The wonderful, timeless, Arthur Ransome

I am a working mother. I don’t feel guilt about this, I know it is the best thing for me and for my children, and I know that my children are well cared for, either by my partner or by their school or childcare. Nonetheless, it does mean that the time I spend with them and our rituals around it are just that bit more precious, as anything that is rarer is more precious.

One of my favourite things is story time. Sure, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that some nights it feels like a chore when I am sick or tired or required to read the same hideously written Bob the Builder story for the 5th night running (and don’t get me started on Thomas the Tank Engine), but it is, even then, a wonderful time when I sit on my boys’ beds, with them cuddled up or playing with my hair or sprawled about and we take a shared voyage together.

The Swallows & Amazons series were books that I adored as a child, and I can still recall parts of them. I was thus delighted when, one night after a meeting in Melbourne I discovered open a little bookshop called the Paperback Book at the top of Bourke Street. Its children’s novels’ section was marvellous -and both Swallows & Amazons and The Eagle of the Ninth were immediate purchases. Once home, it was decided that I would  read it aloud at storytime each night.

I must admit, though I loved these books myself, I wasn’t sure they would hold up and how much the boys would enjoy them. The kids in these adventures don’t have computers or go to the movies; they sing sea shanties and do algebra in their holidays. Written in the 1930s, these books could be seen as existing in a different world, divorced from modern amenities and helicopter parenting. But they immediately clicked with the boys (well, the 6 and 8 yr old ones). The characterisations are such that my boys can identify with the children (especially the 7 yr old and Roger) and the simple adventures capture their imaginations. The boys love the details of camp life with which the stories are imbued, and the freedom inherent in a bunch of children not much older than themselves spending their summer sailing around a lake.

I have enjoyed rediscovering the books as well; not only are the stories engaging despite their simplicity, but Ransome also writes with a gentle humour that might be missed by the smaller audience members at times. The emotional engagement of the characters is the central attraction of the books, an they really do come to life. Starting Winter Holiday tonight, the boys can identify the children immediately from the descriptions of them as seen from a distance, and are excited by their reappearance.

There are challenges in reading books which are nearly 80 years old to small people, but they can be part of the enjoyment. The boys, who knew nothing about sailing, are now getting the hang of what jibs, booms and halyards are – and also are getting quite keen to have sailing lessons themselves. Explaining the use of terms like “natives” and “savages” opens up a post-colonial theory discussion around bed time. I must admit that I found it hard to read the word “dago” when it was used in Peter Duck, but again it, and “negroes” offers opportunity to discuss issues of both the past and the present. Similarly we can discuss changes in technology and lifestyles with children at boarding schools, lanterns instead of torches and having to fetch the milk from a farm each morning. The gender relations in the books are not as awful as they might be – Susan and Peggy do all the cooking and look after the crew because they are the Mates, not just because they are girls. And with Nancy and Titty around, there is no implications that cooking and sewing are what girls should be interested in. Nancy and John, both captains, are equals. One of the points of humour and horror in Swallowdale is the fact that Nancy and Peggy are forced out of their sailors’ gear and into pretty dresses for the benefit of their (much despised) Great Aunt.

We have now read the first three of the series, and are onto number 4, with number  awaiting us on the shelf. It was an anxious wait until Winter Holiday turned up today from the Book Depository. I am just happy to have found a wonderful way to share my story time with my boys, transported to another world, engendering in them a love of sailing, adventures and, most of all, reading.

Cultural Update: April

So, April being the cruelest month and all, my cultural intake was somewhat diminished. Too much busy-ness in other directions.

Before we start, as usual, some link-tasticness. Here Literary Minded exhorts us to read more books by women. I know my own reading list tends to be male dominated, though I do have a number of women writers I will return to again and again. I have taken a conscious decision to try a couple of women sci fi writers who are new to me, and their books are in my reading-pile-of-doom. Updates in later months.

Books

Swallowdale Arthur Ransome This is the second in the series, and once again it was enjoyed read aloud to small boys. These books are joyous in their simplicity – the children do what children do and the small boys can imagine themselves in these positions. I love how they have become obsessed with the idea of learning to sail and how they delight in the detail of the camps and the food and the sailing ships. We are soon to have a feast of pemmican and ginger beer. I enjoy reading them for the sly humour they have and the clever turns of phrase which are used. All in all, an enjoyable bedtime reading experience.

Film

Paul I wanted to like this more than I did, and I wanted it to be funnier. For me, the most entertaining bits came with the cute nerdiness of the central protagnists which was not over done as it is in say The Big Bang Theory but which hit the right amusing tropes. The rest of the film was not offensive and it was pleasantly enjoyable in an almost instantly forgettable sort of way. Cute sci fi references towards the end also. It was all fairly well executed, but didn’t raise a belly laugh or really establish itself as cultural icon which will resonante for years in the way the shoot out scene in Spaced has turned into an instant cult classic.

Television

The Killing Speaking of instant cult classics, this Danish program has certainly been popular amongst a certain group of the Twitterati. It draws you into its complexity, with beautiful portraits of people in challenging situations. Its key protaganists are all highly flawed and there is no CSI style simple denouements at the end of 45 minutes. Compelling, beautifully filmed and acted, it is the kind of show that you get drawn to watching two or three episodes in one evening. Sarah Lund, the central character, is a wonderful invention – all baggy jumpers, jeans and pony-tails, struggling to cope with upheavals in her own life. I found really interesting the way that the show touched on racial and immigration politics in Denmark – how it underscores some of the action without being overtly preachy. It is a clever series, worth the investment of time and I can’t say too much more because I wouldn’t want to spoil it. You’ll forget about the subtitles (if they bother you) very quickly. It is going to be very interesting to see how a US version translates it all.