February’s Road by John Verney


published 1961




February Rd party 1February Rd party 2


[Narrator February arrives at a rather grand party at the same time as an old acquaintance, another teenager]

Without speaking, Helen and I gave one another a critical once-over, to see which was on top. She was easily; indeed, she had changed entirely in the few months since we last met. Her hair, long before, had been cut short and swept up with a highly artificial effect of casualness, on top of her head. She wore lipstick, high-heeled silver shoes, and a fur wrap, which she handed, with a gracious smile, to a maid. Underneath she had on a long-sleeved frock of blue moire silk and altogether looked about 17 instead of not yet 14 – my age.

“Pretty frock,” I commented. My own red velvet dress had belonged to my mother in her youth.

“Oh, this old tea-gown. Lelia bought it for me in Paris last September. It’s absurdly demode , of course, but all right for the country. I rather like yours too – velvet has such old-fashioned ingenue charm. And doesn’t red have something to do with hunting? You still ride I suppose?”

“Madly.”

Toujours le tomboy…”


commentary: This was one of my favourite books when I was a child: I had managed to find a cut-price hardback in one of Liverpool’s splendid bookshops, and I read and re-read it: the dust-jacket long ago fell into tatters. Heroine February lives a comfortable life in the affluent south – there are boarding-schools, ponies, and – get this – the children are going to have a parent-sponsored DANCE in their barn, inviting their schoolfriends. The grown-up cocktail party above is a very posh affair indeed, given by the local MP, with titled guests.

Well, as the Irish say, it was far from ponies & private dances that I was raised, but I loved every moment of February’s Road, then and now - and as it happens I moved down south and live maybe 30 miles from the Callendars’ converted-farmhouse-with-eight-acres (at least according to the map in the endpages – maps so often lost in paperbacks and library-bound editions, another great gift from the bargain find).

February is a splendid heroine – relatable despite the privilege, and telling an excellent story of road-building, devastated landscapes, and possible corruption, a story that is just as relevant in 2018 as in 1961. She is funny and witty and endearing, as is her whole family. Verney wrote very well, and certainly made a good job of getting inside a young girl’s head – if I read the passage above blind, I would swear a woman wrote it.

I never hear John Verney mentioned these days, though in his day his children’s books, and his memoir of war (which I kept taking out of the library because I thought it was another children’s book) were all well-known. I guess his affluent middle-class settings are not to modern tastes – though in this book there is a funny passage where February considers the expensive education she and her brother are getting at boarding-school, while her younger sisters go to the village school for nothing and apparently learn much more. It’s a pity that he’s forgotten, because this book has great charm as well as an interesting cause at its heart.

He was a marvellous illustrator of other people’s books as well as his own - he did the illos for some editions of the much-loved Jennings books by Anthony Buckeridge. The pictures in February’s Road are wonderful – here’s one of them, the children cleaning up the barn ready for their teenagers’ dance (I know, I’m obsessed with this event – which, spoiler, doesn’t actually happen - it was just so different from any kind of life that I had ever come across…)


February Rd party 3


One feature that puzzled me as a child and still does so many years later: there is a character in the book who is called Mike Spillergun. Simple Spoonerism suggests that this is meant to be Spike Milligan, but the book character is a crusading journalist and columnist, and doesn’t seem to bear much relation to the British comedian. It’s a mystery.

Blue dress is from Kristine’s photostream.














Comments

  1. That is interesting about the name, Moira. The story sounds great, too. I can see how it would be an enduring story for young people; at the same time, though, I can see how adults would enjoy it, too. It's not easy for an author to strike that balance.

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    1. Thanks Margot - it probably works because he is not winking at adults in the background, but aiming it solidly at young teens. I think most young readers will sometimes see that February is missing the point, but it is cleverly done.

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  2. I look at that Mike Spillergun name and can only think of Mike Hammer and Mickey Spillane. But then the character is a reporter. So even that doesn't really work out, does it? As an American you're probably not surprised to read that I've never heard of John Verney nor even seen any of his artwork though I used to deal in children's books of all types in addition to the thousands of mystery and supernatural books I sold. But this one book does remind me of a series of books I read as a boy about The Happy Hollisters. Not sure if those were exported to the UK.

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    1. I know - you're convinced that the author is getting at something with that name, but I've no idea what! A fascinating detail that you dealt in children's books too, wouldn't have known that. And now I will look up the Happy Hollisters.

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    2. Aha! they were mysteries. and a lot of them..

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  3. I remember Friday's Tunnel, and the mad King of Chichiboo's cookery ("hot, with lots of grated cheese on top"). Inventor of the Dodo Pad!!!! (Funny illustrated diary.) https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-sir-john-verney-bt-1470737.html

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    1. What an interesting life he led. I do remember the Dodo Pads, they were lovely.

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  4. Well, well, well...according to WorldCat, I can get a copy through inter-library loan from the University (two counties over). This goes on the list.

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    1. Oh good - you'll have to let us know how you get on with it.

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  5. And those teenage dances? You didn't miss anything!

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    1. Giggle giggle, I knew you'd know. I can just imagine. All teenage social events are horrible whether it's the church youth club disco, the boys-and-girls-school combination, or the private dance...

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  6. Another one I can easily swerve.

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    1. Yes, indeed you can. Back to the noir with you...

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  7. i'd be in touch about all this if i knew how to work this thing

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  8. i'm learning gradually .. i like your blog .. i'm the boy standing on his head (friday) the man referred to was the irish comedian spike milligan.

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    1. oh how lovely to hear from you! This was such a favourite book - are the Callendar children all your siblings? I am so glad to get confirmation that it was Spike Milligan. Would love to hear more from you. Do email me moirar@msn.com

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