The launch of the Kindle got me thinking about all the things an e-reader can never be. You can't inscribe it to a loved one or press flowers between it's pages. It can never be an object, loved and cherished and passed from person to person, with any history. Your children cannot draw upon the pages and fill it with precious memories. Illustrations look terrible on it, especially art, which needs a grand scale. For these reasons and many more, help me celebrate the real thing: dusty old books!

Monday, 29 October 2012


This blog is now being retired...

Posts about books and other things I love (and that I hope you might like too...) will continue over at:


Hope to see you there!

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Memoirs of Moominpappa

Poor old Moominpappa. He always seems to be on the verge of a mid-life crisis, whether it's running away with Hattifattners, or tackling lighthouse-keeping. But in this book we find out the psychology behind the strangely vulnerable father of Moomintroll: It turns out he was abandoned as a child and deeply scarred by the terribly strict orphanage that took him in, which he only escaped from by literally running away to sea.

As always with Tove Jansson's Moomin books, the dark and fearful possibilities of such a scenario are delivered in a text bubbling with optimism and charm. And so, as Moominpappa recounts his mis-spent youth through his long awaited volume of memoirs, we are taken on a dazzling adventure of surreal and bizarre experiences.

Crucially, this book is not just about Moominpappa; he meets the fathers of Snufkin (The Joxter) and Sniff (The Muddler, who marries a Fuzzy)along with the inventor Hodgkins. We meet the mother of Little My (The large, round and jolly Mymble who has more children than can easily be counted, of which Little My is the smallest; it is suggested the The Joxter may have fathered any number of them...).

We discover the Niblings, who eat noses; The terrible Ghost-of-the-forgotten-bones; the appalling Hemulen Aunt with an obsession with arithmatic; the clumsy, short-tempered and remorseful Edward the Booble (presumably a cousin to a Brontosaurus; those he kills by accidently treading on them get their funerals paid for) and the eccentric and jocular king, Daddy Jones, who has a bizarre fixation with practical jokes.

We also discover how Moominpappa found his beloved Moominmamma, and some editions of the book have a useful gallery at the back in which all the main players in the series are introduced.

This is the last of the Moomin books to be really brillful of whimsical nonsense. After this point the books become more introverted, more beautifully observed, quieter... and exquisitely melancholic.

This book seems to exist in two versions. The Exploits of Moominpappa is the book I know and love and grew up with. But a revised edition, with a new "Prologue" was published in America, called Moominpappa's Memoirs. This latter title is a slightly different read, the translation (by Thomas Warburton) apparently tweaked. i prefer the "exploits" - the original incarnation - personally.

Either way, fasten your seatbelt as you ride on the Amphibian Flying miracle that is the "Oshun Oxtra" for a thrilling tale of boyhood escapades and growing up thoroughly independent and free. No wonder Moominpappa found life in Moominvalley just a little bit...safe!

Monday, 29 November 2010

Marvellous Moomins 3: The Moomins and The Great Flood

It’s extraordinary to realise that the very first Moomin book, published in Swedish in 1945, was not translated into English until 1991. Even then, it was issued by a Scandinavian publisher, never by a British company.

In truth this is very much an early book. The story seems a little like a draft for something not quite resolved, although it does enlighten the Moomin reader on certain points. In later books references are made to a great flood as well as a nasty incident involving Moominmamma and the Ant Lion. They are all explained here, as a bereft Moominmamma and Moomintroll search for the long lost Moominpappa (who has gone off with the dreaded Hattifattners), and meet “The Little Creature” (who we know now as Sniff) and the very strange Tulippa, an elegant woman with blue hair (surely modelled on the fairy in Pinocchio).

A much shorter book than the subsequent volumes, it hops and skips along introducing little gems and moments of peril alongside others of great charm in a typical Jansson way. Even if not fully formed, it is still an important book, filling so many gaps in Moomin mythology.

What really interests me is how different the Moomins look. Tove Jansson originally drew a Moomin on a wall at home to defy a relative, and subsequently used the character as a “signature” device on her political cartoons, published during the war. Only later did the Moomin develop the rounded and friendly snout and expressive features known and loved throughout the world. Even the mouth was to move! Traces of this development can just be seen in the illustrations for “Comet in Moominland” , but by “Finn Family Moomintroll” her drawing technique and her characters are completely resolved.

One other thing I noticed in these early drawings is the scale; the Moomins are tiny pint-sized creatures, as images of them alongside human-scale bottles and spectacles testify.

This is essential reading for any lover of the Moomins – or indeed anyone interested in the creative process. It’s like gaining a little glance at Tove’s secret cupboard of roughs and plans, a flick through her sketchbooks and a glimpse into her wonderfully creative, imaginative and surreal mind.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Marvellous Moomins 2: Comet in Moominland

"Strike me pink!"

This, the second Moomin book to be published in English (in 1951), actually (and confusingly) predates Finn Family Moointroll and introduces the first meeting between our heroes Sniff and Moomintroll and the remarkably self-contained Snufkin.

In this book we meet old Uncle Muskrat, the unusual Snorks, a poisonous Snork-eating bush and the short-term memory of the Silk Monkey (indeed this is her only book appearance).

When peculiar omens fortell catastrophe, our merry band of creatures set off to the Lonely Mountains to see if the "star-with-a-tail" warnings really mean a comet is on it's way. The story tumbles along in a cascade of adventures and its lightheartedness hides a deeper message: It was written in 1946; the idea of a Comet destroying the earth was Tove Jansson's response to the horror of Hiroshima in 1945.

Overcoming disaster and tragedy are playfully explored - this could be read to all but the youngest child, although I remember a big fear of comets for a while after reading this. I would worry about every shooting star I saw... but then I grew up during the cold war and the fear that gripped Tove was still part of the world we lived in then.

Significantly, this and Finn Family Moomintroll differ greatly in their overall feel to the later books. They are much more light-hearted and less introspective. Could that be something to do with the translator? (Elizabeth Portch only translated these two. The others are the work of Thomas Warburton). Or was it simply the case that Tove was gently finding her way, getting to know her characters? I love being able to trace a development from this book through to the last.

Comet in Moominland is full of Tolkein-like elements - they sing little parodies of those in the Lord of the Rings, and our heroes on a quest are very Hobbit-like in their innocence. It has a charm and deep understanding of the trials and ridiculousness of family and friendships. Sniff and Moomintroll bicker; eyes are rolled at Moomintroll's infatuation with the splendidly vain Snork Maiden; and Moominmamma sends her child out into the world with the quiet confidence that Tummy Powder is a necessary item of luggage...

There are very many editions of the book. The first, with it's remarkable scarlet cover is beautiful, but I suppose I have fondness also for the Puffin paperback, as that's the copy I first read around 40 years ago. Here are a selection from my Moomin cupboard. Enjoy... and "Strike me pink!"

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The Marvellous Moomins 1: Finn Family Moomintroll

It's been a while since I posted on Dusty Old Books. Work has kept me busy. But it's time to celebrate the printed page again, and I can think of nothing better to do that with than my favourite author: Tove Jansson.

Everywhere I’ve been this year I’ve seen Moomins in Bookshops, Kitchenware shops, Greetings card & gift shops. Bags, books and badges, knitted cuddly toys and cups; out of print titles reinstated; lectures given, articles published. Even in her lifetime, Tove Jansson felt overwhelmed by the “moomin-boom”. I wonder how she would feel now. Once, the Moomins seemed slightly exclusive, a delight that only a certain type of person really “got”. And I knew a lot of people who didn’t quite understand their brilliance. But now they have been embraced in our climate of retro-chic as must-haves for the Cath Kidston set.
So where has the Moomin-madness of this summer come from? The estate has been successfully exploited by Tove’s niece Sophia to celebrate 65 years of Moomins: for the first book was published in 1945. That particular book, “The Moomins and the Great Flood” was only very recently translated into English. The immediate sequel was “Comet in Moominland”, but this was not to be the first title to be published in English. That honour fell upon the third title “Finn Family Moomintroll” and so I am beginning my survey of Tove’s work – over several posts – with this book.
From my legendary Moomin cupboard I have – with trembling paws – taken out my first edition from 1950. Immediately hailed as a new children’s classic, this is beautifully produced, with embossed boards and a dust cover. Inside, the book has a magical map of Moominvalley which folds out to almost four times the size of the book. This was reproduced on a single page in later editions, and only the first edition has a fold out example of this exquisite, fantastical plan, which, on the reverse has an eccentric letter from Moominmamma herself (surely one of the greatest maternal figures in all literature).

The back flap of the dustwrapper asks if the reader “would like a picture of the Snork Maiden to put on the mantelpiece?”. And there she is, a voluptuous cut-out design. And who wouldn’t want the Snork Maiden on their mantle-piece?

For those unfamiliar with this book (shame on you), it tells the tale of one summer – from Hibernation and Spring through to Autumn, in Moominvalley. Here we are introduced to Moomintroll (son of Moominpappa and Moominmamma) and his friends Sniff and Snufkin who find a Hobgoblin’s hat that can enchant anything placed inside. This can be a good thing – like turning eggs shells into magic clouds. But it can also be a considerable problem, like when an encyclopaedia of Outlandish Words is brought to remarkable life. We also meet the Snorks, the Muskrat, the lugubrious Hemulen, the enigmatic Hattifattners, and the “Big grim and terrible” Groke, who freezes everything she touches. The adult domestic world of verandahs and stoves is beautifully caught by Jansson, and contrasts with the high adventure of the “children” of the story. Getting rid of the magic hat is not all that easy... and what would happen if the Hobgoblin himself – a great magician – came to Moominvalley?

What I like about Jansson’s storytelling is that little things matter, like the folklore of butterflies in spring or Snufkin’s need for solitude. And I like that while much is fun and frolicsome, there is often danger and threat lurking. It is an idyll... but sometimes one with dark clouds seen out of the corner of the eye. In fact this is one of the lighter and funnier stories. Later in the series the books become darker and more satisfying and, finally in Moominvalley in November, deeply moving.
Also tucked inside my copy of Finn Family Moomintroll is a letter. While I recognise that Tove Jansson, like the Moomins ,was not a person to whom possessions mattered, this letter is, I confess, valuable to me. In the event of a fire (and after securing safety for my family) this would surely be the first thing to rescue. For the letter is written to me, by Tove Jansson herself.

In 1993 I had a book published in Finnish. Although Tove was a Swedish speaking Finn, I felt excited and honoured to have a book published in “the land of the Moomins”. I wrote a long, rhapsodic letter to her. I had no address, so I drew a Moomin on the parcel and put, simply: To Tove Jansson, Helsinki, Finland.
I didn’t think anymore about it. There seemed no point dwelling on a parcel that might never arrive (and what a story Tove would have spun out of such a dwelling of thought). With the letter I had sent the Finnish edition of my book (“Madame Nightingale will sing Tonight) and some other books. And it wasn’t written or sent to expect a reply. It was sent with gratitude and admiration. A sort of gift.
Then, one quiet unassuming January day, a letter arrived. The carefully crafted handwriting , graphically clear and beautifully spaced, should have raised my expectations.
Surely this letter was a letter from my Finnish pen-friend Tarja, who I had corresponded with since we were both 7 or 8 years old? But then I saw the stamps.
Moomin stamps.

Inside was a letter from the great lady herself, with kind works about my illustrations (can you imagine how much that meant to a novice artist like myself?), and what seemed to be genuine gratitude and humility regarding my words about the Moomins. She seemed genuinely touched that my world had been coloured by her Moominvalley, and that their morals and eccentricities had reflected the foibles of myself and my family and that they had, I felt, projected themselves upon the minds and hearts of the next generation. Which can only be a good thing.
It would no doubt have horrified this most elusive, hermit-like author to know how I cherished the letter and how special it felt to have what seemed like a tiny part of her. But any writing is that. She gave the whole world a part of her with all her books and pictures.

In any case, she was one of the great observers and recorders of human life. She would have understood, just as she understood Sniff and his avarice as well as Snufkin and his solitude. For in the Moomins, these strange and melancholic trolls, we see ourselves, our lives, our families and our fears. The Moomins are in some ways more real than any gritty novel or PC picturebook. And that is what makes them the work of a genius.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Saviour's saviour!

My good friend, the wonderful writer Saviour Pirotta, has sent a lovely contribution to this growing list of adored dusty old books. This one was not always adored; it haunted him for years and only a chance encounter brought reconciliation. Read on to find out how!

"Being a bit of an apple convert, I have been toying the idea of getting an ipad, even though my macbook air is still in its nappies, less than six months old. But something in the advert on telly put me off. More books than you can read in a lifetime? What a depressing thought.

Surely that's turning reading into a chore, even worse - an unattainable goal. No matter how many books you read, you are going to miss the finishing line, Mr. The grim reaper will have to finish the job for you!

And what about the pleasure of discovering something new. What about happinstance? What about coming across a book, an author you have never read while skiving in a bookshop or a car boot sale, a charity shop? What about hearing about a title at a dinner party? Do those books go at the end of the queue after the ipad selection?

The idea brought back memories of something that happened to me recently, something I call my Christmas miracle.

As a child I used to attend the Roman Catholic equivalent of the Sunday school, except that this took place every day after school. Every Friday we watched a slide show, with a teacher telling a story. He [it was always a he. This club was strictly for boys. The girls had their own club] would stand under the screen and when he wanted the slide changed, he rang a small bell to alert the projectionist at the back of the hall.

One year we watched and heard a Christmas story. One image from the slide show struck a chord with me and continued to haunt me well into adulthood. It was the picture of a lonely man, struggling home through the sleet with an absurdly tiny Christmas pudding in his hands. The teacher said, 'Christmas is a time for families, but even the lonely single man in his garret can enjoy the lord's blessings.'

Sitting in the dark of that hall with the beam of the projector's light shining above me, I had a terrible sense of deja vu that my lot might be like that lonely man's. One day I was going to be that lonely man struggling home through a storm with a Christmas pudding for one.

As I grew older, every time I was turned down by a prospective date, that solitary man's ravaged face would float into my consciousness, always staring through me with baleful eyes. I grew so terrified of ending up alone all my life I allowed myself to overstay a long and loveless relationship.

When I moved up to Yorkshire, newly single and for once able to afford more than a garret, I found myself looking through a pile of books at a car boot sale in Bingley. A small book, the size of a Ladybird caught my eye. It was called A STRING OF BLUE BEADS. I'd never heard of it but I loved the old illustrations, and the tagline said 'by the author of THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, one of my favourite films [although admittedly I have over a hundred favourite films]

When I took the book home, I realised it was the story of the lonely man with the Christmas pudding. The illustrations were done by a different artist from the one who had drawn the slides used at the Cathecism class but there was the unlucky chap from my nightmares, still alone on Christmas eve, in this version of the book drinking a solitary cup of coffee in a bar. His name was Pete Wakefield. I was glad to put a name to a face that had haunted me for so long.

I raced through the story and, would you believe it, it has a happy ending. Out of the blue, Pete Wakefield meets a lovely girl who is in love with him. No more Christmas puddings for one for the lucky fellow! And no more nightmares for me, not that particular Christmas one anyway. I felt somehow released from a, from I don't know what. It was like turning on a torch in the middle of the night and finding out you haven't gone blind after all, there's a power cut. And somehow, I can never imagine the same thing happening with all my books and stories on an ipad, not in a million years, let alone a lifetime."

a blast from the past

hello, old chap. Long time no see!

a happy ending!

Thanks again Saviour for a wonderful story!

Thursday, 10 June 2010

A Tale of Two Chitties

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was not the first ever film I saw at the cinema. But that trip to the grand Odeon in Lowestoft in 1969 made the biggest impression on my childhood. I was five, and was swept away by the idea of a flying car, dreams coming true, toot sweets and a child catcher. In those days of course you only saw a film once. No videos or DVDs to endlessly watch over and over existed. I had the Music For Pleasure record to sing along to. I had the Corgi toy with flip-out wings. And I had books…

I remember vividly my father coming home from Work with Ian Fleming’s “Complete adventures of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang the magical car”.

But what a shock!

This wasn’t the fairground-coloured car, the shining, gleaming polished car, the fine-four-fendered friend of the film!!! This was a green dragon of a machine, dangerously powerful and smelling of oil, in audacious illustrations by John Burningham.

I sulked. I refused to read it. It wasn’t the Chitty I knew and loved…

And then I got an early reader book (“I can read it all by myself”), adapted by Al Perkins and with illustrations by B Tobey.

This time the car looked right. It had red and yellow wings and a silver bonnet. I liked it so much I even tried to cut an illustration out “to keep forever” (as it were), although I stopped when I realized I was ruining the picture on the other side…

But when I actually read it… where was Baron Bomburst? What had become of Truly Scrumptious? The Child Catcher? The scene at Beachy Head cliffs? For while the car matched the film, the story did not, following instead the original Ian Fleming scenario reasonably faithfully.

For when I did read the original Ian Fleming stories, I was astonished to realize the story was completely different. I was blown away.

Set in the Swinging Sixties, Commander & Mrs Pott (there is no Truly or Grandpa) and their children Jeremy and Jemima cannot afford a family car - Commander Pott is a failed inventor. But when his Whistling Sweets bring an unexpected fortune, they begin to look for the right car. “Not one of the black-beetles that all look the same”, declares the Commander. And when at last they find a rusting old racing car at the back of a dilapidated garage…”They all had the same look in their eyes. The look said: ‘This must once have been the most beautiful car in the world.’”

Of course they buy it and the Commander restores it. Jeremy and Jemima notice the intriguing number plate: Gen 11 – surely that spells… genii ?

In this original story the magic is no dream. It really happens. The car – an “eight litre, super-charged Paragon Panther” - painted in British Racing Green - really flies and floats and saves the family repeatedly from all sorts of tricky situations, most especially from their encounters with the dastardly Mafioso-type gangster Joe The Monster and his henchmen, who are hatching an evil plot to steal money from the famous Bon Bon Chocolate Shop in Paris. It is they who kidnap the two children, and who bring the expected James Bond type villainy into the story. The adventuresome plot, sparklingly written with a pithy wit by a master storyteller should be in every boy’s library, not least for Burningham’s fabulous and evocative illustrations.

It was hard for me, at five, to understand how fast and loose film makers play with stories. Seeing the film first made it very hard for me to adjust and accept these books. Because apart from a car and a surname (Pott), they have nothing in common.

Nowadays I love both on their own terms, the film with it’s flaws and fantasy, the book with it’s rollicking boys-own- adventure.

So how did the film become so different to the book? Ian Fleming’s story was inspired by childhood trips to Higham Park where he saw one of the original Chitty Bang Bangs (there were three) and met the owner-driver, a mysterious Count Zborowsky. His stories, written in the early sixties, were made up for his convalescing son Caspar, and were amongst the last things he wrote before his early death in 1964.

The film – produced by the James Bond film team – hired a little-known writer (and friend of Fleming) called Roald Dahl to create a script. It was not wholly successful and his original draft has never been published: that WOULD be interesting! The script was then completed by the Bond film writer Ken Hughes. And characters like Bomburst, the Child Catcher and Truly Scrumptious do have a certain Dahlian flavour about them.

I still think the original stories deserve to be filmed; perhaps one day they will. But with the stage musical and film still so firmly wedged in the public’s consciousness, it would be hard to compete. And should the car look like Burningham’s dangerous beast or the film’s sparkling and polished “Fantastmagorial machine”?

Monday, 24 May 2010

Helping Hands

Here's a funny little book, by Oliver Senior: How to draw hands. It's part of a huge series of guides to drawing specific things. Others titles include, Trees, Birds, Locomotives, Perspective, Merchant Ships (!), Rolling Stock (!!!), Churches and cathedrals... etc. I must try to find some. They are tiny but charming little books.

The title page reveals the vintage: first published 1944. It would be impossible to show these hands with a cigarette today. Back then it must have seemed the most natural use for idle hands. How times change.

In book illustration today there is an encroaching dismissal of academic drawing skills. Things can be whizz-banged through a computer and bad drawing is very often forgiven as "quirky". I suppose I'm rather old-school, in that while my own drawing is a long way from ideal, I do respect traditional skills, those of observation and recording information through drawing. It's a skill that is fading in our modern digital age and I think the ability to draw well is essential to any artist. The 20th century, and artists like Picasso, changed everything of course, but these people could in fact draw. Even Tracy Emin can draw (Beware: name-drop coming) - I was at art school with her (albeit in different departments; we never spoke), and she regularly hung up large dramatic drawings of contorted figures.

Hands are known to be tricky to draw. And most art students of a certain age will remember the horror of filling sketchbooks with drawings of their left hand (unless they were left handed of course!). Personally I find feet harder. And what I really need is a book on how to draw horses feet. Now that would be useful. It's not on the list though. Perhaps no-one else can draw them either...

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Castles on the Ground

I some respects this is a rather ugly little book. I don't know if it ever had a dust cover but the dingy brown boards are matched by the pea-souper gloom inside. I love John Piper's work, and the period of art and illustration to which he belongs, but his illustrations here, taken from lithographic prints I think, all have a post-war late 'forties air of grime and coal dust, bonfire smoke and twilight. It really doesn't make one want to live in England.

One can still admire the way he carves images out of tone, and elaborates them with dynamic, eccentric line work. There is no shortage of atmosphere. Yet they seem ill-matched to a text - by J.M. Richards - that "celebrates" (or at least discusses) suburban living.

Chapter One: The Englishman's Home, provides the title of the book, in the sense that the reserved English psychology is in search of a castle to hide inside, and other chapters explore the "Anatomy of Suburbia", "Compactness above all" and "This desirable residence". Taste, and "vulgar pretentiousness" are explored, as is the thorny issue of class... from a middle class perspective.

Richards captures the intimacy of what was then (and still in some ways is) Modern Living: "In the hall, in addition to the faint smell of furniature polish we would have noted an even fainter scent of Pear's soap coming from the downstairs cloakroom".

Writing in 1946, Richards is inevitably rather dated in many of his views. But not always. As someone who is currently living in Letchworth Garden City, in Hertfordshire, I was especially interested to read: ""how the Garden City was invented by Ebenezer Howard as an inspiring social theory but declined, through repeated emphasis on inessentials, into a retreat for cranks and a subject for the misplaced enthusiasm of the well intentioned". Now that could have been written yesterday, and is particularly pertinent with a "town centre redevelopment" currently under way.

Other things are ridiculous statements: "A legitimate complaint against suburbia is that it spreads itself too widely. As the motorist drives out of town along his concreted highway, his hopes of green fields are frustrated mile after mile".

There seems to be no understanding of the changes modern living - and motor cars - was bringing. Of course roads were quieter then, and it must have been hard to anticipate the congested roads we have today. But the very concept of fast individual travel is what has created an ever increasing need for suburban living. Roads - concreted highways - are the ultimate enemy of green fields. Not to mention pollution. I wonder what Richards would make of modern housing estates, Wimpey homes, high rise flats and all the other blots on the landscape which for some people is the nearest they get to having a castle of their own.

Letchworth Garden City may have lost it's way, but at least it had a vision, a dream, at it's core, however diluted it has become. Today there is little integrity when it comes to developing houses - pack 'em in, seems to be the philosophy.

A really odd little book, just 80 pages long. I suppose this is an interesting glimpse of social and architectural history (the book was published by The Architectural Press). I shall keep it... if only for the gloomy and brooding illustrations.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Jiri Trnka's Midsummer Night's Dream

Here's a real unmissable treat! a rare book of work by that Czech magician of puppets and art, Jiri Trnka. He's a bit of a cult animator and artist. Those "in the know" love his work, but it remains hard to find. Hardest of all is the film he created of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. Only once was it broadcast - on Channel 4 around 20 years ago with Richard Burton narrating. No DVD has ever been commercially issued.

So here is a dusty old book I cherish for allowing me to relive the memory of his exquisite, and rhapsodically beautiful animated film.

This book retells the story simply, and illustrates it largely with photographic stills, plus original drawings. It was only when I saw the drawings that I recognised Trnka's work as an illustrator: he brought the Grimm bothers and Hans Christian Anderson to delicate, witty and elegant life for me when little, but no doubt being unable to pronounce his name, I'd not registered who the illustrator was until I saw this book, given to me by my good friend, the illustrator Pam Smy.

Trnka, who died in 1969, was Prague based and produced many other magical films, often based on Czech folklore. He was, appropriately awarded the Hans Christian Anderson medal for his services to children's literature just a year before his death.

A Midsummer Night's Dream was probably an exotic subject for a Czech animator, and he gives it a proper Greek (as opposed to the oft-used cod-Elizabethan) setting. The enchantment he creates in the magical forest and the charm of his rather fey but stoll sensual Titania, and his Bacchus-like Oberon, emerging from Nature, is dazzling. And all the workers have true and funny characteristics. Yet all is still elegant and graceful. Even Bottom has an elfin charm in this irresistable film. The stop-motion technique, as usual, has great humanity and depth to it. I have not seen a single modern animated film that can match it.

Happily, a few snippets of this beauitiful film exist on Youtube. So if you love these images as much as I do, click HERE for the real thing. The man was a genius and deserves to be celebrated and loved...

Saturday, 17 April 2010

The Big Clean-Up

This is one of those child-hood books that sticks in the memory and subtly influences all sorts of every day things, and possibly how I view the world. This is not the very copy I had as a child. That went missing in a house move and I've lamented it ever since. At least until I found this replacement copy.

And everything is exactly as I remember, from the quirky line drawings, to the simple colour, to the understated (and therefore witty text) to the the brilliant concept.

Harvey Weiss has taken the age old theme of a child with a messy room and turned it into an brilliant fantasy of imagination, resourcefulness and (in a modern world) recycling.

When Peter (and his doleful hound Maurice) are told to clean up his bed room, he gets two boxes. One is for things to keep, the other for things to throw away. But like most children (and adults;mysdelf included), letting go proves difficult, especially when you have a good imagination.

Peter conjours all sorts of elaborate contrivences, mostly for the benefit of Maurice, and convinces himself of the usefulness of just about everything he pulls from the pile of "rubbish".

A cotton reel inspires a contraption for Maurice in the event of tha splinter in the paw; a small stick could bne the railing of a veranda on a luxury dog house with pool and heli-pad; while an old rusty key might be just the very key needed to rescue poor old Maurice from a rather gothic and evidently dangerous dungeon prison!

Funny, charming, clever and touching, it's an overlooked masterpiece. It's an American book and I suspect circulation in the UK has always been limited and how I had a copy as a child I have no idea. But I'm jolly glad I did, even though the end result is that I cannot, to this day, bear to throw anything away...

Thursday, 1 April 2010

For those who appreciate Wisteria and sunshine...

Before discovering this book I had never heard of "Elizabeth of the German Garden", as the author - in an attempt to hide her identity from her husband - liked to call herself. That name came from her first autobiographical novel, "Elizabeth and her German Garden". It created a sensation and Elizabeth von Arnim (her real name) was soon being described as a contemporary Jane Austen. She didn't just write witty trifles in the "Diary of a Provincial Lady" style, though. Her novel "Vera" is a dark thriller and this - "The Enchanted April" - is an exquisite novel of manners and social dilemmas, with a darker undercurrent of loss and redemption and forgiveness, all set in the giddy 1920s.

Lottie Wilkins is trapped in an unhappy marriage and is clearly depressed. But a chance reading of an advert in The Times at her ladies club transforms her life. The advert reads: "To those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine". The piece offers a small mediaeval castle in Italy for the month of April. It seems an impossible dream, until she meets Rose Arbuthnot, with a face "like a disappointed Madonna" (Whose husband writes scandalous novels about fallen women under a pen name). What if together they take the castle, share the costs, and escape? Two other unhappy, damaged women, one old and sour, the other a young and beautiful socialite, join them.

Can a place and climate heal their sadnesses? A sentimental thought perhaps but a theme explored with humour and poignancy. More importantly, the book examines the idea that beauty, and escape, can bring an understanding that love cannot be weighed and measured. The experience brings each of them a clarity of thought. Although the this proves cathartic and painful, the overwhelming beauty of San Salvatore transfigures their view of the world. But what about the husbands? Can it redeem them in their eyes as well? Lottie is so overwhelmed with guilt at enjoying herself that she takes the extraordinary step of inviting the very man she has escaped from to join her in Italy. And that's when the fun really starts.

As the old dowager says... in her day, husbands were seen "as the only real obstacle to sin" !

This first edition of the 1924 novel has a particular significance for me, for one of the first dates I took my wife on was to see a film of the novel, starring Miranda Richardson, Joan Plowright and Josie Lawrence. Shortly after we enjoyed our first holiday with her Italian family, in Tuscany during April. The flower pressed in the book - given as a Valentine gift - is from that holiday. It's a dusty old book I reread every April. With it's memories, pressed flowers, associations and above all it's storytelling, it never fails to enchant.