Swabbing the Decks…

swab_decks

It’s been a while since I’ve had the need to do a “swabbing the decks” kind of post, but it’s come around again. This type of post is just for me to catch up with some of the titles that I’ve been, the titles that perhaps don’t really warrant an individual post of their own. It doesn’t mean that these particular titles are not good. Au contraire. Most of the time, it’s because the books haven’t triggered any great thoughts or debate for me, but they are still good all the same.

I’ve just finished two quick but enjoyable reads of a couple of the Miss Read books, Friends of Thrush Green (1987) and The School at Thrush Green (1991). I do enjoy these rather mellow narratives where the most vexing thing is usually that the tea was luke-warm and perhaps a newcomer arrives in the village.

They’re just enjoyable chillaxing kinda books and ideal for very hot days (as we have been having) where you’re taken over by lassitude and end-of-the-semester fatigue and don’t really want to think that hard. I don’t know if I could plough through all the Miss Read novels one after the other, but as a refresher between books, they work a treat.

TV-wise, we’re finishing up the latest season of “Better Call Saul”, the spin-off of “Breaking Bad”, which we have loved. It’s probably going to lead to us re-watching the “Breaking Bad” series now that we have learned this prior (and parallel) storyline. So good…

The big thing is what to read next? The eternal question for any reader….

 

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Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome (1930)

As a child growing up in England, this was a title that I frequently heard about, but I can’t remember if I ever read it or not. If I didn’t, then I should have as it’s one that I would have probably enjoyed: siblings going to camp on a “deserted” island unaccompanied by parental units all having some harmless adventures without any major repercussions. Yes please.

Whether I had read it or not, this time around the read seemed brand new to me. Published in 1930, it’s clearly written in a more innocent time when children go off and have harmless adventures without supervision and if you take it in that spirit, you’ll enjoy this.

It’s a kid’s novel along the same lines as the Adventures of Mallory Towers/Blyton (and their ilk), but this is a slightly more grown up version of life. Set in the Lake District, the narrative revolves around the Swallow family having their holiday on the shores of the lake in Conistan (a real place).

uk-mapFour siblings (very gender-stereotyped but them were the times) find an “uninhabited island” in the middle of the lake and claim it for themselves in a world of Make-Believe. The adults left on shore are “natives” and play a peripheral role for the most part, the oldest boy bosses everyone around, the oldest girl cooks and cleans (!!) and it’s all rather jolly hockey sticks and ginger beer.

The adventure ensues when another family’s kids also end up “discovering and claiming” the island – they of the Amazon clan in the title – and so it turns into a very tame gang war complete with a potential pirate in the mix. It’s a fairly straight-forward goodies/baddies set up, although the two rival groups of kids do end up collaborating against a common enemy (who isn’t that bad in the end), and it runs along the lines of a Scooby Doo episode but with more kids.

One thing that I was impressed with was how familiar Ransome assumed his readers would be with the sailing terms. It’s packed with these suckers, and since I have less-than-zero sailing experience myself, it was a bit mystifying at the start. However, sailing or no sailing, you can still keep up with the story itself and it all sorts itself out in the end. Just know that there are a LOT of nautical terms to keep up with.

I made a list of the ones that I remember, just to give you the scope of things:

  • “careen” the boat
  • Ballast
  • Aft/fore
  • Stern
  • Painter (something that was attached to the boat and was fastened to a tree)
  • Gunwale
  • Thwarts (a thing on the boat, not a verb)
  • Starboard
  • Foredeck
  • Let out a “reef in sail”
  • Broadside
  • Windward side
  • Sailing “close-hauled”
  • Halyards
  • On the “port tack”
  • Yaw
  • “Following wind”
  • Boat’s “forefoot”
  • Lee of an island

I have a passing knowledge of some of these terms (thanks to Star Trek mostly :-)), but it’s interesting to me that Ransome could assume that most of his readers would already have this sailing knowledge. Perhaps kids did back then? I’ll have to check with my mum.

So, a fun read and a journey back to simpler times (at least it seems to me).

The Country Diaries: A Year in the British Countryside – Alan Taylor (ed.) (2009)

“Diarists create by accumulation, putting into print what they see and hear and think daily.”

Alan Taylor, editor.

A day-by-day year-round anthology of diaries from writers whose lives revolve around the life of the British countryside (so not just England). This is a fascinating trip across fields and centuries from 1672 to the early 2000’s, and covers all social classes from rather poor (via literate curates) to stinking rich so the collection covers the gamut of life. With such a wide range of description of the appreciations of country life, it would be easy for the editor to choose the sort of bucolic “Cider with Rosie” descriptions, but he has included both the highs and the lows of everyday life.

Admittedly, this is a collection of (mostly) white males, but I would bet that that is due to the sample of available writing more than any bias of the editor. Female diarists include Beatrix Potter (who is truly hilarious in places), one Elizabeth M. Harland (who was first published in 1950 – not heard of her), Emily Smith (1817-1877, a contemporary of Thos. Hardy and not heard of her before) and one Alice Dudeney, all of whom were pretty prolific in their writings. I will definitely be searching for some of their work if I can track it down.

Reading about inclement weather when it’s been a really hot August in West Texas was a real treat, and I had quite forgotten how short British summers could be – and how wet! Day after day of rainy weather, chilly temperatures and cloudy skies – pretty much the opposite of here and fun to contrast the two… It also took me back to English childhood and adolescence, a time that seems so far away and yet also seems to have happened yesterday in some cases…

Two rather funny excerpts:

30 April 1830, Radnorshire.  Rev. Francis Kilvert.

“This evening being May Eve I ought to have put some birch and wittan [mountain ash] over the door to keep out the “old witch.” But I was too lazy to go out and get it. Let us hope the old witch will not come in during the night. Young witches are welcome.”

11 November 1799, Somerset. William Holland (rector).

“Rain last night too and the morning not very promising, tis surely dreadful weather. Briffet is here to kill the sow.  A horrible looking fellow, his very countenance is sufficient to kill anything, a large hulky fellow, a face absolutely furrowed with the small pox (a very uncommon things in these days of inoculations), two ferret eyes and little turned up nose with a mouth as wide as a barn door and lips as thick and projecting like two rollers of raw beef bolstered up to guard against, as it were, the approach to his ragged rotten teeth. However, he is a good pig killer.”

(Back-handed compliment, methinks. :-))