Wednesday 12 June 2019

Phoenixes, railways and families

When I was a child there were programmes on TV that were specifically for children between around four and six pm (times varied over the years) on weekdays on two channels. There was a long Saturday morning show on each of the channels, which was mostly stuff I found very dull like children playing games on their teachers and people swapping things and pop music, but also featured cartoons. Holiday mornings were filled with programmes that had been bought in from other countries, which I vaguely remember as weird and fascinating. On Sunday afternoons, the BBC did a serialisation of some classic book – Dickens or Thackeray or Jane Austen (stuff they now put on in the evening when they’re sure of getting a bigger audience for the money they’ve lavished on it) or else one of those Victorian or Edwardian children’s classics.

So there was not much TV for kids. Even less, when I went to boarding school and all we watched was the Sunday afternoon serial. And, of course, there were no videos.

No wonder then that I read, that everyone read.

And no wonder that I threw myself into those classic children’s books that were serialised on Sunday afternoons. All those that spring immediately to mind – Anne of Green Gables, What Katy Did, A Little Princess, The Phoenix and the Carpet – I saw on TV first. Being shown that there was a story there that I would enjoy was my way into these books. I’ve thrust them at my daughters time and again over the years to no avail. They can’t see past the solid blocks of text to get to the gorgeousness within. Actually I’d say that all the books I’ve mentioned are pretty modern in the way they’re written. There’s a little floweriness in Anne of course, and Katy is rather saccharine in places (What Katy Did at School is much more fun!) and the authorial voice of A Little Princess can be tiresome. But The Phoenix and the Carpet? In fact anything E. Nesbit wrote? Pure fun from beginning to end.

Pure indulgence - bought myself these beautiful Folio editions a few years ago.
I am a HUGE fan of Edith Nesbit. It took me a while because I first came to her through the Bastables (The Story of the Treasure Seekers, The Wouldbegoods, The New Treasure Seekers). I struggled with these because it seemed to me that not enough happened and I failed to get the humour first time round. Coming back to the Bastables after watching The Phoenix and the Carpet on TV and then devouring the book and its sequels, I fell for them all. And when I discovered that E Nesbit was also responsible for my then favourite film The Railway Children that was it – I would read and love anything she wrote.

The time-travel mechanics are a little clunky, but otherwise, vintage Nesbit

Here are the reasons I love her:

1. Her families. She draws the bonds and squabbles and ambitions of families of children so well and makes them so appealing. Wouldn’t you just love to be a Bastable? Or one of the children who find the phoenix and the Psammead?
One of my favourites - a stand-alone with plenty of magic going wrong

2. Emotion. Mostly the books are funny and exciting. But when emotional depth is needed, it’s right there. That moment in The Railway Children when Bobbie sees her father through the steam from the train – “Daddy! My Daddy!” – I thought it might be just the crack in Jenny Agutter’s voice in the film, but it’s not, it’s right there on the page and you know it’s coming as the tension builds. Phew! Pure brilliance.

3. Contemporary fantasy. I love the way she brings magic into the world of her very ordinary families (OK, so very privileged white Edwardian families). They don’t step into a fantasy world – the magic is right there along with the coal scuttles and having to work out what to do with the baby. This kind of fantasy was very present in my seventies childhood and I think of it as the very heart of children’s literature. And this is what I’m aspiring to write myself…

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