Tuesday, 26 June 2012

A surprising and astonishing book

Sold For A Farthing - Clare Kipps
Published 1953 by Frederick Muller Ltd

MY top ten books of all time include the predictable mix of the worthy (Plato's The Last Days of Socrates), the classic (Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit) and the personal (The Green Stone by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman). But following a discovery a few days ago I can now include the unexpected: Sold For A Farthing by Clare Kipps.

It is only 72 pages long. It was written by a non-professional writer. And it tells the story of a sparrow. 

Clare Kipps was an Air Raid Warden in London. In July 1940 she returned home to find on her doorstep a day-old sparrow which, miraculously, responded to her nursing. It had, however, a deformed wing which meant it stayed the rest of its life in Clare's home. The sparrow - Clarence - became tame. So tame, in fact, that Clare was able to take it on her rounds in London's East End. Children (and adults) sitting huddled together in fear of Hitler's bombing campaigns immediately burst into smiles when they realised their Air Raid Warden brought with her a pet sparrow - a sparrow happy to perform a programme of 'tricks'.

It is this backdrop of World War II which makes this story so poignant. While men were slaughtering each other by the millions, Clare and her friends do all they can to save, and care for, one sparrow. The title - Sold For A Farthing - is a Biblical reference: that if God cares for a sparrow that you can buy for a farthing, then how much more must he care for you. The irony isn't lost on Clare.

On its most basic level, this is a simple touching tale of a woman caring for a sick sparrow. And the book can be enjoyed if read only as that (there are even photos of Clarence performing some of his tricks). Just as you can enjoy Jonathan Livingstone Seagull as a story about a seagull. But there are deeper questions here for those who care to ask them.

For example, there's a quote at the start from CS Lewis about whether it is man's duty to tame animals, rather than leave them in a 'wild' state. Clare (a widow) says Clarence was not a pet. Rather that they shared an intimate friendship (he often 'nested' in her bed with her). By the end of the book she is writing "This little person - for it becomes increasingly difficult to me to think of him as a mere bird...". But does the sparrow become more human, or does she become more 'mother hen'.  What are we to make of this:

"After breakfast (if the siren allowed) came the morning scrap. The bed would be cleared for action and I would sit at one end and the sparrow, looking like a miniature eagle, at the other. Then he would rush at me, tail spread and wings outstretched, and hold down my hand with one tiny claw while he hammered it with his beak like a miner with a pickaxe. He would then retreat only to return in fury to the attack - pecking, pinching, tumbling and scolding as the wild sparrows do in the hedgerows. But when I said sternly 'Now, now! That's enough!" he would simmer down and flutter his fan until his fed."

To protect her eyes during these mock fights she took to wearing goggles.

Clarence and Clare have their share of adventures on the way. The house is bombed (he survives), they are caught in a bomb raid while out at night and on one occasion a cat gets into Clarence's room. Clare's inexperience as a writer does mean she glosses over these. So, infuriatingly she says at the start of Chapter Five: "There is little of interest to record in the life of my sparrow from the end of his sixth year until his serious illness and partial recovery in his twelfth."! But it is perhaps for the best that the publisher didn't rush round a ghost-writer and Clare's matter-of-fact style allows this story to be told simply and starkly. That said, you'll no doubt be shedding a tear or two at Clarence's death. He lived 12 years (most text books will tell you the life expectancy of a sparrow is three years) and the bird-lover/scientist will no doubt find much of interest in this diary.

The lover of mysticism or the supernatural may also find something in this book. Such as this throwaway line in the Prologue:

"When I was born, a magpie pecked three times on the window as the nurse announced that a puny and significant infant was a girl.  My mother took it as an ill omen - for she had a strange horror of magpies - and she died within three days. But neither magpie nor raven has ever been to me a harbinger of sorrow. I have had friends among the wild songsters and have been on nodding terms with a nightingale, but no bird has ever been so constant and beloved a companion as my little house sparrow."

And there's a spine-chilling coincidence towards the end of the sparrow's life when Clare asks a photographer to take some pictures of her feathered friend. She randomly pulls a book off the shelf and opens it for the sparrow to be pictured 'reading'. Only when the photo is developed and printed does she realise that the book (of religious scripture) is open at a page that says: "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing, yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father knowing?"

Make of that what you will.

Clare was a friend of the poet and author Walter de la Mare and he encouraged her to write an account of Clarence. It was published in 1953 and became a minor sensation. The book appears to have been rarely out of print until the Seventies. And while it may be out of print now, second-hand copies are easily obtained. I urge you to get hold of one. Dickens it ain't. But it is without doubt a most remarkable book.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Health and safety gone mad

Yes, they are full face goggles and hard hats the scouts are wearing!
I JUST had to share this picture from the front page of this week's Keswick Reminder. It shows scouts lighting a Jubilee Beacon but some buffoon in health and safety has insisted they wear hard hats and full-face goggles! Despite that it appears as if the boy's arm on the left is on fire. Somewhat unsurprisingly, The Keswick Reminder didn't think following up the 'health and safety angle' and ran the story straight.

A warm production of Colder Than Here

YES, it’s about dying. But no, it’s not a depressing night at the theatre.
Colder Than Here is a gentle, heart-warming look at a family struggling with the terminal cancer of their mother, Myra (Maggie Tagney).
Playwright Laura Wade was in the audience on the first night and I can’t believe she was anything but delighted by this first regional performance of her play.
Freelance director Abigail Anderson used the deftest of touches to show a natural and realistic portrayal of a family brought together by the impending death.
Daughters Jenna (Augustina Seymour) and Harriet (Joannah Tincey) rediscover their sibling love for each during the months of planning for a fitting funeral for their mother.
And ‘distant’ husband Alec (Philip Rham) finds some measure of reunion with his wife as well.
It’s through a mix of humour and pathos that Laura Wade keeps the audience intrigued and, at times, entertained by the progress towards Myra’s final days. A cardboard coffin is the focus for many giggles as Myra considers a natural burial. Just as the characters are forced to deal with the self-assembly coffin sat in the middle of the lounge so they are also forced to deal with the many issues that have pushed the family apart.
It’s a lovely and surprisingly reassuring night of theatre.
Colder Than Here runs at Keswick Theatre until November 9. Phone 017687 74411  to book or visit www.theatrebythelake.co.uk.
Dry Rot  - Sadly, just not funny enough
COMEDY is difficult to pull-off on stage. Farce is darn near impossible. It’s the downfall of many an over-optimistic amateur theatre company and now even Keswick Theatre appears to be struggling with this genre. 
Dry Rot was written 60 years ago by John Chapman and a dated script proves a handicap for the players before they even start but it shouldn’t in itself prove fatal. 
Indeed, the actors give a slick and reasonably fast-moving performance. But the occasional chuckle was the best achieved during this performance 
The direction by Ian Forrest seemed unimaginative. The comic action (relying on characters getting their foot stuck in the dry rot of the staircase, trousers falling down and the usual misunderstandings) appeared as tired and dated as the script. 
It is at least tame enough to make it a family show, and there were plenty of younger audience-goers. But these are youngsters used to the sharp, edgy and sometimes vicious humour of CBBC – it was clear that getting a foot stuck in a floorboard was just not going to cut it. 
Mr Forrest and other directors at Keswick have often turned dull patches of script into something remarkable thanks to clever direction and novel bits of theatre but for the most part these are all missing in Dry Rot. And it’s not been that long since they turned the ‘dated’ script of Arsenic and Old Lace into a modern-day hit.
 Whole scenes (practising riding a horse on the back of a couch, drinking afternoon tea) ramble on for several minutes with every attempt at eliciting a laugh falling on deaf ears. 
At times the show did start to kick into action. When the Frenchman Polignac (Adrian Metcalfe) comes on stage the laughs start to flow. Perhaps it’s the natural delivery (as opposed to the over-the-top shouting the cast generally rely on) which makes it work. Similarly the genuine confusion between the landlord Colonel Wagstaff (Stephen Aintree) and landlady (Nicky Goldie) over a piano is delivered dead-pan and produces some good giggles. 
It’s hard as a reviewer to gauge whether it’s just you – the critic – having a bad night. And to be fair, there did seem to be some in the audience enjoying much of the show. But I suspect the majority were disappointed by this lack-lustre and often unfunny farce. 
Keswick Theatre aren’t afraid to change and adapt shows as they continue their run through the summer and I suspect  (and hope) that when others go to see the show it will have improved markedly (feel free to comment below and let me know).