‘End of Term’, Part Five

Chapter Six: A Change of Cast

Miranda has been watching the play rehearsals secretly, so she’s there to witness Miss Kempe’s frustration with Jess’s terrible rendition of Shepherd Boy, Dr Herrick making Ginty the Archangel Gabriel, and Tim giving an impertinent but useful suggestion about stage direction. Then, what a surprise, Jess suddenly can’t do Shepherd Boy! Her father has to fly to South Africa to investigate I.D.B (which I think is Illegal Diamond Buying) and is taking his whole family with him! (As if expats working in the colonies didn’t always put their children in English boarding school. Personally, I would have given Jess a broken leg or glandular fever or something else a bit more plausible.) Miss Kempe tries to convince Miss Keith that Lawrie should have the part, but the best she can manage is being allowed to have Nicola.

Nicola is very happy when she’s told, about not having to sing a solo, although surely having a lead acting role would be just as stressful? But then Lawrie bursts in, convinced she has the role. They race off to the noticeboard to check, and yes, it’s Nicola.

“Look, Lal” (Nicola used the baby name she hadn’t used for years), “I’m most awfully sorry. Truly I am.” Which was true. The pleasure of being Shepherd Boy was gone for ever.

Nicola is much more gracious about it than Lawrie would ever be. Lawrie tells Nicola she hates her and to get away and fetch Tim, which Nicola obediently does. Tim’s reaction is even worse:

“Why didn’t you say you wouldn’t do it? You knew how Lawrie would feel.”
“But – Yes, I know, but –”
“You really are the end,” said Tim, eyeing her with an angry, hostile look. “Honestly, there are times when I could hit you, you’re so stupid.”

Nicola has no control over the play’s casting, as Tim knows perfectly well, but the really awful thing is Tim’s presumption that she understands Lawrie better than Lawrie’s identical twin. Lawrie, literally sick with disappointment, goes off to the san with Tim, while Nicola contemplates her ex-friendship with Tim, remembering all their quarrels and that Tim had only written to Lawrie in the holidays:

“[Nicola] took it for granted that people liked her better than Lawrie. Only Tim didn’t. Tim liked Lawrie best … And then she was ashamed – a cold, squirming apprehension that probably she’d butted in, often, when she wasn’t really wanted.”

Poor Nicola! At least she has Miranda as a friend now. As well as Esther and Sally and Elizabeth and nearly everyone else, because Nicola is simply a nicer person and better friend than Lawrie. I can see why Tim would find Nicola’s Moral Uprightness a bit much, but I can’t see why Tim puts up with Lawrie’s self-centredness and immaturity. Unless Tim likes being the Superior One in their friendship, always knowing more than Lawrie? Or thinks Lawrie is going to be a superstar in the future and Tim likes the idea of being the best friend of a celebrity … except I don’t think Tim cares that much about social status.

Chapter Seven: A Change of Team

The next day, Tim has the nerve to try to pretend nothing’s happened, and then when Nicola doesn’t respond to her cheery greeting, says, “What’s up with you? Still sulking?” Lawrie is also Not-Talking to Nicola, so everything’s a bit strained. It all blows up in art class when they’re drawing the play and they realise Miranda has been watching rehearsals. Nicola, worried about her performance as Shepherd Boy, quietly asks Miranda for her opinion, but Lawrie butts in to say Nicola is “pretty awful”. Miranda loses it and it is GLORIOUS:

“The trouble with you is, you’re a spoilt brat … If everything doesn’t go the way she wants it, she yells the place down. Bellow, bellow, bellow. Anyone’d think she was six.”

Miranda also points out that Nicola wanted to be in the netball team just as much as Lawrie wanted to be Shepherd Boy, without making the same fuss, and they’d actually be winning their games if Nicola was in the team. And Miranda blames Tim:

“…if you weren’t always telling her, Lawrie, I mean, how madly brilliant she is, she mightn’t be such an ass.”

But the best bit is when she turns to shy, conflict-averse Esther to back her up and Esther immediately, unequivocally agrees that Lawrie is an ass. This silences even Tim! It’s great.

But poor Esther is otherwise having a miserable time. She’s been forced to take on Nicola’s soloist singing duties in the play, even though she has debilitating stage-fright, and she knows she can’t even run away because she doesn’t have a proper home to run to anymore. It’s a good thing she has Nicola and Miranda as friends, because the adults in her life are being actively harmful.

The netball team loses yet another game and Lawrie injures her leg in gym just before the final game of the term. This presents a moral dilemma, because she was planning on playing brilliantly in the final game and gaining colours:

“…she’d be almost as good as the people in books who played with broken bones and sprained ankles and no one knew till they’d fainted at the end – and she’d always wanted to do that.”

But even Lawrie concedes that with a hurt leg, it’s going to be difficult to play as well as she usually does, let alone better (“People in books must have different types of bones or something”). During an illegally-long hot bath, she contemplates (in a side-long, Lawrie-ish way) the things Miranda said about her and wonders if she, Lawrie, might have been cast as Shepherd Boy if she wasn’t so babyish and spoilt. Then she comes up with a plan. She’ll let Nicola play in her place (instead of Sally, the official sub). This, she decides, is such a nice thing to do for Nick that somehow, as a reward, Lawrie will end up being Shepherd Boy. Also, if they get found out about the netball swap, Nicola will be in so much trouble, she won’t be allowed to be Shepherd Boy, and Lawrie can revel in schadenfreude.

The plan goes surprisingly smoothly the next morning, as they manage to fool Ann, Ginty and Matron. Lawrie stays in bed being Sick-Nicola, while Nicola messes up her hair and goes down to tell the netball team. They all think it’s an excellent idea, and agree not to tell anyone, “specially not Marie Dobson”. Tim needs some convincing and Nicola thinks:

“It was queer and difficult being friends with someone who disliked you so much. At least she supposed they were friends and she supposed it was dislike, though neither seemed quite the right word.”

Let me assist, Nicola. Yes, Tim dislikes you. You’re free to dislike her back. No, you’re not friends. There, sorted.

There are some amusing bits where neat, precise Nicola is forced to be messy and disorganised in order to be a convincing Lawrie. They take the train to the school where they’re playing their netball matches, telling Marie to walk with the Seniors, then ordering her out of their train carriage. (The teachers don’t seem to notice this blatant bullying, which presumably happens at every away-game, so I don’t think Nicola should have any concern about them noticing the twin-swap.)

Now, I don’t even like netball (typical Wing Defence), but this game is pretty exciting. Everyone plays well, especially Nicola – so well that Lois and Janice, watching the game, realise it’s not Lawrie playing. Janice says, “Lois, do have the sense to let it alone. You shouldn’t have got Nicola out in the first place.” Lois hotly denies this and prattles on about prefects having to do their duty, while Janice is coolly amused and dismissive, pointing out that Lawrie will get into just as much trouble as Nicola if Lois decides to report them. When Miss Craven comes over, Janice wickedly says, “Lawrie played particularly well. Didn’t Lawrie play well, Lois?” and Lois reluctantly agrees that Lawrie deserves her colours. I’m liking Janice more and more.

On the way back, Marie manages to squirm into the carriage with the rest of the triumphant team and then gloats that she knows a secret. Except then she finds out that everyone else knew about the twin-swap and didn’t tell her because they knew she’d sneak to Craven or Lois. So Marie bursts into tears, exclaiming it’s not fair that Nicola told everyone about Guides last year. Even though Nicola hasn’t told anyone. Marie is so pathetically awful – it’s completely understandable that the other girls don’t like her. If only a teacher or an older girl would take Marie under her wing and teach her some social skills, then work out what she’s good at and let her have some success and responsibilities in that. Or they could have left her in the B class with her friend Pomona. Instead, they throw her into the netball team, when she can’t play, and ignore it when the others exclude her from everything. At least Nicola realises “we’ll have to be a bit careful … she has feelings same like the rest of you”, although Lawrie “who never really believed anyone but herself had any, remained unconvinced”.

Next, Chapter Eight: As It Turned Out

‘End of Term’, Part Four

Chapter Five: Half-Term at Trennels

There is a lot going on in this chapter. So, first, the Kingscote girls have a Christmas play rehearsal in the Minster, and during a break, Nicola has a chat with Jess Geddes, the nice-but-untalented actress playing the Shepherd Boy. She too thinks the casting is bonkers, especially now it’s being held in the Minster with outsiders coming to watch, saying “I don’t see it’s so very reverent, not to have it done the very best we can.”

Nicola is a bit embarrassed that Jess is talking about religion (it’s bad enough they’re in a church), but excuses it on the grounds of Jess being Scottish, rather than “pagan English” like the rest of them. Then they discover a bird, possibly a falcon, carved into a pillar in an out-of-the-way place and wonder why someone would have carved a presumably non-Biblical bird where no one could see. Nicola ventures that perhaps it was “just for fun” and she contemplates how religion was different in medieval times: “I read once about a jester who turned somersaults in front of a statue of the Virgin because it was the thing he could do best.” Although she’s careful to say ‘thing’ rather than ‘gift’ or ‘offering’ because those words would be “priggish”.

Then half-term arrives. Poor Esther has to stay at school rather than going home to see Daks, because her hopeless mother messed up the dates, but everyone else is going home, even Tim. Rowan, looking very grown-up with lipstick, comes to collect the Marlow sisters, but first Nicola and Sprog meet Dr Herrick, who asks if Sprog can be part of the play, carried by one of the Kings. Nicola thinks this will be lovely for Sprog and also for the Minster, having a hawk inside again, because surely in medieval times, “when people believed properly”, they brought their hawks to church.

Dr Herrick, in a fairly blatant intrusion of Authorial Voice, is amused by her ignorance and corrects her, saying there are people now who “believe properly”, “without reservation”. Nicola later thinks that Dr Herrick and Ann are among these people, but didn’t people talk about “science having made everything different”? Nicola wishes she could ask Giles because he was a sensible person who’d “know what was true and what wasn’t”. (Ha ha, imagine thinking Giles the source of eternal wisdom!)

Meanwhile, Miss Craven has bailed up Rowan to ask what’s going on with Nicola. (She’s not in the netball team, Craven! Because you chose to exclude her!) Rowan and Nicola then realise Evil Lois was behind it, but Nicola makes Rowan promise not to say anything to Miss Craven. Rowan reluctantly agrees, worried that Nicola will end up “like Jan Scott and always passed over”. It turns out there was a “terrific scandal” in Upper Fourth when Jan was told to volunteer for some weeding duties and Jan said if it was voluntary, then she was choosing not to. So she was labelled Uncooperative Type and written off forever (except they made her a prefect, so not really). No wonder Miranda has a crush on Janice.

It is revealed Rowan is having a tough time on the farm, having spent six weeks milking cows and “clamping mangolds”. I had no idea what a mangold was, so I looked it up and it’s mangel-wurzel, a type of beet used to feed livestock. I don’t know why they need clamping, but it sounds like something from Cold Comfort Farm. Next thing we know, Rowan will be pushing people down the well and obsessively counting chicken feathers. In the meantime, she’s driving her sisters home even though she’s too young to have a driving licence (but quite old enough to run a farm, according to her parents), hence the lipstick, in case she gets stopped by a policeman.

The big news is that Grandmother (the French widow/possible Nazi collaborator) is staying till New Year and is making everyone miserable, especially their mother, especially as Mrs Bertie the housekeeper has the flu and Mrs Marlow can’t cook. Also, Grandmother is a devout Catholic, which has somehow escaped their notice till now, and she is demanding to be taken to Mass on Sunday. Nicola doesn’t help matters by getting knocked over by the dog as soon as she walks inside, letting Sprog fly up to the candelabra. Fortunately, Patrick arrives and helps to recapture Sprog and even more fortunately, he turns out to be Catholic. And they hear Mass at his house each Sunday, because the Merrick family are such old, important Catholics! (How come the Catholic Mrs Merrick only has one child, while the only-vaguely-Anglican Mrs Marlow has eight? Maybe poor Mrs Merrick had lots of miscarriages or Patrick had some stillborn siblings? Unless she saw how Patrick was turning out and decided that one child was more than enough?) But Patrick is actually polite and helpful here, so maybe being back at school is doing his character some good.

The other revelation is that Mrs Marlow remarks in passing that she had four brothers who were all killed in the First World War, which is news to Nicola. Does this family ever talk about anything important?! Surely there would have been family photographs or it would have come up somehow in the past thirteen years? Mrs Marlow said her mother was always strict with her and Aunt Molly, but “it was different for the boys, of course”. And Nicola notes that Grandmother is polite to Patrick and is always much nicer to Giles and Peter than to the sisters:

“Perhaps she liked boys better than girls. So, come to that, did Nicola.”

AARRGGH! I know poor Nicola is being brought up by a domineering father and doormat mother, in a family where the girls are expected to sacrifice any hope of a career to make the men’s lives easier, but I really hope Kingscote at least teaches her that girls can be as clever, interesting and worthwhile as boys.

At tea, Lawrie again demonstrates her (limited) understanding of theology, when Grandmother mentions a portrait of Our Lady painted by St Luke. Lawrie is confused as to how a non-existent person can paint another non-existent person (“like saying that a statue of Athene was done by Jupiter”). It turns out Lawrie hasn’t really been listening in church, but anyway, “I never thought I was supposed to think it was real.” Ann says that there’s a Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem so Christ must have existed, but Lawrie makes the completely valid point that “Mount Olympus is a place, too, isn’t it? And you wouldn’t say that proved Zeus was real, would you?” But just as I was thinking this was entirely too logical for Lawrie, she asks whether the Greek gods were real, too.

I laughed helplessly all through this section – Grandmother’s horror, Mrs Marlow’s exasperation, Rowan marvelling at Lawrie’s thinking processes, Nicola and Ginty mortified that people are talking religion at the tea table. But the thing is, I agree with Lawrie. I think it’s a story, too: an illogical but highly influential legend. (I have thought about this issue a bit more deeply than Lawrie, though.)

Anyway, the next day, Nicola takes Patrick to the Minster to show him the falcon carving. Patrick likes the Minster, saying he’d like that one back from the Church of England, along with Winchester and Westminster Abbey. On the way home, they discuss his Catholicism – how the Merricks stayed Catholic, despite one Merrick ancestor being martyred by Elizabeth and another by James I, and how Patrick thinks the Reformation was “the worst thing that ever happened to the English”. He says, “For us … it was the sort of thing the Poles have to put up with from the Communists now – torture and imprisonment and having to hear Mass secretly.” Patrick, it was five hundred years ago, get over it. It’s not as though the Merricks lost their estate and they’re not exactly lacking in power or wealth now, with Patrick’s father in Parliament and Patrick completely free to practice his religion. Patrick also seems to be ignoring all the reasons why English people might have wanted to get rid of a bunch of corrupt priests whose loyalties lay with the Pope rather than the English king, and also that there were plenty of martyred Protestants. But I have an idea that Antonia Forest is firmly on Patrick’s side.

Back at Trennels, Lawrie is ‘helping’ her mother with housework in a most incompetent way and getting further theological instruction from her grandmother. Grandmother’s bedroom is cluttered with Catholic paraphernalia – a crucifix, a candlestick, a little lamp, rosary beads, holy medals, a triptych, figurines of Christ and Mary and St Therese (and I like that Lawrie recognises the rosary beads only because they appear in Little Women). Grandmother attempts to explain their significance:

“Now listen to me, Lawrence. Whether you believe or what you believe is between yourself and God. I have no concern about that. But for a child of your age, going to a good school, to be as ignorant and ill-informed of the most elementary facts of Christianity as you seem to be, is something quite disgraceful.”

This is true – it is important for children to know the central beliefs of all the religions practiced in their region (so they can realise how illogical they all are and become atheists). But the useful thing for Lawrie is that she finally understands the metaphor of Christ as Shepherd, which will come in handy if she manages to infect Jess with the flu and take over the role of Shepherd Boy.

Lawrie would be a giant pain to have as a twin sister, but she really is hilarious in this chapter.

Oh, I forgot to say Nicola told Patrick about Lois Sanger and he wondered if Lois is in complete denial about her lies, or realises she’s a heel, which I was also thinking about. But I’ll write more about that if it comes up in a later chapter.

Next, Chapter Six: A Change of Cast

‘End of Term’, Part Three

Chapter Four: Altogether Unexpected

This is a short but dramatic chapter in which Lois proves to be even more odious than usual. It begins with Miss Craven, Miss Redmond and Lois having a meeting to decide who should be in the Junior netball team. Lois finds some of the tasks of Games Captain tedious but she’s enjoying hanging out with the staff and lording it over younger pupils. Miss Craven assumes Nicola will be Captain and Centre, but Miss Redmond makes a tart remark about Nicola’s self-confidence. Because heavens above, we can’t have a Kingscote girl with self-confidence! This is Lois’s chance to contribute her opinion of Nicola:

“That conversation, overheard and rearranged – was she going to repeat it? She didn’t want to, yet she felt helplessly that she almost certainly would …”

Not only does Lois give in to temptation and repeat her mostly-fictional story about Nicola, she tells an outright lie by saying Nicola’s “turned up late to practices”, plural. Still, it’s not just Lois – Miss Redmond is just as petty, taking her revenge for Nicola turning down her Guides offer: “What that young woman needs, it seems to me, is a really good jolt.”

Miss Craven, who’s also told that Nicola has enough to do already with the Christmas play and her hawk, goes along with it. It’s not really Miss Craven’s fault – she’s been fed misinformation by Lois and Miss Redmond.

Oh, the other thing is that the three of them put hopeless Marie in the team, not because she can play, but because Miss Keith is concerned that Marie is struggling at school and needs a boost of confidence. So, Kingscote girls do need to have self-confidence, just a very specific and limited amount of it. Except I don’t see how putting Marie in a team where she’s going to fail will make her any more popular with the other girls or help her self-confidence.

Poor Nicola finds she’s been left off the team before everyone else, then has to pretend not to mind about it all through breakfast. There’s a small distraction when she’s offered a chance to buy a new pony and the others discuss this. It turns out Miranda not only rides in the holidays, but also skates and fences (“Mummy likes me to have millions of things to do to keep me out from under her feet when she’s got refugee committees”). But then Lawrie, Tim and the others find out about Nicola and are outraged. As Miranda says, “It’s just so – so – so unjust when they do things like this and no one knows what or why or anything.” Janice Scott tactfully changes the subject when she sees Nicola on the verge of tears, then later consoles her: “They do these things from time to time, you know. And there’s rarely any rational explanation.”

I think Nicola may have joined Miranda’s Janice Admiration Society, which seems completely reasonable to me. Apart from being a kind and thoughtful person, Janice is also beautiful, like a “Dresden figurine”, all “glassy, cool, translucent”. Janice is eminently crush-worthy.

The rest of the netball team tries and fails to convince Miss Craven to put Nicola in the team. Jenny Cardigan (who has the best name ever for an English schoolgirl), even proposes they go on strike:

“Just for a moment, the possibility of behaving as if they were characters in a book called, perhaps, ‘That Term at St Faith’s’ seemed not only fabulous, but plausible.”

I know End of Term, despite having the form of a conventional girls’ boarding school book, isn’t really like most of those books, but this struck the wrong note to me – as if Antonia Forest needed to remind us, in rather snobby way, how trashy those books are and how superior her writing is. Her characters often do talk about what “people in books” do and that usually comes across as amusing and astute, but this threw me out of the story for a moment.

Anyway, obviously the girls don’t go on strike (but Miranda does snub Lois when Lois congratulates her, calling Lois a “hammer-toed, pot-bellied, copper-bottomed heel” once Lois is out of earshot). And the netball team goes on to lose their first two games. Well, that’s what happens when you choose players on the basis of ill-informed character judgments, rather than ball-throwing skills.

Next, Chapter Five: Half-Term at Trennels

‘End of Term’, Part Two

Chapter Three: Rehearsals and Team Practices

Nicola, Tim and Lawrie are all in Lower IV A this year, along with Miranda, and Esther the new girl, and drippy Marie Dobson. I don’t think much of the academic standards at Kingscote if both Lawrie and Marie are in the top form. And could someone who understands the English education system explain to me about Lower and Upper Forms? In the secondary schools I went to (mostly in Australia) there was First Form to Sixth Form, or Year Seven to Year Twelve (roughly age 12 to age 18). At Kingscote, the twelve-year-olds are in Third Form, but does it then go Lower Fourth (age 13 years), Upper Fourth (14), Lower Fifth (15), Upper Fifth (16), Lower Sixth (17) and finally Upper Sixth (18 and doing A Levels)? So Rowan left after her Lower Sixth year, before she could do the final exams that would gain her entrance to university? And does one ‘form’ take a whole school year, or do pupils skip up to higher forms (eg moving from Upper Fourth to Lower or Upper Fifth) within a school year if they’re doing well? I’m a bit confused by the whole thing.

However, before Nicola and friends/enemies go to their first lesson, Miss Keith makes a dramatic announcement at assembly. The Christmas play, which she (“and I hope you children”) has always regarded as “an act of worship rather than just another school play”, will be performed in Wade Minster this year, by request of the Bishop, and the Minster choirmaster, Dr Herrick, will train the singers. So poor Miranda has even less chance of taking part.

Back in class, Miranda and Nicola bag seats at the front for themselves as well as for Tim, Lawrie and Esther, but their terrifying teacher, Miss Cromwell, has other plans and moves Lawrie to the back of the class. Miss Cromwell, who teaches maths, sounds interesting:

“People who disliked her and were frightened by her, said she was horribly sarcastic and had favourites and wasn’t fair a bit; people who liked her – a fairly strong minority – agreed she was all those things, and, perversely, liked her because of them, apparently finding her faults more stimulating than the conventional virtues of her fellows.”

Miranda and Nicola seem to be favourites already, because they’re both made form prefects. When Marie offers unwanted congratulatory pats-on-the-back to Nicola, Miss Cromwell disapproves loudly: “I will not have vulgar, undisciplined demonstrations of that kind in my form.” She also threatens “blood for breakfast” if anyone ever displays any bad manners. So that’s them told.

At break, Tim and Lawrie assert that Nicola ought to agree to swap places with Lawrie on occasion, but Miranda protests that it would never work and it would be mad for Nicola to antagonise Miss Cromwell over “such a feeble thing”. Tim is furious and storms off. Miranda and Tim seem to have appointed themselves guardians of one twin each, so I foresee trouble there.

The Christmas play is also causing conflict. The Authorities are moving cast members in, out and round about, but “the basis of approval or otherwise remained a mystery”. If the teachers are trying to reward good behaviour and/or punish bad behaviour, in the hope of improving moral character, it would be helpful if the pupils had at least a vague idea of which behaviour of theirs was being rewarded or punished.

Then Dr Herrick further complicates matters by wanting pupils who can actually sing in his choir and he holds an impromptu audition. It turns out he was the judge of the singing competition that Nicola almost won during the summer, and when he sees Lawrie, he thinks Lawrie is Nicola having a bad day (“You have an excellent voice … What was the matter this afternoon? Have you a cold?”). Lawrie, who is terrible at singing, feels humiliated at being relegated to the angel who walks silently beside Nicola (“I don’t want to have to do anything, just because I look like Nick.”) Mind you, I’m not really sure why Lawrie should be so terrible at singing when she’s Nicola’s identical twin. Surely they have identical larynxes and vocal tracts, and it’s not as though Nicola has achieved her voice through training – and Lawrie is good at imitating voices, so she must have good auditory perception. This identical twin-ness is sometimes vitally important, sometimes completely ignored, depending on what’s happening with the plot, but I’m willing to go with the flow on this matter.

Lawrie does have the consolation of probably getting onto the Juniors netball team. It seems Nicola will be Centre and Captain, and that Miranda and Esther are also good players. Unfortunately, Lois rears her evil head and overhears Lawrie and Nicola joking about not having Marie in their team when Nicola is Captain. Lois is fully aware they’re joking but:

“Still, because she had injured Nicola, and Nicola, unlike Lawrie, refused to forget, she naturally preferred to think badly of her.”

So Lois broods about it until she feels “full of a fine and righteous indignation” and decides to tell all the other Sixth Formers a distorted version of the truth – until she catches Janice watching her with “the cool appraising eye of someone who knows a piece of fiction when she hears it and wonders just what’s behind it.”

Then Nicola is late one day to netball training because another teacher has kept her back, and Lois is foul about that, too, so things aren’t looking very good for Nicola’s netball hopes.

I must say, Antonia Forest is doing an excellent job of switching between the Christmas play and netball plots, breaking off at just the right point to keep me turning pages eagerly to see what will happen next. Back to the Christmas play now and Dr Herrick continues to choose his cast based on singing talent rather than Miss Keith’s arbitrary decisions about Moral Character. Miranda listens to the class discussing cast changes and says enviously that “doing it in the Minster sounds gorgeous. Anyway, I never see why I’m not in it, actually.” After all, she points out, practically all the characters in it were Jewish.

Everyone is flabbergasted, but reluctantly admit that she’s correct – except for Lawrie, who refuses to accept that Mary and Joseph and the shepherds were Jewish.

Now, I know Lawrie is a bit dim, but honestly, how could she possibly think they were Christian before Christ was even born?! I mean, that’s the whole point of Christmas! She’s from a Church of England family, so presumably was christened as a baby and has gone to church and scripture lessons. Miss Cromwell comes in at that point and they end up discussing “the Balfour declaration and the Jewish refugees from Europe” and how “the Jews, those who wish to, are returning to Palestine … Because historically it is their native country.”

Lawrie eventually agrees with Miss Cromwell, although only out loud:

“But naturally, it couldn’t be true. Obviously they’d been Christians … But she’d remember to say Jews in future.”

Let me remind you that Lawrie is in the top academic class for her year at Kingscote.

Lawrie also manages to infuriate placid Ann by making fun of the new carols: “See the tender lamb appears, promised from eternal years … It always reminds me of school dinners.”

Apparently Ann is “one of those peculiar people – a few did exist – who took the Christmas play seriously.”

Come on, Ann, that tender lamb joke was pretty funny. Christians are allowed to have a sense of humour.

Next, Chapter Four, Altogether Unexpected.

‘End of Term’ by Antonia Forest

I’m very happy to be back at Kingscote with the Marlow twins, a year after their eventful Autumn Term, because I have plenty of questions I need answered. Did Nicola get promoted to Form IIIA, leaving Lawrie and Tim behind? Will Nicola get a chance to triumph on the netball courts this year? Will she ever find a worthy Best Friend? How will Ann cope with being Eldest Remaining Marlow Sister? And who will be Head Girl now Karen and Rowan have departed? (Surely not Lois Sanger. But the teachers seem clueless as to Lois’s true character, so it’s possible.)

'End of Term' by Antonia ForestIt seems that Christmas is a good time to begin reading End of Term, because the plot seems to feature a Nativity Play. That’s pretty much all I know about this book. The cover is not very informative or even very accurate – if that’s the twins with their new short hairdos in front, why are they wearing scarlet uniforms? Unless Nicola used her Boke of Falconerie windfall to buy uniforms, which seems pretty unlikely…

Chapter 1: Sprog Takes a Quarry

So, we begin at Colebridge Junction where Ann, Ginty, Nicola and The Sprog are waiting resignedly for their train to school and Lawrie is acting like a fractious five-year-old. Kingscote is a mere forty minutes by road from Trennels, but do the Marlow parents do the sensible thing and drive the girls and their luggage to school? No, they make them take a three-hour train trip, so the sisters can bond with their fellow pupils on the journey and Nicola can do something dramatic and dangerous to start the book off with a bang. (By the way, I always wondered about the Hogwarts school train. Did Scottish students need to travel all the way to London to catch the train all the way back to Scotland? If they could Floo or Side-Along Apparate with their parents to London to catch the train, why couldn’t they just travel directly to Hogsmeade, then get on the boats or carriages to Hogwarts?)

Anyway, after helping Ginty avoid Unity Logan and watching Lawrie boasting about her new theatrical mentor to Tim and company, Nicola sensibly decides to take The Sprog to the relative peace and quiet of the guard’s van. Everything is going swimmingly until they stop at the penultimate train station and The Sprog flies out the open door after some birds and Nicola tears off after him. Well, at least this time the train was actually stopped of its own accord at a station when she leapt out. And she does catch up with The Sprog, and even better, he’s caught his first sparrow (probably accidentally, but they’re both very proud of him). They trek back to the station, to find the next train isn’t due for three hours and worse, a new girl called Esther Frewen, who snubbed Nicola’s welcoming gestures on the train, is there too, after trying to run away back home.

Nicola really is a very kind and sympathetic child, even if she doesn’t always understand others’ insecurities and anxieties, being a very secure and fearless person herself. She realises they can walk to school across the fields and she tactfully talks about Sprog and school and the famous Marlow family until Esther gets her tears under control. Poor Esther is the only child of divorced parents, which must have been pretty unusual in 1950s England, although Nicola thinks “there were quite a few people at Kingscote to whom this beastly thing had happened”. Even worse, Esther’s had to leave her young puppy, Daks, at home because new girls aren’t allowed to bring pets (yet another of Kingscote’s arbitrary and illogical rules, I suppose, although I do wonder why Esther got a new puppy just when she was about to leave for boarding school).

Back at school, poor Ann is in a flap about Nicola going missing (“You wouldn’t have done this to Rowan”) and has already unpacked Nicola’s things into her drawer completely the wrong way:

“What with depressed new girls and pained sisters and misarranged drawers, Nicola saw no hope for the term at all.”

Such trials and tribulations! So Nicola stomps off to see to Sprog.

Chapter 2: Friends and Enemies

Ugh, Miss Redmond! She corners Lawrie and Nicola on their very first day back and graciously condescends to permit them to rejoin the Guides, saying “everyone was most anxious to be able to feel they could forget the whole unfortunate affair and begin again with an entirely clean sheet”. Oh, and Lois Sanger “was very keen to have them back with the Scarlet Pimpernels”! Lawrie, as usual, goes “scarlet and dumb” and expects Nicola to respond: Nicola quite rightly tells Miss Redmond to go jump in the lake. Miss Redmond storms off in an outraged huff and Tim appears, enjoying the strife. It seems Tim and Lawrie are now Best Friends Forever and both of them quite like Lois after she helped them with their play, but Nicola does not forgive and forget so easily.

Fortunately, Nicola seems to have found a new friend in Miranda West:

“Their hands banged together, and clasped and swung energetically as they went along the path to the outhouse. It was odd how people changed – or else you did – Nicola wasn’t sure which. A year ago, Miranda West had been one of III A’s form prefects, a bossy, conceited person, who made no bones about despising the worms of Third Remove. Then first [Nicola], and later Lawrie and Tim, had moved into III A themselves … and suddenly, last summer term, she had become someone to grin at across the classroom – someone who saw the same joke at the same time as you did.”

Miranda is described as having a “vivid, clever little Jewish face” and having “extremely rich” parents. She does seem to share Tim’s disregard for school rules, but has slightly more School Spirit and is worried that now Rowan has left, they might end up with Lois Sanger as Games Captain (Miranda accurately describes Lois as “slippery soap and slithery slime”). And worse luck, Lois has been made Games Captain, as well as being a prefect! Lois is busy crowing to her friends about how Rowan hasn’t even been made a prefect, when Nicola storms up to inform her that Rowan has left school. Take that, Lois! Nicola storms off, leaving Lois’s friends moaning about kids these days, no manners, etc. There’s a lot of storming off in this chapter.

Someone useless called Val Longstreet is Head Girl (to replace useless Karen) and someone called Janice Scott is a prefect, although Miranda wishes Janice had been made both Head Girl and Games Captain. Miranda has a bit of a crush on Janice, but denies it (“I mean, I like looking at her, quite, but not if you mean giving her roses in silver paper, and sleeping with her kirbigrips under my pillow”). Apparently the kirbigrips thing really happened a few years back, with some Lower Fifths obsessing over a couple of older girls, until Miss Keith called a special school assembly to shame the younger girls in the most public and humiliating way possible. (Because she couldn’t possibly have had a quiet sensible word with them right at the start about respecting other people’s privacy, before they got obsessive, and given them a copy of The Friendly Young Ladies.)

Then Nicola and Miranda meet up with Tim and Lawrie. Tim distributes chocolates and Lawrie complains about “the beastliest First Day I’ve ever met”. It turns out the cast list for the Christmas Play has been posted on the noticeboard, and casting depends on good character, not acting or singing talent. Accordingly, Lawrie and Tim are only Crowd. Nicola, who has a much better character, is a Candle Angel. A nice but useless girl called Jess Geddes is Shepherd Boy, the role that Lawrie covets. Ann is Mary, which makes sense, Val is Joseph because she’s Head Girl, and slimy Lois is Reader Angel (although at least Lois has proven reading-aloud skills). Miranda isn’t in it at all, presumably because she’s Jewish (she refers to it as “your play”). I can’t see why she can’t join in, though. She wants to be in it and it’s only a school play. If it’s like most of the Nativity Plays I’ve seen, with singing sheep and so on, it won’t even be particularly Biblical (not that the Gospels tell a consistent story about the birth of Jesus anyway) and it’s being held in a school theatre, not a church. Anyway, I’m sure there’ll be major drama involving the casting before too long.

Next, Chapter Three: Rehearsals and Team Practices

You might also be interested in reading:

‘End of Term, Part Two
‘End of Term’, Part Three
‘End of Term’, Part Four
‘End of Term’, Part Five
‘End of Term’, Part Six
‘End of Term’, Part Seven

‘Autumn Term’ by Antonia Forest
‘The Marlows and the Traitor’ by Antonia Forest
‘Falconer’s Lure’ by Antonia Forest

My Favourite Books of 2017

It’s not actually the end of the year, but if I don’t post this now, it may not get done at all. I only read 37 new books this year (new to me, that is) – even fewer than last year. I did immerse myself in blogs and newspapers, trying to make sense of the political turmoil here and abroad, but I also re-read a lot of old favourite novels. This year was not an especially relaxing year for me, so I often felt a need to escape into familiar comforting reads and I don’t count those books in my annual book count.

So, what type of new (to me) books did I read this year?

Types of books read in 2017

Nationality of authors read in 2017

Lots of Australian writers this year.

Gender of authors read in 2017

Women writers dominate, yet again. And so they should.

Now for my favourites.

I really enjoyed Tirra Lirra By The River by Jessica Anderson and How Bright Are All Things Here by Susan Green – both, as it happens, novels narrated by elderly Australian women who had to escape to London to fulfil their artistic dreams.

But most of my favourite reads this year were non-fiction. These included:

Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead by Paula Byrne
Indonesia, Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani
Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life by Peter Godfrey-Smith

I didn’t have time this month to blog about Beyond Veiled Cliches: The Real Lives of Arab Women, but this was a thoughtful, nuanced exploration of the challenges faced by Arab women in the Middle East and in Western countries, by Australian-Palestinian journalist Amal Awad.

I also found myself engrossed in a couple of Australian memoirs, Aunts up the Cross by Robin Dalton and Flesh Wounds by Richard Glover.

My resolution for next year is to blog more about the books I enjoy, or at least to mention these books on Twitter. In the meantime, I have this book on the top of my reading pile for the holidays:

'End of Term' by Antonia Forest

I foresee an Antonia Forest read-along in the near future.

Thank you to everyone who read and contributed to Memoranda in 2017. I hope you’ve all had a good reading year and that 2018 brings you lots of wonderful, interesting books. Happy holidays!

‘You Can Draw in 30 Days’ by Mark Kistler

I did the illustrations for my new book myself, mostly because I was on a limited budget and couldn’t afford to pay illustrator fees. These illustrations definitely don’t look like the work of a professional, which is okay because they’re supposed to have been done by the thirteen-year-old narrator. But as I was working on my less-than-perfect illustrations, I remembered how much I used to enjoy drawing when I was a teenager. I did art as an elective subject at high school and proved to be spectacularly untalented at most artistic endeavours – painting, sculpture, pottery, screen printing – although I was okay at drawing. Maybe the idea of perspectives and vanishing points and so on appealed to my nerdy maths brain. Anyway, I had so much fun doing my recent book drawings that I decided I wanted to do a bit more guided practice and eventually found this book by Mark Kistler, who apparently is famous in the US and used to be on TV.

This book was a great introduction to basic drawing techniques. It’s designed for absolute beginners with no confidence in their own abilities, so it was ideal for me, given I’d barely picked up a pencil in thirty years. There are thirty lessons, which you could do in thirty days, although I didn’t have time to spare every day for a month and so I stretched the lessons out over three months. The lessons teach the fundamental ‘laws’ (foreshortening, placement, overlapping, shadow and so on) that make pencil marks on a page look like three-dimensional objects, but it’s done in a simple, easy-to-follow manner that provides quick success and builds confidence.

I zoomed through the early lessons on spheres, cubes, spheres inside hollow cubes, pyramids and textures, coming unstuck only when I hit cylinders. Something about the combination of curved and straight lines did my head in. But the book gives lots of practice in each skill, over multiple lessons, and so I persisted, valiantly producing wonky tins of tomatoes:

Wonky tins of tomatoes

And wonky tubes:

Wonky tube

And wonky mugs with wonky handles:

Wonky mugs

Then came interiors and exteriors of buildings in one-point and two-point perspective. Phew, mostly straight lines again, what a relief:

Sofa

Mark Kistler is a cartoon illustrator, so he also provides instruction in some basic cartooning skills, such as 3D lettering and cartoon whooshes and cartoon planets consisting of volcano craters and levitating boulders. Then in Lesson 28, we suddenly had to draw faces. This seemed an enormous leap to me, but once I started, I realised I was using the same principles and skills I’d been practising all along. Admittedly, my first face was only vaguely face-like, but I kept going for a few days and my face drawings got better and better:

Face 1

Face 2

Face 3

The final lesson, though, was to draw your own hand. You know what fingers are? CYLINDERS! It’s also pretty difficult using your right hand to hold the pencil while you draw your own left hand. I am definitely in need of more hand-drawing practice, ideally using someone else’s hand as a model.

The good thing about drawing is that you don’t need anything except a pencil and some paper. Kistler provides suggestions for a few other useful drawing tools, but they weren’t expensive. I ended up spending less than twenty dollars in total on a nice thick sketch book, a smudging tool, some pencils and a nifty retractable eraser. Kistler is also a fan of tracing as an instructional method and he recommends a complicated arrangement involving a transparent clipboard, erasable markers and an easel. I couldn’t be bothered with that and honestly didn’t think tracing was going to help me develop my skills, so I ignored all the tracing instructions. The lessons also have optional ‘bonus challenges’ to extend your skills – sometimes I did them, sometimes I didn’t, depending on how enjoyable or interesting they looked. But by the end of the book’s lessons, I definitely felt more skilled and confident about drawing. I found I really enjoyed relaxing over a sketching activity for twenty minutes at the end of a long, stressful day and I plan to keep on drawing. If you want to learn to draw, but lack confidence and don’t want to shell out for expensive drawing lessons, You Can Draw in 30 Days is highly recommended. Two smudgy thumbs up!

‘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.

‘Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation’ by Elizabeth Pisani

This is a fascinating book about a year spent travelling around the Indonesian archipelago, written by a multilingual British woman who has spent much of her adult life in this diverse nation. She began her career as a journalist, then became an epidemiologist employed by the Indonesian Ministry of Health. In 2011, she decided to take time off to travel and learn more:

'Indonesia Etc' by Elizabeth Pisani“I only had one rule: ‘Just say yes’. Because Indonesians are among the most hospitable people on earth, this made for a lot of yesses. Tea with the Sultan? Lovely! Join a wedding procession? Yes please! Visit a leper colony? Of course! Sleep under a tree with a family of nomads? Why not? Dog for dinner? Uuuuh, sure. This policy took me to islands I had never heard of. I was welcomed into the homes of farmers and priests, policemen and fishermen, teachers, bus drivers, soldiers, nurses. I travelled mostly on boats and rickety-but-lurid buses that blared Indo-pop and had sick-bags swinging from the ceiling. Sometimes, though, I lucked into a chartered plane or rode cocooned in a leather car-seat behind tinted glass. I can count on one hand the number of times I was treated with anything other than kindness. I can also count on one hand the number of days that I did not have a conversation about corruption, incompetence, injustice and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

This is saved from being one of those ‘patronising white person blogging about their year of backpacking though a developing nation’ books by the author’s wide-ranging and first-hand knowledge of Indonesia. She displays genuine curiosity and warmth as she visits each community, but she’s also able to draw on her previous experiences. For example, there’s an excellent chapter on Aceh, the province that’s been wracked with separatist violence for decades. She provides a good summary of its complex post-colonial history, explaining why Aceh’s separatist movement is completely different to those in East Timor and West Papua, but she also relates anecdotes from working as a journalist in Aceh in the 1990s:

“At the time, it was impossible to tell who was behind the attacks. Only once, we saw a letter addressed to Indonesian newspaper editors, claiming responsibility for this wave of raids. Written entirely in lower-case, the letter was an eccentrically spelled mish-mash of anti-Javanese invective, childish threats, wounded pride and separatist rhetoric […] People called the troublemakers the GPK, just as the government did, and they had many theories about who they were. Most involved some combination of the following: disgruntled former soldiers who had been fired in a short-lived campaign against corruption in the military; thugs who wanted a bigger share of the marijuana trade (saus ganja was once a common ingredient in the cuisine of the region, and Aceh remained a centre of production for the crop); hot-blooded separatists back from training in Libya. It seemed wildly improbable to me that an organisation that didn’t have a shift key on its typewriter and couldn’t spell its own name would be linked to international terror training networks; it was only years later that I found that some of the fighters were indeed graduates from Middle Eastern training camps, though all the other theories also proved to be true.”

Much of the conflict in Indonesia that’s reported in the Australian media as being due to ‘the rise of Islam’ turns out to have a more complex, but also more prosaic, explanation. For example, the gangs of leather-jacketed, motorbike-riding thugs previously employed by politicians in Jakarta to attack student demonstrators have now

“begun to appear in turbans or knitted skullcaps, long white robes and straggly beards [to] selectively smash up those bars, nightclubs and brothels that don’t pay them protection money. A friend in the music business told me they demonstrated against Lady Gaga only after her promoters refused to pay them to provide security for her concert. But they do not choose their targets indiscriminately. They never vent their wrath on the porn industry, for example, because it is said to be controlled by the military.”

Most of the book, though, is not explicitly about politics but about the lives of ordinary Indonesians, trying to earn enough money to raise their families while dealing with a corrupt and incompetent bureaucracy, but also doing what people all over the world do – attending school, playing games, visiting friends, celebrating birthdays and weddings, and, even in the remotest islands, Facebooking on their mobile phones. It’s all related in a warm, entertaining style by an intrepid traveller. I think even readers who aren’t much interested in Indonesia will enjoy this book.