AT THE BACK OF THE NORTH WIND

My grandfather gave me a copy of At the back of the North Wind by George MacDonald when I was about eleven. I read this Hyperborean tale with some difficulty at the time for I could not relate to it well enough to understand and appreciate the story. As I never saw fit to either read it to my children or recommend it to them, I was rather surprised to find it nestled on my current bookshelf 58 years later. The national 21-day lock down to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus does odd things to one: I decided to reread this story, which has endured since it was first published in 1871.

The story follows Diamond, the son of a poor coachman, through the travails of his life as well as his innocent, yet wise, relationships with other people; his acceptance of his lot; as well as his natural desire to help others in need. In this, he is aided by the embodiment of the North Wind.

George MacDonald uses Diamond to draw an interesting parallel between the grim reality of working class life and the ethereal beauty of the landscape “at the back of the North Wind”, where Diamond climbs a tree every day to wonder at it. It is a kind of never-never land where one wants for nothing. The sad reality of it only becomes evident at the end.

In what I regard as a typically Victorian fashion (based on the way my grandfather spoke and behaved towards children) the story is clearly meant to both entertain and instruct its young readers – not that I can see young readers of today being able to cope with the level of the language used or the verbosity of the narration. The author/narrator intrudes too often for modern tastes.

MacDonald’s story would probably be severely edited if it were presented for publication these days: he digresses, tells stories within the story, pontificates, and includes pages of verse – the latter I admit to skimming over as I doubtless did when I was eleven. There is a lot of moralising (the instructive parts of the tale) along with numerous examples of the moral goodness of Diamond. One being when, as small and weak as he is, he bravely intervenes in a fight between Nanny, the street sweeper, and some ruffian boys.

My grandfather must have enjoyed – and better appreciated – the story because he was closer to the background of horse-drawn cabs, street sweepers and the obvious disparity of the living conditions of the poor and the wealthy during the nineteenth century. It was a world away from any context I could understand in rural South Africa and is virtually out of reach for today’s young readers.

Diamond epitomises goodness and carries a mystical air about him. Nanny and Jim call him ‘God’s child’ and openly declare he ‘has a tile loose’, dismissing his views on life as being fanciful. As alluded to earlier, during the course of the narrative one cannot help but link Diamond’s adventures with the North Wind with bouts of illness and, later, even death.

The arrival of the corona virus (COVID-19) has impacted the lives of millions of people around the world, much as tuberculosis still does, and other diseases we don’t pay too much attention to now, would have been a scourge among the poor and working classes of the nineteenth century. I don’t know if this parallel was in the back of my mind, or if it is simply a case of me being older and wiser, but I enjoyed rereading this children’s classic with its foxed pages and delighted in the line drawings and colour plates by E. H. Shepard – who originally illustrated Winnie the Pooh SO much better than any Disney hand could!

It is Lock Down Day 8.

JETTISON

I find it interesting the way certain ideas take hold and weave their way into magazines, newspapers and even into blogs. During the course of last year, for example, it appeared as if taking stock of what is in our homes and at least thinking about getting rid of items that have accumulated over the years was the order of the day. Articles abounded in the press (mostly encouraging the general public to ‘downsize’, to ‘minimize’, or to ‘declutter’ by ‘getting rid of stuff’) and blog posts regularly appeared (some exalting in the ‘freedom’ resulting from having done so, and many more contemplating both the necessity and the pain associated with getting ‘rid of stuff’). What was the driving force behind it – not that it is a new concept: the annual spring cleaning, so beloved by some, sees to a general clearing out. The decluttering drive appeared to be more strongly motivated. What, for example, will happen to my collection of photograph albums?

It was difficult to avoid the topic. Nonetheless, there appeared to be a general consensus among bloggers that it is a good idea in principle to clear out cupboards or garages, to unpack shelves and boxes, and even to clear out rooms! All of these boxes  in my study contain letters, first day covers and papers that are probably only of value to me.

There has been an acknowledgement too that the books and items of furniture we hold dear appear to have little appeal among the (perhaps more mobile) younger generation.

“None of my children are interested in owning my collection of silverware,” a friend told me ruefully. “They don’t want to have to polish it – and the cutlery can’t go into a dishwasher!” What will happen to it? I recall having tea in a lovely place in Mpumalanga and being appalled at the use of beautiful silver teapots (all tarnished and crying out for a polish) filled with succulents and used as centre-pieces for the tables.

Another friend mourns the fact that neither of her children is interested in inheriting any of the beautiful furniture she and her husband have collected. “They both live overseas – in different countries – so it would probably cost them a fortune to ship any of it over anyway.” What is to happen to it? It breaks my heart to see lovely old furniture being covered with paint – often with a ‘distressed’ look to make it appear old – used as outside tables or garage cupboards, all in the name of ‘upcycling’.

Most homes have items that are no longer needed, or which have become burdensome, and need to be discarded. Many of us put off doing so both because it is time-consuming and we don’t actually know how to get rid of items that might be useful to others. I read of organised recycling or redistribution programmes in countries other than where I live. A number of charities make worthy recipients as do schools and community projects. There is a limit to what they can absorb though. Also, while there may be recycling centres in large cities, here it has even become risky to enter the municipal dump on one’s own.

Feeling the need to get rid of accumulated possessions brings to mind the original meaning of jettison, which referred to the act of throwing goods overboard to lighten the load of a ship in distress. Some might argue that our homes are ‘ships in distress’ requiring us to jettison material possessions from time to time. I quake at our collection of books that fills almost every room in our home. I have given many away to charities and rehomed some children’s books – what will happen to the rest once we are no longer here to curate them?

Some bloggers have stated categorically that they love being surrounded by the accumulation of things that hold a lifetime of memories, so are not prepared to jettison anything. Others say it is not fair to burden our children with the task of sorting through our belongings. I agree with both views, although lean towards the latter. The main problem is where to begin!

ON THE BEACH I

If you have never read Neville Shute’s post-apocalyptic novel, On the Beach then give it a try. It is probably more appropriate to read now – when nuclear threats are so real – than when it was first published in 1957. The novel came to mind while we were walking along an isolated beach in the Transkei, where we hardly saw another soul. I thought of the splendid isolation, the peace that comes with it, and marvelled at the ‘treasures’ not trampled or smashed by hundreds of human feet kicking up the sand. The contrast between our reality and that of the people in the novel awaiting the arrival of the deadly nuclear contamination from the northern hemisphere was a stark one. Here then is the first instalment of some of those ‘treasures’:

MY GRANNY’S ALBUM:4

Two more images from my Grandmother’s album.

This is dated 2.6.1903.

Do you remember the Mother Goose rhyme, There was an Old Woman who lived in a Shoe?

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread;
And whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.
The next picture brings it to mind – note the wonderful detail.