Leading your characters into temptation

On the subject of food (can you tell it’s a favourite with me?), there’s another role it can play in books, very different from the nurturing, life-enhancing way I looked at last month. Just the opposite, in fact. And while this works as a literary and moral device, it can be pretty cruel to your characters.

Serpent-goddess-eve

And so it begins…

To begin at the beginning… How does the serpent corrupt Eve in the Garden of Eden? With a crisp, juicy apple, thus setting in motion 2,000 years of imagery in which the poor apple takes the brunt of all the evil in the world. Interestingly the idea of fruit being a catalyst for trouble isn’t just a Judeo-Christian one: think of the six pomegranate seeds swallowed by Persephone when kidnapped by Hades, which bind her to the Underworld for half the year. Or the golden apple thrown by Eris, Greek goddess of discord, into the wedding of Thetis and Peleus, which reappears at the judgement of Paris, only for him to assign it to the wrong goddess and kickstart the Trojan War.

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Golden Apple of Discord

With such powerful religious and classical antecedents, no wonder the idea of Forbidden Fruit took such hold on the western imagination, a vein of wicked temptation running from the Garden of Earthly Delights of mediaeval literature to the yearning for apricots that betrays the Duchess of Malfi to the clandestine plum pudding Edmund Gosse nibbles, in Father and Son.

Garden of Earthly Delights

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

This last example is especially poignant, since it comes from a memoir, not fiction. A member of the puritan Plymouth Brethren, Gosse’s father believed the pleasures associated with celebrating Christmas – singing, dancing, fine clothes and feasting – to be the work of the devil. Aghast that his little son should be so deprived, the maids feed him a slice of the plum pudding they’ve secretly made for themselves; his father, discovering the crime, ‘flung the idolatrous confectionery on to the middle of the [dust heap], and then raked it deep down into the mass.’

plum pudding

Idolatrous Confectionary

I find this scene heartbreaking to read. As Gosse himself writes, ‘The suddenness, the violence, the velocity of this extraordinary act made an impression on my memory which nothing will ever efface’ – all arising from a fear that what is enjoyable to the senses must by definition be sinful. Here is the exact opposite of the ‘speckled cannon ball…blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy,’ that cheers the table of the hard-up Cratchit family in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

Oliver TwistIndeed, while Dickens makes brilliant metaphorical use of natural phenomena (the fog in Bleak House, for instance, confusing and entrapping as the legal system; or the predatory Carker’s white teeth in Dombey and Son) he is the last writer to endow an apple, a pudding, or anything else with evil characteristics. There’s nothing like a poverty-stricken childhood to teach you the true value of food. It is hunger, not greed, that prompts Oliver to ask for more (Oliver Twist). Pip quakes in terror that his theft of a pie will be discovered; yet he stole not for himself, but to feed a starving runaway convict (Great Expectations).

Great Expectations

Once food is seen for what it is – nourishing, tasty, a source of pleasure and celebration with friends – treating any part of it as somehow inherently wicked becomes both impossible and heartless.

The Lion the Witch and the WardrobeNot for some of the great children’s writers though. It’s hard on Edmund, in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, that while his sister Lucy can safely be treated to tea and toast by a faun, he unwittingly seals his pact with the White Witch by accepting the treats she offers. (‘He had the look of one who had been with the Witch and eaten her food,’ says Mr Beaver.) The drink – ‘very sweet and foamy and creamy’ – is enchanted, of course, so no ordinary food; yet there’s a sense in which Edmund is being punished for enjoying it so much.

The Magician's nephew

And in The Magician’s Nephew, Lewis actually recreates the Garden of Eden, with poor Digory being tempted by the Witch to eat the apple from the Tree of Life (‘A terrible thirst and hunger came over him and a longing to taste that fruit’) rather than bring it, as instructed, to Aslan.

Do modern children’s books put their heroes through this kind of Food As Temptation ordeal? My impression is no, and a good thing too. Far better for the smells and tastes of delicious things to be celebrated, so encouraging a healthy relationship with eating, rather than treated as a test for your characters to fail, as some of the children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory do, or the ever-hungry Dick in The Faraway Tree. Surely in our more secular age we can dispense with this biblical sense of guilt surrounding food. 

Not as simple as that. The popular culture young readers are growing into lays a heavy burden of blame on delectable goodies, from Salman Rushdie’s famous Naughty But Nice advertising slogan for cream cakes to Slimming World’s use of the term ‘syns’ for treats (short for ‘synergy’, I know, but that fools nobody).

Naughty but Nice

Naughty… but nice

We may no longer believe literally in the idea of Forbidden Fruit; but we are a long way from being free of its power. Cake, anyone?

 

(Adapted from an article originally published on Authors Electric Blogspot.)

 

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How books can save your life. Literally.

The Reading CureThere’s something about people all around me forgoing delicious things – like chocolate and wine – that has me thinking of food like never before. (I gave up giving anything up for New Year/Lent a long time ago. Life in winter is miserable enough.) How apt then, that Laura Freeman’s publishers, W & N, should have chosen mid-February to launch her memoir, The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite, in which she describes how the mouth-watering descriptions of food in the great classics saved her from the worst ravages of anorexia.  Siegfried Sassoon fortifying himself with boiled eggs and cocoa before a dawn hunt (Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man);

siegfried_sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon

Mrs Cratchit’s plum pudding – ‘a speckled cannon ball…blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy’ (A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens) – these glorious images tempted her back to the warmth, nourishment and companionship of good things. For most of us, books are food for the soul; for Freeman, they turned out to be food for the body, too.

presenting-the-plum-pudding

Plum Pudding in A Christmas Carol

Reading her article in the Sunday Times, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/books-saved-me-from-starving-myself-to-death-ls2cd8c75, I wanted to punch the air. Anorexia is a terrible, relentless illness. Freeman describes the mental state it induces in terms of a library full of smashed book cases, in which the calm and order the sufferer longs for are reduced to splinters of glass and wood and rain spattered paper. The fact that books saved her, gave her ‘reasons to eat, share, live, to want to be well,’ shows how much the senses are involved in the pleasure of reading, not just the mind.

For proof, I challenge you to read this list of provisions from St Agnes’s Eve by John Keats and not a) drool, or b) feel sick (depending on your sweetness of tooth).

‘…a heap

Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd

With jellies, soother than the creamy curd…’

Trifle

Not exactly Keats.

No prizes for guessing my reaction to these glorious lines. But then I always did like fruit jellies and cream, and my enjoyment of this poem harks back to some very early reading indeed. Aged 5, my favourite of the My Naughty Little Sister stories by Dorothy Edwards was the one where she and Bad Harry sneak into the larder and demolish a splendid trifle planned for his birthday party, beginning with the silver balls and jelly sweets on the top before diving into whipped cream, custard and sponge below. Ok, so it’s not exactly Keats… but it’s a fine example of the importance of food in children’s books.

Wind in the Willows picnicLaura Freeman cites glorious picnics in The Wind in the Willows, a theme also popular with Enid Blyton, whose Famous Five, Adventurous Four, Secret Seven – whatever – are sustained by freshly baked bread, new-laid eggs, delicious ham and – unforgettably – lashings of ginger beer.Famous Five

Delightful as these interludes are, their role in the plot shouldn’t be underrated, especially in adventure stories. If you’re going to thrust your characters into hair-raising situations, making them perform superhuman tasks, you’d better make sure you feed them. You’re already asking your readers to suspend a lot of disbelief; rendering your heroes immune to normal human needs is pushing it.

Ante Passchendaele jacketSending Ante with her companions, Gil and Florence, on a journey through Hell in Ante’s Inferno, I knew I had to allow them to stock up on energy and supplies to keep them going through all that heat and darkness. A break in Elysium, where Hector and Aeneas invite them to join in their cricket tea (er, you have to read the book) and Odysseus gives them water skins, did the trick:

‘Taking a strawberry, Ante allowed it to burst in her mouth, rolling its warmth and            sweetness on her tongue.’

My inspiration for calling up the sensuous pleasure of food was the scene in The Last Battle, where C S Lewis allows his characters a rest from all the fighting:

wild-strawberry‘Not far away from them rose a grove of trees, thickly leaved, but under every leaf there peeped out the gold or faint yellow or purple or glowing red of fruits such as no one has seen in our world… All I can say is that, compared with those fruits, the freshest grape-fruit you’ve ever eaten was dull, and the juiciest orange was dry, and the most melting pear was hard and woody, and the sweetest wild strawberry was sour.’

 

Just reading that again after all these years makes my mouth water.

How wonderful, then, that Laura Freeman’s delight in words has altered the balance of power between herself and her anorexia. It’s not a magic cure – she acknowledges the anorexia may never go away altogether – but it’s books that have brought her back to the idea of food and feasting with friends being something to enjoy, not dread.  Books can literally save your life.

But we knew that.

 

(Adapted from an article originally published on Authors Electric Blogspot.)

 

 

 

 

 

8 children’s names you won’t find in the Oxford Junior Dictionary

My bluebells Wytham

Do bluebells bloom in beech woods if there are no children to see them?

Here’s a nice bit of irony.  What do the following have in common?

Bluebell, Fern, Hazel, Heather, Ivy, Lark, Willow, Ash.

Capitalising these words for much-loved wild flowers, plants, trees and bird gives a clue: they are 8 of the most popular children’s names. They are also among a slew of natural terms omitted from the Oxford Junior Dictionary since 2007, on the grounds that they are no longer relevant to children’s lives.

ivy

The holly and the… um….

Together with beech, heron, kingfisher, buttercup, conker, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, and a number of other words brimming with bright colours, textures and the sheer, quivering life of the natural world, they’ve had to be junked to make way for the dreariness of blog, broadband, bullet point, chatroom and voicemail. If you can come up with anything else that so encapsulates how stuffy, sedentary, and stale is the environment in which we expect our children to thrive, I’ll eat my HTML.

Wind in the Willows

The Wind in the – what?

Oxford Dictionaries protest that making children aware of the natural world isn’t their job. Their task is to reflect the world that children now find themselves in, listing everyday, urban, familiar words, not ones that hark back to a more rural society. There simply isn’t room for both.  They may have a point, but it set me wondering as to what a dictionary is actually for.  Aren’t you supposed to use it to look up words you don’t know, not just the ones you do?  Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Nina Bawden, Eva Ibbotson and Katherine Rundell are widely read by children; all of the above words will appear in an amalgamation of their works. If it’s true that children’s lives are so impoverished they no longer know what a dandelion is, how can they find out?

Version 2

Christmas time – tum ti tum and wine

Actually, the answer is simple. As well as the space-limited Junior Dictionary (10,000 words, age 7 – 9 years) OUP publishes the Oxford Primary Dictionary (30,000 words, 8 – 10 years), which (I’m told) still contains these ‘archaic’ natural terms. Why bother with two reference works that practically overlap each other in their age range?  Forget the Junior Dictionary, OUP, and let children go straight from the Oxford First Dictionary (3,000 words, age 5 – 7) to the Primary one. Then everyone will be happy.

Lark

What larks?

Meanwhile, I can’t think of many words more relevant to children’s lives than what they – or their friends – happen to be called.  In a literary world defined by high tech, internet forums and social media, children themselves will have to act as a living dictionary of living things – rather like the outlaws in Fahrenheit 451 who become the books that no longer exist in print.

Buttercup

Poor little buttercup.

All we have to do is wait for otter, conker, beech and newt to start appearing on birth certificates.

Newt

I name this baby newt, Newt.

 

 

 

 

Could be a long wait.

Santa in Scarlet – or Green – or Blue?

Father Christmas in Holborn

A scarlet Father Christmas in Holborn

Three days left of the Christmas season: plenty of time to squeeze in a few thoughts about a well-known, well-nourished figure with a jolly laugh who chooses the narrowest and most uncomfortable route into our houses to stuff a bunch of outsize stockings with toy engines, teddy bears and easy peelers.  Now, I don’t know about you, but while I’ve had to accept, for some time, a certain existential ambivalence about the dear old fellow, of one thing I was certain: what Father Christmas wears.

Until, that is, a few years ago, when my teenage children shattered my illusions. That traditional suit – you know, the scarlet one with white cuffs that match Santa’s snowy beard, huge belt buckle across his tremendous tum – is apparently not traditional at all, but the result of a cynical advertising campaign by Coca Cola in the 1930s, forever associating the plump, jolly, big-hearted Santa Claus with the fizzy drink. Until then, Santa had boasted a lean, trim figure, clothed in a long, green robe.

Well, there was only one answer to that. Utter nonsense. Teenagers think they know everything. Father Christmas/Santa Claus is depicted wearing red because he’s always worn red. Look at Christmas cards, films, book illustrations, department stores (all post 1930s, I admit). My mind flew back to my German childhood in the 1960s … and uncovered a memory till then suppressed.

Nikolaus

St Nick in Winter Blue

On 6th December every year, Nikolaus, accompanied by his servant, Knecht Ruprecht, visited my primary school. While Ruprecht, lugging a sack bursting with goodies, wore brown or black, I forget which, his tall, thin master had on a long robe of dark – green. At the time I was far too excited by his distribution of sweets and Lebkuchen to wonder at the colour. Perhaps also, the (sadly, rather poorly printed) illustration of Nikolaus (right) in my reading book, Mein erstes Buch, had prepared me for just about any other colour than the one expected.

Mein erstes Buch

My first reading book; scarlet, incidentally

My children, it seemed, were right. Germany in the 1960s would have been relatively unaffected by Coca Cola advertising; here was Santa Claus (or St Nikolaus) as he had probably been portrayed for hundreds of years. Green may have pagan connotations, linking the 4th century St Nicholas with the ancient midwinter Yule festival, celebrated throughout Europe. 

In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843), the ghost of Christmas Present has much in common with the figure of Father Christmas: a jovial, generous spirit, surrounded by delicious food and drink.

1280px-Scrooges_third_visitor-John_Leech,1843

The Green Ghost of Christmas Present

Yet John Leech’s famous illustration shows him not in scarlet and white, but in a green robe, crowned with a holly wreath. And as for the blue-clad Nikolaus in my reading book…  in 19th century Germany, a tradition of the Weihnachtsmann grew up, with the ‘Christmas man’ wearing the colour most associated with the coldness of winter. Santa’s coat could be many colours, it seemed. Just not red.

And yet…

Ha,  I didn’t give up that easily. A trawl of the internet revealed the following:

1. In 1821, William B Gilley published The Children’s Friend: A New-Year’s Present to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve. Containing an anonymous poem, Old Santeclaus with Much Delightthis small paperback was illustrated with eight coloured lithographs, in which one can almost see Santa evolving into today’s familiar figure, since while one illustration shows him dressed in green, two others have him in bright red, trimmed with white fur (below).

  1.  In 1823, the far more famous Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore portrays Santa Claus as the cheery, red-cheeked, well-rounded figure instantly recognisable today: ‘He had a broad face and a little round belly, That shook, when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly. He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf…’
  1. In 1843, the Cornish Quaker and diarist Barclay Fox described a family party which included the ‘venerable effigy of Father Christmas, with scarlet coat & cocked hat, stuck all over with presents for the guests.’

So while Coca Cola may have done much to spread this particular image of Santa, we should cut the multinational company some slack (not a sentiment one sees often these days). Father Christmas had been steadily reddening on both sides of the Atlantic for nearly a century before their advertising campaign began.

The tubby, rosy-cheeked gentleman in scarlet and white robe and black boots, driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer, is the Real Thing after all.

Phew. I’m glad that’s sorted. Happy New Year!

 

(Adapted from a post first published on Authors Electric Blogspot.)

How to make your children intelligent

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Daisy, jumping irrelevantly

The Times recently ran a front-page story on the demise of the nursery rhyme: schools are teaching these rhymes less and less apparently, as they are ‘no longer relevant.’

This did make me laugh. At which stage in our history, exactly, was a cow jumping over a moon relevant? Or four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie? The wonderful thing about children is that they don’t give half a pound of tuppenny rice for relevance;

IMG_0110

Blackbirds: no longer baked in pies

what they can recognise – which, sadly, some education experts apparently can’t – is the magic of strange words and bizarre ideas woven together to stretch both their vocabulary and their imaginations. It doesn’t matter that the rhymes make no sense, or refer to a piece of long-forgotten history. My 22 month old grand-daughter has no idea that Rock a Bye Baby may refer to the ousting of James II by William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution of 1688; what she loves is the excitement of ‘when the bough breaks’ in the middle of a lullaby. Or that Ring a Ring a Roses is thought to refer to symptoms of the plague; what matters is that the words rhyme in a satisfying way, you pretend to sneeze and then fall down.

 

IMG_0112

Neglectful parenting

Other rhymes are even more absurd, and impossible to analyse for a hidden meaning, as in Hey diddle diddle and Sing a Song of Sixpence mentioned above. Or how about this one, a favourite of my own children:

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This working practice has no place in today’s society

 

 

There was an old woman tossed up in a basket,
Ninety-nine times as high as the moon.
Where she was going I couldn’t but ask it,
For in her hand she wielded a broom.
‘Old woman, old woman, old woman,’ said I,
‘Where are you going to up so high?’
‘To sweep the cobwebs off the sky!’
‘May I go with you?’ ‘Aye, by and by.’

 

How wonderful is that image? It literally sends the imagination soaring, all the way to the moon and far, far beyond, through a night sky latticed with cobwebs…

To demand that nursery rhymes be ‘relevant’ when you could offer children such riches feels mean and restricting. And worse. Nursery rhymes are not so different from fairy tales, both in their literary heritage and in their ability to create strange, fantastical worlds. Consider, then, Albert Einstein’s famous advice to parents:
‘If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.’

IMG_0114

Albert Einstein: clearly read a lot of fairy tales

And – as I know Einstein would have added, had it crossed his mind that it might be necessary – please, please don’t try to make them relevant. Not like a hand-puppet board book, This Little Piggy, recently given to my granddaughter. This version, while using charming finger puppets, has ‘updated’ the classic rhyme for our more sensitive (?) era, destroying meaning and rhythm in one fell swoop:

 

This little piggy went to market. (Original line, good. From here things go downhill.)
This little piggy stayed home. (Preposition?)
This little piggy had cookies. (What?? Where’s the roast beef?)
This little piggy had fun. (No, he didn’t. He had NONE. Everyone knows this. Line altered presumably to spare children’s distress for a piggy who had nothing to eat. I have news for the publishers: children don’t care. It’s life. They can cope with that.)
This little piggy sang wee wee wee all the way home. (No, he didn’t. He CRIED wee wee wee. He was squealing. That’s what pigs do.)

Which brings me to the many, many books and recordings of nursery rhymes on the market, and a heartfelt plea: your children matter. Don’t give them rubbish. Buy them a book of the stature of The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes by the incomparable Raymond Briggs: a beautifully illustrated collection, including lesser known rhymes such as Charley Barley, Butter and Eggs as well as Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star.

 

IMG_0115And for listening, you can’t do better than Tim Hart’s brilliant folk arrangements Tim Hart and Friends: My Very FavouriteNursery Rhyme Record.

 

(article first posted on http://www.authorselectric.blogspot.co.uk)

How to get girls and boys excited about Dante

Griselda HeppelStay me with cups of tea (eh?),my-cup-of-tea comfort me with flagons…  (Ha, that’s more like it.)

flagon

More restorative than tea?

Forgive the euphoria – I’ve just come to the end of the busiest week of school visits ever.  So, OK, four schools in seven days is nothing to the really seasoned children’s author; but with all the organisation involved, the much emailing to and fro between me and teachers who, let’s face it, are already up to their eyes in work and school activities, I count just fixing a day and format as a Major Achievement.  It’s wonderful, then, when a string of visits round a particular theme come together, as they did during this year’s season of Remembrance.

Ante Passchendaele jacketAnte’s Inferno has undergone a special Passchendaele Centenary (1917 – 2017) reprinting, with a redesigned jacket that brings out its WW1 theme more strongly than before. If you’re wondering what connects a children’s version of Dante’s Inferno with this most horrific of all battles, the clue lies in Siegfried Sassoon’s famous lines:

                    I died in Hell –

(They called it Passchendaele).

I’m happy to visit schools at any time, talking to 9 – 13 year-olds about Greek Mythology, Dante, and how I updated his 700 year old poem to create an exciting, scary, and at times amusing murder mystery story in its own right; but my emphasising the Passchendaele theme made it natural for schools to choose this week for my visit. I’ve had a wonderful time, in single sex – both girls’ and boys’ – and co-educational schools, with numbers ranging from a cosy 22 to a thoroughly daunting 300.

Dulwich hall

Magnificent hall at Dulwich College, ready for 300 boys. Gulp.  

All of these visits remind me why I love writing for this age – it’s the time when children’s imagination and enthusiasm for books can be at their highest, while their emotional development enables them to take on complex issues and depths of meaning in a way they’re not always given credit for.  CCCS signing 1

My switched on, sparky, and well-informed audiences at Wychwood, Dragon, Christ Church Cathedral Schools and Dulwich College proved this in spades – thank you, all!

Oh, and one final thing – all that stuff about girls reading books with a boy hero but boys refusing to do the same when the hero is a girl… it’s bunkum.  Give boys a chance, people!

 

 

All the davenports we cannot see

Twenty years ago the tragic death of a baby in the USA by what was thought to be ‘shaken baby syndrome’ made headlines all over the world.  On trial for the little boy’s murder, the British nanny unwittingly sealed her fate by describing how she’d ‘popped the baby on the bed to change his nappy.’  What Louise Woodward didn’t realise was that an expression used in the UK to describe an action taken with lightness and dexterity doesn’t translate at all that way in the USA; there, ‘pop’ can only mean something explosive.  No amount of explanation could erase the image in the jury’s mind that she had hurled the 8 month-old on to the bed with all the force of a rocket launcher.

Oscar Wilde

*Quip by Oscar Wilde… probably

Misunderstandings between our ‘two nations divided by a common language’* aren’t usually so dangerous.  Nor should any English people loftily assume our words are the ‘original’ ones; in many cases it’s the other way round.  ‘Garbage’, ‘trash’ and ‘sidewalk’ date back at least to Elizabethan times, whereas ‘rubbish’ and ‘pavement’ are much more recent.  Usually even if the word is unfamiliar, the context reveals the meaning; though this assumption falls down hilariously when it comes to clothing, as any American who has sent their child to English boarding school can testify.  Presented with a uniform list, US mums are baffled by the requirement of 8 pairs of trousers (pants), 4 sleeveless padded jackets (vests) and no underwear whatsoever except for 2 pairs of toddler pull-up nappies (trainers).

School uniform Moyles Court

British school uniform

Coming from the UK side of the pond, I thought I could spot all Americanisms and easily work them out. Not so. Recently, reading the wonderful, Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, I was brought up short by what looked like a genuine mistake. (If you haven’t read this beautifully written story of two young people – a blind French girl and a German boy – growing up on opposite sides of World War Two, then do.)  All the Light We Cannot SeeEntering her great-uncle’s room, Marie-Laure sits down on ‘the davenport’. Since a davenport is a very English piece of furniture, being a small, compact writing desk with shelves, designed by Captain Davenport in the 18th century, it seemed an odd thing to find in a house in St Malo, and even odder for Marie-Laure to sit on it. When, a few lines later, Great-uncle Etienne sits down beside her on the davenport, I realised some kind of sofa must be meant, and thought Doerr had got the wrong word.

Davenport desk

A Davenport (UK) : small writing desk with shelves or drawers

Not so. Davenport & Co turns out to be a company in Massachusetts that made a series of sofas in the late 19th century, whose popularity led to davenport becoming – in the USA – a genericised trademark, i.e. a word for sofas in general. So Doerr is right after all.

By Pearson Scott Foresman - Archives of Pearson Scott Foresman, donated to the Wikimedia Foundation

A davenport (US): large sofa. No shelves or drawers.

But… is he?  To use a particular American company term for a piece of furniture found all over the world feels eccentric in a novel set in Europe in the 1940s. For readers outside the USA, it’s like calling all pianos Steinways, with children sent for Steinway lessons, and being put in for their Grade 1 Steinway exam.

More than eccentric: later on in the book, Sergeant Major Von Rumpel muses on the fifteenth century davenport he’s shipping from Paris to Germany. This presents the reader with the rather marvellous but wholly impossible image of a company making sofas in Massachusetts in the 1400s.

Curly Davenport sofa

Mediaeval davenport?

I know, I know, I’m making a Kilimanjaro out of a, er, molehill here. But from a writer whose power to evoke all kinds of environments and emotions –  from the dreary, choking coke factories of 1930s Germany to the brutal elite school for Nazi youth, to the dry, dusty Museum of Natural History in Paris with its collections of delicate molluscs and insects to the briny, wind-scoured towers of Saint-Malo – is nothing short of astonishing, this one false, historically tone-deaf note – jars.

(Article first printed on Author’s Electric Blogspot.)