Every December on the blog I feature Xmas scenes and books.
If you use Pinterest you can see some of the beautiful seasonal pictures on this page, and you can find (endless!) more Xmas books via the labels at the bottom of the page.
Today we’re looking at post-Xmas troubles, from a forgotten but wonderful children’s book, one of my absolute favourites – with input from one of the real-life children on whom it is based…
February’s Road by John Verneypublished 1961
The first sign of impending disaster, the first puff of wind, so to speak, in the storm about to turn our quiet valley into the centre of a National Scandal, came on the Fifth Day of Christmas, which was a Wednesday.
My father’s own holiday ended that morning and he gobbled an early breakfast before catching the fast train from Querbury, when Friday (who is my elder brother) brought in the mail – a great pile of it held up by the Christmas chaos. There were a few letters for all of us but the bulk was Daddy’s. He adores letters, anything in a properly stuck down envelope so long as it’s not a bill or a Christmas card, which he hates. These were all bills or Christmas cards, and we watched the gloom descend as he glanced at them disgustedly…
We’d had a super Christmas as always – our mother sees to that, and Daddy had done his best to enter into the seasonal spirit. But the truth is he hates the whole thing…
He swore loudly and chucked all the envelopes and their contents in the air. The bits of paper fluttered down like giant snowflakes on to the remains of breakfast, upsetting a milk jug.
commentary: I explained in a post earlier this year that this was one of my favourite books when I was a child, and there is more about the plot in that post. This is the opening of the book, which takes place pretty much between Christmas and New Year, and deals with a local scandal, road-building and corruption – serious issues, and Verney does a great job in being neither simplistic nor too dark. It is very well-plotted and also very funny.
I found a few fellow-fans on the internet – one of them posted this excellent picture from Friday’s Tunnel, right, for me:
And John Verney’s son Sebastian came onto the blog comments to say he was this boy in the picture (by the author) that I had used:
-- which makes him the original of Friday Callendar. And he confirmed that the character called ‘Mike Spillergun’ was indeed meant to be Spike Milligan.
I read the other books about the Callendar family, but this was my favourite, with its post-Christmas setting, its village atmosphere, parents in Paris hats stopping in for a sherry, cocktail parties and trips to the cinema and teenage parties – plus teenage ideals coming up against the grown-up world.
And the splendidly recognizable details of family life:
We were discussing what to do with ourselves for the day, when Mrs Henry telephoned to ask if anyone would care to keep Sasha [friend their own age] company. One of those family conversations followed, with my mother holding a hand on the mouthpiece and us all shouting why we wanted, or did not want, to go and keep Sasha company. [Three of the younger children] clamoured to visit Sasha, but my mother wasn’t sure Mrs Henry had meant to invite them. That left me. Sasha and I are both pop record fans, we share the same taste in comics…They’d all be texting for themselves these days, but still, many of us remember this kind of family and inter-family communications - rarely described quite so realistically.
John Verney’s illustrations, 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 back in the day. He did the illos for some editions of the much-loved Jennings books by AnthonyBuckeridge. I found this in an obituary for him (he died in 1993):
But his most abiding interest was in his annual Dodo-Pad, defined by him in his Who's Who entry as 'the amusing telephone diary', which Collins (later HarperCollins) published regularly from 1965I remember the Dodo Pads well - they were always on the counters of independent bookshops in November and December.
I felt I couldn’t improve on John Verney’s own illustration of the scene above – he did some great illos for the book, as well as a splendid map of the area (though he credited that to our heroine February Callendar…).
But I wanted to use the second picture too: last year I found it at the Athenaeum, it is called The Day after Christmas by Mark Lancelot Symons from around 1931. It seems to be appropriate for any post-Xmas book really, no matter the date, age or milieu. And it definitely has a look of the family in the book – there is an excellent scene where February is looking after the baby, to get out of doing the washing up, and sets him to do an obstacle course in the dining-room. You can easily imagine that might be the next move for the bored and grumpy girls above.