Evie’s Ghost by Helen Peters

Here’s a good book for 10-14 year-olds. I’ve just finished reading it and here are my first unformed thoughts. Evie’s mum goes off on her honeymoon and sends her to stay with her eccentric godmother, who lives in a flat that is part of a converted old mansion. On her first night, Evie sees a ghostly figure at her window and runs from her room to find that she has time-slipped to 1814. She finds out more about the ghostly girl and realises that she’s been sent back in time to fix the past.

The writing is straightforward and brings no surprises. It’s accomplished and does its job. (Although I have to say that I nearly didn’t get beyond the first sentence in which Evie orders a hot chocolate and a doughnut.) The premise owes a lot to Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce. It does a great job of addressing a key issue about the mansions that appear in both books: they were often paid for and maintained by the suffering of others. Helen Peters has clearly done her research and the information she tells us about life for the lowly housemaid is fascinating, very necessary for today’s children to know, although at times I felt as if I was being lectured a little. The main character, Evie, is a sassy, modern girl and Helen Peters uses her as a vehicle to express how times have changed, for women in particular. She only just gets away without making Evie slightly irritating. (There’s an important lesson here for me and other authors choosing to write with the voice of a young person.)

I was, however, completely gripped by the plot. Just when I thought Evie had solved the problem and that all would end well, I glanced at my progress through the book and wondered what Ms Peters would do with the other half of it. There are numerous twists and turns, and towards the end she introduces a new dilemma I hadn’t even thought of. I just couldn’t put it down and found myself skipping chunks to find out what would happen. (I don’t like doing this and had to force myself to slow down. It seems wrong, when an author has laboured over every sentence, to skip any of them as if they don’t matter.) I was very satisfied by the ending, although not the very ending, which I thought was too sentimental.

This is a good read. Flawed perhaps, but I am not here to criticise; I have nothing but admiration for anyone who writes a decent novel and this had me welded to the sofa forsaking food for the duration. I want to read more by Helen Peters and I am now going to check out The Farm Beneath the Water, even though the picture on the cover would indicate that a grown man shouldn’t.

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Best Books: The House at Pooh Corner

This is, in my humble opinion, the best children’s book ever written. Detractors may be right in saying that this is because I am a white, middle-aged, male Brit who is nostalgic about the English countryside and his own childhood, but a close look at the text and the wonderfully characterful illustrations (E.H. Shepard’s – no-one else’s) will reveal a book that is beautifully written in a uniquely distinctive voice, with great characters, simple story lines, infused with sparkling humour and philosophical ideas that can influence how you live the rest of your life.

A.A. Milne was already a well-known and successful dramatist and novelist before he wrote these stories for his son Christopher Robin and the toys in his nursery. He knew what his publishers wanted, but decided to write these anyway: he was a writer who didn’t like to be told what to do.

I won’t regurgitate what you can already find about about A.A. Milne and the Pooh books elsewhere; what you won’t find out there is what these stories mean to this particular reader. Winnie-the-Pooh (the first book) and The House at Pooh Corner were among the first books I bought with my own money. It was sometime in the 70s and the Puffin Club delivered a thin catalogue of available books to my small rural school in deepest Surrey. I ticked the boxes and enclosed 40p, and when the books arrived two weeks later I experienced for the first time that thrill of owning a new book. I guess I was about 9. My mum probably read most of them to me, but I also remember reading them to her. One time I remember clearly was when we were driving along the winding country roads to Swimming Club. I was reading about Pooh climbing a tree to reach the honey at the top. The description of Pooh falling and bouncing through the branches on the way down had me doubled up in hysterics and my mum was laughing so much she had to stop the car.

Much later I read the stories to my own children and to children in my classes. Being close to the area where Milne lived – the Ashdown Forest in Sussex – we also went there to see Pooh Bridge for ourselves. Here Pooh invented the game of Poohsticks. Thousands of people visit the bridge every year and it’s best to take your own sticks: you won’t find one within half a mile of the bridge itself.

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Poohsticks Bridge today

These books fall into an unfortunate gap for modern young readers. The text is quite complex, so you have to be between 9 and 11 to be able to read it comfortably on your own; but children of this age today regard the content as ‘too childish’, and don’t want to be seen with it in public. This is a great shame, because once you get started you realise that these stories are hugely entertaining and rewarding at any age. The best thing is to read them to young children – the rhythm of the language and the voices you can use make them ideal for reading aloud. Read them to your children before they think they’re too old for stories about bears and honey. As a teacher, I also have a captive audience, and I’ve read these stories to 10- and 11-year-olds. The writing soon captivates them and they are hooked and clutching their sides, forgetting for a while that they are ‘much too old’ for this kind of stuff.

If reading aloud is a daunting prospect, there are many audio versions, but the best by far is Alan Bennett’s recording for the BBC. I don’t know what voice Milne had in mind for Pooh, but Bennett’s Yorkshire accent is perfect for the ponderous bear and it is his voice I hear now when I read them again. My boys played the tape on a loop at bedtime for years and I hope that they too will nurture a deep love of these stories as they get older.

Operation Dodo: Released into the Wild

I have always wanted to be a writer. No, that isn’t strictly true. When was 11, I read James Herriot’s books and wanted to be a vet. Later, I thought that working with trees would be good, because I love trees. Then there was always farming; but I didn’t have a farm. I didn’t set out to work in publishing for 13 years – I just loved books. I didn’t plan to be a teacher for 17 years – but I turned out to be quite good at it, and it has its own momentum. No, what I really wanted to do was write. It’s just that the rent needed paying, and still does.

Teaching doesn’t leave you with much spare time. I won’t bore you with the details (I will no doubt, but not today), but it’s not really until the long summer holiday that you get time to shrug off the shackles of planning, marking and assessing long enough to do anything else. In that summer break my mind is released from its moorings and starts to float free, and I return to my writing.

With the combination of a demanding day job and a debilitating lack of confidence sitting on my chest like a giant toad, it took me several long breaks to finish Operation Dodo. I sent it to a few publishers and heard nothing, and tried again recently, but the long list of their submission requirements bored me. Instead of letting the novel sit any longer on my PC, gathering digital dust, I thought I would just publish it myself on Amazon. Perhaps it will sit in a corner there too and gather dust, but I have already sold six copies, which is six more than it was going to get stuck in My Documents.

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Here is the first chapter:

Chapter 1

Uncle John wouldn’t call for an ambulance, so I’m bleeding all over the cream leather interior of the Rolls as he bounces through the rush hour traffic to get me to Accident & Emergency. He’s hunched over the steering wheel, and from the back he looks like he might actually be chewing it.

As I am thrown into the air by a collision with another curb, I see pedestrians jumping for their lives as we lurch towards them. We are being pursued with unerring speed and accuracy by two black cars with tinted windscreens, a taxi and a white van. It’s hard to tell which is more important: stopping me from bleeding to death, or not being caught by them.

Uncle John loves repeating that the only thing you can hear inside a Rolls when you are driving along is the gentle ticking of the clock in the dashboard, but I can distinctly hear screams, and the squeal of brakes, and Uncle John cursing and muttering ‘idiot’ and ‘damned fool’, and I’m pretty sure he means me and not the woman with the three children who has just back-flipped into a flowerbed to avoid us.

The Rolls comes to a sudden spongy halt and I am thrown – in slow-motion, admittedly – from the leather seat onto the plush carpet below. Light floods my roomy retreat and Uncle John pulls me out by my leg and hoists me up on to a stretcher held by an orderly he’s already commandeered to wheel me into the hospital. I cannot see the black cars and the white van. Can it be that Uncle John has lost them, or are they holding back now that they know our destination?

As we speed through the glass doors, the smell of the hospital hits me in both nostrils. I see a succession of strip lights on the ceiling as I am wheeled away down a corridor, past the waiting room where lesser injuries are clutching their swollen thumbs and twisted limbs. We arrive at a curtained cubicle where Uncle John and the orderly throw me onto the bed. The orderly is gone, and we are alone, finally. The silence reminds me how much pain I’m in and I start moaning.

“Now, don’t start that, boy,” hisses Uncle John.

“But it hurts,” I say.

“It’s an injury. It’s supposed to,” he says. “Now, listen. If they ask how this happened, tell them…”

But Uncle John doesn’t have time to furnish me with his perfectly plausible lie, complete with setting, motive and characterization, because at that moment a doctor steps into our cubicle with her hands in her pocket and a stethoscope draped over her shoulder. She is young and very attractive, and Uncle John immediately turns on the charm. He wipes my blood off his hands with his orange handkerchief and holds her hand as if he is about to kiss it. The doctor turns to him with a smile.

“No!” she says, surprised. “Is it John…I mean Mr Bainbright?”

Uncle John straightens himself to his full 5ft and 2inches and tidies what’s left of his hair in an attempt to look more like the photograph of him, taken twenty years ago, that the public are familiar with.

“Well, yes it is actually. How good of you to know?”

“I’ve read all of your books,” beams the doctor. “I took an English degree before qualifying as a doctor and I did Dodo Summer in my second year. It was wonderful.”

Uncle John flinches at the idea of ‘doing’ one of his books, but says, “Well, it’s kind of you to say so. It is rather good. I suppose that’s why it won so many prizes.”

I decide to remind them that I am here and about to bleed to death with a timely moan. Uncle John glares at me. The doctor switches into her professional mode and gingerly removes my uncle’s purple scarf from my savaged arm. Even she, an experienced A & E doctor, is alarmed at the extent of my injuries and probably wonders how I still have a pulse.

“My, you have been in the wars,” she says. “We’ll soon have you patched up. How did this happen?”

In the split second before I open my mouth, I am wondering how I can explain to this beautiful doctor that I have been attacked and left knocking at heaven’s door by a bird that has been extinct for three hundred years. A bird that, according to historical accounts, was supposed to be docile and a bit dim, but which turns out to be a crafty, scheming, vicious killer.

“An agricultural accident,” says Uncle John quickly, but not quickly enough, because I’ve already said, “A bird.”

“A bird?” repeats the doctor, incredulously.

Uncle John gives me a look which says, “You’re finished, we’re finished, the Operation’s finished,” in that order.

“What kind of bird?” asks the doctor.

“A chicken,” says Uncle John.

“A chicken?” repeats the doctor. She may have an English degree and be a qualified doctor, but she doesn’t catch on very quickly. “Chicken’s don’t do this to people. The boy has lost a lot of blood (I have – most of it inside the Rolls.) There are severed lacerations to the upper arm and three of the fingers of his left hand are cut through to the bone.”

“It is a particularly bad-tempered chicken,” says Uncle John, willing me with his eyes to keep my mouth shut. “And he was trying to remove one of its eggs. They don’t like it, you know.”

“I’m sure they don’t, but still…”

Further explanations are cut short by the arrival of a man in a grey suit. He flashes an identity card at the doctor. I only have time to see the letters UEI before he tucks the card back into his inside pocket. He says, “It’s all right, doctor. We’ll take this from here.”

The doctor doesn’t question who we are; she just cleans up my wounds and hastily wraps a bandage around them before leaving. I am in the middle of trying to work out what UEI stands for when my eyes meet those of Mr Grey Suit. My blood clots. Uncle John has gone limp. It is someone we both recognise, although he appears to have undergone a fashion transformation.

The Operation is over. We have failed, and it’s all my fault.

If you’d like to read more…then that’s great!

 

Best books: The Once and Future King

An Arthurian fantasy by TH White

I have been worming my way through books for over 40 years and consider myself to be pretty well-read. When I meet people who’ve read more, I wonder if they’ve ever got up from the sofa. And this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. The Once and Future King is an Arthurian fantasy – a tragedy, a comedy, a study of the nature of power and justice. It is the first book about King Arthur that I read and remains the best. (Is it really one of the best books I’ve ever read, or is it just that the books we read when we are young have the most profound influence on us?)

It is divided into four volumes. The first deals with the boyhood of Arthur – known as the Wart – and his education by Merlin. Later volumes deal with his rule as king, the romance between his queen, Guenever, and his best knight, Lancelot, and his eventual downfall. It is set in medieval Britain and has jousting, quests, magic, damsels in distress, feasts, castles – and lots of falconry,  a subject that TH White was especially fascinated by.

What stands out about it is the way the narrative shifts from comedy – the descriptions of King Pellinore in pursuit of the Questing Beast are very funny – to romance, and tragedy. The style is a happy mixture of the formal and informal: it can soar majestically and then be suddenly very down-to-earth. While these characters are legendary, White also makes them behave and sound very modern. There are unusual twists too: Merlin is living backwards and on one Boxing D

ay hunt arrives wearing a tracksuit.

The first volume, The Sword in the Stone, is often described as a classic children’s book – and was turned into a charming Disney film – but I have yet to meet a child who has read it. Like other ‘older’ works of fiction, the text is too complex and demanding, and the pace not swift enough, for most young readers today – although any 11-year-old who has read all of the Harry Potter books twice, as so many have, should be able to deal with it easily and would probably enjoy it. The other volumes are darker and more adult in their themes. Most of it was written before and during the early part of the Second World War, and I get the impression that TH White was brooding on the idea of ‘might makes right’ as the skies darkened over Europe and the storm arrived.

My step-father lent me his copy of the book when I was about 14 or 15, and he didn’t get it back, due to an unfortunate episode that occurred on the bus coming home from school. I had got to the part where the brothers Gawaine, Gareth, Agravaine  and Gaheris kill the unicorn as it lays its head in the lap of the kitchen-maid Meg. I started to cry, and the yob in the seat in front of mine tried to snatch the book away from me in an effort to see what had affected the ‘sissy’ in front of him so much. I held on to it and a page ripped out of it. The yob threw the loose page at me, saying that it was all my fault, and then turned to face the front, clearly embarrassed by his act of vandalism. For years I couldn’t get hold of another copy to give back to my step-father; it seemed to be out of print. But I am glad to say that I found one eventually – many years later – in a second-hand bookshop. Now it is available again and much easier to come by.

There are many other versions of the Arthurian legends: Rosemary Sutcliff’s trilogy is good and Michael Morpurgo’s Arthur, High King of Britain is one of his best. But none of them come close to this wonderful book.

 

 

Do we read the same book?

Reading is the opposite of a closed circle

I don’t think we do. When we read, we are bringing to it the sum of all our experiences – in life and other books – which is why reading is an active process, not a passive one. I take inferences, make connections, have responses that are different to those of the other reader. (This is especially true for me, because the people with whom I share books most of the time are 10 year olds.) We make connections that grow out from us like fungal mycelium. It’s the opposite of a closed circle; it’s a circle that branches out and splits off into unique trails, dissolves and reforms.

When the writer tells us that she was beautiful, my idea of beautiful is probably slightly different from yours. Our responses will be similar, but not the same. In a book we were reading recently, a mole surfaced in the garden, and the lead character wondered whether the creature had had enough of spring cleaning and was going on an adventure. Now I know, and you know, that this was a reference to Mole in Wind in the Willows, but my 10-year-old companions didn’t know. They do now, and my impulse was to forget the rest of the curriculum and read Kenneth Grahame’s wonderful book for the rest of the week, preferably down by the river with a picnic.

We do not step into the same river twice nor, for different reasons, do we step into the same book. (You don’t step into the same book twice, for that matter.)

I have worked with lots of children who find reading difficult and so don’t read. And because they don’t read, it stays difficult. It’s the closed circle. I always urge them to keep working at it, so that one day it will get easier and more enjoyable. They sometimes return with the argument that reading isn’t for everyone and then I bow my head sadly and have to agree. But my job as a teacher is to make sure you can read, and try to make that experience enjoyable, so that reading for pleasure is one of the options you will have when you get older. Reading for pleasure is a skill you can practise, in my view, not a predisposed condition that you are born with, although some will have to practise harder than others.

A walk in the English springtime

The people who have visited me so far – to whom I am grateful, and about whom I am most curious – seem to have been interested in the bluebells I wrote about before. Today I went for a walk. I do most weekends, following a familiar route from the yard where my wife keeps her horse to our home in town. I have walked the same way, with variations, for over five years, through all weathers and seasons. Here are some photos from today’s walk. I am not a serious photographer; I just like to record what I see, but would like to give you the essence of what it is like in this little portion of Sussex, England at this time of year.

The bluebells are out

The bluebells are in full glory in our UK broadleaved woodlands. They cover the woodland floor with a heavy oily blue mist that always makes my heart ache: I want to gather them up, take them home and protect them. Failing that I photograph them on my mobile while I am out walking or cycling. They remind me of my childhood – and being in love. I am not much-travelled; I wonder if there are bluebells in the woods of other European countries right now.