‘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

Miscellaneous Memoranda

Rivers of London fans, here’s a good interview with Ben Aaronovitch at Radio National (although, beware, it contains big plot spoilers for the whole series). Also at Radio National, there’s an interview with Leanne Hall about Iris and the Tiger.

I liked this article about Mary Gernat’s lovely cover art for the 1960s editions of the Famous Five books – the artist used her four sons and the family dog, Patch, as models for her sketches and watercolours.

Here’s an interesting attempt to sort into Hogwarts Houses by asking two questions: Are you governed by morality or ethics, and do you derive satisfaction from internal or external validation? (As always, I get thrown straight into Ravenclaw.)

A recent BBC poll of non-British critics about the greatest British novels of all time came up with a list in which women writers dominated the top ten and made up half of the top fifty. As I’d only read fifty-five of the books, I’ve added a few titles to my To Read list, although I think I can live quite happily without Lucky Jim and the two listed D H Lawrence novels.

I feel I’ve read a few too many of these type of novels lately (“I’m going to write a story about a character who feels the way I feel! Middle class, educated, with seemingly every advantage, but who still feels aimless and dissatisfied … Someone with my lived experience will be able to shine a penetrating dramatic light on the problems that arise when you don’t really have other problems.”)

In happier news, the new(ish) Australian children’s laureate is Leigh Hobbs, and hooray, he has a new Mr Chicken book out – Mr Chicken Lands on London!

If you happen to be in London (with Mr Chicken) and are worried about air quality – fear not, the Pigeon Air Patrol is on the case. The pigeons, equipped with tiny backpacks, measure nitrogen dioxide, ozone and other volatile compounds and send the results to Plume Labs for analysis. Londoners can request a reading for their particular location (by sending a tweet, of course). The patrol team includes “Coco, the ‘maverick’, Julius, the ‘hipster’, and Norbert — the ‘intellectual’”.

Finally, in important cephalopod news, a previously unknown species of milky-white octopus has been spotted four kilometres below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. The octopus is currently nicknamed ‘Caspar the Friendly Ghost’. It joins another a new species, a tiny orange octopus discovered last year that scientists would like to name Opisthoteuthis adorabilis because it is just so adorable.

Adventures in Research: Schoolgirls in the 1950s and 1960s

Generally my Adventures in Research are not all that adventurous, given that they tend to involve nothing more arduous than a fifteen-minute stroll to my local library or second-hand book store and then some concentrated reading. This time, though, there is an actual story to go with the research. Well, not really a story, because it doesn’t have a conclusion. More of a series of events.

So – Sydney City Council has about a dozen branch libraries scattered around the centre of the city, each with a special collection relevant to the particular neighbourhood it services. For example, the Haymarket Library, in the middle of Chinatown, has lots of Mandarin books and DVDs; Customs House, near the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge and other places frequented by tourists, has a large collection of international newspapers and magazines; my own branch has lots of LGBT fiction and non-fiction, handily marked with little rainbow stickers on the spines. Generally, these items can be transported between branches, arriving at your local branch within a day or two of your request – it’s really convenient and easy for library members. Anyway, a while back, I was browsing the library computer catalogue and came upon some potentially useful books about women’s lives in post-war Britain. There were histories, biographies and memoirs, including an intriguing book called Truth, Dare or Promise: Girls Growing up in the Fifties. All of the books were marked as “Non-Circulating Reference Books”, located at Ultimo Library, which did seem slightly odd – why would Ultimo, of all places, have a collection of non-fiction about women, and why would such books, mostly paperbacks, be regarded as so precious that they couldn’t leave the library? Never mind, I would visit Ultimo myself!

So one fine autumn morning, I gathered up my notebook, pen, Gregory’s Street Directory, bus timetable, multicoloured Post-It notes, packed lunch, compass, water bottle, pith helmet and spare pen, and set off on my quest. Due to my excellent map-reading skills, I got off at the wrong bus stop and had to ascend Ultimo’s steepest hill (who even knew they had hills in Ultimo?) before arriving, puffing slightly, at Ultimo Library – the reference section of which turned out to contain a small shelf of books about local council history, but not much else. I searched the general collection, then asked the librarian at the front desk, who frowned.

“Are you sure these books are here?” she asked.

“Yes, they’re in the Sydney City Libraries catalogue,” I said. “Listed as being held in Ultimo Library in the Non-Circulating Reference section.”

She summoned her colleague and I showed them the list of call numbers.

“Ah!” said the colleague. “Those books! No, they aren’t here. They’re in the National Women’s Library. I wish they’d take those books out of our catalogue, because we often have people coming in here looking for them.”

“Then…why are they listed in Sydney City Libraries catalogue?” I asked, quite reasonably. ‘And why does it say they’re here?”

Who knows? Although it turned out the National Women’s Library wasn’t far away – in the very same block, actually. The helpful librarians gave me a set of directions that sounded almost exactly like Arthur Dent in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy looking for the plans to demolish his house, which are on display at the council planning department:

“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a torch.”
“Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the notice didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.”

Except my situation didn’t involve a leopard. (Pity, it would have made this story far more exciting.) So I went down the stairs, turned right, went past the table-tennis tables and the courtyard and the kitchen and down more stairs and found the locked doors of the National Women’s Library. This was during its listed ‘opening hours’, but there didn’t seem to be anyone around. I spied another door at the back, so I went back outside and around the building and tried that door and it was locked too1. So I gave up.

As it was such a beautiful day, I decided to walk all the way home, which would give me a chance to do some sightseeing. Ultimo used to be mostly old warehouses and factories, but now there’s the Powerhouse Museum, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation headquarters and the rapidly expanding University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). It was the latest UTS building that I was most interested in, because it was designed by Frank Gehry and the photos made it look so spectacular – a bit too spectacular, really, a bit show-offy and grandstanding, all wrong for a battered, industrial area like Ultimo, I’d thought. But that building was lovely. It nestled into its space, not overwhelming any of the surrounding buildings, and the famous ‘bulges’ in the brickwork made it look as though it was breathing. The bricks were golden-brown and glowed in the sunlight, and there were a lot of square, nicely-proportioned windows that reflected the blue sky, so the whole thing looked like a squat, friendly creature with a lot of big blue eyes. I didn’t go inside, so I don’t know how functional it is, but apparently it uses a lot of natural light and has loads of environmentally-friendly features. Officially, it’s named the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, because he gave the university twenty million dollars to build it, although I’m pretty sure all the students just call it the ‘crumpled paper-bag building’. Anyway, it’s a vast improvement on the main UTS building on Broadway, which looks like a Weetbix box covered in brown pebble-dash. Then I wandered up towards Broadway, noticing that a lot of the old warehouses along the way had been turned into trendy coffee shops and advertising agencies and such, and I had a look at One Central Park, which was recently named Best Tall Building in the World by someone or other. All of the outside walls are covered in vertical gardens, which I didn’t think would work out very well, given the vehicle fumes and the often harsh weather, but the huge variety of plants seemed to be thriving. It probably helps that it’s done nothing but rain in Sydney for the past six months.

When I arrived home an hour later, I went online and discovered that there were multiple copies of Truth, Dare or Promise: Girls Growing up in the Fifties on sale for less than ten dollars from various British second-hand bookshops. This seemed a lot easier than trying to gain access to the National Women’s Library, so I placed an order. And waited. And waited some more. Then I gave the bookseller an extra couple of days, due to Easter. Then I emailed them, more than a month after I’d ordered the book. The bookseller was very polite and apologetic. The book must have been lost by the postal service. They would send me another copy. So I waited. And waited. Then I emailed them again. They were very, very sorry. The replacement book must have been lost in the post, too. They didn’t have any more copies of the book, so they would give me a refund.

I can understand that one book might get lost in the post, but TWO? I had a vision of their new office boy, keen but not very bright, being sent off with an armful of parcels and diligently posting each one in a rubbish bin instead of a post box. I waited another week for the refund to arrive, then used the money to order a copy of the book from a different bookseller. I’m still waiting. You know what’s going to happen, don’t you? This one will get lost, too. Or all three copies will arrive simultaneously in my mail box.

'My Secret Diary' by Jacqueline WilsonAnyway, in the meantime, I bought a copy of Jacqueline Wilson‘s My Secret Diary: Dating, Dancing, Dreams and Dilemmas. This is an account, aimed at teenage readers, of the author’s life in 1960, when she was a boy-crazy fourteen-year-old schoolgirl in suburban Surrey. It included lots of great black-and-white snapshots, as well as some excerpts from her real diary, which are as hilariously earnest and angst-ridden as you’d expect. I took notes on the clothes and records and films she liked, and the food, and the ridiculous school regulations and horrible uniforms, although I’m not sure how similar her life would have been to an upper-class London schoolgirl. In fact, I couldn’t quite figure out just where her family fitted into England’s rigid class system. Jacqueline’s family lived in a small council flat, but in a ‘genteel’ new block, rather than the rough council estate up the hill. They had a car, a TV, a telephone and a brand-new record player, but no washing machine or fridge. Jacqueline walked several miles to and from school (she was in the grammar stream at the local girls’ comprehensive) to save on bus fares, but there always seemed to be enough money for new clothes, cinema tickets, hairdressing appointments, pocket money and Christmas presents, and the family went on holidays (although not abroad) once a year. I couldn’t figure out what her father did for a living – he worked “at the Treasury” in Westminster, but doing what? Her mother worked locally, as a book-keeper. So, maybe lower-middle class – but could you live in a council flat in the 1960s and be regarded as middle-class? Maybe aspiring, ambitious working class, about to move into the middle class?

I was also interested to read about her favourite books – The Diary of Anne Frank, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and Rumer Godden’s The River and The Greengage Summer. She secretly borrowed Peyton Place from a friend and thought it was “sheer trash”, but was impressed with Lolita (“I wasn’t particularly shocked, just enormously interested”), although the author adds that “nowadays I find the whole story so troubling, so distressingly offensive, that I can’t bear to read it. I strongly recommend that you don’t read it either.” She was also determined to be a writer, so she bought a book called How To Be A Writer by Kathleen Betterton. This advised that “the writer for children must not attempt subtlety of character in which good and bad are blended”, so Jacqueline vowed, “If I ever write, I won’t write for children.” Fortunately for her many fans, she changed her mind, ignored that advice and went on to sell twenty-five million copies of her children’s books. (Teenage Jacqueline was also unimpressed with the writing advice doled out by Enid Blyton in her autobiography – “surely her books are not all that great”). I found this to be an entertaining, informative read – and if my other book about schoolgirls ever arrives, I’ll be able to figure out how typical Jacqueline’s experiences were.

You might also be interested in reading:

Adventures in Research: Schoolgirls in the 1950s and 1960s, Part Two

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  1. Later I discovered the National Women’s Library is run by volunteers, so it’s understandable that the opening hours would be limited and unpredictable. And I guess the books aren’t allowed out because they’re all donated and many are out of print and not easily replaced.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover: The Obscenity Trial

I’ve just been reading about D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was banned in Britain for more than thirty years. In 1960, Penguin attempted to publish a mass-paperback, uncensored edition of the novel, but the British government charged them with publishing obscene material. The Crown prosecutor, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, opened the trial with words that quickly became famous:

“Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters – because girls can read as well as boys – reading this book? Is it a book that you would have lying around your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”

'Lady Chatterley's Lover' by D. H. LawrenceGirls can read as well as boys! I should add that he was addressing a jury that included three women (all of whom were required to read the book). He was also horrified that the novel seemed to treat sensuality “almost as a virtue”. In reply, Penguin argued that the book had genuine literary merit and was neither obscene nor depraved. Penguin asked more than three hundred literary figures to appear as expert witnesses, and among those who agreed to defend the book’s literary merits were Rebecca West, E. M. Forster, Cecil Day Lewis and T. S. Eliot, with Sylvia Plath watching excitedly from the press gallery. A few, though, declined to help, including Evelyn Waugh, Robert Graves, Doris Lessing and Iris Murdoch, as well as one particular bestselling female author. Guess who said the following:

“I’d love to help Penguins but I don’t see how I can. My husband says ‘No’ at once. The thought of me standing up in court advocating a book like that … I’m awfully sorry but I don’t see that I can go against my husband’s most definitive wishes in this.1

It was ENID BLYTON! Oh, Enid.

Penguin, of course, won the case. Their initial print run of 200,000 sold out immediately and more than two million copies were snapped up in the first year. I feel I ought to have a go at reading this book, given its historical significance, but Kangaroo was so dreadful that I don’t think I can face any more D. H. Lawrence.

You may also be interested in reading:

Book Banned, Author Bemused

Lois Lowry on Book Banning

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  1. All quotes are from Modernity Britain, Book Two: A Shake of the Dice, 1959-62 by David Kynaston.

Miscellaneous Memoranda

The National Year of Reading Read This! prize winners have been announced, after attracting lots of fabulously creative entries from young readers. I think my favourite entry was the knitted Wizard of Oz characters by twelve-year-old Lexi, although the papier-mâché model of James and the Giant Peach by Michelle, also twelve years old, was wonderful, too. (Also, I just discovered that ‘papier mâché’ is French for ‘chewed paper’. Thanks so much for telling me that, Oxford Dictionary.)

Entries in the 2012 John Marsden Prize for Young Australian Writers are now open, with “young writers under the age of 25 [. . .] urged to enter the competition to share in $5,500 in prize money and have the opportunity to be published online and in the December issue of Voiceworks, Express Media’s literary quarterly.” You have until September to enter your short story or poem, with more information here.

Speaking of young readers and writers, there’s a great new(ish) online magazine for teenage girls called Rookie. I wish magazines like that had existed when I was a teenager. (Sadly, the internet hadn’t even been invented when I was a teenager.)

There’s an interesting article here by Anthony Horowitz about how book covers end up plastered with glowing endorsements from other writers. I’m currently reading a YA novel by an established US author, and the Cassandra Clare endorsement (“A gorgeously written, chilling atmospheric thriller.” CASSANDRA CLARE, bestselling author of THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS SERIES) takes up more space on the front cover than the name of the book’s author. But do book buyers actually pay any attention to these quotes? As the first commenter on the article says, “Probably the only people who would truly benefit from an author’s endorsement are new or little-read authors – exactly the kind of people who (for completely understandable and rational reasons) are least likely to get them.”

I recently read two fascinating articles about successful novelists who decided to stop writing (and, presumably, to stop endorsing other authors’ books). “There’s just too much stress on authors,” said Steph Swainston, author of the Castle series. She was unhappy with the pressure from fans and publishers to produce a book a year, and disliked the modern need for authors to be ‘celebrities’ and engage with social media (“The internet is poison to authors”). The other author, Elizabeth Harrower, was less forthcoming about why she stopped writing in 1966:

“It’s not as though she ran out of things to say – ‘there were probably too many things to say’. It’s not as though her work was poorly received – her second novel, The Long Prospect, was described as ranking ‘second only to Voss as a postwar work of Australian literature’. It’s not as though she was busy raising children – she never married and is childless.”

In the end, she simply says, “[I] realised I just can’t be bothered any more.”

To end on a more positive note, this year The Famous Five celebrate the seventieth anniversary of their first adventure, Five on a Treasure Island. Naturally, the celebratory feast will feature ham sandwiches on crusty bread, hard-boiled eggs, currant buns and lashings of ginger beer.

Letters of Note

One very nice (and unexpected) result of becoming a published writer has been that I now receive letters from readers. Yes, actual letters, written in pen or pencil on pieces of paper, sealed inside fancy envelopes and delivered by my friendly postie. Of course, it’s lovely to receive readers’ e-mails, too, and I must admit it’s much easier and quicker to reply to e-mails – but there’s something special about a personal letter, perhaps because they’re so rare now. When I open my letter box these days, I generally find electricity bills and reminders about dental appointments and pamphlets from politicians who are desperately seeking my vote in the upcoming State election – but hardly ever do I receive letters.

The lost art of letter writingThat’s why I so enjoy browsing through Letters of Note, an on-line collection of letters to and from famous people. It includes adorable letters from J. K. Rowling and Dr Seuss and David Bowie to fans; an indignant letter from Enid Blyton to Robert Menzies demanding that he stop calling her books ‘immoral’; a completely illegible letter from King Henry the Eighth to Anne Boleyn; a hilarious ‘personal letter’ from Steve Martin; a letter from an exasperated schoolboy to President John F. Kennedy and much, much more. Go and have a look, it’s fascinating. It’s like finding a dusty box of letters in your attic – assuming you’d lived the same house as Albert Einstein, Yoko Ono, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf and Freddie Mercury.

P.S. As much as I adore receiving letters, I can’t answer them unless they include a return address. Harriet, thank you so much for your lovely letter, but you forgot to include your address. If you contact me by e-mail or post, I promise I will write back.