Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton

The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton

I remember #66 The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton from when I was a kid. I read a lot of Blyton’s books and I think this series was my favourite.

The Magic Faraway Tree is the sequel to The Enchanted WoodIn The Enchanted Wood, three siblings discover an enchanted wood, where trees talk to each other and magical things happen. At the centre of the wood is the Magic Faraway Tree, an enormous tree with magical people living, like squirrels, in its trunk and whose branches stretch up into the clouds. If you climb up through the clouds, you come to a magical land, which changes every few days. In The Magic Faraway Tree the children are joined by their cousin and climb the tree again for further adventures.

There are two more books in the series but it really doesn’t matter what order you read them in – or at least, I didn’t feel lost or confused skipping The Enchanted Wood.

A magical world, an adequate story
Blyton’s world creation, in this series, is rather brilliant. The Magic Faraway Tree itself would be enough for a book. It is populated by a cast of fabulous characters, fairy folk with special powers, odd food and an unusual willingness to spend time with children and tree them as adults. Add in the carousel of lands at the top of the tree, and you’ve got somewhere that many people will want to go and live.

The Magic Faraway Tree isn’t the only book I’d rather visit than read. Reviewing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the Harry Potter books I mentioned that in each the world outstrips the story – in Charlie, Charlie is barely present at his own adventure, he’s simply a conduit for our visit to Wonka’s. Rowling has better stories, but the world still sparkles more than anything else.

Interestingly, there are other similarities between the books. That children are the means for exploring the worlds isn’t surprising, given these are kid’s books, but they all have at least one fey not-quite-human guide and the books all feature fabulous sweets with punny names as a central delight and plot device.

But is it good for you?
Blyton published The Magic Faraway Tree in 1943, twenty years before Charlie and fifty years before Harry Potter. Blyton was born in 1897, when Victoria was still on the throne, so by 1943 she was already 56, had several dozen or perhaps a hundred books and seems to have been fairly set in her ways. The morals and attitudes in her books don’t seem to reflect the changing period she was living in – there’s no hint this book was written during the war, nary a rationing card or air raid siren in sight – but instead seem to have been set at an earlier date, perhaps in reaction to said changes

I don’t think Blyton’s books are good for you. The Magic Faraway Tree is an excellent example of how gradual, repeated microactions add up to a rigid view of the world where a single trait (such as gender, skin colour or a fondness for sweets) marks the bearer out as unfit for leadership roles and relegates them to, at best, second class adventures.

The edition I read of The Magic Faraway Tree had clearly already been edited and updated – all the children’s names had been changed, from Jo, Bessie, Fanny and Dick to Joe, Beth, Franny and Rick. I don’t know what other changes have been made, how many golliwogs and little lectures on how men are constitutionally unsuited to doing the washing up have been taken out, but speaking only of the edited text, there is plenty left in to object to.

Joe (I’m using the names and other details from the edition I read) is the designated leader of the group – perhaps he’s 2 or 3 years older than the rest, which might make sense, but that’s not clarified. They all seem much of an age (which is odd, in a family where the kids are supposed to have come along one after the other in the usual way) but Joe is the boy, so he leads. Rick is disqualified from leadership because he is greedy. It’s pretty much his only character trait. The two girls are indistinguishable and are only seen separately when one has to selflessly stay back at the house to care for someone, completely missing the adventures.

I didn’t spot any indication that Joe is older or better prepared or smarter than anyone else, and Rick is shown as clumsy, greedy and generally second-rate, yet whenever anyone has to take an active role in the peril, it’s the boys who do so.

It’s an interesting example of sexism – you could argue that the girls go on and participate in all the adventures, and that’s true, they do. However, it’s when the group splits up that you notice that the boys take the active / dangerous role and the girls take the caring / food preparing / home making role. It’s absurd – so girls are brave / strong / bold enough to climb a tree and go on adventures in the lands above and deal with whatever happens, but only if the boys aren’t around.

The deference that everyone shows to Joe confused and annoyed me as well. It’s just not likely, unless he is actually significantly older than the others, and even then that doesn’t excuse the adult fairy folk from deferring to him. There’s one scene where the other three children all want to do something which Joe thinks might be dangerous – and they beg and plead for him to change his mind, as though he’s a parent refusing to drive them to a concert or pay for cinema tickets or something not another kid who can’t, really, stand in their way. I appreciate that I was born 40 years after this book was published, but from my recollections it just seems ferociously unrealistic. Where there’s no real power imbalance, cooperation is inevitable.

So I’m in a quandary. Even the revised edition of The Magic Faraway Tree is not up to scratch – it’s not a book that will stretch a child, that will encourage them to learn new words or to treat people more kindly or challenge stereotypes. And yet, I loved this book as a child, and I spent hours thinking about going to the lands at the top of the tree or inventing my own. The big idea is fantastic and charming. The lands at the top of the tree are fabulous and fun. I just wish that someone else – the fabulous E Nesbit perhaps – had written the books, as the stories are insipid and bombastic, full of twee moralizing designed to keep everyone in their place.

I don’t believe that books should be banned, but I do think that some books shouldn’t be encouraged. A book can change your life – they’re packed full of ideas and marvels – and I feel that Blyton’s books are like some old fashioned sweet, the kind where the original recipe called for a food dye made of lead or cadmium. I don’t think the one or two Blyton’s will hurt anyone, but an exclusive diet would probably give you slow poisoning.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

PinkPop Festival, Landgraaf, The Netherlands

PinkPop Festival, Landgraaf, The Netherlands

I mentioned that we were heading off to PinkPop last week. I find it really hard to get good shots at a festival – partly because I’m just not that into getting up close, so all the acts are tiny, and partly because I tend to relax and forget about my camera.

PinkPop was an excellent festival. I’m not going to say it was perfect, but we had a very good time and had no major problems. I was very impressed with:

  • How easy it was to get into the camping, and to get away on Sunday – the last festival we camped at was Glastonbury, which was a nightmare so I expected it to take hours but we were in (and out) in about 30 minutes

Crowds walking to PinkPop

  • How polite & helpful everyone was – and how accommodating of my minuscule amount of terrible Dutch, which they mostly dealt with by switching to English
  • No, seriously, it was amazing –  everyone spoke bits of English to us – from the volunteer directing traffic to the kids who wanted me to take their photo with their iPhone. Or they found someone who could, usually by grabbing the person next to them.
  • The weather – it looked like this at about 10pm

Crowds watching the main stage at PinkPop

  • The chilled atmosphere – again, compared to Glastonbury, it was lovely. No pushing and shoving, surprisingly little drunken rudeness, just enormous crowds of people having a good time
  • The range of food – there was all kinds of stuff, from pasta to Thai food, a Dutch fondue to poffertjes
  • The cup collection scheme – they had this deal where you could turn in cups for vouchers for food. I thought it would be naff but it saved us over EUR 100
  • The site – well laid out, easy to move around, plenty of toilets, even at the camping

Crowds on the PinkPop site

  • The bands – we saw so many good acts including: THE KILLERS (finally!), The Script, GREEN DAY,  Paramore, Ellie Goulding, JIMMY EAT WORLD, Thirty Seconds to Mars, Kings of Leon, STEREOPHONICS
  • Green Day – yeah, not everyone’s cup of tea but I loved it. Great stage presence and crowd interaction. Plus, one of them had their kids with them – who slept through the gig. I haven’t seen them live since 2001 when they played Rock Oz Arenes. And they still played my favourite song.

Green Day on the main stage at PinkPop

I was not so in love with:

  • The camping – the site was fine, but to get somewhere within 10 mins of the festival you had to be there at 4am. Otherwise it was a 20-40 minute walk. 
  • The 7am wake up call – on Monday morning, what sounded very much like air raid sirens went off at 7am. We were home in time for dinner, which was not the plan.
  • The car parking – I would have liked to be warned that they were going to charge EUR25-30 for parking
  • The cost of food – beer and chips were relatively cheap and plentiful, everything else… not so much, particularly if you were veggie
  • The litter – it may seem like an odd gripe, but there were so few bins the stuff was everywhere. By midway through Saturday, it was really starting to bug me. This really wasn’t the worst of it.

Crowds walking through litter at PinkPop

Given that there were something like 60,000 people on site, it’s surprising how smoothly everything went. I do have a few tips for anyone trying it next year:

  • If you’re camping, take food and drink – they’ll let you take it into the camping, and you’ll be glad of a good breakfast
  • Make sure you know where you pitched your tent – yeah, we screwed this one up and it caused the most hassle of anything. Although even at 1am, people were still being nice to us and encouraging us in English!
  • Do take a rain coat. And sun cream – if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes
  • No Dutch? No problem! – I cannot emphasize how impressed and grateful I am to everyone we dealt with. I don’t think I would have been so gracious at 1am
  • Decide which camping you’re aiming for ahead of time – otherwise you’ll wind up driving round and round getting in the way. Ask me how I know.
  • Take your phone charger, and a Dutch adapter – they had at least two free charging stations, but I didn’t have my charger. I would have worried less about losing K in the crowds without a nearly-dead phone battery

Giant sign with PinkPop logo plus name

We had a really great time. It was a very relaxing weekend – no work, no email, no text messages even as my phone was on minimal battery. We discovered several great new bands, met some really nice people, ate all kinds of new and interesting things (I think I’m in love with poffertjes) and it was all marvelous.

Here’s one last photo for you. Yeah, they let me take my knitting. And I got most of a sock finished! So what more could I really want from a festival?
Me knitting in front of the PinkPop sign

The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans

The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans

I’m not sure if I’ve read #195 The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans before or not. It was made into a film starring Robert Redford, Kirstin Scott Thomas and a young Scarlett Johansson in 1998 and I’m sure I’ve seen that. The horses, the Montana landscape – the whole world of the film is alien to me, and the book (if I read it) was easily overwritten by the film. I do believe that films can be better than books – and where I can’t picture the world easily, a film shows me everything, so I’m less puzzled as I go along.

The book opens with a horrific accident leaves both Grace MacLean and her horse, Pilgrim, severely injured. Determined to repair the physical and mental trauma, Grace’s mother, Annie Graves, refuses to allow the vet to euthanize Pilgrim. Annie hears of an expert working with damaged horses and drags both Grace and Pilgrim to Montana, in a desperate hope that the horse whisperer can help.

Easy to read, hard to stomach
Evans writes well and fluidly – the book is easy to read and positively glides by. The content, however, can be upsetting and hard to deal with. The opening, with the accident, is written kindly and carefully but it’s still not a fun read. The rest of the novel is dealing with two severely injured and damaged creatures, Grace and Pilgrim. The people around them are suffering as well, both because of the accident and for other reasons – you get the feeling that no one in the book is entirely whole, which is probably not unrealistic.

After the status quo is upset by the accident and re-established, the novel does have a hopeful atmosphere and, as I said, is easy to read. To get to the gentler middle, you have to go past the really rough beginning, and it’s not a short section. If you find descriptions of accidents upsetting, if you don’t want to read about people or animals being severely injured or killed, do not read this book.

No spoilers, but…
The ending pissed me off. Not enough to throw the book across the room (even though it was a paperback!) but I did think it was a cop out, with miracle sauce. As a result, I wouldn’t recommend the book. I have a feeling that the film had a more satisfying ending, so perhaps try that instead, particularly if you fancy either Robert Redford or Kirstin Scott Thomas.

On the plus side, the book is largely an homage to the strength and determination of Annie, not only in her role as Grace’s mother but also, independently, as a successful professional. It’s good to have strong, female characters successfully combining work and motherhood, and it was particularly interesting to me, as a remote worker and freelance writer, to get a snapshot of remote working in the early 1990s. But I still didn’t love the book and I don’t particularly recommend it.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

I predict a really good night

I predict a really good night

Image is mostly black. In the centre, picked out in red light a band play

Sometimes I feel like I’m doing things in the wrong order – usually I don’t care though. As I write this, K’s packing for our trip to PinkPop and when the post goes live, we’ll be packing to come home. It’s our second festival this month, fourth this year, although we only stayed a night at the other three. Hopping from festival to festival is the sort of thing you’re supposed to do when you’re 19, not 29, but honestly, who has the cash at that age?

This shot was taken at Caribana, and we’ve also been to Caprices and Balelec.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

A classic Sherlock Holmes mystery, #128 The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle is available for free on Project Gutenberg.

Sherlock Holmes is a know-it-all sleuth who solves crimes by the power of reason alone. In The Hound of the Baskervilles he’s faced with an apparently supernatural problem – a hell-hound which is driving members of an ancient family to their deaths.

Sherlock Holmes, Great Detective
The Sherlock Holmes stories were and continue to be phenomenally popular, and you can see their influence in the deductive reasoning of later detectives from Father Brown to Poirot to Phryne Fisher as well as all the later adaptions, like the BBC’s Sherlock, CBS’s Elementary and, of course, the recent movies.

I’ve watched bits of both Sherlock and Elementary and on balance, I prefer them to the originals. I know it’s heresy, but I preferred the TV shows to the books. Frankly, original Sherlock pisses me off. At least, I think he does – it’s been a while since I read any other Sherlock. I remember reading some of the short stories and thinking ‘what? why? what if they guy just works near the docks? what if he went to sea as a youth and now owns a pub? what if…?’ Perhaps I’ve just been missing some information but a lot of the deductive leaps original Sherlock makes seemed too quick and somewhat facile – and he’s never wrong, which annoys me, too, when he seems to be guessing so often.

The book itsself
Surprisingly, The Hound of the Baskervilles doesn’t feature Sherlock Holmes much. He does unravel the mystery, of course, but for most of the book the reader is following Dr Watson, who is both narrator and main character. It’s an interesting construction – I doubt Conan Doyle would have gotten away with it nowadays as people would complain about the lack of Sherlock. Still, it suited me.

Without revealing too much, I will say that the mystery isn’t the most satisfying one I’ve read. It’s reasonable, but not outstanding – perhaps a novel to read for the setting and characters as much as the plot. I don’t think all the puzzle pieces are given before the reveal but I’d have to read it again to be sure. In any case, narrative tradition seems as strong a guide as the official clues.

Sherlock didn’t annoy me as much as I remember, and I enjoyed uncovering the bits of background to the series I’ve been watching and enjoying. I’m tempted to read more Sherlock stories, to see if he does annoy me as much as he used to.

Overall, I wouldn’t say this is a great work, but it was broadly enjoyable and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s a fan of cosy mysteries. But for myself, I’ll probably stick with Agatha Christie.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Tourist or Traveller?

Tourist or Traveller?

I’ve been thinking about travelling harder since I read The Beach. I finished the book sitting on the Channel ferry, waiting for the White Cliffs to appear, dirty grey from the rain. It seemed fitting.

The White Cliffs of Dover looking murky grey in low cloud or high fog with two container cranes in the foreground

We travelled some 3,000 km on that trip, but I wouldn’t say we were either tourists or travellers – we didn’t go see any sights, really, just rushed from pillar to post getting things done and trying to see some of our favourite people.

Travelling is complicated – logistically, socially and ethically. Even travelling around in the UK or Switzerland, places where I’ve lived for years, I still find myself having to make crap decisions – you have to make so many decisions each day that it just isn’t possible for them all to be good ones. Travelling means compromising – usually on frugal efforts and environmental efforts. It means eating in McDonald’s because it seems to be the only thing open at 11pm, and then finding out that all the bars offer food. It means, with the caravan, filling up on petrol more than once in a day, rather than less than once a week. It means paying more for a service because you don’t have time to shop around. It means paying more for 2 hours of internet access – directly or in coffee – than you would in a month at home.

There’s an odd dichotomy as well – people clearly want to travel (as I write this, there are over 16,000 goals on goal-tracking website 43things.com related to ‘travel more’, and only 15,000 relating to ‘money’) and yet both tourist and traveller often seem to be used pejoratively. Tourists are frivolous, camera-toting dorks who get in the way of busy people moving around their own city while travellers are gap-year-kids, people with no sense of responsibility treating another culture as though it were a combination of amusement park and bar.

What’s the right way to travel, then?

Blue car and a caravan with a mountain behind

I think this is a pretty good way to travel, with a caravan, and a good way to live, too. It’s not easy though – everything needs a permanent, fixed address. Travelling with a caravan, the tourist/traveller divide takes on a new menace. Tourists with caravans are welcomed but Travellers, as the Roma and other nomadic groups are called in the UK at least, aren’t. Amnesty International has a section on Roma rights, which I seriously recommend you read. If you cross the line, it’s suddenly not just about whether your experience is deeply meaningful, man, or only superficial garbage, it’s serious.

It’s not just the Roma who get stick for being mobile or semi-mobile. A knitting designer I follow lives in an artist’s commune that seems to be regularly threatened with closure by the local authorities. Under her designing name, Woolly Wormhead, she sometimes writes about what’s going on and has an interesting post about being a New Traveller.

Italian road runs straight into the distance on flat land under a huge sky with scattered clouds

I don’t have any connection to previous generations of travellers as Travellers and New Travellers seem to. I’m happy wandering around a foreign city with only K to talk to, perhaps trying out my few phrases on hapless shop staff, so I haven’t developed a community of friends of the road.

For me, at the moment, the road is open – and well travelled. I’m not looking for an island untouched by human hand, like in The Beach – on the contrary, I’d like mine with Wi-Fi and plumbing, if you don’t mind, and if I’m only here for a day or two, I’d be grateful if someone’s already made a list of the best yarn shops and top ice cream places. Last year K and I visited 10 countries (a good proportion of them were tiny city states, but still) and this year we might well do it again. It’s getting to the point where travelling isn’t something we save up and wait for, it’s something we just go and do.

And that is absolutely incredible. In both senses of the word.

The Beach by Alex Garland

The Beach by Alex Garland

I would probably never have read #103 The Beach by Alex Garland if it wasn’t for the Big Read list and that would have been a shame as I really enjoyed it.

The Beach is a fictional travel memoir, describing the physical and spiritual journey of Richard, one of the many Western tourists clogging up Thailand’s beaches. Determined to find something real and unspoiled, he travels further off the beaten path than he ever intended.

Shark in the water
As a writer, you’re supposed to front-load your work with a hook, something which will draw your reader in and keep them interested long enough to pay for the book. The Beach is like a deep-sea angler fish – the shining lure has little in common with the teeth that follow, and yet is part of the same creature. 

I’ll try not to spoil this book, but I find it hard to review it fairly without discussing some of the things which come after the first shift. At least one friend was put off reading The Beach because the opening struck him as pretentious crap, and I can entirely understand this point of view. However, I think that’s deliberate and it changes rapidly. 

I will say that this is not a fluffy or friendly book. The cover of the Kindle edition is garish and has a skull in the centre, which seems a reasonable representation, but other editions seem to just have a beach, and look more like a holiday romance. This is not the sort of book that guarantees a happy ending.

Tourist or traveller?
The Beach
opens with Richard having a series of unsettling encounters in a hostel in Thailand and from the very first page it’s addressing what it means to travel, to be ‘a traveller’ or ‘a tourist’ and whether there’s any difference at all. The travellers think there’s a big difference – really travelling means looking for something authentic, spiritual even, something fresh, new and unspoiled while tourists just see the sights.

And yet, as a reader, you’re probably already questioning this definition listening to the characters talk. They’ve seen all these places, and they’ve gone just to look and say they did. Where’s the difference between a package holiday to Paris and three months exploring Thai beaches? What have they learned? Who have they helped? What have they changed?

The quest for something fresh and unspoiled, a land without other footprints, drives the characters in the story and it’s a uncomfortable quest. The travellers move through Thailand with little regard for the Thai people, either individually or collectively. This is an old-fashioned narrative of discovery – we found it, and look! there are all these people living here already.

The Beach is a clever book – it manages to be the thing and more than the thing. It’s a story about a beach, about a trip, and it’s also a dissection of travelling, of all the beaches and all the trips. It’s decidedly thought provoking and I definitely recommend it to anyone interested in travel.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

On the road

On the road

We’ve just got back from the UK a couple of days ago. It was a busy trip, with lots of chores and little sight-seeing. I didn’t take many photos of pretty things – particularly as it rained a lot! On the way back through France, the sun broke through so I’ve got a few shots for you from the little-appreciated ‘from a moving car’ school of photography.

We start near Dunkirk, on the road down through the flat lands of northern France.

A grey motorway under blue sky with puffy white clouds - rolling hills and trees in the distance

This next shot is still in the north, showing the breadth of the sky. Living in Vaud, in a valley, this sort of sky startles and fascinates me.

A grey motorway stretches away under a blue sky with puffy white clouds - flat countryside around
Finally, we’re entering the foothills of the Jura, themselves the foothills of the Alps. We took the caravan up over the mountains again – it’s quicker and more fun and there’s a joy in taking the familiar roads with the unfamiliar weight of the van behind us.

A grey motorway disappears into green hills under a grey and stormy sky