Rainy Days

July 30, 2013 at 10:18 am | Posted in Fashion, Julian | 3 Comments
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raincoatOne of my favourite scenes from the Famous Five stories is perhaps not one of the most exciting moments, but is nevetheless highly evocative of the bracing pleasures of wet and windy mornings, such as today’s. It’s from Five on Kirrin Island Again when the children decide to go out for a clifftop walk in the rain. As they don mackintoshes and sou’-westers and head out into the elements, Julian comments that he really likes ‘the feel of the wind and rain buffeting against his face’.

I never knew what a sou’-wester was when I was a younger reader of the stories, but for those of you who might just be wondering, it’s a waterproof hat, generally in that glorious yellow that you associate with salty sea dog fishermen, with a wide and long section at the back to help protect the neck from the gales that come in from the prevailing south west winds. I don’t have a sou’-wester, as that’s going too far even for me, but I have recently procured the next best thing, a lovely yellow raincoat from Petit Bateau (they do stuff for grown ups as well as children). As well as being a bright and cheery colour on the outside, it’s also got a lovely warm blue and white stripey lining and capacious pockets for essentials (string, compass, Oyster card). Just the ticket as I brave the (typical day off work) weather and head out for a trip to the park.

Toy Boats and War Games

September 25, 2010 at 9:04 am | Posted in Learning Stuff, Fun and Games | Leave a comment
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In Five on Kirrin Island Again the cousins pay a visit to the jolly ‘red-faced, barrel-shaped’ coastguard. He’s singing a sea shanty while busy making wooden toys in the little shed behind his whitewashed cottage. Given the combination of his occupation and this hobby, the coastguard would no doubt be interested in the Toy Boats exhibition that is currently running at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The exhibition follows the social, technical and industrial history of the toy boat, from the hand-made wooden boats of the 1800s through to the steam and battery powered vessels of the 20th century.

Both educational and fun, early boats were made largely to instruct boys (sorry George), stimulating their curiosity and introducing them in the ways of life at sea. Germany soon emerged as a leader in the field and developed a large export industry. By the 1910s toy boats had become powerful propaganda tools and the Kaiser himself took a special interest in toy boat production, encouraging manufacturers to make more submarines in order to demonstrate Germany’s underwater strength.

Toys were played with in the bath or on seaside holidays, but civic planning in the late Victorian and Edwardian era led to the creation of a large number of ‘miniature oceans’ – boating lakes in parks. Grown-ups got in on the act and toy boats became more serious and impressive (and expensive). This yacht (above right), for instance, is absolutely huge. It’s nearly 6 and a half feet high and would have been difficult for an adult to handle, let alone a child. While elegant boating lakes further developed the market for toy boats, they also became graveyards for the becalmed, broken down and abandoned. The first boat you see as you enter the exhibition is a decrepit and rusty boat found, along with another 150 or so, when the Kensington Round Pond was drained in 1923.

The other examples on display are in far more pristine condition. Many are on loan from the Musée National de la Marine in Paris and several are from the private collection of Ron McCrindell. Sections are devoted to key manufacturers from European nations and the patriotic Kirrins would no doubt have had a boat like one of these (left), produced by a British manufacturer such as Meccano, Sutcliffe and Hornby.

Like the boats themselves, the exhibition is both instructive and entertaining. Alongside examples of clockwork (right), steam and battery-powered boats, you can explore cross sections of each to discover their inner workings. There are also examples of old boating catalogues, posters and maritime-themed games including a ‘Russia vs Turkey’ boardgame (below left) produced around the start of the Crimean War in 1853.

It seems that the premise of recent controversial (computer) games like Six Days in Fallujah and Medal of Honor, is nothing new and that nineteenth century children and adults were also eager to embrace warfare, albeit precariously. Elsewhere in the National Maritime Museum, the realities of naval warfare are brought home, not least through the display of the blood-stained and musket ball-damaged uniform worn by Admiral Lord Nelson when he was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Entry to the National Maritime Museum is free and the Toy Boats exhibition runs until the end of October.

Easter Hols and Hot Cross Buns

April 2, 2010 at 12:07 pm | Posted in Dick, Eating and Drinking | 3 Comments
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Hurrah for the Easter holidays! Two of my favourite Famous Five adventures (Five go to Smuggler’s Top and Five on Kirrin Island Again) take place over the Easter break, and even without adventures it’s lovely to have a long weekend at this time of year.

In honour of the ever-hungry Dick, and of Jesus, I am baking hot cross buns today (like our Saviour they are hopefully rising as I type this). These fruity, lightly spiced buns are traditionally made and eaten on Good Friday; Steven Jenkins, spokesperson for the Church of England says that they ‘are fairly full of Christian symbolism…You have got the bread, as per the communion, you have got the spices that represent the spices Jesus was wrapped in in the tomb, and you have got the cross.’

This BBC News piece discusses the disputed roots of the hot cross bun (variously suggested as Pagan, Jewish, Roman and Saxon in origin) and their transition from a seasonal treat to one that is available all year round, and in various guises – you can now buy orange and cranberry, apple and cinnamon and even (yuk!) toffee hot cross buns. Here are my more trad buns pre- and post-baking. I haven’t quite got the hang of yeast cookery yet but they tasted quite good nevertheless.

Nature Study with Enid Blyton, Part 2: Wind and Rain

March 19, 2010 at 12:02 am | Posted in Anne, Fashion, George, Julian, Learning Stuff, Timmy, Uncle Quentin | 1 Comment
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‘Is it a windy day? I do hope it is, because I am going to talk to you about the wind and its work – and if you can see through the windows what the wind is doing, it will be a great help’. So begins Enid’s chapter on ‘The Wind and its Work’ (Round the Year with Enid Blyton: Spring Time). ‘Where does a wind begin? It must begin somewhere, mustn’t it!’ Yes Enid, it must. But where? Unfortunately this appears to be a question without an answer, but luckily she can tell us why it begins. I do hope you are paying attention:

‘When air is heated over any place it becomes lighter than the colder, denser air round about; the cold air rushes in and pushes the warm air before it. When we feel the cold air rushing in we say, “How windy it is!” The current of cold air has made a wind, which we feel on our faces, and which we see stirring the trees.’

Enid goes on to discuss weather vanes, the different winds (north, south, east and west), where they come from and what they bring us. The west and south-west winds bring rain. They come from across the Atlantic Ocean, collecting moisture on their way. As she notes, ‘it is the west wind that piles up the big grey clouds and brings out our umbrellas’.

There is a superb description of a bracing rainy morning in Five on Kirrin Island Again. It’s the Easter hols and because Uncle Quentin has commandeered Kirrin Island for an important scientific experiment (and erected a tower on it no less – a potent symbol of his uncompromising patriarchal power over poor George), the Five are land-bound.

As we know, the children are hardy types and don’t let the rain keep them indoors: ‘They never really minded the weather. In fact Julian said that he really liked the feel of the wind and rain buffeting against his face’. They don their mackintoshes and sou’westers (presumably so named because they offer protection from south west gales) and set off for an invigorating walk along the cliffs with Timmy: ‘At the top it was very windy indeed. Anne’s sou’wester was blown to the back of her head. The rain stung their cheeks and made them gasp’.

Because the day is so wet, the Kirrins are forced to wait until half past ten that night for Uncle Quentin’s signal to indicate all is well on the island (at night he signals with a lantern; by day he uses heliography aka a mirror and the sun). Aunt Fanny won’t let the children stay up so late, and although Anne and George fall asleep, Dick and Julian do manage to stay awake. I like to think that they stave off sleep by perusing (in a supremely postmodern gesture) Enid’s chapter on ‘The Wind and its Work’, and follow her suggestion to read the story Æolus and the Winds (‘it is an old Greek story, and you will find it in the story of Odysseus, or Ulysses’).

Midnight Feasts and Lashings of Ginger Beer

January 14, 2010 at 11:07 pm | Posted in Eating and Drinking | Leave a comment
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As the queen and royal family of literary gluttony respectively, Enid Blyton, and the Famous Five in particular, get lots of coverage in this BBC Radio 4 programme Midnight Feasts and Lashings of Ginger Beer, broadcast on Tuesday 12 January and available until the 19 via the BBC iplayer.

In the words of author and contributor Michael Rosen, food is ‘the sex of children’s literature’ – the one unfettered desire that children’s authors can write about (in contrast to a writer like Ian Fleming who writes about sex and food with equal greed and sensory description). The concept of food as a substitute for love gets plenty of attention – one example being Martin in Five on Kirrin Island Again. When the children discover he has lost his mother they make sure he gets the nicest buns at teatime. Elsewhere in this book Blyton describes how Joanna the cook is the queen of comfort food: ‘That was always Joanna’s way! If she thought anyone was upset, she offered them her best and freshest food’.

There are endless other food-related quotes with which to illustrate this post so here is just one:

‘”If we go [to Kirrin Island] for a week or ten days, we must take plenty of stores,” said Julian. “The thing is – can we possibly find food enough for so long? Even if we entirely empty the larder I doubt if that would be enough for a week or so. We all seem such hungry people somehow.” Five Run Away Together, p.75.

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