A new, but old, obsession

Sometimes, I rather like being late to the party…

In the run up to Christmas, Sunday night’s Twitter feeds were full of discussions regarding the impact of WW1 and the Spanish Flu. My mother and sister engaged in hearty debates about people who were total strangers to me. The evening of Christmas Day was spent watching two hours of a TV show I knew next to nothing about.

I talk, of course, of Downton Abbey. In my defence, there are plenty of reasons why I’d not joined the rest of the nation (and the Americans) in period drama frenzy:
1. It was on at 9pm on a Sunday. During series one I would have been at the pub after church at this time. Last autumn, I was en route home from church, preparing myself for early Monday morning Greek classes.
2. I dislike ITVplayer with a passion. It crashes, there are lots of ads, it’s just generally irritating which doesn’t entice me to keep up with shows on it.
3. I have a contrary nature and don’t always like to do as society dictates.

However, given my family’s passion for it, it seemed likely I’d enjoy it. We are united in our love of certain (note: ‘certain’) ITV period dramas – namely Brideshead Revisited, Jewel in the Crown and Tenko – so if they like something, I probably will too. When series one of Downton appeared on my sister’s Christmas list, I thought this was a cunning opportunity – by bestowing it upon her, there was likely to be the possibility of borrowing it in the very near future.

The boxset was duly handed over the night we went to Grease. I finally got around to watching it a week later and within 24 hours had watched 5 episodes. Dressing for church the next morning, I watched another. (As I tweeted: “Getting dressed while watching Downton gives one the illusion of living in a country mansion & having servants to help dress one…”) I was beginning to worry that I’d suffer withdrawal symptoms, given that I had just one episode left and no season two on the horizon. Fortunately, our worship leader came to the rescue, promising to bring it in. [Sadly, he’s now forgotten it twice, and I am now suffering withdrawal, hence this post.] As he described it, Downton is like chocolate – not necessarily the best thing ever made, but it meets a need and is utterly addictive.

To try and keep withdrawal at bay, I’ve returned to the Comic Relief Downton spoof from last year. 12 months ago I watched this and found it faintly amusing; this evening I’ve been laughing heartily – if you haven’t seen it and consider yourself to be a Downton aficionado, do indulge.

And, just in case you’re worried about my current obsessive state – what with the egg hunting and period drama watching – it’s ok. When things are time limited, obsessing over them is absolutely fine. Honest.

Developing a Tenko mentality

Regular readers will know that I have (possibly unhealthy) tendency to fall into black holes in which I’m lost for days and days at a time – perhaps it’s an indication of an obsessive personality…

It often occurs with TV series, in which hour upon hour is invested in something gripping – the dawn of the DVD boxset is particularly responsible for this. It’s the knowledge that there’s always one more episode, one more series. I suspect the main reason I haven’t yet begun The West Wing is that with seven seasons to consume, I could easily lose several weeks of my life. [Though, if anyone has season 1 to hand, I would love to borrow it – just don’t let me near it if an essay deadline’s looming.]

This past weekend was lost in a blur of prison huts, rice rations, medical crises and Japanese soldiers. Somehow (honestly, I can’t remember what I’d typed into YouTube) on Friday evening I discovered that entire episodes of classic 1980s series Tenko were now online. The ridiculous thing is that this isn’t the first time I’ve locked myself in my room with a load of internees – around 6 years ago I borrowed my Mum’s DVDs and watched the whole thing over a few weeks, trying to ration episodes in between the arrival of boxsets from across the Irish Sea in the same way that the prisoners rationed their vegetables.

Like Jewel in the Crown, Tenko is brilliant period drama. It lacks the stunning vistas of JiTC, as (apart from the first couple of episodes set in Singapore) it was filmed in Dorset. [This raises two questions: 1. How did they get so many days of sunshine in which to film? 2. How was it warm enough for the actors to look so hot in so little clothing?] You really wouldn’t know it was Dorset though, honest. It’s brilliantly acted, with a virtual who’s who of 1980s actresses (personally, I love that one of the best characters couldn’t appear in the third series because she was already committed to Bergerac) – thank goodness for Wikipedia helping me make connections!

When you think about it, it’s incredible that such a riveting drama could be created in a context where the characters never leave the confines of a small camp. The story begins before the Japanese invasion of Singapore in 1941, with three episodes setting the scene and introducing the characters – it’s a little like the start of an episode of Casualty where you begin to get a feeling of foreboding as you see a dangerous situation emerge. Series one ends with the women moving to a new camp; series two is set entirely in a camp run by a despotic female interpreter; and series three chronicles their transition back into society after the war. I think one of the reasons why it’s so addictive is that you truly buy into the characters and want to know if they survive and what happens to them in the end. God bless its producers by filming a reunion special set five years after the war so that we’re able to achieve a level of closure!

Tenko holds a special place in the hearts of the women of our family and I’ve no idea why. My sister and I were too young to watch it originally, but I think Mum talked about it a lot – certainly it was something we looked out for on DVD for her for quite a while. For a while it was shown at lunchtimes on the History channel and my sister would occasionally taunt me with texts during school holidays because she was watching it. My Dad is so aware of the addictive nature of the programme than when I mentioned I’d found it online last night, he groaned and asked how many episodes I’d watched.

As I write this, episode nine of series two is on – so that’s the 19th episode since Friday night. That’s rather excessive. The worst thing about the addiction is that you start developing what I like to call a ‘Tenko mentality’ – watch too many episodes in one go, alone in your bedroom and you start believing that you too are interned on a Sumatran island. Suddenly you have an overwhelming urge to eat rice and make hats out of grass. You know you need to stop watching for a while when you’ve eaten rice for more than two meals in a row.

So, if you’d like to know what the fuss is about and lose 1500 minutes of your life, here’s episode one:

How do you define ‘seriously’?

In amongst the birthday cards and gifts my sister brought with her to London on Saturday was non-birthday gift that I knew to expect – a hardback copy of The Chalet School Goes To It which my mother had purchased after a detailed phone call with me a few days earlier. First thing I did after extracting it from its paper bag? Opened it up at a random page and inhaled deeply – there is little better in this world than the smell of a 60 year old hardback school story…

At some point during our picnic I mentioned my latest acquisition and was asked if I had similar rules for Chalet School hardbacks as for paperbacks. (I have a variety of book collection rules but will never go into the tedium of my CS paperback collection here, suffice to say I now have a full set that I’m almost happy with.) I think my response was “Oh no! I don’t take collecting the hardbacks seriously!” – to which the (possibly sarcastic reply) was “So you’d take a book in any kind of condition, with the spine hanging off?”. When I said that I wouldn’t, my friends suggested that I was taking this more seriously than originally claimed – so let me explain:

Firstly, once I had my complete paperback set, my Chalet School collecting passion was fairly satisfied. I had all the stories as well as various other bits and pieces – pretty impressive considering there are 62 books in total. Secondly, the paperbacks were hard enough to come by – the hardbacks are even worse. I’ve acquired a few, some for free, but dedicating time and resources to finding all 58 hardbacks is not something I can justify.

This is the only complete hardback set I’ve seen in the flesh. 
It was the highlight of a New Years’ house party nearly three years ago (a friend was house-sitting). 
In fact, I recently discovered the owner may be a tutor of mine next year, which would be exceptionally exciting. 

But, when I joined Friends of the Chalet School (FOCS) [oh yes, for two years I was that much of a geek – though, to be fair, it was their book selling network that helped me complete my collection] I discovered a terrible thing. When Armada began publishing the paperbacks, they edited the original text. In some cases it was just minor – updating of language and removal of now offence terms – in other cases it saw the deletion of entire chapters, new titles or even two books instead of one. (If you’re a geek too, here’s a list of how the series fared.) Finding that my collection was missing bits of the plot incensed me, so in the back of my head, my priority for hardback purchases is those that suffered most at  the editors’ pens.

[Incidentally, a lot of classic children’s literature suffered from this and is only now being dealt with. Check the editions you grew up with and you may well discover a mention of ‘abridged’ if you look closely enough. And don’t get me started on Enid Blyton & the transformation of Aunt Fanny to Aunt Franny! They’d better not tamper with Arthur Ransome’s Titty…]

Fortunately, when I was a member of FOCS, I was able to read accounts of exactly how these editions differed and in some cases, read the missing chapters. For the first time I discovered that Princess Elisaveta reappeared at the school during WW2, and just how lucky I was to have read the unabridged Three Go To The Chalet School before acquiring the paperback version. (And yes, I’d have loved to write my own comparison, but the hardbacks I owned had already been done.)

So, jumping into bed with my newest hardback on Sunday night was an exciting prospect as I looked forward to new discoveries. I won’t bore you with the details, but the fact that Goes To It became The Chalet School At War in paperback gives an indication of the differences. I know, it’s sad, but it makes me happy…

Predictably, once I read one, I couldn’t stop. This is a particularly dangerous prospect given (a) the size of the series and (b) that I’d intended them to go into storage in 3 weeks time. Then I went online to see if I could find any of the old comparison articles. I couldn’t, but did find that new fill-in titles were available. I’m in two minds about these, on the one hand the ones I’ve read have been good and very true to EBD’s style. On the other hand, there are errors and these annoy me, plus, I’m not sure if it’s the right thing to do. But, if you’re a fan of the series, I do recommend those sold by the Girls Gone By Publishers (who now have the CS publishing rights). Then I found a real black hole – online fan fiction.

Fan fiction can be rather dodgy. I’ve heard about the mass of Potter related fanfic, much of which seems to veer on pornographic. Suffice to say that CS fans aren’t as lewd – though I did appreciate one story in which the predictable, somewhat formulaic structure of the series was fought against (and where Joey and Jack actually had sex – shock horror!) and there are a couple of predictable girls’ school insinuations. I also discovered a brilliant post end of series story about Len’s daughter which actually brought a tear to my eye, in much the way that occasionally EBD originals have.

Finally, if you are a fan and believe yourself to have fairly encyclopaedic knowledge, what’s better than a few quizzes? It’s possible I may have wasted around 30 minutes of my evening down that particular black hole!

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.

Obsessive – moi?

I’ve long been aware that my personality leans towards obsessive in certain areas. However, I was recently accused of being obsessive about something that I’m most categorically not obsessive towards – shoes.

Now, I know certain people will be thinking “urm, hang on, Liz is totally obsessed with shoes – we hear about it every time she buys new ones”, but actually, I don’t buy them that often. It’s my mother who’s labelled me this way (I heard via a colleague who’s a good friend of hers) claiming that I talk about them all the time.

In fact, I think it’s simply that when I do buy shoes I put a fair bit of thought and research into it and talk through the purchase with shoe-loving people (i.e. my mother and sister) before committing. A fact that I think proves this point is that I hadn’t bought new shoes since early October until this Sunday. That’s over 6 months – impressive I feel.

For quite some time I’ve been feeling a need for some perfect red flats. ‘Perfection’ would include the following points:

  • Decent sole and sensible cushioning (you should take care of your feet and not waste money on shoes that don’t do them or your ankles any good – yes, I am now middle-aged). 
  • A good, bright shade of red – think English phone box. 
  • A rounded toe.
  • Something that makes them a little different (i.e. not simply plain ballet pumps). 
On Easter Sunday I trawled websites trying to find such shoes, disappointed that a google image search for ‘perfect red flat shoe’ didn’t unearth the shoe I’d designed in my mind. Anyway, after over an hour of hunting I located a possibility…two weeks later I spotted them on an actual person and knew they were the ones…a day later I bought them…three days later they arrived. See, it’s a meticulous process! 
And the shoes? 
Aren’t they lovely? They’re these ones
Oh, and a word of recommendation for the lovely people at Schuh. I love their shoes generally (even though their Oxford St branch tends to be a little chaotic) but their delivery service is amazing. If you’re in the shop and they don’t have the right size/make, you can pay for them in-store and they’ll deliver them wherever you want. So on Sunday I placed my order; on Tuesday an e-mail arrived to say they were with the courier; this morning (before I’d even left for work) I got a text to say that they’d be delivered today; and lo and behold, they were at work when I got there! Impressive, and there’s no extra delivery cost. 
[If you want to know what I may actually admit to being obsessed with, one word: handbags. There’s also no way that my mother can judge me on that one as she’s just as bad, if not worse. But, except for replacing my stolen one, I’ve bought no handbags for myself since last August…]