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Archive for April, 2010

The Natural History Museum in Dublin is being reopened today after a couple of years of closure rather dramatically heralded by a collapsing staircase.

It was a strange place because you approached the elephant and other big guns (so to speak) from behind, as if you were creeping up on them – apparently this is because when the new entrance from Merrion Street was created (still known as the “new” entrance, though it was made some time round the turn of the century) it was too much bother to turn everything around. The intriguing thing about the NHM was not so much staring into the beaded eyes, or tracing the stitched-up seam along a furred stomach, or searching ghoulishly for bullet holes, or realising you have started to use words like thorax and genus, but experiencing a crowded, narrow-aisled, galleried Victorian museum – the glass cabinets, the pinned moths, the leatherette curtains to be drawn back from the glass display cases, and silently replaced, weighted with brass rods. There’s so much interpretation and representation going on in museums that sometimes the items themselves are cast into shadow. I’m interested in seeing how many of the old characters resurface in the new museum, and which of the story displays they’ve kept – the snow scene showing a white hare (I think), the modern seaside scene showing the ravages of pollution, the seagull’s oily wings, the plastic top of a six-pack of beer.

But here’s a thing – everyone is saying oh! in auld Dublin, generations of children have spoken of it fondly as the Dead Zoo. Well I grew up a few hundred yards from it, walked past it twice every one of my schooldays, knew every missing knob on those weirdy wide butterfly drawers, touched everything that wasn’t meant to be touched, and I never in my life heard it being called the Dead Zoo, so either that was kept from me for 35 years or it’s a load of eyewash.

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Catching up online with so many newspapers I didn’t read in the flesh at the time, I saw a very interesting piece written by the great-granddaughter of Alice Liddell about the relationship between Lewis Carroll  and Alice as a girl, a necessary sale of souvenirs, etc. 
 
Alice wrote to her son Caryl (ooh, er, there you go): “But, oh, my dear, I am tired of being Alice in Wonderland. Does it sound ungrateful? It is, only I do get tired.” It made me think about poor Christopher Robin Milne and the millstone of Pooh. Apparently the worst bit for CRM was not actually Pooh, but the poem Vespers (Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares. Christopher Robin is saying his prayers”) the Vera Lynn recording of which some of his contemporaries at Stowe played over and over again for pure torture, till Christopher eventually smashed the record into smithereens and scattered it over some playing field. 

Honestly, when you think about how people agonise over whether it’s acceptable to send a child to school in the wrong coat for fear of standing out, God love the poor blighter. He’d be a guaranteed no-pics-on-Facebooker.

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I had friends for lunch yesterday and one of them mentioned looking for old Chalet School books in the few secondhand bookshops which are left in Dublin. It was a bit shaming to admit that I still had my collection – not only that but they weren’t lurking in an old Tayto box in the attic but actually on a shelf two feet away from my desk, along with the Jill pony books, the Trebizon series and my Noel Streatfeilds. Sentimental? Moi?

 
In many ways the Chalet School books don’t really stand up to an adult reading, but that wouldn’t stop me relaxing in a warm Radox bath with one. I learnt my first German words from them, who the Nazis were, what the Anschluss was, and that if you’ve eaten too many sweets and cakes you make yourself sick and earn a jorum of castor oil. People in the Chalet School books are always blushing furiously, stalking out of rooms, coming to an understanding of their own faults and devising their own punishments. They tend to be characterised by a single personality trait – perhaps they are hot-headed, stolid, delicate, or naturally blunt – which haunts their behaviour through the books. Flicking through them yesterday I remembered immediately the haughty Prussian girl, scorned for eating smoked bacon, the plainspoken American who used cloves of garlic instead of cloves in her apple pie, the oversensitive French girl whipping up an omelette aux fines herbes, the reasonable German with flaxen plaits forever making peace between others, and of course Joey Bettany, always doing things wholesale and given to multiple births: once she’d married her doctor (every Chaletian’s happy ending) she never stopped having triplets and twins for the rest of the series, while maintaining her girlish figure, producing a couple of bestselling books a year, living in a succession of houses filled with fresh flowers and pretty chintzes, windows flung open for the invigorating mountain air, and adopting every passing child with domestic difficulties.
 
The Chalet School was a fine idea, an addictive series and a schoolchild’s dream, offering the perfect mix of risk and adventure (hikes going wrong, casualties on a frozen lake, life-threatening coughs, opportunities to blow up the chemistry lab) against a background of an exotic kind of consistency (Kaffee und Kuchen would be served in the Speisesaal come flood, fire or World War II). And the Armada paperbacks (editions which I think are scoffed at by true followers) were lovely matching ones in bright colours, which helped. Although I’m not a proper book collector in the sense of tracking down first editions and shunning reprints, I’m a shallow sucker for a row of shining-spined Grantas, the muted elegance of the Dublin Review, or the massed banded covers of the old Penguins. Books are a comfort, even if (gasp) you don’t read them, and because you’ve a book in the shopping bag you think your careless shopping is unimpeachable, somehow, a habit no-one could criticise. But half the time I think the books are a buffer, masking something else, fragments I am shoring against my ruin, and all that jazz.
 
 
I’ve certainly destroyed this nice hardbacked copy of Peggy with my massive sticker. Not even a discreet, tastefully engraved Ex Libris, oh no. I’m shocked to see it cost 40p a good 25 years ago. I paid 50c for The Shorter Pepys in a fat Penguin Classic last weekend. Wassap with that?

 


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