The Years of My Life ~ 1950: A Dream of Sadlers Wells ~ Lorna Hill

Ah, yes, well!  Let this be a lesson to me in the follies of revisiting books I loved as a child.    For my children’s literature 1949 pick I re-read Enid Blyton’s The Rockingdown Mystery and I would have predicted that that would have irritated me far more than anything I was likely to chose later on.  However, I was wrong. The Blyton at least had a fairly decent plot to it and I found it interesting, reading it as an adult, to see how the author was trying to extend her range of possible adventures by introducing a character (Barney) who came from a troubled enough background to be allowed to have the sort of experiences the Famous Five would always have to be denied.   Not so Miss Hill.

A Dream of Sadlers Wells is the first in a series of books about young women who have some sort of struggle to be allowed to make their way in the world of dance.  For the most part this is not because they lack talent but because, like Veronica Weston, the dreamer in question, their personal circumstances are such that they are denied the opportunity.  Forced by the death of her mother to move from London to live with relatives in Northumberland, Veronica is prevented from even mentioning, let alone pursuing, her ambitions by the swift realisation that as far as her aunt is concerned people like ‘us’ simply don’t go on the stage.  I suppose I should be pleased that it is clear from the start that Hill has no time for such an attitude and that Veronica’s Northern relatives, with the exception of her cousin Caroline and sort-of-cousin Sebastian, are roundly condemned, but they are such stereotypes, especially cousin Fiona, that it is hard to take that condemnation seriously.  And, faced with one such obvious stereotype, I couldn’t help casting around and realising that everyone else, Veronica included, was completely stereotypical too.

But, you will say, that is true of Blyton as well, and that is hard to deny.  However at least Blyton’s characters have adventures. Barney got kidnapped and locked in a ruined castle, for goodness sake.  The most that happens to Veronica is that she sets up a wayside stall to raise money to hire a pony so that a year later she will have something to ride across the moors on a foggy night in order to catch a train to the audition.  (She isn’t clairvoyant, but the reader is.  That pony is clearly there for a purpose right from the start.)  I’m sorry but the book is just downright dull.

What was I thinking, setting myself up to destroy my childhood memories this way?  At least I am no longer wondering whether or not I can afford to buy the rest of the series. (None of my three local library authorities have kept copies – it’s good to know that some sense prevails in the library system.) I shall be much warier about future picks in this category. And yet some of the children’s books coming out in the not too distant future, certainly by the 1960s, were tackling really important issues, albeit often through the means of fantasy.  Were the fifties really such a dearth?  I notice that the list I had for 1950 didn’t offer me a Chalet School novel.  I’m sure there must have been one.  Now that was an interesting series which, although it was packed with stereotypes and some very dubious attitudes towards married women, had some quite remarkable things to say about international cooperation.  Maybe I can dig out one of them for 1951.

The Years Of My Life ~ 1950

04241FD6-393A-4ED1-A603-FCCF60EA9B7DAt the back end of last year I set myself the task of reading three books from each of the years in which I have been alive: a contemporary novel, a piece of crime fiction and a children’s book. I got as far as 1949, the year of my birth, before the whole issue of moving reared its head and so the project stalled.  I’m hoping that I will now be able to get back to it and at least complete 1950 before this year is over.

As far as possible my aim was to chose novels that I hadn’t read before, although as I remember commenting at the time, having spent several decades teaching children’s literature it wasn’t going to be easy where that particular category was concerned.  That’s certainly proved to be true for 1950 and to start with I thought I might opt for a re-read of Enid Blyton’s In The Fifth at Malory Towers, one of a series of books which were extremely influential where I was concerned because they taught me that girls could aspire to do more in life than work in a shop or a factory, the careers that most of the women I knew followed.  The fact that all the girls I was reading about obviously came from very different backgrounds to mine never even crossed my mind.  If they could aspire to be teachers, writers, musicians, then so could I.  I’d pretty much decided to track down a copy of Blyton’s book when I suddenly noticed that the first of Lorna Hill’s ballet series, A Dream of Sadlers Wells, was published that year.  Now I never wanted to be a ballerina, I never wanted to be a dancer of any sort, but I did enjoy those books. So, a secondhand copy is winging its way to me even as I write and I am fairly certain that that is where I shall begin my exploration of the 1950s.

Where the other two books are concerned, I have been able to select new reads.  I thought I would stumble over the crime novel but then discovered that one of Josephine Tey’s Alan Grant series, To Love and Be Wise came out in 1950. I’ve read the better known  books in the sequence but not this one and have been able to track down a library copy so that is my detective fix sorted.

As for the contemporary novel there was really no competition.  I’ve recognised for a long time that a disgraceful gap in my reading has been my ignorance of the works of Barbara Pym.  I keep saying that I’ll do something about it and then never get round to making the effort.  Some Tame Gazelle is a 1950 publication and so reading that will kill the proverbial two birds with one book.  That’s on order from the library as well.

I don’t aim to read more than one of these a month and I know that as soon as the Lorna Hill arrives I shall foresake all others and devour it straight away, so that is the review you can expect first.  In the meantime, what do you think of my choices?  Do you approve or are there other books that you think I should have chosen instead?

The Years of My Life ~ 1949: The Third Man ~ Graham Greene

04241FD6-393A-4ED1-A603-FCCF60EA9B7DIt seems ridiculous to say that until now I had neither read The Third Man nor seen the Carol Reed film, which, like the book, appeared in 1949.  Apart from the fact that they are both masterpieces of their particular genres, they are so much part of the zeitgeist of their time I am amazed at how I have come to miss them.  And yet, so deeply is the name Harry Lime and the haunting Anton Karas score embedded in the cultural psyche of the nation, had you asked me, I would have assured you that I knew precisely what both book and film were about.  I would have been wrong.

In the light of the themes that the novella does explore, such a reaction on my part isn’t exactly inappropriate.  On the surface, Harry Lime is stationed in post-war Vienna, working for the International Refugee Office.  However, the British Colonel, Calloway, who narrates the book, is certain that Lime is not all that he seems and that his job is a cover for a particularly nasty form of black marketeering: one which leads to madness and death in young children.  Rollo Martins, a friend of Lime’s from schooldays, suspects none of this when he comes out to Vienna at Lime’s invitation.  He, like me, thinks he knows all about Harry Lime. Like me, he is wrong.  Mind you, I think I have a better excuse because Rollo has always been Harry’s dupe.

‘Was he clever at school?’

‘Not the way they wanted him to be.  But what things he did think up!  He was a wonderful planner.  I was far better at subjects like History and English than Harry, but I was a hopeless mug when it came to carrying out his plans…I was always the one who got caught.’

And so, having arrived to find that Lime has been killed in an accident with a car, Rollo sets out to prove that Calloway’s suspicions about his friend are wrong.  He tracks down and questions the people who were with Lime when he died and visits the young Hungarian actress, Anna, with whom Harry had apparently formed a relationship.  But what he discovers is disquieting and gradually he is forced to accept that perhaps Harry had become involved in nefarious dealings.  Was the ‘accident’ actually a set-up?  Was he killed to keep him quiet about what he knew?  And who was the mysterious third man who helped to carry the body away from the crash site?  (So that’s where the tile comes from.  Who knew?)

The theme of people not being who we might think they are is developed through the characters of Rollo, Anna and Calloway as well as Lime himself.  Calloway dresses in civvies, hiding his military rank.  Anna conceals her nationality for fear of being deported.  And Rollo, well he lives all sorts of double lives.  He makes his meagre living by writing cheap paper-covered Westerns under the name of Buck Dexter, but having arrived in Vienna, he is mistaken for the literary novelist, Benjamin Dexter, and plays up to it only to then find himself the centre of attention at the sort of cultural gathering he most despises.  Most importantly, however, there is a duality at the very heart of his nature.  Rollo looked at every woman that passed, and Martins renounced them forever.  The tussle between Rollo and Martins for the direction of this central character’s thought and actions is critical to the novella.

I loved this book.  The story gripped me from the first and it was all the more intriguing for not being what I had expected.  It is also, as you would expect from Greene, beautifully written.  Passages such as

so back they drove through the heart of a forest where the graves lay like wolves under the trees, winking white eyes under the gloom of evergreens

repeatedly stopped me in my tracks as I savoured them over and over again.

In terms of focusing my thoughts on 1949 what it did most strongly was remind me just how close to the end of World War II this was.  Because I didn’t live through those years, that war has always seemed like history to me.  Well maybe it was, but it was very recent history and for many, especially on the Continent but in England too, its aftermath was still a daily living reality.  Vienna is not only a city ravaged by its years under occupation, but now also a city divided between wrangling forces who are supposed to be allies.  The foundations of what would become known as the Cold War are clear for all to see.

As Greene explains in a foreword, the novella was written in order to work out in his own mind how the film might be scripted, and in his opinion

the film in fact is better than the story because it is in this case the finished stage of the story.

Inevitably alterations were made when the script was written, not the least of these being the changing of the final moments and Rollo’s name being altered to Holly, and normally I would actively avoid any film of a book that I have enjoyed as much as this.  In this instance, however, and given the circumstances under which The Third Man was written, my next purchase is obvious.  I am going to have to hunt down a copy of the DVD as soon as possible.


The Years of My Life ~ 1949: The Rockingdown Mystery ~ Enid Blyton

04241FD6-393A-4ED1-A603-FCCF60EA9B7DNovember has been a busy teaching month and so I decided to take the easy route into my exploration of the literature of 1949 and start with my chosen children’s book, Enid Blyton’s The Rockingdown Mystery.  I was apprehensive about re-reading this, the first in what had been, as a child, one of my favourite series.  Was I going to destroy all my happy memories of time spent with brother and sister, Roger and Diana, their cousin, Snubby and their wandering friend, Barney, not to mention the mad little dog, Loony and Barney’s monkey Miranda?  Well fortunately, no.  I suspect that I have spent too long working in the world of Children’s Literature to be in anyway shocked by the all too transparent snobbery and sexism that was the norm in the novels of the period.  I don’t like it, I wouldn’t give the book to a child today, but I can accept it as a product of its time and consequently read the book simply for the plot and enjoyed a thoroughly nostalgic Sunday afternoon. (It strikes me now that I was remiss.  I should have combined it with a suitable decorous afternoon tea.  Miss Pepper would have approved.).

Miss Pepper is the old family retainer charged with looking after Roger, Diana and the orphaned Snubby when Roger and Diana’s parents have to go to America during the summer holidays.  Ensconced in the lodge belonging to a deserted manor house, the children look forward to long days amusing themselves in the local countryside only to have their hopes dashed when Miss Pepper tells them that they are to have tutoring every morning in order to catch up with school work missed during a prolonged illness. Worse news follows when the tutor they know is unable to come and Miss Pepper has to employ a stranger, Mr King.  All is not lost, however, because as they wait for Mr King to arrive, they meet up with Barney, a wandering teenager, moving from fair to circus to whatever job he can pick up as he searches for his missing actor father.  Barney is not only a figure of delightful mystery, he is also accompanied by his mischievous little monkey, Miranda; what child, fictional or the solitary reader, is not going to fall in love with them both immediately?

As you can no doubt imagine, adventures appear around these children like magic. No sooner have they found their way into the deserted manor house than they discover that it is being used as a base by nefarious wrongdoers who have to be brought to justice. But what is the mysterious Mr King’s role in all this?  Is he friend or foe?  This becomes a vital question when Miss Pepper is called to the bedside of her ailing sister and the tutor is left in charge of the household.

Well, you won’t be surprised to hear that everything comes out all right in the end, or that it is the monkey, Miranda, who valiantly saves the day.  Blyton began the Barney Mysteries after The Secret Seven and The Famous Five were already established and in terms of the social situation she describes there is little to choose between them. We are firmly ensconced in a middle class world which was probably as alien to most of her readers as it was to me.  We accepted it, however, as an example of a fictional world we knew initmately because most of us would have learned to read from books inhabited by exactly the same sort of children.  In my case it was dear old Dick and Dora, but it could just as easily have been Janet and John or the ubiquitous Peter and Jane (not forgetting Pat the dog).  It wasn’t how I lived, it wasn’t even how I wanted to live, but it was how children in books lived; I accepted it and just enjoyed the adventure.  I probably even accepted poor old Diana being the one who automatically cleans up after everyone else.

The rooms were in a dreadful state now. It would need a good morning’s work from Diana to get them straight again.

Feminism hadn’t reached inner city Birmingham in the 1950s.

And, I would have enjoyed then, as I did now, all the wonderful descriptions of food. No Blyton story is complete without at least one picnic and Miss Pepper’s saving grace in the eyes of the children is that she knows they like things like sausages and salad and cold meats and potatoes in their jackets and ice cream.  Oh that ice cream!  One is never enough.  They always have at least two and often three.  I’m surprised that close to the end of the war there was so much ice cream to go around.  Perhaps the rest of the country went without just so that Miss Blyton’s characters could indulge to their hearts’ content.

One thing that did cross my mind as I re-read this story was the dilemma that Barney poses for the writer.  The adventures in this series are all rather more dangerous than those encountered by either the Secret Seven or the Famous Five and the introduction of Barney is what allows this to be the case.  Nice middle class children could not be put in life threatening situations, but a wandering showman, whose antecedents are questionable to say the least, is a different matter.  Bring a Barney into the story and you can widen the scope of the dangers your characters face considerably as long as he is the one actually facing them.  However, he has to be a respectable wandering showman and so Blyton makes Barney almost too good to be true, with impeccable manners, a thirst for learning and a desperate desire to read more Shakespeare.

And that was what shocked me most as I re-read a story that I must have last encountered nearly sixty years ago.  I had completely forgotten that this was the book that first turned me onto Shakespeare.  If Barney was going to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream so was I.  If Diana could play Titania, what was to stop me doing the same?  When we were offered the chance to see the play at Stratford in my first year at secondary school my name was top of the list.  I’ve never stopped going since.  The Rockingdown Mystery might be snobbish, sexist and completely fanciful, but I discover that I owe it a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.