Friday, 7 January 2011

A Plethora of Puffins

Some things will always remind of being ill as a child. Lying on the settee in the middle of the afternoon, hypnotised by the brown and orange palette of Crown Court, eating saps (white bread soaked in hot milk and sprinkled with sugar) on a tray, the smell of wet clothes hung out in front of the fire - and reading books full of stories of people caught up in unlikely adventures.

Sometimes the books came in carrier bags from my nana, paperback Louis L’Amour westerns, nicotine yellow at the edges, with pencil drawn front covers of dusty cowboys; sometimes library books from the mobile library, wrapped in clear plastic to keep them safe as they passed through a multitude of grubby hands, chosen by my dad and so likely to be Rudyard Kipling or Arthur Ransome, wholesome adventures of posh kids I didn’t really recognise; even occasionally brand new books from W H Smith or Menzies (though in those cases they were invariably Target Doctor Who books. They had to be or the disappointment would undoubtedly have caused a relapse).

My favourite books, though, were what seemed to be a multitude of Puffins and Penguins full of genteel and inexplicable time travel. Children, often sick and frequently poor, would set off on a journey, and once there they would stumble over something magical, and the journey would become far greater than they could ever have expected.

I quickly learned to spot this kind of book, and when one pitched up I’d start reading with one eye already anticipating the moment at which the magic would begin. As Tolly crossed the floodwaters on the way to Green Knowe or sickly Mary arrived in England from India and explored the Secret Garden; when the Five Children arrived in the country and headed for the beach or unrolled a nursery carpet at home, or when Lucy and Jamie followed Mr Blunden into the countryside – on every occasion I knew that magic was just round the corner.

A journey to the country was frequently a starting point, in fact – a concept I could entirely understand as a young boy living in the high flats on an estate in the city. Of course the countryside was full of mysterious shenanigans and unexpected goings-on! That was obviously the kind of thing that happened there...

Only as an adult though did I find out how many of those books were successful enough to be made into television. Or thought worthy enough, perhaps – I never did know what special quality it was that meant one book was deemed good enough for a BBC serial whilst another book, equally good in my eyes, remained forever unadapted.

I now imagine the transition from page to screen as though the process itself were in a movie, like those wonderful bits in the Disney Winnie the Pooh film where the words on the page fall off in the flood. The images created in my head by the text gradually fade and merge with those on the television, until the one has replaced the other entirely and where once I had been lost in a welter of words now I find myself mesmerised by those characters come alive on the screen.

And there are so many of them! So many classic serials on radio and TV, so many half forgotten books from my younger days which Amazon and the internet have brought back to mind and which the postman has dropped through the letterbox. And at the same time dvd companies seem to be releasing everything I could possibly want to watch. News about dramatisations I never even knew existed seem to appear at fairly regular intervals in newletters and adverts, falling into my Inbox with a satisfying thud.

Moondial, The Phoenix and the Carpet, Red Shift, Children of Green Knowe, The Snow Spider...the list is endless and brilliant and reminds me of being young and having enough of a cold to stay off school but not enough to want to waste time sleeping...sitting on the settee under a thick golden quilt with a lion embroidered in one corner, eating Rich Tea with margarine on and reading, reading, reading...


  1. Apparently there was a film on over Xmas called From Time to Time, which was an adaptation of Chimneys of Green Knowe & I missed completely.

  2. What?!?!? I have the dvd of the tv version of 'Children', but I'd never even heard of any adaptation of 'Chimneys'.

    And yet here it is: