Thursday, 19 February 2015

Five children and all the rest

Edith Nesbit has been a landmark ever since I read Five children and it exactly forty years ago. I didn't read it as a child, because it wasn't available; I read it as a scholar of children's literature, and of fantasy in particular. I bow to Lewis Carroll and George Macdonald, but all children's fantasy goes back to Nesbit. Her magic code (my coinage, which eventually became the title of my PhD thesis) is as central for fantasy as Asimov's three laws of robotics for science fiction.

I wrote my second academic article, in Russian, on Nesbit in 1979, and it was later revised and published in English in the inaugural issue of Marvels & Tales in 1987. Nesbit's fantasy novels were key texts in my PhD. I taught Five children and it in every course I could squeeze it into.

I don't worship authors, and I have never been particularly interested in Nesbit as a person, but last year I happened to visit her grave.

I am sceptical of sequels and prequels, especially written by someone else. (I have written an infuriated essay on so-called sequels to Winnie-the-Pooh, The Wind in the Willows and Anne of Green Gables). But if done well, they can be wonderful. Jacqueline Wilson's Four children and it was a joy to read.

Some days ago I stumbled upon Kate Saunder's Five children on the Western front. I must admit that I had not read anything by this author, but I was intrigued by the title (and it acknowledged “inspired by...”). 

It was, obviously, very different from Wilson's witty and hilarious book, a playful travesty rather than a proper sequel. I could not help comparing Five children on the Western front with A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book, which is one long, idyllic prologue to the Great War where all title characters die. The mother is of course modelled on Nesbit. 

Five children on the Western front starts with a glimpse of the idyll, portrayed in Nesbit's trilogy, and moves on quickly to the War, with a prolepsis suggesting that two boys of the adventurous five, whom Nesbit calls exceptionally lucky children, will not make it. The reader's privileged knowledge over the character is a tremendously attractive feature for me, as a professional as well as pleasure reader. It makes my guts turn. There they are, the five children – actually six, with an additional sister, cleverly called Edie, short for Edith. There they are, once again exceptionally lucky to meet their old friend the Psammead, on a warm and sunny autumn day of 1914. Cyril is an officer, about to be dispatched to France. Everybody knows that the war will be short, maybe a couple of weeks. If the Psammead knows otherwise he keeps it for himself.

It is a powerful book. It is perfectly stylised: just enough “beastly” and “A1 brick” to feel Nesbit-y without overdoing it. The characters are developed in a remarkably believable and tactful way, from their never-wishing-to-grow-up pastoral to inevitably-growing-up in the shadow of war. I would say, Nesbit couldn't have done it better herself. She most probably couldn't have. The Great War had this effect on writers: they hid in the Hundred Acre Wood with Just William and Swallows and Amazons. But from a hundred years' perspective, it feels profound: all early twentieth-century children's literature children would die in the Great War. I don't believe literary characters have a life outside the text, but this book makes me change my mind.

I have now lived in the UK almost seven years, and even before the centenary last year I had been deeply moved by the Great War indelible trauma. The collective memory doesn't shout: “Hooray, we won the war”, as many other nations do. Instead, it soberly and respectfully mourns its children. 

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Things I don't do anymore: Final reflections


This has been a useful exercise since I had a chance not only to indulge in nostalgia, but reflect on why I stopped doing all these things. I have noticed that most of them have two features in common. Firstly, they are all connected to the place and time of my childhood and youth. We made things that weren't available, and we did things because there were no other options. When I moved to Sweden and things became available, they became less attractive. I have another example: we took incredible efforts to get hold of horoscopes, but when you can read them in any daily paper, what's the point?

Secondly, all the activities I described are things that bring people together; and again, bring together because there are few or no alternatives, of the kind people have now when we spend most of our spare time one-to-one with computers or other devices. I feel frustrated when I see members of my family sitting in the same room, each with a device, often playing the same game or even laughing at the same Facebook joke. We have lost something important, and I am resisting it as much as I can, meeting people in real life, spending quality time with people I love. I'd like to belong to a knitting club, or do Saturday baking for charity, or find someone to play scrabble with. Live scrabble, not virtual scrabble.

Maybe it's my own fault. I haven't been active in finding fishing or skiing companions, and I have recently been consistently choosing solitary pastimes, such as walking or gardening.

Whatever the reason, I don't really regret that I don't do any of these things, because obviously I am doing other things instead. Read my blog if you want to know more. 




Monday, 5 January 2015

Things I don't do anymore: Traveling by train

The earlier posts in this series are: kite-flying, skiing, skating, fishing, archery, mushrooming, celebrating New Year, gambling, party games, knitting and baking.

Russia is a very big country, and when I was young few people had cars and air travel was expensive. Therefore if you wanted to get anywhere you had to go by train. Leningrad was the most common destination from Moscow, and the most extravagant way of travel was The Red Arrow, a train that left at five minutes to midnight and arrived at eight, allowing travellers a quiet, comfortable morning with a hot breakfast. The train had first-class carriages which at that time had bronse ornaments, soft velvet seats, and a bathroom shared by two compartments. 



At the other end of the spectrum you would either start at ten and arrive at five in the morning, or start long after midnight. You got a carriage number on your ticket, but no berth and had to fight through the crowd to claim a sleeping space on the luggage rack. 

I am glad I have the experience of both, for comparison.

Destinations such as Riga or Tallinn also took a night. But when we went to visit relatives in Northern Caucasus, it took twenty-eight hours. The day felt very long. We brought our own food, usually hardboiled eggs, roast chicken, bread and biscuits. The conductor offered tea several times a day. It cost four kopecks, and two more if you wanted extra sugar. At some stations local people sold pies – and who knows what they put into them! We always got out at stations to get fresh air. There wasn't much to do during the day except play cards. I liked to lie on the upper berth and watch the landscape.

Transcaucasus or Crimea was longer still. But when you went on holiday in those days it would be for three or four weeks, so a day of travel in each direction didn't matter.

The first few years I lived in Sweden I would take a ferry to Finland and then train to Moscow. The day at the station in Helsinki between the ferry and the train was awful, especially with small children. Eventually I started flying. It wasn't substantially more expensive.

I now live in a country with an excellent rail system (even if trains are sometimes delayed), but the longest I have travelled was five hours, with a change in London. It just isn't the same. 


Sunday, 4 January 2015

Things I don't do anymore: Baking

The earlier posts in this series are: kite-flying, skiing, skating, fishing, archery, mushrooming, celebrating New Year, gambling, party games and knitting.

Whenever guests were expected, the first thing you did was bake some pies and cakes. Pies were served as hot starter, after herrings, fish and cold meats. Mince-meat pie, salmon-and-rice pie, cabbage pie, mushroom pie, as large as the baking pan, with a thick crust. Or else it would be small pies or pasties, again with all kinds of fillings, and no hostess with self-respect would omit a pie on a festive table.

Russia doesn't have a huge tradition for dessert, other than ice-cream, so after the main course, tea would follow, accompanied by cake. Now, if pies were more or less universal and the only variation was the filling, cakes came in all kinds. Sponge cake, apple-and-vanilla cake, plum cake, almond cake, walnut cake, napoleon cake, roll cake, custard cake, cinnamon cake. And biscuits and tarts, dozens upon dozens of recipes, each family keeping their own secrets.

I remember when I was maybe five, a cake was magically produced from granny's room; possibly, baked during the day and kept away until evening tea. Ever since then, the recipe was called “the small cake from granny's room”. When there were many guests coming, there would be a large “small cake from granny's room”. As the only child, I was always allowed to lick out the bowl.

There were no cookbooks, so recipes were carefully written down in notebooks and passed down to the next generations. In my great-grandmother's notebook, you could read: “Butter for two kopecks”.

Nobody baked bread, because bread in the stores was cheap and good.

As a grownup, I would bake a cake at least once a week. I went on baking after I moved to Sweden, bringing all the family recipes and finding new in Swedish cookbooks. I learned to bake Swedish gingerbread and saffron buns for Christmas. I even started baking bread, not because there wasn't any to buy, but because everybody did it, for fun or for whatever reasons. I soon noticed that my bread wasn't appreciated and quit. I continued baking cakes and biscuits, but in Sweden there is no tradition of tea and cake. If you invited guests in the evening it meant dinner, not tea and cake. And there is no tradition of afternoon tea either. Somehow, there wasn't any natural cake time.

I made cakes for children's birthdays, but noticed that after the candles were blown out the guests left the cake uneaten.

I dutifully made Christmas gingerbread and saffron buns, and it was fun baking together with the children, as long as they found it pleasurable. I also baked Russian Easter cakes. 


Fifteen years ago Staffan and I went low-carb, and it doesn't make sense to bake if we don't eat it, even if baking is a pleasure. Occasionally I make sponge cake if we have guests coming for tea. Here in England I have re-discovered the joys of tea as a meal. But this is rare. I have friends and students who bake most amazing cakes, and I feel I cannot compete. There are no children with whom baking might be a way of being together. I miss it. I am not yet at the stage when I bake a cake just for myself.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Things I don't do anymore: Knitting

The earlier posts in this series are: kite-flying, skiing, skating, fishing, archery, mushrooming, celebrating New Year, gambling and party games.


Knitting was a necessity rather than a hobby when I was young. Clothes in stores were uncomfortable and ugly; clothes on the black market were expensive, but you could knit things that were original and to your taste. The problem was getting hold of yarn, knitting needles and patterns.

The indigenous yarn came in two variants. The less expensive was coarse, the more expensive was very thin so it took ages to unwind skeins, and then you would put three to five threads together for suitable thickness. The dye was of poor quality so you had to treat yarn with vinegar (or pee if you were less fastidious) and then wash again and again until the dye stopped running. The colours were typically dull, but you can still knit nice stuff in dull colours.

The black-market yarn was lovely. Soft, bright – a joy to knit. Expensive, yes, but worth it. Decent needles were only available on the black market. Patterns were worth their weight in gold. The lucky few who were allowed to travel abroad would bring ladies' magazines with knitting patterns which would then be shared and bartered. You couldn't copy a close friend's sweater, but you could borrow ideas. All ladies knitted, and it was a good way of being useful while chatting or listening to music.

It took me a long time and many tears to learn how to knit. For some reason I just couldn't get it. My granny, who was the family's great knitter, would lose patience. I got lousy grades in school. Eventually I learned during a prolonged illness when I was forbidden to read. After that, I would knit sweaters, cardigans, dresses, two-piece suits, trousers, scarves, hats - anything, although I never mastered socks and mittens. My wardrobe became unique and varied. When I got access to libraries' "closed" collections through my work I could find patterns in Western magazines, considered by authorities dangerous for average citizens.

I went on knitting when the children were small, but very soon they reached the phase when home-knits were frowned upon, and I stopped. I also stopped knitting for myself, although in Sweden there was of course no shortage of needles, patterns and yarn.

Both our daughters are passionate knitters, and Julia's knitwear is amazing.

The closest I ever came to knitting in the past ten years was a vest for my granddaughter's stuffed hippo. I felt really appreciated as a granny. 

 

Of the many things I don't do anymore, knitting is something I can consider taking up again.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Things I don't do anymore: Party games


The earlier posts in this series are: kite-flying, skiing, skating, fishing, archery, mushrooming, celebrating New Year and gambling.

I have a feeling that today's urban children are not familiar with any games that used to be played in streets and backyards when I was a child. Of couse, streets and backyards are dangerous today, but were they less dangerous then or were grownups unaware of the dangers?

I won't go into a long nostalgic account of all ball games and ring games and skipping games that we played as children. What I remember, however, is that many of these were shared between children and grownups, and there was no discrimination between young children and older children. In summer, in the country, every evening would bring children and grownups together for a couple of hours of outdoor games the names of which I don't know in English, but I am sure they are the same all over the world. Maybe this was because there wasn't much else to do: no television, sometimes no electricity. But I also think this was something that was done and isn't done anymore.

On rainy days, and in other seasons back in the city, there were party games, and again nobody was excluded. Birthday parties – not children's, but grandparents', aunts' and uncles' and parents' friends'; family gatherings or any social occasion; there would be charades, “Guess who I am?”, again, I don't know the exact names, but I believe they are universal. The kind of games Facebook invites you to play and share, but it was much more fun to do it live in a large group of mixed ages. For instance, the game leader would say, in a funny rhyme: “Your rich antie has sent you this bag of gold; you can buy whatever you want, don't say yes or no, don't buy black or white”, and the game implied confusing the players with questions to make them say the forbidden words. Or, Associations: think of someone in the room. The other players will ask you what colour you associate this person with, what animal, what season (yes, very Facebook kind of game). Fifteen questions: think of a historical person, and the players will ask questions: Is this person still alive? Did they practice any art? Is there any book by this person in the shelf in this room? Then all kinds of rhyming and drawing games; all kinds of word games (finding as many words as possible from one, very long word, and only nouns in the singular were acceptable).

I played all this well into my twenties, with people both older and younger than myself. By that time, we had both television and record players, but that couldn't compete with party games.

Where did it go and why? I am sure people in Sweden used to play party games, but I have never experienced it in Sweden, beyond the traditional Midsummer dancing. And surely, people in the UK used to play as well. I once tried to offer a game at a party I gave for some grad students, and it was a disaster. They just didn't get it. So I guess the time of play is irreversibly over. 



Thursday, 1 January 2015

Things I don't do anymore: Gambling

The earlier posts in this series are: kite-flying, skiing, skating, fishing, archery, mushrooming and celebrating New Year.


OK, not serious gambling. But playing cards was something everybody did, from small children to old ladies. There were simple children's games and there were complicated grownup games, and as a child I loved watching grownups play. Occasionally I would be allowed to join if a fourth partner was missing. I was hopeless with strategic games where you need to remember which cards have been played, but in games of risk I was as good as anyone. Poker was one of the favourites. The stakes were not high, but a card debt was a matter of honour, grownup or not. In my student days, we played poker with one-kopek coins that a friend had collected, a three-litre glass jar of coins, must have been quite a fortune.

My father brought a roulette set from abroad, probably taking a risk, even if it could pass as a children's game in the customs. We played it for a while, but never really got hooked.

Dice, on the other hand, was popular, and there were periods we would play regularly and very seriously.

Then a friend of my parents introduced us to mahjong, and we were lost. Our first mahjong set was homemade from wooden bricks on which my father and I meticulously burned circles, bamboos and characters, winds and dragons; then coloured them in with filt-tip pens. Later my parents found a real mahjong set in an antique shop, and the wooden set was passed down to me and my friends. The friend who first taught us wasn't a sophisticated player, and the rules she remembered were vague. I went to the national library and found a mahjong handbook in English that I carefully translated in handwriting (I wasn't allowed to borrow the book, just read in a reading room) and then typed up with four carbon copies. It became our bible. I made lots of silly mistakes in my translation that nevertheless lingered and became part of our everyday jargon,

We took it very, very seriously. At weekends, at the countryhouse my parents were renting, a table would be arranged after dinner, covered with a soft red throw. There were usually more than four of us so we would build teams, and the game could go on for months, all scores carefully written down after each round. Cash was never used, but scores were, for fun, calculated into cash. We used 0.01 koper per point, but the winner might end up with a hundred roubles or more. With the compex rules from our bible, there were infinite variations of the game; we never got tired. And no other game would ever be as exciting. The ritual of it! The magic of the language! In what other games do you play "Moon from the Bottom of the Sea" or "Northern Gate" or "Dragon Tail"? And all those poor people who had no clue what you were talking about.

I stopped playing for a while when I got married and had a baby, but after my divorce I found a new mahjong gang, and we would meet and play every week for many years, again keeping scores for ever and ever. I wonder whether there is still an unfinished game.

In Sweden, I bought a mahjong set, but I never found partners. When my parents visited, we would occasionally play a round, Sergej joining us, but it wasn't the same obsession. I am not sure who of the children kept the set when we moved to Cambridge.

Earlier this year – sorry, last year! - an overseas student was moving home and sold most of her possessions through facebook. I bought a couple of things, and then I noticed that among her items was a mahjong set, and it was gone, gone, gone! So it wasn't meant to be.

(Of course, you can say that I can get a mahjong set from amazon any day. But then you have misunderstood the purpose of this blog).