Our member who was to contribute a guest diary today is experiencing some challenges in real life, so the diary has been deferred to some time in the future. For today, we’ll have an open forum, but not before our usual plea for guest diarists.
We have January 24th open! And all four Fridays in February! Please step up and volunteer. We’ve had some wonderful guest diarists lately whose contributions have stimulated some really good discussions. Let’s keep it going!
For breakfast this morning we’re offering Fortnum & Mason’s Royal Blend Tea (a delightful mixture of Ceylon and Assam) with milk and sugar, green tea with honey and lemon, and chai latté, whatever that is. We also have toasted crumpets dripping with melted butter and honey—not at all low-calorie, but who cares? It’s winter. You’ll work it off just shivering from the bus stop to your office.
And now…which book did you love most as a child? Do you still reread it sometimes in secret? Or do you read it to your children or grandchildren? We all have favorite books we’ve never forgotten, even after we grew up to experience all the ups and downs of life as adults. Let’s take our breakfast trays into the salon while we chat.
Would you believe there are three books that have stayed with me? The first is In the Morning of the World, by Janette Sebring Lowrey, first published in 1944. After recounting how she and her siblings wore out a book of the Greek myths when they were children, Lowrey goes on to retell several of the Greek myths in a form that children can understand.
Here is an excerpt from “For the Fairest”:
Now and then there comes a day when the sun is so bright, the air so clear and cool, the sky so blue, the clouds so buoyant, the birds so busy, the flowers so fragrant, the leaves so green, and the shadows so sweet, that to breathe is happiness, and without being able to explain it, we feel exceedingly gay and kind. It must have been in the dawn of a day like that, sometime in the earliest ages of the world, that the foam of the ocean gathered itself together, rose from the waves in a fountain of water and light, and suddenly became a beautiful goddess.The goddess was Aphrodite, whose name means foamborn. As a child in Singapore I possessed a copy of In the Morning of the World, printed on thick, glossy paper with beautiful colored illustrations. I don’t know whether it was the paper or the ink on the pages, but there was a distinctive aroma, a smell that seemed to waft me from the Singapore of the 1950s to a mysterious, misty, long-ago Mount Olympus on which the gods and goddesses resided. I loved that book and kept it for many years. A couple of years ago I ordered another copy. It’s an elderly book, showing distinct signs of wear—very like its present owner.
The second book I loved was called The House with the Twisting Passage, by Marion St. John Webb. It’s a previously owned book, the tattered jacket of which proclaims that it cost two shillings and sixpence and was printed in Great Britain. It doesn’t give the year but on the fly page is inscribed in blue ink: “To Jean Xmas 1955 from Mummy and Daddy.”
The House with the Twisting Passage tells the story of Jenny, a nine-year-old girl whose parents have gone to India for two years. Her Aunt Abby and Uncle Nicol share the custody with Aunt Emma, who lives in Putney.
Aunt Abby was minding a beautiful old manor house in Surrey, “a long, low, many-windowed house, surrounded by gardens and orchards and little rustling woods.”
On wet days Jenny was allowed to play in the queer, twisting passage on the second floor that ran the length of the house. Jenny loved to play in this passage; it was not very light, but it was airy, and full of funny little twists and curves. The closed doors along the sides of the passage made it all the more interesting. Jenny used to pretend that different people lived in the rooms behind these doors, and soon had a name for every door she passed.Jenny imagines all sorts of people living in the rooms behind the doors in the passage and makes up life stories for them.
In time Jenny is required to visit her Aunt Emma in Putney, a visit she dreads because Aunt Emma’s poky little house is filled with occasional tables on which repose innumerable china objects. To make matters worse, Aunt Emma is always bumping into the tables and knocking the objects off. She never stops talking—even until Jenny falls asleep at night—so it is with considerable relief that Jenny, under the escort of one of Aunt Abby’s friends, returns to Surrey.
But this time as the carriage rounds the bend and the house comes into view, the windows on every floor are all lit up, as if to welcome Jenny home. The next day Jenny discovers that every one of the people she imagined has come to life. She visits them all and each tells her a fascinating story.
I adored this book as a child. It stayed with me because I identified strongly with Jenny: like her, I had an imagination that received rigorous workouts. I kept the book for many years but one day, after I was grown up, I gave it away to a little girl I heard about. She came from a dysfunctional family, so the social workers at the agency I worked for were trying to help her to have a better life. “And in spite of all that,” one of them said, “this child likes to read!” I hoped the little girl would love the book as much as I had, and who knows? She may have been so inspired by this glimpse of a world radically different from the provincial, dull-as-dirty-creek water Tulsa of the mid-1960s that she achieved a new life for herself when she grew up.
The third book was The Ship That Flew, by Hilda Lewis. Unlike the previous two, this book is a nice new paperback. The foreword in front of the book is by the author’s son.
In the summer of 1937, when the clouds of war were already gathering over Europe, I went with my parents on holiday to Normandy. I was then seven years old, and had taken nothing with me to read. My mother, Hilda Lewis, already an established novelist, had never written a book for children, and she started to write this story of a magic ship which carried a family of four children through time and space to whatever destination they chose.I also am very pleased that this book was republished because it’s enchanting. It tells the story of Peter, Sheila, Humphrey, and Sandy, ordinary children living in a little seaside town in England. One day Peter visits the dentist and afterwards wanders through the village, finding a street that he had never noticed before.
The book eventually became The Ship That Flew, and was published by Oxford University Press in 1939. It was frequently reprinted, and it has been translated into several languages. It has however been out of print for some years.
I am very pleased that Oxford University Press have decided to republish this book some 55 years after it originally appeared. My grandchildren Eve and Edmund are now much the same age as I was when the book was written. I hope that it will give as much pleasure to them and to children of their age as it gave me all those years ago. Humphrey Lewis, 1993.
In the window of a tiny dark shop he spies a little ship, a thing of such beauty that he desperately wants to own it. An old man inside the shop asks if he can help Peter.
“You like that little ship? They don’t make ships like that nowadays,” he said a little sadly.The four children visit ancient Egypt, ancient Asgard, and Norman England. Bits and pieces from that book have stayed with me all my life: the fact that Peter had to pay all the money he had in the world “and a bit over”; how, in A.D. 1073 a Saxon woman told him that he had a “look of the high-nosed Normans, yet you speak good Saxon”; and how, in Asgard, Peter agreed to give back the magic ship when he was grown up and no longer believed in magic.
“Is it very old?” Peter asked, hoping that it wasn’t, because very old things, he knew, often cost a great deal of money.
The old man nodded. “Older than anyone would believe,” he said softly, stroking the tiny ship with gentle hands.
“How much is it?” Peter asked, his heart beating very fast.
Then the old man said a strange thing. “It would cost all the money you have in the world—and a bit over.”
It was only when Peter stood outside blinking in the sunshine after the darkness of the shop that he remembered that he had spent his tea money, which didn’t matter much, and the twopence belonging to his father, which mattered rather more, and his fare money, which mattered a good deal.
Imagination is a wonderful thing, and books that help it grow and soar are treasures. So now that I’ve told you about my treasures, will you tell us about yours? What amazed and delighted you as a child, what has stayed with you through the years?
The floor is yours—fire away!