The Past Is a Foreign Country, or Musings on Paddington Bear

We’ve been working through quite a few of Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear stories with fils aîné recently and I’m frequently amazed by how dated they are, in the most literal sense. I don’t mean that they don’t stand the test of time because they most certainly do being well written and funny, but there is just so much that has changed since the 50s!

A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond

We’ve been reading this edition

There are social aspects – the children going to boarding school, having a housekeeper (“This is Mrs Bird, she looks after us.”), any amount of technological changes – there’s a story about the Browns getting their first television set, details about how the London Underground used to work which completely baffle me, things about laundrettes, shops, restaurants and so on that are quite unfamiliar. What’s an hor d’oeuvre trolley?! And then there’s the money… FA has quite a shaky grasp on money anyway, so it doesn’t necessarily bother him how much Paddington can buy for sixpence, but it throws me. We borrowed an audio book of A Bear Called Paddington from the library for long holiday drives in which the currency has been decimalised. Given that nothing else is changed, I’m not sure that it adds much to the comprehension, and inflation makes it a pointless task anyway but there you are.

Talking of the audio book, it is beautifully read by Stephen Fry and it wasn’t until I heard it that it even occurred to me that Paddington’s great friend Mr Gruber with his antique shop on the Portobello Road might have been a German refugee. I wonder if that name seemed more significant in the 1950s than it does now…

All this is just water off a duck’s back to the boys though. I suppose everything’s pretty much new and unfamiliar to them, and when you’re hearing about the adventures of a talking bear and his marmalade sandwiches perhaps it doesn’t matter too much whether you appreciate the nuances of societal change cast up by the books. They’re fun to read and worth it just to hear the occasional gurgle of laughter from the other end of the sofa.

Paddington station MMB 08

The statue of Paddington Bear at Paddington Station by Marcus Cornish. Photo by mattbuck [CC-BY-SA-2.0 or CC-BY-SA-3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

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The Foundling Boy

The Foundling Boy by Michel Déon is a modern classic of French literature published in France as Le Jeunne homme vert by Gallimard in 1975 but only recently finding its way into English. Déon is an immortel (a member of the Académie Française), has won all kinds of prestigious awards, published over 50 books, and been translated into many different languages – just not English, to our shame and despite the fact that he lives in Ireland. So thank heavens for Gallic Books and translator Julian Evans for starting to put that right!

The Foundling Boy by Michel Déon. tr. Julian EvansIt is 1919. On a summer’s night in Normandy, a new-born baby is left in a basket outside the home of Albert and Jeanne Arnaud. The childless couple take the foundling in, name him Jean, and decide to raise him as their own, though his parentage remains a mystery.

Though Jean’s life is never dull, he grows up knowing little of what lies beyond his local area. Until the day he sets off on his bicycle to discover the world, and encounters a Europe on the threshold of interesting times…

It took me a little while to get into this book and I found the author’s interruptions into the narrative rather irritating, but fortunately they become less frequent as it gets going. Jean is an intriguing and appealing character living in what are indeed interesting times, in every sense. I have studied the interwar years from both a British and a German perspective, so it was fascinating to have a French view of them – and also a French view of the English and Germans in that period via Jean’s travels and friendships. I particularly enjoyed the role played by Jean’s cycling, both in giving him freedom to travel and in the opportunities it affords the narrator to take side-swipes at those who just don’t get it.

The narrative is strong and the supporting characters are also vibrantly drawn, from lovable rogues to misguided but friendly Hitler Youths. There are tormented jealousies, unworldly artists, philanderers, con-men, lovers and mysterious princes. It’s sweeping in scale, entertaining to read and ends on a cliff-hanger. I am very much looking forward to the sequel The Foundling’s War when it comes out later in the year.

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The Business Of Literary Translation

This was the title of the Emerging Translators Network‘s first event – a day designed to be a practical guide for early career or beginning translators. Held at the Free Word Centre on Monday this week, it was jam-packed with discussions, workshops and networking time. Although I was already familiar with a lot of information, it is always useful to have it set out again as there’ll always be something new. There was also a chance to give an “elevator pitch” of a book to editors from Peirene Press and Harvill Secker – a chance I seized to plug a wonderful book that I’d love to be writing about on here as a work in progress…

So, what were the top tips? In no particular order:

  • Rights teams in the UK don’t acquire rights – you need the editorial department for that. (LB)
  • Publishers, or at any rate Geoff Mulligan of the Clerkenwell Press seek to publish only what is outstanding and to build a list that the public will trust. He also quoted a colleague that editors “buy good books and make them better”. (GM)
  • Editing a translated book should be a three-way collaboration between the author, the translator and the editor. In theory a lot of the hard work should already have been done by the original publisher. You’re looking for wrong notes. (GM)
  • When pitching a book, it can help to know how it has already travelled. Passion is crucial. (GI)
  • It is wise to translate books you really love – it shows. (GM)
  • Welcome the editing process – it’s not about some bastard murdering your prose! (GM)
  • When getting into translation, seek out competitions, collaboration opportunities, mentorships, summer schools etc (TB)
  • Submit to magazines and reviews to get publications under your belt. (TB)
  • Factor in time for editing after you’ve delivered the manuscript. (TB)

My own top tip from the book pitching session – when you pitch a book, it helps to include the title and the name of the author. Oops. Rectified that by email and in conversation later though. More seriously, as well as the things mentioned above, make sure your sample translation matches your pitch – if it’s a funny book, pick a funny bit; if you mention a writer of a similar style, make sure that’s evident in your sample, and so on. If there’s a likelihood of funding, via English PEN or national institutes, say so. Try to find a strong, memorable image to help the book stick in people’s minds. Thomas Bunstead also suggested reading 500 word reviews in literary supplements etc to learn how to be concise, which is advice I’ll definitely take up.

Huge thanks to Ruth Martin and Rosalind Harvey for organising a great day and, as I forgot to put it on my feedback form I’ll say so here: three cheers for a big space for notes in the back of the programme. I wish all conference organisers were so considerate!

LB = Lisa Baker, Rights Director Faber & Faber

GM = Geoff Mulligan,Publisher The Clerkenwell Press

GI = Gesche Ipsen, Editor Pushkin Press

TB = Thomas Bunstead, Translator

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Round-up of Random Recent Reads

Just a few musings on books I’ve read but been too distracted to review properly:

The Detour, Gerbrand Bakker, tr. David ColmerThe Detour by Gerbrand Bakker, tr. David Colmer (Vintage). This won the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It’s about a Dutch woman living in Wales having left her husband after an affair. She gets into a strange relationship with a younger man, and there is an odd business about foxes, geese and a biting badger. There’s obviously all kinds of stuff going on under the surface. Weird, unsettling and beautifully written – still not sure what I think of this one.

Someday We'll Tell Each Other Everything by Daniela Krien, tr. Jamie BullochSomeday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything by Daniela Krien, tr. Jamie Bulloch (Maclehose). An intense love story between a young girl and an older man set just after German reunification, and another one that I’m ambivalent about. I was interested in the political background, the sense of place etc, but found the relationship at its heart rather creepy.

All Dogs Are BlueAll Dogs Are Blue by Rodrigo de Souza Leão, tr. Zoë Perry and Stefan Tobler (And Other Stories) – described as “a scurrilously funny tale of life in a Rio de Janeiro insane asylum”. Sorry, just couldn’t get into this at all. Maybe I’ll have another try another time.

Richard III by David BaldwinRichard III by David Baldwin (Amberley) – I had high hopes for this as it is said by Philippa Gregory on the cover to offer “a believably complex Richard, neither wholly villain nor hero”. There were some interesting details I didn’t know, but on the whole I found it too slight to offer any portrait of the man at all. I’d have liked an opinion on the fates of the princes in the Tower but it offers nothing beyond “we don’t know”. Fair, and true, enough, but frustrating!

Slow Train to Guantanamo by Peter MillarSlow Train to Guantanamo by Peter Millar (Arcadia): the pick of this bunch! Highly entertaining, often thought-provoking as Millar travels through Cuba by train, chatting to people as he goes and recounting their stories. He is also able to offer interesting parallels with his experiences in the GDR, and I particularly liked the detail about how Che Guevara came by that name. It is, sadly, marred by poor proofreading, but I had been warned of that in advance and I hope that can maybe be fixed in future editions.

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Rediscovering Little House on the Prairie

One advantage of the football World Cup has been having a lot more time for reading undistracted by the television. It enabled me to get through a fantastically good doorstop of a German book for New Books in German – maybe more on that another time – and also to rapidly work through the whole Little House on the Prairie series.


The original book cover from 1933

I had stupidly given away my set of the books on the sexist grounds that the boys wouldn’t be interested in them, but a recent discussion elsewhere on the internet made me really want to re-read them. So I borrowed them from my mother-in-law (who also only has sons, but there you go) and set to. I was very surprised both by how clearly I remembered them and by how well they stand up to reading as an adult. I still think Laura Ingalls Wilder slightly overdid the detail in her descriptions, particularly of how things were made, but perhaps that’s because I don’t have a particularly visual imagination. I skipped those bits as a child, and I skipped them again. There is a lot in there that might really interest the boys, if they were to get started – that’s always the hard bit, getting them started.

Carrie Mary and Laura Ingalls (Public domain)

Carrie, Mary and Laura Ingalls

Reading as an adult, I was far more struck by the hardship as well as the romantic idea of living this self-sufficient lifestyle in the middle of nowhere. How hard it must have been for Laura’s Ma, who had been “very fashionable” before she married, to uproot the family whenever Pa got itchy feet, or circumstances conspired against them and drove them on. How terrifying a lot of their adventures must have been in real life. How awful to have the whole family struck down with malaria, with no idea of the cause, and no way of getting help until a doctor happened to pass by. The terror of the elements – blizzards, storms, the long winter when the family, and the whole town, nearly starved, fire, being chased by wolves, crops being destroyed by grasshoppers or blackbirds, and so it goes on.

For that matter, Ma can’t have been any easy person to live with either. She comes across as having a rather stifling piety and impossibly high expectations that her girls will be good and ladylike even in the middle of the prairie, but also as kind and gentle with it.

Caroline and Charles Ingalls (Ma and Pa) Public domain

Caroline and Charles Ingalls (Ma and Pa)

There’s a strong sense of patriotism about these books – “Hooray, we’re Americans!” Independence Day celebrations come round regularly and that made them seem appropriate to write about for the 4th July. There’s a surprising amount of the Declaration of Independence repeated at one point, which I found fascinating  – I must have skipped “the long and terrible list of the crimes of the King” too, when I was younger. All in all, I  had far more awareness of the politics of it all, especially the racism and ill-treatment of the Native Americans, driven from their homes by settlers on the grounds that they won’t “do anything with the land” – Ma is of the view that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”, and you can see how this is rooted in fear, both of the “other” and a specific fear of massacres that mustn’t be mentioned in front of the children.Replica Laura Ingalls Wilder Cabin

Yet for all that, there is a lot of love in these books. Love for family, obviously, for the wild

Almanzo Wilder (Public Domain)

Almanzo Wilder

landscape, for animals, especially horses, for music and dancing – thankfully leavening the puritanism – and later on for Laura’s husband Almanzo. It’s lovely to watch Laura grow from a little girl to a young woman, and to see her relationship with Almanzo grow from friendship into romance and a certainty that they’re just right for each other.

I was also interested to discover how far these novels diverge from the actual events of Laura’s life – they are definitely fictionalised rather than autobiography. The chronology of the early books is quite out of synch with reality – more on that here if you’re interested – and I did notice a slip at one point reading them all in a row: the baby cousin Dolly Varden appears in Little House in the Big Woods, but is then mentioned much later on by a visiting cousin as if she’d been born since they left. Other events were left out altogether: a little brother who died, a hard period when the family worked in a rough hotel and so on. There is also controversy about the degree to which they were edited/shaped/ghostwritten by Laura’s daughter Rose (see below).

The fact remains, though, that these are a fascinating insight into a bygone age and well worth (re)discovering.

Related articles:

Wilder Women by Judith Thurman, the New Yorker

Photo of the replica house by David Hepworth [CC BY 2.0]



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Oh-bla-di, oh-bla-da, life goes on

So, here we are. After all the fighting, protesting and general agitation, ideology has trumped evidence, justice and democracy. Cavell Primary and Nursery School is now The Edith Cavell Academy. We had one last protest yesterday morning but we’re not letting up the vigilance. If the new “sponsor” takes positive decisions and gives the kind of support to the school we’ve been assured they will, we will support them in turn. If, on the other hand, they create the kind of chaos unleashed on Stalham Junior since they took over there, we will challenge them, loudly and publicly. We sincerely hope that our fears will prove unjustified and that the school will continue to go from strength to strength, and I, like all the campaigners are very grateful for all the support we’ve received over what has been a very difficult six months – and a longer battle still for school staff and the Co-Op Trust. We are still trying to get to the bottom of what’s been done to our school, and very murky it is too. The truth will out eventually though and we’ll do our very best to bring those responsible to account.

Florist's card RIP Cavell

But this is a book blog really, despite recent appearances, and life goes on. I have still been reading, just lacking the energy to write about what I’ve read. I’ll try and rectify that with a round-up post, and I’ve got a few more reviews to publish shortly too.

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Cavell IEB’S Contempt for Parents Laid Bare

If there was ever any likelihood that the Interim Executive Board of Cavell Primary and Nursery School were acting in the school’s best interests, it surely disappeared today, when they published a document that amounted to little more than a disingenuous attack on the parents whose school they have stolen. The lies and distortions are too many to debunk individually, but this is intended to address some of the more glaring misrepresentations.

The IEB claim that they have no hidden agenda, and that they have always kept an open mind on the best outcome for the school. This is contradicted by their own decision paper, in which they said

“The IEB has revisited all the information that has been received from different quarters and it has had to consider the inevitability of the statement made by the DfE and the LA that irrespective of a decision made by the IEB the school will become an academy.”

Their own words demonstrate that they were told to reach a particular conclusion, and unsurprisingly did what they were told.

They also appear to dwell excessively on the details of the Co-Operative Trust’s attempt to secure a judicial review of their actions. It seems they believe it sufficient that their actions are legal, or more accurately, not shown to be illegal, a line which is also used to excuse their woefully inadequate consultation. Apparently, concepts such as morality and democracy have completely passed them by. David Lennard Jones might also be expected to remember his own criticism of Essex County Council, when acting as Schools Adjudicator to overturn their closure of Deanes School, that:

“The council failed to engage with the school about the three potential options for moving forward and presented the school with the decision that had been made.”

The parallels with his own behaviour towards parents are striking and revealing.

The IEB say that they have been entirely open and honest about everything throughout this process. Maybe they could explain why several members of staff were forced to come to our public meeting just to find out what was going on. Maybe they could also explain their refusal to answer daily emails throughout their consultation. We asked for unremarkable assurances that our views could have any effect, due to a suspicion (well-founded, it seems) that it was nothing but a sham. They did not give those assurances, neither did they respond in the negative. They simply ignored repeated emails on this subject, for a whole fortnight. Hardly transparent.

Save Cavell petition

Over 2000 against, but that doesn’t count, apparently.

On the subject of the consultation, they attempt to portray all dissent as the behaviour of a handful of malcontents. If the IEB want clear evidence that they do not speak for parents, the school had no trouble getting record support for the Co-operative Trust proposal not so long ago, and our petition gathered thousands of signatures. But the IEB must also take some blame for any parent apathy – or rather, failure to explicitly insist that they do not want an academy.

The IEB’s words and actions have clearly shown that they don’t care about our views, they refused to give any confirmation that our responses to their consultation could have any effect on the school’s future, and they didn’t even deign to ask whether we wanted the school to become an academy – presumably in order to avoid an embarrassing result like the 92% parent opposition in our own consultation. They have repeatedly refused to offer parents a ballot – and indeed continue to do so in this report –  so have no right to complain if they think there is insufficient evidence of parents’ numerical opposition.

Not content with counting any non-respondents as support for an academy, they are also keen to dismiss anyone who objects to an academy in the wrong way. They speak of “personal attacks” (easily claimed, though no evidence is offered), but given that they consider questions about their accountability and whose interests they are serving to be beyond the pale and unworthy of a response, their opinion on this matter is somewhat suspect. Their statement that this does not contribute to a mature discussion is laughable – there is no discussion, and never has been, because the IEB have ensured it by their actions and their partial, question-begging consultation. If they genuinely want an open discussion without preconceptions, they are more than welcome to one.

Most breathtakingly, the IEB assert that the school is not being forced to become an academy. This is undeniably, incontrovertibly wrong. The governors were sacked in an irregular manner on a dubious pretext for the crime of not considering that an academy would be in the school’s best interests, the will of Gove is being carried out by their handpicked replacements, and the views of the clear majority are being ignored in service of dogma. If the IEB doubt that the majority are opposed to their actions, they’re very welcome to hold their own ballot to confirm it.

Not content with taking taxpayers’ money to force a school to become an academy against the clearly expressed will of staff, parents and the community as a whole, the IEB have now branched out into crudely attacking anyone who stands in their way, handing out passive-aggressive insults and insisting that anyone who opposes them is simply a noisy outlier. Even by the past standards of Gove’s academy agenda, this is a new low.

Save Cavell banner

Related Posts:

(Another) Open Letter to Michael Gove

On Being Promised a Pig in a Poke

Travesty, Treachery, Betrayal!

An Academy Order for Cavell but We Fight On!

Standing Up for Education and Cavell

It’s Been a Little Crazy Lately

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