|bc||The Collecting Books and
Magazines Christmas page, bringing you Christmas Cheer!
by Philip Turner
It is surprising how often writers for children have linked Christmas with tragic events. However, instead of dissipating the special atmosphere that we all hope to find but seldom do, the good things in life are often thrown into sharp relief by the feelings of hopelessness and despair that are sometimes attendant on such occasions. As well as the Christian tenets of faith, hope and love, a writer can sometimes also draw upon the almost pagan celebration of the ritual of death and renewal that is suggested by the change in the seasons. That is why, even though I came to Philip Turner's "Powder Quay" as an adult, I find the opening of this particular children's story so moving.
"It'll will all be over by Christmas" was the hope and expectation of every young serviceman who volunteered to join the national effort against the Germans in 1914. We know all too well how bitterly false this hope proved to be. By Christmas 1914 a new grim reality had begun to set in. For the youngest of the combatants, like midshipman Richard Bridgebolton at a mere 16 years of age, the world he has known is shown to be gradually slipping away. By the end of the book it has been replaced by something which is strangely both more awful and more wonderful than anything he has known before. Instead of alienating him from the people and places of his youth it binds him more closely to the particular part of England that is his home.
Like many of the best stories it begins with a train journey. Richard is off home on leave for Christmas, travelling south from his ship which is berthed in the Royal Naval Dockyard at Rosyth. With him is Leading Seaman Hassock who used to be the coachman on the Bridgebolton Estate. As they wait on Darnley Mills Exchange station for the local train that will take them home Richard removes his officer's cap and renews his friendship with the man who, though much older, has had to treat him with the deference due to an officer.
"Happy Christmas, Uncle Bob," he said softly.
Even the station master is a reassuring part of the world of Richard's childhood. Then, out of the darkness, comes a reminder of reality,
"Black and solid through the falling snow the engine came. The glare from the firebox seemed like a cheerful joke which failed. The sad train rumbled slowly past, the big red crosses painted on the coach sides flicking one by one through the yellow gleam of the oil lamp."
The hospital train is followed by the noise of the little engine of the Moorland Pony, driven by Taffy Hughes, another friend and familiar character from his youth. Richard enjoys the privilege of both this friendship and his own high social status when he is allowed to join Taffy on the footplate for the journey home. Best of all he sees that someone else is there,
"Wedged in the corner of the cab beyond the figure of the fireman, was a girl; a girl with a white face and dark hair. She was wrapped in a grey cloak, her hands in a muff."
It was Emma, the daughter of his godfather, Colonel Darnley.
"He had a sudden glorious idea .. 'You're both spending Christmas with us because I was coming home.'"
For a few seconds Emma remains ominously silent.
"She neither moved nor nodded. She just sat in the corner of the cab looking at the greasy iron floor at her feet.
'Daddy was killed in Flanders three days ago,' she said."
These are the last words of the first chapter and, with a jolt, the author has suddenly narrowed the focus from the general misery of the wartime situation to the specific painful grief of a young girl forced to cope with sudden bereavement.
The story starts again the next morning, Christmas Day 1914. Richard is lying in bed with his old teddy bear in his ancestral home of Bridgebolton Manor. Over the posts at the foot of his bed lie two items which bring out poignantly the strangeness of his situation. One is his naval uniform, the other is a Christmas stocking.
"Half a naval officer, half a child, half angry, half delighted, he walked barefoot across the carpet and took the stocking from the bedpost."
The presents themselves continue this exploration of his childhood and his imminent maturity. Tangerines and sweets are balanced by a booklet of poems by Rupert Brooke. The poems about death in "a foreign field" bring back to him the particular thoughts of Emma's father and of Taffy Hughes' son also now in a grave in Flanders. (For those who have read "Steam on the Line" and "Devil's Nob" this is a particularly poignant allusion).
Though home on leave, Richard knows that on Christmas Day he still must face another period of time on a different sort of duty. He is not just an ordinary boy but the young master who will eventually succeed to the title of "Sir Richard" after his father. There are servants to give presents to (and to receive presents from) and the ritual church visit to be gone through. As he stands in church in his smart naval uniform more familiar things take on new meanings, for when they sing
"Oh hear us when we cry to Thee For those in peril on the sea."
he can't block from his mind the sight of the oil-covered survivors of a sunken destroyer. The tombs of the ancient Bridgeboltons, which lie all around him, confront him with a family tradition for courage and service which he finds intimidating rather than inspiring. How can he ever be like them ? As the rector bumbles through his sermon Richard finds some solace in the words of the prayer book which he also sees Emma looking at.
Boxing Day brings a temporary change in mood for Richard is determined to get some fresh air by sailing down the Darnel River to Powder Quay. Emma insists that she wants to go with him. The journey in the small dinghy through the frozen and snow-covered countryside is crammed full of the suggestion of delights and beauties that it is impossible to summarise without diminishing. Even in the depths of a northern winter there is an appeal about the landscape that is both primitive and deeply satisfying. Here is just one section of Turner's own words.
"Richard was aware of Emma removing her hat and shaking out her curls. He saw the dark hair, the pale face with its high cheekbones, its two spots of unaccustomed colour and its puckish smile with a piercing clarity, sharp as the winter morning and the breeze over the river. How beautiful she looked in the sunlight. The girl and the river, the snow-clad hills, the sun and the silence of the morning, he was suddenly more aware of them than he had ever been of anything in his life before."
But the river leads to the sea and the vision of life beyond the river bar, aptly called the Hellrace, brings his mind decisively back to what faces him when he rejoins his ship
"He forced himself to face the truth. It was a place of very great fear."
Emma and Richard have their picnic in an open-ended shed at Powder Quay. Gradually Emma begins to talk of the death of her father and confesses to Richard that she feels that she is a coward because she is so frightened of being alone. She knows she should be brave but she can't help herself. His instinctive response is to reveal his inner fears for he feels he too is a coward.
"Yes me. Out there beyond the Bar. Scared. Scared of torpedoes and mines and drowning like a rat in a trap. The gun-room's below the water line "
They talk together about their fears and Richard mentions the words of the Prayer Book which had given him some consolation the day before. To his surprise she quotes the very ones he had been thinking of and thus, in the depths of their fear and despair, they discover both their love and affinity for each other. It is a moment that can only be sealed with their first kiss. He puts his arm around her waist and draws near to her. She waits whilst through Richard's minds float thoughts of Admiral Jervis of the Napoleonic Wars who disapproved of naval officers getting married. Richard tells Emma what he was thinking of and she laughs for the first time. When he hears the sound of Taffy Hughes' engine he swears at the interruption.
"Emma was still smiling, but the giggles had vanished and there was a gravity and a gentleness behind the smile.
'If you don't hurry up, you'll have the Kaiser here on a steam-powered penny-farthing.'
'Oh Emma,' he said.
He gathered her into his arms and kissed her."
From out of great sorrow and tremendous fear has come something both tender and sustaining, a chance of some happiness in perhaps the most miserable Christmas the western world has ever known.
No sooner have they kissed than the world comes back to test their new-found togetherness. On Taffy's train is Richard's father with a telegram that tells him that his leave has been cancelled and that he must return to Rosyth immediately. The German High Seas Fleet has come out and Richard must go to meet his fate. Emma must live with the thought of losing another man who has become dear to her.
This Christmas episode takes up only the first four chapters of the book, and the rest of the story tells us once again just how wonderful and just how dreadful life can be.
They say that Christmas isn't what it used to be. As you grow older your memory tends to accentuate the positive features of those days at the end of the year that are so often marked by family gatherings, the generous giving of presents, and contacts with old friends. It is the same in Literature with nearly everyone knowing the classic scenes by heart : the magic of Scrooge's conversion in "A Christmas Carol", little Eppy staggering through the snow in "Silas Marner" to bring joy and purpose into the life of the old miser, and the generosity of the March girls in "Little Women", when they sacrifice their Christmas meal so that the poor German family can have something to eat. Even when the details of the books are forgotten the special feelings that they can bring you still survive. Let me give my own example from the world of children's literature.
Over forty years ago I read "Black Banner Players", the middle volume in a series of five books about the same characters by Geoffrey Trease. The book was borrowed from a public library and, in the natural course of events, returned to the system and disappeared from my life as I sought the two later books to follow the differing personalities into maturity. Many years passed before I thought about the "Bannermere" books again. By the time that I wanted to read them the last three in the series, "Black Banner Players", "Black Banner Abroad" and "The Gates of Bannerdale", had long disappeared from libraries and from the local second-hand book shops. I set out by hook and by crook to reassemble a collection but that's another story. My memories of "Black Banner Players" were vague but somehow I knew that in its pages was a description of Christmas that had left me with a feeling that never quite went away. It had struck a note that still reverberated through the years. The note was not an entirely happy one; it certainly wasn't just one of warmth, comfort and merriment. The central characters were teenagers, fifteen to sixteen year olds, just beginning to think about the uncertainty of their future, just beginning to come to terms with the challenges of possible careers and personal relationships. I was just a teenager when I read it.
And now, thanks to the generosity of a member of the CB&M group, I have a copy of the text in front of me and can look again at Geoffrey Trease's account of Christmas in Bannerdale back in the 1950s.
The crucial scenes of the Christmas section of the story are set in Winthwaite, a fictional small town in Cumbria in the English Lake District, and also in the remote valley of Bannerdale itself, which contains the lake called Bannermere and the Melbury cottage at Beckfoot. The story is told from the point of view of Bill Melbury, a sixteen year old student at the local single-sex grammar school. His mother, his sister Susan, her friend- Penny Morchard, Penny's father and the head teachers of the local boys' and girls' schools are the principal personalities in this section of the story.
The reader is first
drawn into the idea of Christmas in Bannerdale by the
comic description of the December end of term production
of "A Merchant of Venice" at the boys' grammar
school. A good deal of fun is had with the all-boys
performance in which Bill plays Lorenzo who has to elope
with a rather fat boy, Tubby Taylor, who takes the part
of Jessicca. Bill recounts the various disasters that
overtake them, including the collapse of the rope ladder
in the running away scene and the failure of the moon to
shine until reminded three times. The incongruity of
trying to play a love scene with another boy had been
partly mitigated by the producer's savage cuts.
Certainly, with a few
brief paragraphs, Geoffrey Trease manages to increase the
festive spirit by his description of the Christmas Eve
journey from the closed bookshop in Winthwaite to
Beckfoot Cottage. The Bannermere bus is filled with the
local people going home, laughing at jokes and singing
carols whilst the conductress is wearing a sprig of
mistletoe in her cap. Only one old man of seventy tries
to take advantage of the opportunity and declares,
In the morning Bill records the joy and the embarrassment of the Christmas present opening. Penny and Susan give each other nylons, (still in short supply after the war) garments once despised as boring but now essential to their identities as young females. Bill receives a shaving kit which he might be able to use once a week, er fairly soon. Geoffrey Trease is gently and humorously reminding us that all these characters are moving towards the threshold of adult life.
Most people visit the
Lake District in the summer and Trease uses Bill's
description of the mountains on Christmas morning to
suggest the rugged beauty that can easily be missed.
And yet the reader notices that, in spite of their constant teasing, Bill and Penny have said things to each other that they don't confide to anyone else. Christmas is sometimes a time for painful reflection as well as celebration. The future holds both hopes and fears. Geoffrey Trease has shown us that it is time for both showing feelings and hiding them. Penny joins in the Christmas evening games without any sign of strain and she is the first to celebrate when it seems that Bill has received the glorious news that he is to be published as an author. The postman's Christmas Day delivery had contained the letter that said his poems were accepted.
Bill's triumph and
Penny's misery are both short-lived. Very soon he learns
that he has inadvertently got himself involved with
vanity publishing. He will have to pay for the privilege
of being an author. The passages in which Bill learns to
face the humiliating facts and to accept the caution
shown by the adults in his life are handled brilliantly.
His reward is to realise that embracing the truth, when
you can recognise it, is one of the best ways of growing
as an author and as a human being. The comparison between
his predicament and that of Penny gives him a sense of
Forty years fell away when I re-read the book and I found again that strange spirit that stayed with me even when the minor details were forgotten. Was it the right book at the right time ? I was just younger than Penny and Bill when I first read it. Or was it just a master storyteller at work, still succeeding in his aims by a deceptive simplicity of expression and a gifted lightness of touch ?
Whatever the truth, I should like to record both my appreciation of Geoffrey Trease who wrote this book and my thanks to Donna Wenaus who found me a copy.
From Jim Mackenzie
Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome
It was a marvellous choice by my mother to buy me Winter Holiday for Christmas, 1957. She knew that I had read The Picts and the Martyrs the year before from the public library and that I had followed it up by asking for another Swallows and Amazons story. Yes, once again I had shown my unfailing knack of starting in the middle (or even at the end) for I discovered that The Picts and the Martyrs was the 11th book in a series of 12 about the same characters. I ask you what do you do when you get interested in the characters and their adventures ? Well, in my day, you went back to the library and looked for the next one. Or, in my case, you tried to find the very first one. I got Swallows and Amazons without much trouble. Number one was safely out of the way and I could begin again. Simple except that the three local libraries I belonged to could only muster about five of the series between them. I couldnt wait. I read them in the order in which I found them. Five years passed before I finally caught up with number 2 Swallowdale and completed the journey. And by that time I was a little too old.
Reading the book was one thing. Owning it was quite another. Arthur Ransomes books werent just stretches of interesting prose. They were riddled with pictures and codes and maps that interacted with the text and whetted your appetite for more information. I pored over maps of the Lake District and wondered which island on Windermere was actually the Wild Cat Island of the books. (None of them of course. Real Ransome fans know the true location.) I pestered my parents into taking our summer holiday in Bowness on Windermere which was clearly the town of Rio in the stories. I learned the semaphore alphabet and the Morse code. But all that came later.
I hope you can begin to see why two weeks loan from the library was just not enough. Winter Holiday was the first Ransome book I ever owned. Its not my favourite Ransome story but what consummate timing ! I cant remember whether the winter of 1957-58 was cold and snowy. For me, in my imagination, it always will be. You see I was up on the frozen fells with Dick rescuing the Cragfast sheep. I was taking my first tentative skating steps on the mirror-like surface of the tiny tarn. I was cracking the code on Nancys picture. (Just imagine, everyones heroine spends the large part of the story in bed with mumps!) Later I struggled through the blizzard with the recovered Nancy as she towed her little sledge of provisions to the North Pole, arriving like Captain Scott to find that Dick and Dorothea had done an Amundsen and beaten her to it. In the end-papers of front and back of the book I traced the little red dots of the trans-polar journey that led from Dixons farm to what would now be the town of Ambleside.
My favourite picture is of Peggy Blackett standing up on her own in the Beckfoot rowing boat and smashing an oar through the cat ice so that she make her way in to pick John, Susan, Titty, Roger and Dick and Dorothea. Ah, yes, one of themes of the book now comes back to me. Dick and Dorothea were the newcomers, the landlubbers, breaking into the well-established circle of friends and old-hands. How well they do it is carefully traced by the author who succeeds in giving them quite distinct personalities, whose hopes and feelings we share, without diminishing our affection and respect for our old favourites of the first three books. 360 pages of another frozen world. I read it almost in one sitting. And then I sat down by the fire and read it again and again.#
From Steve Holland
What would Christmas Eve be without an annual? I remember getting the Valiant Annual when I was a kid -- big, thick, hard gift in snowdrop decorated paper, or Santa, or reindeer... something that said it was !!CHRISTMAS!! with emphasis. Presents were magicked into our rooms overnight -- I *never* saw who delivered them (a trick only parents are privileged to learn and secretly imparted at anti-natal classes or passed on from grand-parent to parent).
Wrapping paper shredded, we would make sure the world knew what we had received, but around ten o'clock adults would start to disappear to get dressed and start preparing food. We stayed in our pyjamas for as long as possible -- why risk anyone playing with our booty while we were changing? Is it possible to carry everything back into your bedroom to keep an eye on while you change? What will happen to it during those few nanoseconds you have your pullover over your eyes? It appeared by magic, so there was a serious case to answer that if you took your eyes off it for even a second it might disappear!
After everything with wheels had been driven along every flat surface in the house and we'd had dinner, there was usually a moment of enforced calm so Mum and Dad could sit down in front of the TV for a well-deserved break (and usually to try and catch up with some sleep we'd deprived them of... Christmas Day rarely started later than six in the morning, occasionally at five, and once at four) we, my sister and I, would carry on playing quietly (we'd shave off a decibel or two at least) or read. That was when the annuals would land on the floor in front of the fire, or on the sofa, curled around so we could both fit comfortably laying down. A moment of calm.
I ask you, who wouldn't want to be a kid at Christmas?#