Saturday, 4 August 2007

Uncle Mac of the BBC

The drive to Stoke Newington in London meant two things, when I was a child. One, I would shortly be eating a viscount biscuit courtesy of my Nan. And two – I could reacquaint myself with a children’s book that intrigued me, called Uncle Mac’s Children’s Hour Book.

This was a collection of short stories that had been broadcast on the BBC’s Children’s Hour, which had been a radio serial for children from 1922 to 1964. ‘Uncle Mac’ was Derek McCulloch, (pictured), who had full control of Children’s Hour from 1933 to 1950. His sign off line was ‘Goodnight children, everywhere’ which became especially poignant during the war years, with many children evacuated far away from their families in the countryside.

The book had been passed through my older brother’s hands by the time it got to me, and either of us could have been responsible for the embellishment of large looping scribbles that sadly cover many of the pages. However you can still read the stories, and what strange ones they are.

My favourites were:

King Arthur’s Tree by Alison Uttley
Sandy the Blue Lion by Edward D Dickenson
The Necklace of Stars by Geoffrey Dearmer
The Smoking Chimney by Olive Dehn
The Ear-Ring in the Underground by Daphne Nicol

King Arthur’s Tree
is about a boy from the town staying at the seaside, friends with a local girl. A local legend was if a certain sea plant washes up and you make a wish, then it comes true. The boy saw the plant and wished to see Merlin, if only for a short time…

“I came when you called me,” said Merlin. “I came out of the rocks where I have been hidden and asleep for centuries. You have Kind Arthur’s Tree in your hands, Boy. What do you want of me? I can give you anything you desire – Life, Death, Fame, Riches, Strength, Wisdom – all are mine to give for the tree’s sake!”

It is a tale of longing, of understanding the passage of time, of realising the immortality of the tide, of the seasons.

Sandy the Blue Lion is an Inn sign that came to life when a Wizard’s spell got tangled around the picture. Sandy proceeded to teach a local boy his viewpoint on life until sadly the spell blew away and he couldn’t come to life again, but the boy grew up and never forgot…

In due course, Sir William Wortleberry passed away, and it was discovered that he had made a provision in his will for the sign of the Blue Lion to be freshly painted in bright colours, once every year on the first day of Spring.

Even though the story says you mustn’t feel sorry for the lion, I did, I so did, even now looking at it again I feel a bit sad. Poor Sandy…

The Necklace of Stars is about a sick little girl who is dying. She dreams she needs a necklace of stars to make her better, and God gives her a choice, she can have a necklace of stars and die, or she can throw them away and get better…

“She must choose,” said the Voice. Again the strange constellations changed, giving place to the familiar, and the Hand was moved back through space till it rested palm upwards about her garden where the little girl’s still body lay. And beside it stood the Mother and Father in tears.

It is a bit Godly, but it is a story that stuck with me throughout the years, even though its message – don’t wish for the stars – is sort of dour.

The Smoking Chimney is about a widow and her two children, who had purchased a cottage that was already home to gnomes, who didn’t appreciate her new spinning cowl to stop the chimney from smoking…

Tonk… Tonk… Linda Lee…When will you…Have eyes to see…Other people’s…Mis-er-ee…Will you never…Let us be…Tonk…Tonk…Linda Lee

It was a little spooky and I liked the rhythms the spinning cowl made and the fact they all made friends in the end… I also had no idea what a spinning cowl was (and still don’t, to be honest) so there was a nice ‘age’ feel to this story.

The Ear-Ring in the Underground was about a somewhat selfish and popular girl travelling home from school, when a mysterious women leaves behind a pair of pearl earrings. They are magical and allow her to hear people’s thoughts and she realises that she can help change the lives of some of the people close to her…

Suddenly Janet realised there was someone sitting on the seat beside her; someone she hadn’t noticed before. She had not seen her come into the carriage, nor had she been aware of her sitting down beside her. Now she glanced sideways at this curious figure of her neighbour, who was a very slender woman dressed in black. As she looked at this strange woman an uneasy shiver ran down Janet’s spine.

I love the idea of being privy to someone’s thoughts, love the fact it was set on the Underground, in the days when there could be ‘ a business man with hat and briefcase, a schoolgirl in a boater and an old washerwoman with a bundle of washing tied in a sheet’ travelling next to you.

I guess these stories and this book are tied up in a big bow of nostalgia for me, and the fact that it now lives with me as opposed to being at my Nan’s will probably tell you what has changed. But it goes to show that nostalgia is a powerful weapon when thinking about writing for children, for the children reading the stories and the adults buying them.

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