When theology meets boarding school

Anyone who’s spent any length of time as a Christian in Britain – especially if you’ve worked for a church – is likely to have spent a certain amount of time at Christian conference centres. There are many of them, of varying qualities, but the more time you spend at them, the more adept you get at dealing with their eccentricities – of which there are also many.

Such places are either as hot as an old folks’ home, or as cold as a polar bear’s bedroom. There is never a happy medium. They frequently have interesting bathroom arrangements – particularly challenging when they involve scampering down cold corridors clad in nightwear hoping not to bump into the virtual strangers with whom you’re sharing the facilities. Sometimes their bedrooms are time warps – taking you back to a time when mains electricity wasn’t frequently available. On one memorable occasion, my room had no plug sockets and neither did the rest of the corridor – after much logical thought I concluded that the carpet in the corridor must need vacuuming, thus requiring power, and hunted high and low for a socket. I was successful and located them above every other bedroom door. [Hair had to be tried in next door’s room while standing in the doorway…]

As part of my training, I get to spend six weekends a year in such establishments (and a week in a French monastery, but more of that anon). This past weekend was residential #1 – at a former Catholic convent in the middle of nowhere (yet remarkably close to the M25) – and a venue I’d not yet experienced. In some ways, I’m rather sad that it’s closing down at Christmas and that we’ll only get one more trip there. It’s rather lovely, with an impressive chapel (lit with beautiful chandeliers rather conspicuously involving energy saving lightbulbs); beautiful quadrangle garden; excellent (compared with other places) food and plenty of eccentricities…

It was excessively hot almost everywhere, except places where you have to spend prolonged periods of time (like the chapel and lecture room). Mentions of the chapel on the schedule were met with with scurrying trips to bedrooms to pick up extra layers, and I rued the absence of my arm-warmers on several occasions.

All my lectures took place in the Great Hall, cue much Hogwarts comparison – though sadly the only wearing of robes took place during Sunday’s eucharist. My first glimpse of my cell, sorry, bedroom’s leaded window brought back memories of The Worst Witch, while the arrangement of North, South, East and West corridors was rather Mallory Towers-esque. [I may have resorted to using the compass in my phone in order to re-find my bedroom on Friday night.] All in all, it was rather like being at boarding school.

Sunset from my cell

You’d expect an ex-convent to have plenty of religious art and icons, but there were also odd extras in certain rooms. In fact, it was because of an odd extra that the room my fellowship group met in was chosen. (For ‘fellowship group’ read: ‘forced social time with people who are not in your year or not at your centre’, there was alcohol, it wasn’t so bad.) In the corner was a bizarre little feature – a tiny hand sticking out of the wall that seemed to do nothing. I may have been in a group of virtual strangers (actually, I wasn’t – two of my group are people I already know well), but that didn’t stop me from doing the inevitable. Obviously, I had to find out what its purpose was… 
I touched it – nothing happened. Then I tried turning it, and it moved! I screamed. I think my head had become so full of fictional boarding school excitement that I half expected it to reveal a secret passage. Sadly absolutely nothing happened, other than it moving to this position:
Disappointing. If anyone could offer an explanation as to what this interior design feature is for, I’d be most grateful. 

The black-hole of children’s literature

One of my (many) bad habits is that I’m not very good at putting myself to bed (actually, I’m excellent at getting into bed, I’m just very bad at turning the laptop/tv off, putting the phone away and letting myself fall asleep). I get easily caught up in things – writing blog posts, chatting or following gripping sporting events on the other side of the world. The last two nights have found me online past midnight and placing book orders after 1am – this, particularly on Thursday night, was not especially conducive to a good night’s sleep.

Why was I placing book orders at such a late hour? Well, after nearly eight years lurking in the shadows of my life, the black hole of children’s literature reappeared with a vengeance and sucked me into its vortex…

It began innocently, late on Thursday afternoon when a tweet popped up mentioning an article about Noel Streatfeild [yes, the i and the e are that way round] and Ballet Shoes. This prompted a quick trip to Amazon to hunt out the only adult work of hers that’s in print (and by adult, I obviously do not mean pornographic) as well as a few other juvenile titles we’d missed out on in childhood. As I added Saplings (the grown up book) to my basket, Amazon helpfully informed me of what people who bought that title also bought – and I let out a squeal that had to be quickly muted.

There, right in front of me, was a book whose title I knew well, but which had acquired mythical status when I was young. Maddy Alone is a sequel to one of our favourite theatrical themed books – The Swish of the Curtain (Pamela Brown). Our mother had been a fan when she was young and even owned the rest of the series, but, by the time we were reading it, only the original was in print. Amazon was helpfully informing me that not only had Maddy Alone been republished, but so had the next in the series and that the final instalments were imminent. In order to make it clear that I am not alone in my excitement, both my mum and sister have responded joyously to this news and there is now a waiting list to read them.

Thursday night’s Amazon binge was a combination of these books and a mission to complete my Streatfeild set. Of course, it couldn’t be as simple as just looking up titles and clicking ‘add to basket’. Oh no. What the black-hole also does to you (ok, me) is make certain things incredibly important – namely, edition styles and titles. I won’t go into the tediousness of my Chalet School rules, but it bothers me that half our Drina books are lovely colourful editions and the other half boring red spined ones – I’d love them to match and all be the former. [Writing that sentence has just revealed to me just how OCD I am about this, oh dear.]

In the case of Streatfeild, this complicates matters. The newer editions are nicer than many of the hideous 1970s/80s covers, but they bear the wrong titles – yes, the wrong titles. [Warning: rant approaching.]

When published in America, a terrible thing happened – the publishers decided that a significant group of her books were a series (they’re not, there are only vague connections, like the Fossils of Ballet Shoes appearing briefly in certain books) and that the only way in which Americans would realise they were a series was if their names were similar. Thus, every book Streatfeild wrote (with a few exceptions, like the ‘Gemma’ series and Thursday’s Child) has to have ‘shoes’ in the title.

The only ones to actually contain that word are Ballet ShoesBallet Shoes for Anna and Tennis Shoes (the latter being only her second children’s book, so it can be forgiven as a title). My favourite books – Apple Bough  (in which a family tour the world with their talented pianist son) and The Painted Garden (where a family move to California for 6 months) – became Travelling Shoes and Movie Shoes respectively, hugely unoriginal. Even shorter titles, like Party Frock and White Boots have the second word swapped for ‘shoes’, despite the fact that the frock of the former is the central element of the plot! How are you meant to distinguish Dancing Shoes (originally Wintle’s Wonders) from the other ballet books?

Thank goodness they left The Vicarage Family (another favourite, being semi-autobiographical and telling the tale of Noel’s childhood as the plain daughter of an impoverished Vicar) alone, because the concept of ‘Vicarage Shoes’ is quite honestly a ridiculous one. (Though I suspect such shoes would be very sensible house slippers, what with such places being known as fridges.)

So basically, I was on the hunt for the originally titled books, but with nice covers – harder than you’d think. Into the Amazon order went a new copy of Dancing Shoes, because you cannot find it under the original title (easily), but the others were potentially doable. Night two of late night book buying therefore consisted of the conclusion of some time spent trawling second hand children’s book dealers to find them. I’ve had to accept a naff cover on Curtain Up rather than owning a new (nice) copy of Theatre Shoes (and it was only 50p – bargain), but in total, acquired five more Streatfeilds for my collection as well as duplicates of a couple of favourites that are in danger of falling apart. (And yes, at this moment the thought in my head was “when I read this with my daughters…”)

Can you see what I mean about the covers? 

It was this trawling that led me deeper into the vortex. Back in the early years of this millennia, I haunted these websites semi-obsessively in order to complete my Chalet School collection (I was finishing a degree or working in a bookshop – what else did I have to do with my time?) and returning to them could have opened a Pandora’s Box. Hurriedly, I scrolled past lists of hardback Chalet Schools (although I have all 62 paperbacks, I long for all 58 hardbacks – yes, I’m special). On one site, a title stood out – Fifth Form Friendships at Trebizon – and for a second I thought I might be about to complete my Trebizon collection. My heart beat faster and then I looked it up and realised I already owned it and that my missing book was in fact Fifth Year Triumphs, a subtlety different title as I’m sure you’ll agree. [You may not have realised, but a significant element of my OCD is a need to complete collections.] But in the case of Trebizon, completion will have to wait just a while longer.

I’m happy to report that I’m now holding my own in the vortex. No time has been spent hunting for books today (good job too, having spent over £30 in the last two days) and I resisted any new purchases while staying warm in Foyles this afternoon – though I should share that I spotted a gorgeous new hardback edition of Ballet Shoes (with a red ribbon round its centre, how cute!) that even contains the original illustrations, beautiful. There are a couple more Streatfeilds I’m on the look out for, but I may contain myself at least until I’ve read some of what is currently en route. In the mean time, if anyone hears of a support group for people who suffer from such a condition, do let me know.

Fictional schools

Reading the Guardian this morning, I spotted an article entitled “Which fictional school do you like best?”, which got me thinking about which one I’d have liked to have gone to…

My first reaction was Hogwarts (as long as I was in Gryffindor), for its four-poster beds, excellent food and interesting pupils. On reflection, it’s probably not the best place for someone who’s scared of skiing – so certainly wouldn’t cope with flying on a broomstick and who would hide in a cupboard rather than face any kind of wand-wielding maniac or troll type thing.

A more logical choice would be the Chalet School, a less well known fictional school which was set over 30 years and 62 books [I have them all…I’m a geek] in Austria, Guernsey, Herefordshire, Wales and Switzerland. When I was 11 and starting school in Westminster, my dream was to be at a boarding school in the alps…

However, I’d have struggled. They did a lot of skiing and spoke three languages – alternating French, German and English. It was also a pretty dangerous school, there didn’t seem to be an expedition or walk where a pupil or teacher didn’t fall off a cliff, into a pond/lake/river, get buried by an avalanche, caught in a blizzard, fall over and sprain an ankle, catch small pox… No one died, they were usually rescued by some quick-thinking pupil who handily had some rope in their pocket, or through the combined resources of underwear tied together, or thanks to the help of a doctor who just happened to be passing. Without fail, this doctor would then marry one of the teachers on the expedition.

Maybe Malory Towers then? But they had compulsory swimming in the sea, which can’t have been pleasant. Or Miss Cackle’s Academy for Young Witches (the home of the Worst Witch)? The flying thing would’ve been a problem there too, and it was always cold & draughty. Or, the Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training in Ballet Shoes. I’d have loved to have done the whole stage school thing in a 1930’s context – although my lack of talent/co-ordination would’ve been a problem!

The only option left would be Trebizon. Modern, normal curriculum and no compulsory scary activities. But I suppose that’s not the point. Though I loved the books, the school was perfectly normal, they took GCSEs and everything – not exactly a fantasy school to aspire to!