Reading about the recent death of Adam West who played the Batman of my childhood made me reflect on the fact that the images of our formative years remain with us, despite later re-boots. Therefore, whenever anyone mentions Batman it is the image of the television series from the mid- 60s that comes to mind.
I was of an age that took these things very seriously so I did not, at the time, recognise any of the features that were later described as ‘camp’. I did not realise that the series was from another country, they spoke English after all. To me, it was all worth my attention and belief. I identified more with Robin than Batman, possibly because he was younger and I was a child.
I gave all the later films a miss. I grew away from Batman and superheroes generally but the truth is that the mid-60s television version remained with me and, when I heard the sad news about Adam West, there were all the images and references from childhood just waiting to return. Batman, Robin, the Joker, the Riddler and the Penguin were all there (but in black and white- this was British television, 60s style!)
This novel by Stephen Kelman is told in the engaging voice of Harrison, a boy from Ghana, in London to start a new life with his mother and sister (another sister and his father are still in Africa but hoping to come to Britain). The world as seen by an eleven year old in a new country is fascinating, especially as he tries to negotiate social conventions and the pecking order of school boys.
This is London, though, where knife crime is a big problem; already a teenage boy has been killed and Harri sees himself as the detective who can solve the crime. This makes him watchful and alert to those around him. His older sister’s choice of friends is not wise and this brings her and Harri closer to some unsavoury characters.
The world of children trying to be both tougher than they should be and more worldly wise is effectively evoked. Harri’s voice carries us through the story, observing the world and making sense of it. His optimism is infectious, especially his hope that his younger sister and father will soon arrive and they will all be united. This is the background for a further, dramatic event that non-plussed me and left me feeling sad about all the Harris in the world.
The news today of the death of John Noakes was so sad to hear as he was such a big part of my childhood. With Peter Purves and Valerie Singleton he was what made Blue Peter great. I know that his time on the programme coincided with my childhood, and that each generation probably has its own special presenters, but he joined in the 60s when I started watching and left after I had grown away from children’s television so he was always there.
John, Val and Pete were the line- up for my generation. Lesley Judd and Simon Groom came after I moved on and presented with John Noakes and I vaguely remember Christopher Trace who, with Valerie Singleton, presented in the early 60s when he joined the programme but it was the three of them who formed a background to my London early years.
This is another Charles Causley poem that I love. His ability to distill messages from small moments is impressive. The musicality of the poem helps to keep it in the mind and adds to the sense that the observer is being misled over the nature of the show in front of them.
My Mother Saw A Dancing Bear
My mother saw a dancing bear
By the schoolyard, a day in June.
The keeper stood with chain and bar
And whistle-pipe, and played a tune.
And bruin lifted up its head
And lifted up its dusty feet,
And all the children laughed to see
It caper in the summer heat.
They watched as for the Queen it died.
They watched it march. They watched it halt.
They heard the keeper as he cried,
‘Now, roly-poly﹗’ ‘Somersault’
And then, my mother said, there came
The keeper with a begging-cup,
The bear with burning coat of fur,
Shaming the laughter to a stop.
They paid a penny for the dance,
But what they saw was not the show;
Only, in bruin’s aching eyes,
Far-distant forests, and the snow.
The poetry of Charles Causley is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This 1996 film from Czech film-maker Jan Sverak is a wonderful exploration of how a life can change and find meaning in an unexpected way. The director’s father Zdenek plays the central role of Louka, a dedicated bachelor who earns his living as a cellist, or struggles to by playing at funerals; his previous job with an orchestra was lost when he was considered to be politically unreliable. This is Czechoslovakia in the late 80s and, although the Soviet bloc is disintegrating, the regime is still a totalitarian one.
Louka struggles to make a living and agrees to marry a Russian woman for cash. Things go wrong when she uses her new citizenship status to esacpe to the West, leaving her five-year old son behind. The boy is the Kolya of the title.
The story is one of a growing bond between man and boy, despite the language difficulties and the other problems of an inexperienced bachelor trying to look after a young boy. What becomes clear, though, is the sense that both need each other. For Louka, in particular, the change to his life is positive; he finds purpose in the role of parent.
Towards the end of the film, the events of the late 80s in the Eastern bloc affect both man and boy. The ending plays cleverly on the idea of freedom and loss, for both individuals and groups.
The film is never sentimental but it is affecting. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This 1963 book by Anne Holm is a classic. It tells the story of a young boy who escapes from a concentration camp in an unnamed country, but probably in the East of Europe, and makes the journey towards Denmark and home.
The book has an enigmatic quality because there are many questions unanswered. We do not know which country he is in at the start of the book or why he is in a camp. It is not clear what a child of 12 is doing in the camp without parents or even why a guard helps him survive and then escape.
The journey takes the boy through Europe. He has been told to catch a boat from Salonika to Italy. He is heading for a country in the north that has a king. David has been cut off from normal life so does not know how to interact with people but, as he travels north, he meets people who teach him how to socialise.
There is an opportunity to live in a family when he saves the daughter from a fire in a shed but, after a time, the parents become unnerved by David’s worldly wise and woeful outlook, which seems out of step with his age.
This is a book about heading home and the ending reflects the hopeful aspect of the book. Yet the most important journey is the one David takes from being a damaged child to somebody who belongs in society.
‘I am David’ by Anne Holm is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
As it is World Book Day, here is a book I love. ‘Boy in a Tutu’ by Kate Scott is a sequel to her novel ‘Boy in Tights’. The adventure continues for Joe (or Josephine) as he is now styled since going into hiding. The concept of parents who are spies is an outlandish one but it is full of comedy and this book’s audience of children will love it.
Joe must continue to pretend to be a girl as his new identity and to keep him safe from the enemy who want to track down his parents. In this book, Joe is coming to terms with the idea of spy parents and can even see some benefits; ballet is not one of them, though, and he is, once again, put into a difficult situation when he is sent to ballet lessons with his friend.
Being in disguise allows him to see what is hidden to others and there is a story spine running through the book of adults up to no good. Joe has to be a convincing girl to pass unnoticed at the local sports centre where an exhibition of World Cup memorabilia is vulnerable to thieves.
As well as being a comedy, this story highlights the border children cross when they understand what life is like for others. For Joe, being Josephine reveals a lot about the way girls are treated.
‘Spies in Disguise: Boy in a Tutu’ is a lot of fun. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?