Friday phrases: whiffling through the tulgey wood

Back to some silliness. This time, it’s Lewis Carroll’s turn.

There is plenty of silliness in Carroll – much to choose from. But what I want to include today is The Jabberwocky, his strange and wonderful poem that has even merited its own Monty Python tribute.

It is one thing to learn a poem. But the greater fun comes with the opportunity to recite it, preferably with some kind of audience to hand (even one will do).

The Jabberwocky is one I can reach for if needed. One of the great delights, when reading it aloud, is the natural crescendo through this verse (below) towards ‘burbled’.

That a terrible monster exists, we can accept. That it needs a brave knight to vanquish it – agreed. But that the terrible monster will burble, on approach, completely undercuts the fear and dread factor. It’s one of the reasons why I love it as a poem.

Many moons ago, when studying The Annotated Alice at school, I came to learn the Anglo-Saxon background to the poem – and you can too, if you want.

But in many ways, I prefer to leave behind the author’s initial intentions in writing the piece, and abandon my ears to the clash of sounds and images that Carroll conjures up.

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The Jabberwocky

“…And, as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!”

Lewis Carroll

[You can read the whole poem at the link above.]

Lit Kid: off on another adventure

You can’t beat a good series. It may be on TV, on radio even. (People on the production team for The Archers clearly knows something, even if it’s not my personal tipple.)

So it is with books. And not just with books for adults – kids need their series too. All that youth, all that free time – it’s the perfect opportunity for series guzzling.

We may all have one book in us (or so we’re told), but what publishers would like is that we have a series, really.

Because a series allows us to do many things: create characters that we want more of. Introduce new ones. Have them interact. And so on.

Some books, you feel, have to be stand alone. 1984 is one that springs to mind.

We could spend time learning more about the world(s) that Big Brother controls, but the character arc for Winston Smith is complete. (A small amount of time on Wikipedia shows me, however, that others don’t necessarily think the same way.)

There are plenty of Great Books that would no doubt come into that category. But there are others that seem to become series in their own way – or, you could argue, are a long story that needs several books to tell them.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy would be one here – and, clearly, Tolkein felt there was much more to tell about Middle-Earth, or he wouldn’t have come up with the various other books that expand our awareness of that world.

Kids need their series too. They have a character they like, and they want him or her to keep having adventures. There may not be so much character development, or concern for origin stories, but that does not mean the demand is limited. Far from it.

Enid Blyton clearly knew this, or we wouldn’t have the various sets of books she created. You may say many different things about Blyton (and many have), but she clearly understood the junior reader’s demand for more.

Some of the series have endings written into them: the boarding school worlds of Mallory Towers and St Clare’s, for example. (Though that hasn’t stopped others writing extra books into the timeline for St Clare’s, for example.)

But others can seemingly go on for ever. Famous Five, Secret Seven, and more. Some are harder to spot as series (The …of Adventure ones), others have an ever-changing setup as part of their premise (The Faraway Tree series), and all allow you to create more and more.

Series allow you loyalty to a character – and enable you to contemplate loyalty to others in turn. You see their strengths and weaknesses (maybe not so strongly in children’s fiction), but you still trust them. You still want to be with them – or, often, just Be Them.

My holiday book buying lends itself to series. In a given year, you invest in your characters; you spend time with them. You could equally read completely unrelated books, and that would be fine, but there is a certain something of following the groove, repeating your steps and yet dancing them anew.

Another time, I’ll look at a bit more of what I see in children’s book series – what takes them beyond a single story, and into a larger narrative.

But for now, I am lost in happy pondering of which series I might pick to look at. It turns out you really can’t have enough of a good thing.

Lit Kid: the power of the annual

The school holidays have arrived. Dan and Junior Reader are off to see an exhibition before it finishes. The house has wrapped itself in that special weekend quiet that ensues when only one of you is home.

So it seems fair enough to tackle a mammoth topic of my own here, and write about annuals.

Annuals seem to hold a disproportionately large place of importance in the world of children’s books. (Maybe it’s the size, the fact that they’re hardbacks.) Not just in Junior Reader’s world, but mine too.

Annuals are inexorably tied to Christmas and the New Year; to sources of presents, and the opportunity to sell a book with the next year’s date on it.

And yet. Annuals are much more than that. They are the charting of how old you are, as the years go on; a solid ground for your memories of being a certain age.

You might forget which year a certain Blue Peter presenter did what – an annual will confirm it for you.

You may forget what Rupert Bear was up to at a given time: the story may not thrill you now, but the memory of your granny, knowing your tastes, picking it out for you, will.

One year we parcelled up my Rupert Bear annuals, and some other books, and took them to Hay-on-Wye, the book mecca that is not just about a yearly festival, but about the serious buying and selling of books too.

This is the kind of place you can go to flog your collectables. There is of course eBay, too, but that wasn’t around in my late teens, so you took your books along to see what you could get for them.

Annuals have a funny fluctuating value about them. A year or two passes, and you may be less taken with the contents of a given Star Wars annual.

It’s at that point that they join the great melting pot of the second-hand bookshops, and typically the point at which you pick up a couple for your junior reader.

These kind of books are the ones you squirrel away for days off school, when an invalid only wants to have short things read. Where you can play very quick board games (for, gentle reader, annuals are a good source of board games).

Annuals are a way to pour over the details of given films or cartoons (Wallace and Gromit, for example; and any number of children’s TV characters).

There is the Guinness Book of World Records for when your fact finding goes up a notch, but on the ‘I like this and I want to enjoy it again and know a bit more about it too’, annuals will do you just fine.

Annuals are of course the place to meet and rediscover characters from weekly comics: The Beano, Dandy, and so on. Probably the most read annuals in Junior Reader’s collection are of this type.

(I had a similar phase, borrowing ancient Beryl the Peril annuals from a family friend. Dan kindly bought me one of my own, a few birthdays back.)

Annuals seem to fulfil a function that is similar to bottles of wine for adults. You might take one along to a party. You might be given one another time. All of a sudden, you have a kind of flexible currency.

(You might of course drink them too, and this is equally acceptable.)

Annuals, in a similar way, can sit upon your shelf for a certain time. You might look at the ‘makes’, maybe even ransom your mother for enough egg boxes to consider trying one.

(You don’t, however, follow through. I’m not sure I’ve come across someone who actually went through with making something out of an annual, even if the ideas seem wildly attractive at the time of reading.)

After some time, possibly some drawing on them in felt tip, or filling in a few clues before losing interest, the annual has completed its shelf life with you.

The next book sale, the next school fair, out it goes, moving on to a succession of other children’s book shelves (and bedroom floors).

Until, perhaps, over time, it resurfaces, and meets the right kind of owner: the one whose year of birth matches the annual’s own. Or a portion of their past. One who appreciates the vintage.

Kids don’t necessarily get to see this part. (Not all adults own up to liking annuals, or even owning a few which are clearly ‘theirs’). But in time, they will come to recognise the power of multiple re-reads; the ability to conjure up where you were at a given time in life.

Other books can give you this too. But annuals, like certain photos, date stamp your experiences.

We have a certain Action Man annual in our collection. I can vividly remember reading this aloud on a certain holiday; spinning out the stories to Junior Reader, seeing the growing awareness of action hero cracks certain type of joke.

Now Junior Reader can tackle Action Man solo. (Unlike Dr X, who always seems to need backup.) Whether it will remain one of those time-seared memories or not – we will simply have to wait and see.

But in the ‘ten minutes before teatime’ slot, many an annual helps out when you are peckish for something to do. And long may it continue.

That was the week that was: early April ’14

My mother has been rereading my old letters to her. Letters and cards and what-not, from times I lived abroad. Ones from me. Ones from Dan too.

There are all kinds of funny details in there that you forget, and suddenly you remember in the rereading. Like setting my beginners English class to write letters to my parents.
(Not right at the start of the year, you understand – once they’d got a few words under their belts.)

I seem to remember that my parents wrote back – letters to each of them individually. It was very kind, and a very happy moment for my students, because they weren’t made up letters: they came from real people, out there, ones who spoke English. All. the. time.

I don’t have the letters my parents sent – but I have now reread the letters that my students sent. Some of them thought to say nice things about me, because they knew they were writing to my parents.

Some used ‘a’ and ‘the’, some didn’t. Some put in little details that I had forgotten, like one with Ukrainian heritage. Some of the students’ names, I confess, I had fully forgotten, others not so much. (It is over 15 years ago now.)

So it feels appropriate to put down a few tiny details here, just to help me remember the flavour of life right now. Hopefully it won’t take me 15 years to get round to the rereading.

This week, it’s all about finishing the big end of term project – writing and illustrating a little fact book on a subject of your choice. Junior Reader plumps for MI5 and MI6. (No great surprise.)

So we learn that both are by the River Thames, MI5 is closer to the Houses of Parliament, and MI6′s building is perhaps more interesting to draw. But really, if you judge purely from the other illustrations, it’s all about grappling hooks. (We think.)

A very chilly week, with fog seemingly every day. The flowers are doing their thing, fat buds on the trees like round Christmas lights, unlit, just waiting for the big switch on. We think it may be spring. Soon.

Completing a weekly class for the last time. We are both quite sad. It has been part of the school week routine for probably three years now.

Later in the week, I walk to do a school pickup, and remember Junior Reader and friend, walking up the road to the class, hand in hand.

Walking on the low wall by the church. Sniffing the lavender bush. Pointing out the little fountain outside a guesthouse. The same routine, lovingly remembered and repeated by them both.

I do one of those ‘can I get away without doing a big food shop?’ calculations. Arrive at the nearer shop, find that a certain type of crisps is on offer. It’s clearly confirmation that I guessed right.

Junior Reader is shocked by learning about certain food combinations: hummus and red pepper strips; chocolate and nuts. I am not sure why these are so concerning. (I for my part am concerned about crackers and jam, dipped in soup, which was suggested earlier in the week.)

We have a discussion about door to door marketing, by dint of both Avon AND Betterware lovingly leaving catalogues for us.

We have a spot of card colouring and present preparing (the April birthdays), listening to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as an audio book.

We add a few more fascinating facts to our collections. We learn that an octopus has three hearts. That there are more fake flamingoes than real flamingoes in the world. Important stuff.

We travel over to the first of the April birthdays, and share a roast meal. We walk by the river, and do a spot of chumping for wood where a large tree fell into the river and has been hauled out again. The force of the current has stripped the bark from the tree on the thinner branches.

We look at newspapers that my great-grandfather kept, some from 1916 and 17, some from 1932. We don’t know why they were kept, but we are caught up in the wider stories: housemaids wanted, detailed descriptions of the state of the rivers in the local area.

It is small. It is everyday – and once and once only, in that strange way that time offers. We sing along in the car on the way home, and watch lambs practising their steps in the fields.

Friday phrases: all covered with white blossoms

Most of my Friday phrases are relatively cheery; silly, even. A little light relief is no bad thing, at the end of a long week.

Now and again, other phrases carve their way into my brain. They are not as light in impact, though they are crafted in a light-handed way.

The Selfish Giant is one of those books, and it contains one of those phrases – more, in fact. It is utterly beautiful. I suspect it is another of the ones that appeared through the children’s book club my parents signed up for.

We talk glibly of journeys in stories. But the Selfish Giant’s journey from aggressor to defender of children is a significant one.

Almost like an Old Testament hero, he spends much of his life waiting: hoping for the return of the little boy he met only once. When they do meet again…let’s just say that I find it hard to complete the story if reading it out loud.

When looking for a link for this piece, I was particularly pleased that the version I knew appeared: this is the version illustrated by Michael Foreman.

Foreman is famous for many beautiful illustrated stories now, but this may have been an early introduction to his work for me, without me realising it.

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The Selfish Giant (final section)

     ”…’Who art thou?’ said the Giant, and a strange awe fell on him, and he knelt before the little child.

And the child smiled on the Giant, and said to him, ‘You let me play once in your garden, to-day you shall come with me to my garden, which is Paradise.’

And when the children ran in that afternoon, they found the Giant lying dead under the tree, all covered with white blossoms.”

[I only chose the last section, but you can read the whole story through the link above.]