A glorious morning in the Chilterns. Morning has broken like the first morning, blackbird has spoken, like the first bird. The words are those of children’s writer Eleanor Farjeon who I always think of as thoroughly Victorian but who only died in 1965, well within my living memory. Eleanor mixed in elevated literary and theatrical circles, including people like D.H.Lawrence, Walter de la Mare, Robert Frost as well as Edward Thomas and his wife but it was to her own childhood that she always returned to for inspiration.
When she and her family settled in Sussex during WWI the genius loci and local traditions and customs combined with memories of family holidays in France and tales of troubadours came together in her most famous book ‘Matin Pippin in the Apple Orchard’, about a wandering minstrel – the chalk cliffs of the Sussex coast and the Long Man of Wilmington rather than the landscape of France providing the setting. Like the best fairy tales, the 6 stories in this book speak to an adult reader on a different level and in fact she didn’t write them with children in mind but quite specifically for a young soldier friend of Edward Thomas. Her themes of loss, betrayal and unrequited love suggest she said in print what she perhaps couldn’t in a more direct way.
My introduction to Eleanor came when my own children were little with tapes of her short stories. Daughter No 1 slept through the night almost from birth. Daughter No 2 didn’t. I don’t blame her. This was just how she was. Son and daughter No 3 were quite good sleepers but if No 2 was awake they would usually be awake too.
Being awake we decided (well, I say decided, rather meandered or blundered to the conclusion) was fine if nothing else could be done to get them to sleep, but that they should be in a bedroom, with blinds down in summer and soft light in winter and be as calm as possible. For a year or so they were all in the same room but I don’t ever recall the fact that they weren’t later on as being a problem, but no doubt bodies were distributed to their various beds later on. Clean and warm after their nightly baths we settled down and one or the other of us read to them (often for an hour or two). When we could read no more, we’d listen to story tapes, by which time the adults would be lying on the floor, often asleep. Creeping out when the last child was sufficiently dozy became a fine art.
Some nights we read from 7 – 9.30 pm and now that they are all very grown up they look back and say how much they loved it. I think in 5 years we went out 3 times – or was it in 3 years we went out 5 times. It doesn’t matter, with 4 children 6 and under it went like greased lightning. And it probably turns out that these extended reading sessions were some of the best things we did for them – a successful routine bred of desperation and resignation, not dogma or targets.
The Little Bookroom was Eleanor Farjeon’s best known collection of stories and it was made even more loveable with Edward Ardizzone’s inimitable watercolours. I’ve just rushed upstairs to find the what tapes we had and am slightly sad that I can only find one set of 2 cassettes and one of these is missing. Read by Michael Hordern, I shall just have to put it on for my next sewing session. Now that cassette players are no longer made, I have suggested to Daughter No1 that she finds one of those old ugly ochre and brown Fisher Price children’s cassette players while they’re still available on ebay. We had one that lasted many years and it was pretty indestructible. Although my grandson is as yet a vey good sleeper, there may come a time when he isn’t … and it would be nice to think of him listening to the same stories his mother did, read by the same voice. (And I have squirrelled away about 50 wonderful cassettes of children’s stories – I only kept the ones we loved. Long car journeys, Wet half term weekdays, hours stuck in bed with a cold – all were made bearable with a good story well read to keep us happy. Added bonus – with hands free, I could do patchwork too!)
Well, that’s how sidetracked a beautiful morning can get you. To accompany a glorious show of blue skies and sun I have a couple of initials I embroidered for my husband’s granddaughters – twins. I began and almost finished the first years ago and got as far as the initial in the second one. Things then stalled. Their birthday was in the first week of February so I had hoped to get them finished for then. It didn’t happen. I wanted them to be similar but different and for a long time I couldn’t fix upon a companion design. This is no good I thought and just got on with what I wasn’t sure was quite right. It was. Sometimes you just have to fling yourself into something you’re not quite committed to and make it work and that’s what happened here. The great thing with embroidery is that you can always undo bits and add other bits somewhere else. I’m now quite happy with it (and, whisper it, may even prefer it to the first one. No, no, you can’t go round saying things like that in today’s world, suffice it to say I like them in their different ways.)