Sunday, 22 January 2012

The Midnight Kittens by Dodie Smith

Something of an oddity, The Midnight Kittens was first published when Dodie Smith was 82, when it came out as the same time as the second volume of her autobiography, Look Back with Mixed Feelings. I suspect it works best for the generation for whom 101 Dalmatians was a newly published book - they'll be able to read and revisit their childhoods. For children now, the headmaster whose methods are "modern" and based on counselling theory, and the twins' school, will seem odd, and the hippy squatters will be an anachronism in a time when travellers are mostly feared and despised.

It's the story of Tom and Pam's half-term visit to the grandmother who has cared for them since the death of their parents, and the four kittens who come to eat the food put out for the hedgehogs. It's a very slight story and its brevity makes it seem unnecessarily hysterical, I'm afraid. A more leisured pace would have allowed some time to put the children's fears for the kittens into perspective, while also foregrounding the adventure which follows their meeting with the past owner of Freke Hall.

The book's real magic now is in the enchanting illustrations by Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone. However, it might be rather nice for reading aloud, and perhaps there are still old-fashioned little girls who would enjoy reading it for themselves.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Fell Farm for Christmas

It's a little late to be writing about this, but the temperature has just dropped sharply as the sun set, so not too inappropriate!

Children just don't have holidays like this any more: the five Brownes - two pairs of twins and their younger sister - return to the Westmorland farm they had visited during the summer, ready for a winter holiday of brisk walks and birdwatching. The story starts with their train journey, via Crewe, Oxenholme and Windermere, and I was instantly nostalgic for all the times in childhood I travelled on that line (for some reason I was particularly fond of Crewe station, perhaps because it used to be such an enormous interchange that there was always plenty to look at):
We were somewhere between Hest Bank and Carnforth - the bit where the railway runs along the edge of the sea, and you usually get the first view of the fells, looking simply wonderful across the great curve of the bay.
But this time it was half past four on an afternoon in late December, and the light had gone from the sky, except for some long, dim bars of gold just above the horizon. I swore that I could just glimpse the faintest gleam of snow-caps, pale as silver. The others said that it was imagination, and maybe it was; but it really didn't matter, because we all knew that they were there.
Hyacinth, our narrator, combines a romantic imagination (she has her notebooks with her, so that she can continue writing The Mystery of the Blood-Stained Hippopotamus during the holiday) and down-to-earth practicality about things like supplies for walks, and we're plunged straight into farm life and long tramps round the fells. In one of my favourite chapters Hyacinth's twin Jan rescues a heron which has got trapped in a pond, frozen in while fishing. A few years ago I rescued a heron myself, and could share their wonder at being so close to such a remarkable bird, and their pleasure in its return to health. The sheep rustling scene, on the other hand, would make any modern parent's blood run cold, I fear! And I can't think that many children wash their own socks these days, more's the pity.

Fell Farm for Christmas is an attractively brisk romp, the sort of holiday children of my generation dreamed of, with lots of fresh air, hearty food and adventure. It was published the year I was born and the past is a golden place in these pages. My own holidays weren't so eventful (I never knowingly met a sheep rustler!), but otherwise not so very different from what is described here. I shall pass it on next to my mother, who spent the war not far from Carnforth, and still gets wistful about it.

Oh, and there are maps. I do like a map and they are suitably Wainwright-ish.