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.

Advertisements

Cultural Update: December

So I am clearly a bit late with this and also with end of year summaries. These may occur. However I will plead the fact that I have been off-line for two weeks as a mitigating factor. Anyhow, here is the latest offering, noting that the films for the month are covered elsewhere.

Books

Lavinia Ursula Le Guin This was very readable, and a lovely re-reading of history placing women and the world of women at the centre of what is usually very male dominated history. I enjoyed it, but part of me wanted to like it more. I thought that dragged slightly in the second half, and while the Vergil conceit was interesting, I am not sure if ultimately it added much. But it was very readable and a lovely characterisation of Lavinia and the role of women.

Zero History William Gibson This was wonderful. I think I liked it even more than Spook Country, the denouement of which was slightly anti-climatic. I felt the characterisations in Zero History were wonderful; particularly the growth of Milgrim, the wonderful abrasiveness of Heidi and whats—her-name coming to find her own way through the world. I love how Gibson engages with the present but touches the future in a way which is fascinating and tantilising, but is not the ultimate point of his work. The characters and their grasp on the world is what ultimately is most important, and the story is merely the mechanism to get them there. Am looking forward to finding some time to read it again – immediately after Pattern Recognition (which I totally adored, although that might have been in part because I was teaching semiotics and the Circle of Culture at the time) and Spook Country.

Swallows and Amazons Arthur Ransome A favourite book from my childhood, unread for countless years (well, I probably can count them, but not going to share that information), this was read aloud to small boys – a chance to share something loved from my own childhood. Interestingly, the small boys adored it as much as I remembered loving it when I was young. A few things have to be explained as one goes; in particular the references to natives and savages (and stockings!) which provided one with the educative moment and a chance to reflect on the way culture has changed in 80 years – or even since my own childhood when those kinds of terms were not unfamiliar. But the basic story of children (including one their own age) going off to camp on an island and sail around a lake entirely by themselves for a week is still as thrilling as ever. Reading it as a parent, it is easy to see all the parental controls which have been built in, but it is interesting to ponder how many parents nowadays would let their youngsters do it. From my viewpoint, the story did not disappoint. While it is interesting to observe now how little actually happens in it, it is still very engagingly written with rather a dry wit. We are all looking forward to Swallowdale arriving from The Book Depository so we can follow on with the adventures of our favourite junior sailors.

Television

The Walking Dead This was interesting from the start. Some people raved about it and seemed to think it was the best television ever, while others viewed it as very genre driven. I think I largely agree with {insert review} but I will offer a few thoughts of my own. The opening scenes were brilliant but then it did indeed seem to sink into genre world – waking from a coma to find a world overrun by zombies is not exactly groundbreakingly original. The zombies were brilliantly rendered, it must be said however. The mixed race group encountered in the second episode was also so totally by the numbers (as I will write about elsewhere), particularly as most of those characters barely got past a surface sketch. I was interested when [NAME] at the CIC turned up and thought that perhaps there might be a little humour entering the equation, but that didn’t really last either. I don’t have any problems with a series about zombies drawing heavily on standard genre approaches, but I would like to see it add a little more than The Walking Dead did. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it. I did. I just think it needed more purpose. Or something. And my final thought – why don’t the characters just call them zombies?!?! Surely we have to acknowledge that we have all grown up in a world where zombie imagery is rife. But there is no self-reflexiveness in The Walking Dead – which is interesting if, as reported, people like Charlie Sheen might be showing up in the next season as “walkers”. I am hoping that the next season builds on the strengths of the first (the performances were terrific for example) and leaves some of the tired cliches behind.

Doctor Who Christmas Special It was rather nice to be able to watch the Doctor Who special less than 24 hours after it had been viewed in the UK. And it was a very good one. While not detracting from the wonderfulness of David Tennant as the Doctor, I totally adore Matt Smith in the role. This special showed him at his best and was tinged by sadness in the same way that the other Christmas special which drew heavily on cultural references, Voyage of the Damned had. Clever writing and wonderful performances made this one a Christmas special to remember.