’t so obsessed about those Marlow children we wouldn’t be here now. Whittier said so.’
‘Said what?’
‘That you had to be kept quiet and happy, and that out here you could have the illusion of being useful without making a nuisance of yourself…’”

Robert refuses to turn back before the turn of tide, so David smashes him on the head, locks him in the cabin and sails back to Oldport.

This, I assume, is that famous British naval discipline and obedience in action.

Conveniently for David (and the plot), Robert is knocked unconscious for three hours, exactly enough time for them to get back to Oldport, yet has no serious cognitive after-effects. David gives an insincere apology and offers to take the blame “if anything goes wrong”, but wisely goes off with Bill in the ambulance because Robert is looking dangerously calm:

“…despite his manner, [Robert] felt so savage with rage, that if he once gave it expression, he was not likely to stop at words. As he very well knew, he had a temper as murderous as Lewis Foley’s if he once let himself go.”

It’s pretty clear that we’re meant to see Robert and Foley as similar men who’ve made very different choices in life, one choosing good and the other evil. If anything, Robert is more admirable, because he chose the side of good without having been born with all of Foley’s material privileges. On the other hand, Robert seems to have had a closer and more loving family than Foley, so maybe Robert was born the luckier one?

While Robert is having dinner and contemplating David’s violent and painful death, the Thorpes’ motor boat, the Fair Wind, crashes straight into Robert’s boat and destroys her. Mr Thorpe is very apologetic and Robert is about to ask if he can borrow the Fair Wind when he suddenly suspects Mr Thorpe is connected with the U-boat. Maybe he deliberately crashed the boat to stop Robert! So Robert waits till the Thorpes have left, then steals the Fair Wind:

“… in a job like this neither praise nor blame mattered very much. The thing was to get it done. And if you broke a few rules doing it–well, if you pulled it off no one cared, and if you didn’t, nothing anyone could say would be worse than the failure itself.”

And the moral of the story is: the end justifies the means, if you’re one of the good guys.

Unfortunately, Johnnie Thorpe climbs aboard at the wrong moment, but he agrees to help when Robert pretends to be a smuggler and waves a knife at Johnnie. It turns out Mr Thorpe is actually a Customs and Excise officer. Also, Johnnie was the one who crashed into the Golden Enterprise. Also, there’s hardly any petrol left.

IS ANYONE EVER GOING TO REACH THAT LIGHTHOUSE AND RESCUE THOSE CHILDREN?!

Next, Saturday Night: Foley’s Folly Light

‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Six

Friday Morning: Breakfast at the Lighthouse

Ginty and Peter wake up in the lighthouse berating themselves about their role in the situation they’ve found themselves in, but Nicola is characteristically cheerful. Foley will be gone now and they can go home! Except when she goes outside, there’s Foley, standing by the remains of the Talisman. He has guessed about the sugar in the engine – turns out he made up that song – and Nicola bravely confesses to what she did, then asks why he’s a traitor:

“Oh, I don’t know. Don’t you get fed up, sometimes, with all the smug dutiful people, all busily scratching their little livings, all saying the same things, all professing the same beliefs in the same words that all the generations have sucked dry before them? Ninety-nine point nine percent don’t even know what the words mean. It serves them right if someone chucks a bomb into the antheap occasionally…”

Ooh, Foley, you’re such a rebel. He sounds like a fourteen-year-old schoolboy giving a bombastic speech behind the headmaster’s back. Nicola is unimpressed, because, like the Famous Five, she believes a traitor is “quite the most beastly thing to be”. And the fact that Foley’s amused by her reaction makes it even worse.

Over breakfast, Peter quickly grasps that they’re in greater danger now that the U-boat crew will be arriving at the lighthouse on Sunday. Ginty has a panic attack about having to go into a U-boat. (Don’t worry about that, Ginty! You’ll be murdered before that happens!) Then they watch the navy fleet sail along the horizon on their scheduled exercises and the children are disgusted by Foley’s reaction:

“Foley didn’t look particularly anything–not vengeful, not conscience-stricken, just mildly interested.”

Foley goes to feed the seagulls (because he’s the sort of complex villain who’s nice to animals) and Peter desperately tries to think of a plan. If only there was a way to signal the navy fleet when the ships make their way back that night … Hang on, they’re staying in a working lighthouse!

As Peter tries to figure how he’s going to get up to the light, there’s a brief moment of hope when Robert Anquetil’s boat, the Golden Enterprise, sails past. Nicola leaps up in excitement, but Foley grabs her, yanks her arm behind her back and says he’ll blow her to pieces if anyone moves. Ginty eventually finds the courage to say:

“‘Let her go. You’re hurting her.’

Foley let go at once. He peered down at [Nicola’s] face and then said, in the sulky aggrieved voice that an older child uses to a much younger one: ‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. Why on earth didn’t you say?’”

Well, Nicola didn’t say because she has a horror of looking cowardly and childish. But Foley’s volatility and immaturity is really horrifying in this scene. And this is a man who was actually employed as a teacher!

Switching to Robert’s perspective, we discover he’d been scouring the coast for a glimpse of the Talisman’s dinghy when he spotted the cloud of seagulls at the lighthouse and remembered Foley’s habit of feeding them. So Robert used the secret entrance to the lighthouse:

“He felt a sense of betrayal, that he should be using the secret channel Lewis had shown him when they were schoolboys, to fight and defeat him. But Lewis was always putting one in these predicaments…”

Finding the Talisman’s dinghy tied up behind the lighthouse, Robert is tempted to rush in, overpower Foley and rescue the children. But there was a fifty-fifty chance Foley would win in a fight and Robert, unlike Foley, is cautious and calculating:

“It was no occasion for bogus, single-handed heroics. His duty, here and now, was to return to the mainland and report his discoveries.”

But he’s not completely unmoved and as he leaves, “he wished with all his heart he could have stayed there”.

Doesn’t he have a radio in his boat? Or a shoe phone? What kind of intelligence agent is he?

Friday Afternoon: “The Children are Expendable”

Back at the police station, Robert suggests to Commander Whittier that Foley may have intended all along to hide at the lighthouse till the coast was clear, then leave the children there while he escaped. Whittier, who’s read Foley’s file, says Foley would never be so sensible, calling Foley:

“…a wild, slapdash young man, with a life-or-death temperament. Plenty of courage, but no discipline. No loyalty, either.”

He reveals that during a wartime raid, Foley decided to disobey orders, leading to the deaths of eighteen men. (Yet despite this, the Navy: a) allowed Foley to remain a navy officer, even after the war; b) gave him a job teaching naval cadets; and c) gave him free access to top-secret information, even after they suspected he was a spy. Well done, British Navy.)

Whittier has worked out the U-boat will surface near the lighthouse on Sunday night, which is when the navy will grab Foley and the U-boat crew and save the secret information. Robert wants to rescue the children first, but Whittier points out that the children may already be dead. If they are alive, Foley could warn the U-boat during the confusion of their rescue.

“You understand me, don’t you, Anquetil? There can be no question of any premature attempt to rescue the children […] the children must be regarded as expendable.”

Again, this is a CHILDREN’S BOOK. And the British authorities, the good guys, are saying it’s fine if three English children are murdered as long as the good guys get a chance to catch the bad guys, when it’s just been shown that the whole situation has arisen due to the good guys’ total incompetence! And no mention of the fact that the three children are the offspring of a naval commander.

Even Whittier seems to realise this is a bit much, because he allows Robert to take a couple of men, David and Bill, on the Golden Enterprise to keep watch on the lighthouse and says if the U-boat surfaces, “wireless us, and do what you can”. So there is a radio on the boat?

But first Robert goes to speak with Lawrie, who confirms Foley had photos of a torpedo and that the others were taken off on the Talisman. Poor Mrs Marlow, who thinks Robert is with the police drug squad, says it sounds more like spies than dope and asks whether she should try to contact her husband, now on fleet exercises. Poor Robert lies his head off and they agree it’s best not to bother Commander Marlow. (I wonder, if the children turned up dead in the middle of his fleet exercises, whether he’d interrupt his work to come back home. Probably not.) Oh, and as Mrs Marlow sits by Lawrie’s bed, she thinks:

“It seemed almost worse than the time her husband’s cruiser had been bombed and she had waited to hear if he were among the survivors.”

And she probably didn’t cry, even then!

Next, Saturday Morning: Peter Makes a Plan

‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Five

Thursday Afternoon (2): Shipwreck

Now we’ve gone back a few hours and are with the children and Foley on the Talisman. (I should note that the non-linear narrative and shifting point of view are being used very effectively to increase the tension.) First we see Peter’s perspective. An hour into their trip, Peter has finally and unhappily realised that Foley is not taking them back to Oldport, as he claimed he would, but is up to some traitorous business that will likely end in the Marlows being killed – and even worse, Peter is helpless to prevent their deaths. On the other hand, he does bravely think that:

“At least they were a drag on Foley that he hadn’t bargained for. The microphotographs and the formulae were still within reach. If only they could delay Foley…”

Peter has a snoop around the cabin in which he and Ginty are locked (Nicola’s up on deck due to being seasick) and finds some charts which suggest Foley has been meeting enemy ships at sea – so it seems likely that the children are being taken to the enemy ship to be interrogated and then killed. As Peter tries in vain to think of a way to sabotage the engine, Foley comes in to plot his course on the charts, leaving Nicola to continue steering the boat. Except … Nicola isn’t keeping to Foley’s original course. Peter can see from the compass that Nicola’s sailing them back to Oldport! Go, Nicola! Then the engine dies!

Now we switch back to Nicola’s story. Poor Nicola is violently seasick at the start of their trip and Foley kindly gives her his coat and some brandy. Feeling better, she asks what they should do with the dinghy when they get back to Oldport, but Foley makes it known, without actually saying it, that they aren’t going to Oldport at all. Nicola, unlike Peter, accepts that Foley is The Traitor at once, but she’s also more optimistic:

“She began to feel more cheerful. If she wasn’t going to be sick again, nothing would be so bad. Not even sailing with a traitor to an unknown destination.”

In many ways, the plot of this book is no different to the Famous Five battling smugglers or spies, but what elevates it, apart from the quality of the prose, are all the detailed, astute descriptions of the characters’ reactions. Nicola swings from fear to despair to optimism to curiosity within a few minutes and it’s all completely plausible in this situation.

Foley goes downstairs to the cabin to plot a course with his charts and leaves Nicola at the tiller. But Nicola realises this is an opportunity to swing the boat around gradually. Although she knows Foley will eventually realise what she’s doing, “just for the moment it was glorious to have done something that would at least bother him a bit.” She starts humming Robert’s song and then thinks … Sugar in the petrol! And she’s still got the sugar in her pocket for feeding the pony! She can sabotage the engine! (Clever plotting, Antonia Forest.)

Nicola isn’t merely brave, she’s also smart. She waits as long as she can, allowing them to get much closer to shore, then drops the sugar in the petrol tank just as Foley returns. And there’s more good character observation here, when she thinks that:

“…even though Foley was a traitor, it was probably rather mean to wreck his ship when she was still wearing his jacket and he had given her brandy and been really rather kind.”

But then Foley hurls Peter into the cabin wall when Peter tries to stop him reaching the tiller and Nicola stops feeling sorry for Foley. Indeed, “his fury and the glimmer of panic behind his eyes made her feel very cool and confident.”

Serves you right for underestimating Nicola, Foley. The boat crashes into the shore – and what an amazing coincidence, they’ve arrived at Foley’s Folly Lighthouse!

Thursday Night (2): The Lighthouse

I probably don’t need to say that Ginty has been entirely useless during their trip and she continues to be useless when they arrive at the lighthouse. Foley locks himself in the lighthouse to transmit a message to the U-boat while the children empty the beached Talisman of its stores. Peter does have the good idea of stealing the keys for all the upper lighthouse rooms and throwing them into the sea so Foley won’t be able to lock them in. Over dinner, Foley announces he will sail off on the Talisman in the morning and the children will eventually be rescued from the lighthouse. He tries to convince them that no one will believe their story because they’ll have no evidence and anyway, no one knows he’s been at Mariners so the authorities won’t realise he’s disappeared. The Marlows feel “very young and foolish and helpless” – and that’s before Foley drugs their cocoa with sleeping tablets.

As they sleep, Foley goes out to check the condition of the Talisman. He’d told the U-boat crew he’d meet them the next morning and they’d given him instructions for murdering the children. Luckily for the Marlows, Foley “had never taken kindly to obeying orders” and while he acknowledges to himself that he is “guilty of treason”, he knows he’s “never had a bent for cold-blooded cruelty”.

Unfortunately for Foley, the Talisman is wedged on the rocks and gets torn to pieces when the tide comes in. He remembers the thunderbolt two days ago as a sign of doom – it was immediately afterwards, shaken by his narrow escape from the storm, that he’d passed Peter and Nicola on the beach and made the mistake of ignoring Peter. He also acknowledges that he’d made an error in kidnapping the children. He should have pretended he was taking the microfilms to the police, then disappeared at once. Now it’s inevitable that he’ll be unmasked as a spy, one way or the other, and his foreign ‘allies’ will have no use for him when he no longer has access to navy secrets. Foley sees “his death quite clearly”. But then he reconsiders:

“Thunderbolts and fate were all very well, but he didn’t really believe a word of it. He had been in corners as tight as this before, and had always escaped disaster.”

But how is he going to get out of this, now that his only means of transport is gone? He contacts the U-boat again. The navy fleet exercises over the weekend mean the U-boat will now pick Foley and the children up on Sunday. Foley changes his mind again:

“He was certain now that, rationally speaking, he and the children would not be alive by Sunday evening.”

This could all be avoided if he surrendered to the British authorities. The children would be saved; he would go to prison as a traitor, but he’d avoid death. His pride will not allow this, though:

“…trial and imprisonment was something he would not face; the children’s safety could not weigh against that … He had always told himself that he would prefer death at the hands of the people he had served to the justice of those he had betrayed…”

And this is a CHILDREN’S BOOK! This portrayal of a villain involves a level of subtlety and psychological complexity that you don’t even find in a lot of adult spy novels of the time.

Now, I don’t think that Antonia Forest is going to kill off any of her child characters. (I would, but probably not in the second book of a series.) Still, things are getting very serious here.

Next, Friday Morning: Breakfast at the Lighthouse

‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Four

Thursday Afternoon (1): Lawrie Runs for It

This book may be an action-packed thriller, but there’s still room for some droll humour. In this chapter, it’s revealed that Lawrie’s grand escape is actually the result of her accidentally tripping over while daydreaming, falling into a hollow and getting separated from the others by the thick fog. I also liked film-obsessed Lawrie’s reaction to the initial appearance of Foley:

“…to meet a man with a gun in an empty house seemed to Lawrie a perfectly possible thing to happen. Really, when you remembered the number of times it happened in films, it was only surprising that it hadn’t happened sooner. She was, she found to her annoyance, a bit scared, because even though spies and gangsters always came to a sticky end in the last reel, the innocent people quite often came to stickier ends before that. All the same, in spite of being scared, Lawrie, in an odd way, was rather enjoying herself. She kept thinking: ‘This is how it feels–this is how my feet go–when I’m in films I must remember this.’”

I am rather disturbed to find myself having something in common with Lawrie, because this is exactly how I’ve reacted to crises in the past, except my thoughts tend to run along the lines of ‘I must remember this for when I write a scene like this in a novel.’

In a rare burst of common sense, Lawrie restrains herself from running after the others and instead waits till they’re safely out of earshot, then climbs over a wall (unfortunately landing in a tangle of nettles and brambles). She also remembers to check whether the others are somewhere on the foreshore, perhaps bound and gagged, before going for help. But that is the end of her level-headedness. She stumbles back to Farthing Fee, convinced by her overactive imagination that someone is following her and that even when she reaches the hotel, she won’t be safe:

“You couldn’t tell, when it was a matter of spies and gangsters, who mightn’t be in league with the enemy. Suppose the hotel manager was? Suppose by now Foley had got in touch with him through his secret transmitter? Suppose they were waiting for her when she got in and pretended to let her telephone and then drugged her or something? Lawrie had seen plenty of films where that sort of thing happened and she wasn’t going to be caught like that.”

What she is caught by is the conductor on the bus, because she hasn’t brought any money with her, even though the children were planning to catch the bus back from Farthing Fee after their visit to Mariners – presumably Lawrie always expects Nicola or one of the others to pay her fare. The situation is not helped by an interfering passenger who is “fat” and wears “too much lipstick” (Antonia Forest really does have issues with women who wear colourful clothes or make-up). Laurie tries to explain she’ll pay later, gives her name and explains she’s staying at the Majestic Hotel, and is bewildered when the others don’t believe her:

“But if she could have seen herself–scratched, grubby, her shorts and cardigan torn, her jersey stained green–she wouldn’t have wondered. She didn’t look in the least like the sort of child whose parents might be staying at the Majestic.”

Mind you, even though she looks grubby, I presume her clothes are expensive, her accent is upper-middle-class and her sense of entitlement is pure Marlow, so I’m not entirely convinced by the adults’ reactions in this scene. It doesn’t really matter, anyway, because Lawrie wrenches away, dashes off across the road and is immediately knocked unconscious by a car. Robert Anquetil turns up as the ambulance arrives and confirms that she is a Marlow staying at the Majestic – except he thinks she’s Nicola. Interestingly, this is the first time anyone’s ever confused the twins. Even at school, where they wear the same clothes, no one ever seems to get them mixed up. They do have very different personalities and mannerisms, though, so it’s not surprising that Robert wouldn’t be able to distinguish unconscious Lawrie from Nicola, especially if he doesn’t even know Nicola has a twin.

Thursday Night (1): Midnight Conference

This is a very exciting chapter, full of big revelations. Robert Anquetil works for Naval Intelligence! He’s just been pretending to be a fisherman! Except now he’s pretending that he’s a plain-clothes policeman to poor Mrs Marlow, who’s just arrived at the hospital to find one of her children having emergency surgery and three others missing, possibly dead. Well, that’s what happens when you leave Ginty in charge. Mrs Marlow does explain the injured child is probably Lawrie because “Lawrie would be more likely to forget her bus fare.” Okay, I did laugh out loud at that, despite the seriousness of the situation.

Robert has summoned his boss, Commander Whittier, to the police station, where they discuss the situation. Robert has already searched Mariners and found a scrap of code that was left behind, but no Foley or Talisman. Robert then helpfully explains the background of the case to Whittier (and us), even though Whittier’s read the file. A year ago, the British Navy discovered that a clerk called Ida Cross was stealing naval secrets and sending them out of the country. Meanwhile, some U-boats (that is, German submarines) had been spotted near the coast and a Baltic agent reported that some Nazis wanted for war crimes were being forced to carry information (presumably by the Soviet Union, but this isn’t explicitly stated). It’s also thought that these Nazi agents are using U-boats to travel to Britain.

Still, the Navy couldn’t work out how Ida Cross was handing over the secrets to the Nazis. But the intelligence people discovered the U-boats were hanging out near the St-Annes villages, Robert Anquetil’s boyhood home. So he moved home and pretended to be a fisherman, until finally he happened to spot Ida Cross making her way to Mariners. And then he realised – Ida was passing the secrets to Lewis Foley, who used the Talisman to meet with the U-boats and hand over the secrets.

Before I get onto further revelations about Foley, I have a number of questions. The author’s note states this book is set in the late 1940s and it was first published in 1953. So – why Nazis? Robert says the Nazis, who were “SS men, three guards from various concentration camps [and] a number of minor Party officials […] had been given their lives on condition they acted as go-betweens”. Would Russians who’d experienced the horrors of the Battle of Stalingrad actually allow Nazis to live, let alone trust them to carry secrets from the West? Would Nazis really become spies for their sworn enemies, the Communists? Given that Western powers would be more likely to show leniency than the Soviets, why wouldn’t the Nazis pretend they were picking up secrets, then go to the British authorities and offer to tell all they knew in return for immunity from prosecution? Why is there no mention of Britain’s actual Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union? Now it’s true that there were Germans who spied for the Soviet Union during this period (for instance, Klaus Fuchs) but these were people who were life-long Communists and fervent anti-Nazis, who’d worked for the Allies during the war.

I find it hard to believe that Antonia Forest was fervently pro-Communist and therefore wanted to avoid casting the Soviets as the bad guys. So why complicate things with this implausible post-war Nazis-as-bad-guys plot? Maybe she thought her child readers were so used to equating ‘Nazi’ with ‘enemy’ that they’d get confused by non-Nazi enemies? Maybe she just wanted to use U-boats in her story? Possibly I’m missing something obvious here. However, I was impressed to see her description of the Portland Spy Ring eight years before it was actually uncovered. Ida Cross, the “plain creature” who uses her job as a clerk to steal secrets, bears a remarkable resemblance to Ethel Gee, the “spinster” filing clerk who stole secrets to pass on to a Russian agent and was arrested and sent to prison in 1961.

Robert also discusses Foley, who

“…has no loyalties, only enmities. I don’t think for a moment he’s an ardent Communist. I think he’s only in it, because he gets a peculiar kick out of being on his own against the rest of us. He always did.”

Foley’s sounding a bit like Guy Burgess, a contrarian from a ‘good’ naval family who worked for the Foreign Office until 1951, when they realised he was a Soviet agent and he fled to the Soviet Union.

There’s a bit more discussion about whether Foley is likely to have killed the children in cold blood. Robert thinks this is unlikely, although Foley has “a shocking temper for about thirty seconds at a time”. It’s also unlikely Foley has handed them over to the enemy, because how could he have had time to arrange a rendezvous with the U-boat? The Marlows were an unexpected complication for him.

But then, dramatic news! The coastguard has found bits of wreckage of the Talisman!

Next, Thursday Afternoon (2): Shipwreck

‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Three

Thursday Morning: Return to Mariners

In yet another example of the Marlows’ permissive parenting style, it is perfectly okay for Nicola to wander about the quay at dawn by herself and hang out with strange fishermen, including with the “local disappointment”, Robert Anquetil. Robert achieved a Double First at Oxford and had a distinguished wartime record in the Commandos, but is now happily being a fisherman instead of “bother[ing] himself with being Prime Minister or anything of that sort”. Nicola helps him clean up his boat, then over breakfast he helpfully supplies her (and us) with information about his childhood acquaintance, Lewis Foley. The Foleys are a “sad, mischancy lot” who keep to themselves and “always die at sea”. A Foley ancestor did use their lighthouse for wrecking and when the villagers came to stop him, he threw himself off the top of the lighthouse into the sea (and broke his neck, because unfortunately it was a shallow bit, but I suppose technically he died at sea). Robert explains how the lighthouse is on a tiny island surrounded by rocks, with a secret shortcut known only to the Foleys and Robert, which I’m sure will turn out to be significant. The lighthouse does work, though, because it was lit up for the Victory Celebrations at the end of the war.

Incidentally, there are a number of references to the Second World War in this book, whereas Autumn Term’s setting, in terms of era, was very vague. But I suppose if you’re going to write a book about spies and traitors, it helps if you set it firmly in a particular time and political context so that you can identify the enemy.

Robert has a number of disquieting things to say about Foley, who was “tremendously proud” of his wrecker ancestor, tried to kill anyone he fought with and seems almost to have a split personality. Robert also warns Nicola not to return to Mariners because “Lewis can be very unpleasant”. Given the title of this chapter, I assume she will ignore this warning and disaster will ensue.

Oh, Robert also teaches her a song, which I’ve made a note of because it will probably turn out to be a secret code:

Injuns on the railroad
Russians on the spree
Sugar in the petrol
And up goes she!

Which is about Russians invading Germany via the River Spree and how sugar in petrol can be used to sabotage engines. Could Robert be the Traitor? Maybe he’s lying about Foley? But Nicola likes Robert and Peter likes Foley, and Nicola has better judgement than Peter does.

Back at the hotel, Ginty thinks that being left in charge is “a quite extraordinary and frightful thing to have happened, for Ginty loathed responsibility and always looked the other way at school when there were new girls to be taken in tow or anything of that sort.” Although Ginty is “intelligent, charming to look at, good fun and excellent at games”, Karen once called her a “very light-weight sort of person” (to which Ginty responded by pretending not to hear and rushing off to play tennis). So Ginty now decides that Peter, being a boy, should bear all responsibility for the siblings. Not that she bothers to tell anyone this, least of all Peter. So far, Ginty and Lawrie are my least favourite Marlows. (Actually, I don’t much like Giles, either. Rowan and Nicola are the best.)

Nicola tells Ginty, Peter and Lawrie what she’s learned about the lighthouse and the Foley family, but to her dismay, they decide to visit Mariners. She reluctantly joins them, because if “they were going to be caught by Foley, and if there should be a frightful row, she thought she would rather be there than not”. Also, like Peter, she has a horror of being thought cowardly by the others – even though, in this situation, it would be braver to take a stand and insist they stay away from Mariners.

They hike over to Farthing Fee, visit the hidden sea and climb up to Mariners’ crow’s-nest, whereupon a fog rolls in. Peter starts to feel uneasy, but they continue exploring the house all the way down to the cellars. It is revealed Ginty has panic attacks in enclosed spaces, especially underground, because during the war, their house in London was bombed and she was trapped alone in the cellar for hours until they dug her out.

Okay, now I feel a bit of sympathy for Ginty.

(I am going to ignore all the children’s references to “Little Black Sambo” and “nigger minstrel”, used whenever they get dirty, because I have already made my thoughts on this sort of period-specific racism known. For the record, this book was first published in 1953.)

Ginty acts as a look-out upstairs while the others investigate a part of the cellar that seems to be inhabited – and turns out to be the hiding place for a box of microfilms and complicated formulae and photos of torpedos. As they’re arguing over whether the police will believe them about this evidence of spying or if they should take it straight to their father, Ginty hears footsteps coming toward them. “Weak with terror”, she joins the others, pretending that nothing’s wrong.

Now, although this is not a particularly sensible thing to do, it’s understandable for someone in the middle of a panic attack and certainly in character for someone who hates facing up to unpleasant realities, so I’m not too disappointed in Ginty.

And really, what action could Ginty have taken that would have saved them, because it’s Foley and yes, he really is the Traitor. Peter actually pushes the microfilms over to him and starts to explain until Peter realises Foley is pointing a revolver at them. Foley snatches up the microfilms and herds the four Marlows off through the fog to the foreshore, where he forces them into his dinghy. At this point, he realises one of them is missing. Lawrie is gone!

Lawrie is now their only hope of rescue!

In other words, they’re doomed.

Next: Thursday Afternoon (1): Lawrie Runs for It

‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Two

Wednesday Afternoon: The Hidden Sea

Back at the hotel, Mrs Marlow, usually unflappable, goes into the “most wowing kind of flap” when she hears about Peter and Nicola’s near-death experience on the cliffs. I’m relieved to hear this, because so far, the Marlow parents have seemed hands-off to the point of near neglect. But Peter thinks “how absolutely extraordinary it was that it was always the very people you thought you could depend on absolutely who were always the ones who let you down.” Hmm, what does that tell you about your judgement, Peter? But Peter is too busy feeling guilty and cross to do any self-analysis. He snaps at poor Johnnie Thorpe, then at Lawrie, although by lunchtime, he’s in a slightly better temper. Ginty and Lawrie are competing in the hotel’s ping-pong tournament, so Peter and Nicola decide to take the bus to a mysterious-sounding place called Farthing Fee. This turns out to be a boring collection of bungalows at the end of a road, but then Nicola discovers an overgrown lane marked ‘Footpath to Mariners’, which sounds more promising.

Walking along the hedge-hemmed lane towards the sea, they wonder if Lieutenant Foley has an identical twin (“If sometimes he’s all right and sometimes he’s peculiar, that would explain it”) and they feed a pony (the Marlows “always carried sugar on walks in the hope of meeting friendly horses”). After an offhand remark from Nicola, Peter attempts to catch and ride the pony, despite the pony’s firm resistance to the idea. Peter seems to have some absurd and dangerous ideas about How to Be a Proper Man, no doubt reinforced by his father, his brother and his school, but Nicola is astute and kind enough to rescue Peter on this occasion by deliberately frightening off the horse.

Then, suddenly, they come across ‘Mariners’, an old and apparently abandoned house, which they decide to explore. Now, I’m a bit confused about Nicola’s moral values, because she wouldn’t even consider taking a train without paying the fare in Autumn Term, yet has no hesitation about breaking into a stranger’s house in this book. Isn’t trespassing worse than fare-dodging? Regardless, there’s a nice description here of how different Peter and Nicola are. Nicola seems braver because she simply doesn’t think about the consequences before jumping into action (or into a deep, dark coal cellar with a busted trap-door). Peter feels obliged to act in a brave manner, but usually stops to consider what might go wrong:

“His first thought had been that he ought to jump after her. His second and more sensible one, that if Nicola had damaged herself, or if the door on the inside wouldn’t open, he would be more useful where he was. He heard Nicola begin to move about and felt relieved. At least he hadn’t got to cope with a sprained ankle or something cheerful like that miles from anywhere…”

So perhaps Peter really is braver, because he feels fear, then acts anyway? Meanwhile, Nicola has wandered off into the depths of the cellar without telling him – and then is surprised that he’s cross with her when they’re finally reunited.

Anyway, they investigate the silent, empty house, “handsome in a cold, symmetrical sort of way”, and eventually find their way to an amazing crow’s-nest on top of the roof, complete with telescope. Whereupon we discover that Peter is secretly terrified of heights. So, he has vertigo and he doesn’t like the sea and he tends to freeze in a crisis. And he’s training to be a naval officer. Oh, Peter.

But the really cool thing is that they spy a hidden sea and a strange lighthouse – which is called ‘Foley’s Folly Light’! Could Mariners be Foley’s house? Could the Foley family have been wreckers, luring ships onto the rocks with a false light?

Peter, now thoroughly rattled, gets into one of his ‘upsets’ (“When he was in an upset he got rather white and angry-looking, and as Nicola knew from experience, it wasn’t a bit of good asking him what the matter was”) and he storms off down the lane by himself. He feels

“furious with himself, as he always did when a hidden uneasiness made him kick out at whoever happened to be around. A fine officer he was going to make if he bellowed at his subordinates every time he got in a flap – if he ever was an officer.”

Antonia Forest is so good at writing child characters with complex, realistic anxieties and ambitions. Poor Peter, he’s probably under far more pressure than his sisters, regarding his future prospects. I mean, their parents didn’t even bother to send Nicola and Lawrie to school until they were twelve.

Meanwhile, Nicola has gone off to look for the hidden sea. She finds a mooring buoy with the name of a boat on it – Talisman – and sees the boat returning. For a moment she considers waiting to talk to the owner but “then suddenly, for no reason at all, she knew it was Lieutenant Foley coming from the sea” and in a panic, she runs away before he can see her. On the bus with Peter, she decides she over-reacted – but Nicola’s instincts tend to have some basis in fact, even if she isn’t conscious of it at the time, so I think she was probably right to dash off. (Mind you, I know the book is about ‘The Marlows and the Traitor’ and Nicola doesn’t.)

Finally, back at the hotel, Lawrie announces their mother has gone off to join their father, so Ginty is in charge of them till next week. Let me say that again. GINTY IS IN CHARGE OF HER THREE YOUNGER SIBLINGS FOR A WEEK. I take back what I said earlier about Mrs Marlow being a responsible parent. Also, Lawrie pretends that they all missed out on being shown over the Fleet by their father (which is one of Nicola’s greatest desires) because Nicola was late back, and Nicola believes her. But ha ha, Lawrie was just trying out one of her acting voices! Lawrie, I’m liking you less and less.

Next, Thursday Morning: Return to Mariners

‘The Marlows and the Traitor’ by Antonia Forest

'The Marlows and the Traitor' by Antonia ForestI’ve just handed my latest manuscript over to my editor, hooray, so I’m rewarding myself with the second of Antonia Forest’s Marlow series, The Marlows and the Traitor. As with Autumn Term, I’ve decided to blog about it as I read. You might want to avoid Memoranda for the next week or so if you’re planning to read this book, because it sounds as though it will be a thriller with lots of exciting plot twists.

In fact, I was a bit wary of picking this up because my next planned book (not the one I’ve just sent off for editing, a different one) is also about spies and traitors and is set in England during the Cold War. However, I suspect Antonia Forest and I have quite different views about patriotism and the FitzOsbornes are not really like the Marlows, so it should be all right. (However, I would just like to note here that I worked out my plot long before I’d heard of The Marlows and the Traitor.)

Anyway, in Autumn Term we learned that the Marlow family consists of Commander Marlow, Mrs Marlow and eight Marlow offspring – Giles (junior naval officer), Karen (head girl of Kingscote Girls’ School), Rowan (the sporty, sensible one), Ann (kindly Guide Leader), Ginty (giant pain), Peter (Dartmouth cadet) and identical twins Nicola (awesome protagonist) and Lawrie (drama queen). In this book, the four youngest Marlows and their mother are on holiday in a seaside town and the story begins with a chapter ominously titled ‘Wednesday Morning: Encounter in a Thunderstorm’.

Peter wakes at dawn to the clap of thunder, having spent the night fretting about a humiliating incident at school that he refers to as ‘the boat thing’. He’s worried it might happen again and then he might get “kicked out of Dartmouth because he was a useless worm” and “apart from the quite scorching humiliation of being thrown out, he would have to go back to being an ordinary schoolboy at an ordinary school”.

Oh, the horror of being treated as ordinary when you’ve been born a Marlow! But with his father and his only brother in the navy, there’s probably quite a lot of pressure on poor Peter. To remind himself of how brave and daring he is, he grabs his favourite sister, Nicola, and they go for an oceanfront walk in the storm, noting a small boat making its way through the tempest-tossed sea. It is then revealed that Peter doesn’t like the sea and sailing-obsessed Nicola always gets seasick. They also discuss their fellow hotel guests, the Thorpe family, which is made up of “quiet, bald Mr Thorpe and his cheerful noisy wife and two daughters who all wore trousers much too tight and too brightly coloured for their various shapes” (the brazen hussies) and also seventeen-year-old Johnnie, who is well-intentioned but loud and clumsy. The Marlow children “in the politest possible way” exclude Johnnie from their activities, despite their mother’s protests that he’s nicer than his mannerisms suggest (“It’s his mannerisms we’d be with,” Lawrie points out). This is a dilemma because Mr Thorpe has invited them out on his boat, which they don’t feel they can accept if they’re ostracising his son. Peter and Nicola also chat about the upcoming fancy dress dance at the hotel and Peter becomes relaxed enough to tell Nicola about ‘the boat thing’.

It seems Peter, convinced he was a brilliant sailor, became complacent and careless while sailing and caused a fellow cadet to get knocked into the sea. Worse, Peter froze in a panic and failed to turn the boat around to rescue the poor boy. Lieutenant Foley, their instructor, had to fish the boy out, then gave Peter a dressing-down in front of everyone else. Nicola shows what an empathetic listener she is and then asks about Peter’s friend Selby. Selby is significant because he’s the first nice, normal boy Peter has ever befriended:

“All his life, he had had a talent for taking a fancy to the most unpleasant people, from his very first friend at the local kindergarten, who had been an angelic-looking little boy called Esmond who bit people without provocation and ran at them with open knives …”

Selby continues to be nice and normal, but he has had a strange encounter with Lieutenant Foley, who gave Selby a lift back to school one afternoon and behaved in a very “queer” manner – being inappropriately happy, asking what Selby would do for him and telling Selby that naval discipline was excessive and needed to be changed. Selby, rattled, tells his house officer, who apparently tells Foley(!), who later makes a snarky remark about Selby’s “outsize conscience”. But Selby continues to feel “as if things ought to be all right, but, aren’t really”.

Peter likes Foley, so thinks Selby is imagining things, but Nicola is inclined to believe Selby. Listen to Nicola, Peter! She’s a lot better than you are at human relationships! Maybe Foley really does want something sinister from Selby …

Peter then becomes aware that he has led the two of them along a cliff path that he’s been warned is dangerous, in the middle of a violent thunderstorm:

“The rain streamed down their waterproofs and the sea creamed around their gumboots, while the sky grew steadily more copper coloured as if a fire had been lighted behind it. And then, suddenly, the sky cracked open above their heads, and a ball of light rushed along the horizon and fell into the sea: the thunder bellowed, the hail came down like a white wall and the sea swirled about their thighs.”

Even Nicola, who is completely fearless, becomes concerned they might slip off the cliff path and Peter “agree[s] with some relief, feeling rather a fool”. At which point Nicola is nearly washed into the sea, saved from almost certain death by Peter grabbing her. Soaked to the skin, they stagger back to the promenade, relieved to see that at least that little boat has made it back to shore safely. Then something very odd happens.

A man walks past them on the promenade – and it’s Lieutenant Foley! Except he ignores Peter’s polite greeting, as if he’s never met Peter before in his life. Peter, feeling even more foolish, decides that he, Peter, must have been so drenched he was unrecognisable, but Nicola says Foley’s eyes flickered in a moment of recognition “like in The Thirty-Nine Steps”.

Okay, so Lieutenant Foley has appeared in three different incidents in this chapter and in two of them he’s behaved very strangely. Using my extraordinary powers of perception, I predict that Lieutenant Foley will turn out to be The Traitor.

Unless The Traitor is actually that ginger cat on the promenade, which is also mentioned three times in this chapter and the second time it saw the children, it “stared at them with blank yellow eyes as if it had never seen them before” and it also acts treacherously by kicking Nicola’s arm after she’s spent ages diligently rubbing behind its ears.

Unless the cat IS Lieutenant Foley, in disguise. I don’t think this is that sort of book, though.

Also, I was disproportionately amused that the Marlow children use “goop” to mean “a complete idiot.”

Next, Wednesday Afternoon: The Hidden Sea