‘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

My Favourite Books of 2016

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I’ve read in 2016 (so far) that I loved the most. But first, some statistics.

I only read 46 new books this year (new to me, that is), fewer than I usually read. This was partly because I was studying for most of the year, plus I’d started a new job, both of which took up lots of mental energy. I also read a great deal of (mostly depressing) political news in newspapers, magazines and blogs. So when I wasn’t doing that, I escaped into the comfort of old favourites from my bookshelves, including a dozen of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s books and a re-read of all the Rivers of London novels in preparation for the release of Book Six in that series.

So, what type of new books did I read this year?

Type of books 2016

Author nationality for books read in 2016

It was the year of British literature, it seems.

Author gender for books read in 2016

And women writers dominate, yet again.

Now for my favourites.

My Favourite Adult Fiction

My favourite novels this year included Breakfast with the Nikolides by Rumer Godden, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Slade House by David Mitchell and the latest installment of the Rivers of London series, The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch.

My Favourite Non-Fiction

It was non-fiction that really captured my interest this year. Favourites included The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists by David Aaronovitch, and two of Bill Bryson’s books, At Home: A Short History of Private Life and The Road to Little Dribbling. I’m only halfway through Stalin Ate My Homework by Alexei Sayle, but I’m really enjoying it so far. However, my absolute favourite of the year was Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, a brilliantly incisive yet accessible discussion of neurocognitive research into sex differences, which I realise I didn’t actually review on this blog because I was too busy writing assignments at the time. I will try to remedy that at some stage in the near future, but in the meantime, here’s a good review.

My Favourite Books for Children and Teenagers

I loved Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall and Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. I was also beguiled by the first book in Antonia Forest’s Marlow series, Autumn Term.

My Favourite Picture Books and Graphic Novels

I was entertained (and occasionally enraged) by a collection of First Dog on the Moon’s political cartoons, A Treasury of Cartoons. I also enjoyed Night Witch, a graphic novel in the Rivers of London series, by Ben Aaronovitch, Andrew Cartmel, Lee Sullivan and others (although it wasn’t as good as the prose novels).

Thank you to everyone who contributed to Memoranda in 2016. I hope you’ve all had a good reading year and that 2017 brings you lots of inspiring, informative and entertaining books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012
Favourite Books of 2013
Favourite Books of 2014
Favourite Books of 2015

‘Autumn Term’, Part Eight

Chapter Seventeen: The Prince and the Pauper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Eighteen: Marie Puts Her Foot In It

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

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

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

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

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

Karen and Rowan looked at one another.

‘Produced it–’ said Rowan.

‘Wrote it–’ said Karen.

‘Press-ganged Lois Sanger–’

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

‘Why?’ asked Lawrie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And on that soothing note, they go to bed.

Chapter Nineteen: Holidays Begin Tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE END.

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

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

_____

You might also be interested in reading:

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

‘Autumn Term’, Part Seven

Chapter Fifteen: A Form Meeting

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

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

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

Chapter Sixteen: A Question of Elocution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next, Chapter Seventeen: The Prince and the Pauper

‘Autumn Term’, Part Six

Chapter Twelve: Tim Loses Her Temper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Thirteen: Operation Nelson

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

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

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

Chapter Fourteen: A Part for Pomona

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next, Chapter Fifteen: A Form Meeting

‘Autumn Term’, Part Five

Chapter Nine: Half-Term

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Ten: Kitchen and Jumble

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

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

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

Chapter Eleven: Tim Needs a Note-Book

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

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

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

Next, Chapter Twelve: Tim Loses Her Temper