Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Arabel's Raven

Today is apparently World Read Aloud Day, not to mention also National Crown Roast of Pork Day (although that may just be in the US I think...I'm not sure I know what a Crown Roast is). There's always something to celebrate of course, whatever the day of the year, but Reading Aloud is an especially good one and worthy of note in this blog. If you'd rather just find out about the Crown Roast try here. That's a fine piece of pork.

Every day is Read Aloud day in this house of course given the ages of our children. But I hope that every day will remain a Read Aloud day for many years to come. My lovely Pa read aloud regularly to me until about the age of 10 I think, and after then there were occasional cosy nights on holiday when he'd scare the pants off all of us with an MR James ghost story ('Whistle and I'll come to You' *shiver*) around the fire. The husband courted me with his willingness to read classic pony stories to me of an evening. Now, I thoroughly enjoy getting stuck into increasingly complex stories with Bill. Having just completed 'Black Hearts in Battersea' we may have reached Hobbit time if I can't find a copy of 'Night birds in Nantucket' (although I remember that as being less good). I'll be sad if and when he dismisses my services.

So I offer you a fantastic book to read aloud today- partly because it was written especially for that- in the form of  another Joan Aiken; 'Arabel's Raven'.
Completely different from the spooky melodrama of the Willoughby Wolves reviewed here, 'Arabel's Raven' and the other 'Mortimer' books were originally written to be read aloud for the BBC children's programme of the 1970's 'Jackanory'.
'Jackanory' was a staple of my childhood telly. A different book was read aloud in five fifteen minute installments over the course of a week by an actor with no frills or furbelowes beyond the occasional cut to an illustration. If you missed a day- tough- there was no iplayer or recorder then of course. I'm in danger of sounding like a right old fogey, and I should say that I think there are many things about 'modern' telly for kids which are wildly superior to what we were offered then, but at its best 'Jackanory' was mesmerising, despite or perhaps because of its simplicity.
Bernard Cribbins was a Jackanory regular and the 'Mortimer' stories were written especially for him to read. I remember snorting, roaring, weeping, wetting myself with laughter watching him- and news that there was about to be a new one was the closest we got then to 'event' telly.
It's very sad then, that amongst the vast quantities of nostalgia clips available on YouTube there doesn't seem to be any Cribbins doing Jackanory. Still I'll offer you the original titles to preface my review and a snippet of equally wonderful Kenneth Williams to demonstrate just how minimalist telly got to be then.

'Arabel's Raven' is the first story in a series about small girl Arabel and her pet raven Mortimer and all the chaos that owning a raven with a beak for trouble can cause.
The books are built on about 80% dialogue which makes them perfect for reading aloud. You'll need a good line in funny voices, but the quality of the writing and differentiation of the voices makes it a joyful experience.

"One morning Mr. Round and Mr. Toby Round and Mrs. Jones were all very busy arranging a display of new issues in the shop window. When they had finished they discovered that Mortimer had eaten the spiral staircase.
'Mrs. Jones, you and your bird will have to go. We have kind, long suffering natures, but Mortimer has done eight hundred and seventeen pounds, sixty-seven pence' worth of damage. You may have a year to repay it. Please don't trouble to ever come in again.'
'Glad I am that I haven't such a kind, long-suffering nature,' snapped Mrs. Jones, and she dumped Mortimer on top of her wheeled shopping-bag and dragged him home.
'Stairs!' she said to Arabel, 'What's the use of a bird who eats stairs? Gracious knows there's enough rubbish in the world- why can't he eat tonic bottles, or ice-cream cartons, or used cars, or oil slicks, tell me that? But no! he has to eat the only thing that joins the upstairs to the downstairs.'
'Nevermore!' said Mortimer.
'Tell that to the space cavalry!' said Mrs. Jones"

Mortimer redeems himself by the capture of a band of jewel thieves in this story, although the sword Excalibur comes off less well as I remember in a subsequent volume when he becomes the first raven to drive a lawnmower. As first read-aloud farce they can't be bettered. Despite being somewhat hampered by not being Bernard Cribbins when I read these to Bill he was also pretty giggly at their escalations. And they're illustrated by Quentin Blake. What more do you need? Happy Reading Aloud today and every day.

'Arabel's Raven' by Joan Aiken, illus. Quentin Blake, pub. Barn Owl books, isbn 978-1-903015-14-8

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