Caldicott Place : Noel Streatfeild

Caldicott PlaceCaldicott Place by Noel Streatfeild

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes I suspect that, along with ‘Duvet Days’, there should be ‘Streatfeild Days’ where those people who feel a peculiar ache at their soul that they cannot quite identify should be allowed to take a day off to read a Streatfeild of their choice. I picked this one up from a charity shop recently, delighting in that front cover and its peculiar potent sense of time and place, and it’s a joy. It’s perhaps not her strident and raw best but when you consider what her best could be, you realise that those books which are simply ‘good’ are rather transcendent in themselves.

Tim’s family isn’t having a great time of it; his father has been hurt in a car crash, and money is proving immensely tight. Circumstances conspire to see Tim and his family relocate to the countryside with an old house and several new additions to take care of, whilst the father slowly recuperates from his injuries. It ties everything up appropriately, as stories of this nature ought to do, and there’s a few sudden moments of breathless beauty in it; particularly in the rehabilitation of Tim’s dad.

What Streatfeild manages to achieve here, and always, is this sense of the children stepping up and playing their part – in ways that, perhaps, the adult figures of the book do not realise. She had such a wonderful eye for letting children participate and own the movement of their lives that Caldicott Place sings with this sort of increasing childish strength and power and weight the more that the book develops. Streatfeild also had an eye for the adults in her books, rendering them as flawed and realistic characters full of worries and concerns of their own, whilst never, not once, allowing them to be unsympathetic. I think what I’m trying to say is that she understands people, and her books taste like buttered crumpets on a cold, sharp winter’s morning. They make everything alright again.

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Tennis Shoes : Noel Streatfeild

Tennis Shoes (Shoes, #2)Tennis Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Streatfeild season comes when you least expect it. For me, it came earlier this week with the sight of Tennis Shoes on a library trolley, and then, as I read it and the evenings started to twist around the end of Summer and things like Yorkshire puddings and joints of beef found their way into the fridge, I realised that it was most definitely Streatfeild season and it was good. It was time for the rich books, the books of tumultous family and bright, hard-working children that don’t jib and don’t jibe but just do , yet never, somehow, irritate.

I’d never read Tennis Shoes before. It is … very …. tennisy. But! It is also rather lovely. It’s a madly readable book written in that relaxed, rich style of Streatfeild. The family is immense, close, loving, annoying, and the children are delights. There’s always a part of me that loves the complex child in these stories because they are, so often, the richest of characters. Nicky, here, is spectacularly irritating but also spectacularly brilliant. The contradiction of character. Streatfeild revels in it. There’s much here in the family and sibling dynamics that reminded me of A Vicarage Family; both books have this kind of delightful rich, direct tone about them.

The big difficulty about Tennis Shoes comes with its structure. It finishes far too soon and almost offhandedly. There’s a great, immense book here that could have been something rather brilliant, I suspect, but we only get to see a fragment of it. It’s a good fragment, and a delightful read, yet it’s a fragment shorn from something bigger. There’s more of a story, and the ending is too soon. But then, I suppose with Streatfeild, it always sort of is.

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Party Shoes (Party Frock) : Noel Streatfeild

Party Shoes (Shoes, #5)Party Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is something rather lovely about Streatfeild’s England. Every village has a family full of a thousand siblings. There are sensible and yet approachable adult folk. There is always a girl who is earnestly in love with ballet who ends up being recruited to train with the local (there is always one present) ballet teacher who just happens to spot purposeful talent in the girl. There is sunshine. There are sibling dynamics full of love and fun and heart. There is loveliness. (If you would like a game for this review, you can count up how many times I say things are lovely…)

Selina in Party Shoes has received a frock. The problem is that as it’s wartime, the opportunities for her to wear this frock are very limited. To be frank, it’s not going to happen and so the cousins with whom Selina is lodging (due to her parents being abroad), put their head together to make a plan. And that plan is this. They will hold a pageant in the grounds of the local Abbey and that Selina will be able to wear her frock at that.

It’s a lovely and ridiculous book this, and it’s easy to think that it’s solely ridiculous with the benefit of reading this in todays age. The plot itself is glorious; we’ll hold a pageant, here’s how we plan the pageant, whoops here’s the pageant, all’s good, bye. And to be frank there are moments of planning which drag a little only to be resolved in that blithe booky fashion which never seems to happen in real life.

That’s one way of reading it, but I’d argue that there’s another. The thing is this plot comes from real life. Not the pageant-y part of it, but the aching need to wear a dress at the right occasion before one grows out of it. Streatfeild’s niece, Nicolette, received a dress during the war and the occasion never presented itself for the dress to be worn. As Streatfeild explains during the introduction to my edition, everyone began to wonder would the occasion ever present itself and if it did would it be too late? Would Nicolette have grown too much and would the dress fit?

Now, the inability to do something in an everyday context is annoying and troublesome as it is, but the inability to do something as simple as have an occasion fit for a pretty dress in the middle of wartime must have been something else. And there’s something lovely, heartbreaking and beautiful about the way the entire community bands together to achieve this, even if they almost forget what they’re doing it for in the process, even if they’re almost banding together to create something beautiful and positive and a memory to hold against all the sadness and trauma that they have lived through.

So yes, Party Shoes (also known as Party Frock) is ridiculous.

But it’s also something very much more than that.

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Ballet Shoes : Noel Streatfeild

Ballet ShoesBallet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book and I, we’ve known each other for a long long time. It is one of those books that has been in my life for forever, really, I can’t quite remember a time without it. Without Noel Streatfeild, without the Fossils and without Cromwell Road and Madame Fidolia. It is something I cannot quite conceive of, the unknowing of these things.

Ballet Shoes is beautiful, iconic in its way, a story of stage and screen and of destiny. It is a story about impact, about the value of that impact, and about making your mark on a world who barely notes you exist. It is wonderful. It is my heart and oh how it fits.

Pauline, Petrova and Posy (“Her name is Posy. Unfortunate, but true”) are foundlings, brought home by Great Uncle Matthew to his niece and her nanny. He is an adventerous soul, rather edibly Eccentrically English in his ways, and manages to bring the first of the girls home because “he had meant to bring Sylvia back a present. Now what could be better than this?” Petrova and Posy appear in similarly unusual circumstances and are promptly adopted into the swelling nursery.

It is then that Great Uncle Matthew (GUM) disappears for several, several years. With girls to look after and money running scarce, the newly named Fossil sisters, Sylvia and Nanny have to look into alternative strategies for funding. They get lodgers in (one, to Petrova’s delight, brings their car: “it was a citroen car, and it’s coming here as a boarder”) and it is because of those lodgers that the Fossils’ world is changed forever.

Streatfeild’s great skill as a writer is that she has purpose in her prose. It is a sort of intensely matter of fact style of writing; her children have a place to be and a purpose in their being there. Every child in a Streatfeild book has a vocation, found by hook or by crook, and they are intensely content once finding it. Petrova, in Ballet Shoes, is a revelation. It’s rare even now to see a girl in a book being surrounded by engines and cogs and yet Petrova is that girl and she’s being written in a book which first saw life in 1935.

Petrova is, I think, my favourite. She is vividly practical in her skills and her “yes, well, you can dance but I’m going to finish building my submarine now” attitude is an intense delight. It’s worth contrasting this attitude towards giftedness (the air of practical use and applicability of her skills) and contrast it against the more showy and impractical (I’m not sure if I mean that, but I’ll leave it for now) skills of Posy and Petrova.

It’s also interesting to note the crumpety-warm feeling of contentment that purveys this book. There are worrisome moments, yes, plenty, but there’s never quite the feeling of concern that things Will Go Wrong. Because they don’t, I don’t think, not in a Streatfeild book. They may go wrong initially but then, it is through that wrongness, that we find the right.

And, to be frank, if it did go wrong and remain wrong, Petrova would be more than capable of fixing it.

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