Friday 27 March 2015

Books for Children: In praise of Judith Kerr

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit
I've always loved Judith Kerr, the writer of the Mog books and The Tiger Who Came to Tea. As a child I loved those books, for the artworks as much as the brilliantly intriguing stories. (Mog goes out in the garden and thinks "dark thoughts" because she's forgotten that she has been fed. What a complex idea for a children's book, and so memorable).

Recently I heard Kerr being interviewed on Radio 4 about her memoir, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, and I decided to read the book to the boys. It's an autobiographical story about how she, her brother and her Jewish parents fled Germany just before the Nazis came to power, travelling first to Switzerland, then Paris and finally London, where the family ended up.

I remembered enjoying the book as a child, and I also thought it would be a good way to introduce the thorny topic of Hitler and the Holocaust into conversation (a tricky subject with boys, who I find are simultaneously fascinated by this kind of thing and also liable to be traumatized). It is; because although there is a hidden menace behind much of what is happening in the book, it's also an everyday story of a family.

On some nights the boys were laughing out loud at passages in the book (such as when Grandma and her annoying dachsund, Pumpel, come to stay); on other nights they were scared (such as when the family are escaping from Germany on the train and having their passports checked) and on other nights we were all angry or sad (such as when the family meets some other Germans who shun them because they are Jewish).

It's stimulated some amazing bedtime conversations, from what to do if you buy something and it doesn't work (there's an episode in the book where Papa is sold a dud sewing machine), to why Hitler was such an evil man.

The boys, from having initially been reluctant to read this book (they're obsessed with Percy Jackson at the moment and wanted another installment), ended up loving it and asking me if there was more about Anna and her family. I said no, but I've just been on Amazon and found to my delight that there are two more autobiographical books by Kerr, Bombs on Aunt Dainty and A Small Person Far Away. They sound more grown up, so I'm going to read them first myself before I try them on the boys, but I think she's a hugely under-rated writer so I'm looking forward to reading them myself.

One of the quotes stuck out from the final chapter last night - it's from when Anna is reflecting on whether having moved countries so many times means she has had a "difficult childhood.'

 Sometimes it had been difficult -- but it had also been interesting and often funny. And as long as she and Mama and Papa and Max were together, she could never have a difficult childhood.

I think all of us current and former expats can reflect on that one.

Monday 23 March 2015

Do US audiences really not "get" Brits?

Downton Abbey: Americans love it
I was reading Mail Online today ( a dirty habit I know - I do hate most of it, but I occasionally can't resist the temptation to find out who's dating who in the celeb world) and came across an article about the fact that actor James Corden (The History Boys, Gavin and Stacey etc) is about to start presenting the Late, Late Show in the US and Hollywood bigwigs are worried that Americans "won't get him."

In typical Mail style it seems trying to set him up for a fall and I was particularly amused/irritated by this paragraph.

 During the rehearsals Cordon's use of language has been criticised as U.S. audiences are far more sensitive to swearing compared with those in Britain. Also Americans do not understand words such as 'knackered' which describes somebody who is excessively tired. 
Also, British references to drunkeness will prove difficult to U.S. audiences, who do not understand terms such as 'half-cut' or 'bladdered'.

Yes, we all know that the UK and Brits are divided by a common language - goodness knows, I surprised some of my American friends a few times during my stint in New York. (A particular example comes to mind -- when I asked a woman at a party whether her children had had the "lurgy" yet. She looked horrified.)

But honestly, this patronises both American audiences and Corden, who I am sure is a clever bloke and knows exactly what he's doing. And what about all the American shows that U.K. audiences watch? Yes, we might not understand all the references on The Daily Show or even an "easy" sitcom like Friends, but isn't that what's nice about watching something from another country? You learn something. You go and look something up. 

Americans have embraced always British actors with open arms -- see Eddie Redmayne et al at this year's Oscars. They love Downton Abbey -- and I'm sure they don't understand all the references there. They love our shows and steal the ideas (The Office, House of Cards ). As for TV hosts - well, the Daily Show's John Oliver is a Brit, and although Piers Morgan got sacked from CNN the end, in the beginning he was quite popular, I seem to recall.

If Corden fails, I don't think it will be because he's British. It won't even be because he's bad. It'll be because US TV is so ruthless that if something doesn't get massive ratings in the first few weeks, they pull it. 

I hope he's a roaring success.

Tuesday 10 March 2015

Super women, and mini men

I've never been one of those women who's not sure if she's a feminist. To paraphrase Caitlin Moran  in her brilliant "How to be a Woman", what woman in her right mind wouldn't be in favour of equality for women?

I always felt quite passionately about women's rights. I remember reading a book as a child (sadly  I can't recall its name) about a girl who wanted to be a suffragette, and being outraged to discover that women hadn't been able to vote until quite recently. I also clearly remember reading The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged about 11, hearing all about Germaine Greer and Simone de Beauvoir (if you remember, Adrian's mother was going through a militantly feminist phase), and being intrigued by the idea of feminism. Later on, I would write a University dissertation on the novels of Margaret Atwood, looking particularly at feminist symbolism, and my first published article, while still a student, was about the graduates and the "glass ceiling."

In relationships, I always advocated equality: at my wedding, I was absolutely insistent that I should make a speech, not because I love public speaking (I don't) but because I had this gut feeling that weddings were terribly patriarchal and it would be a travesty not to.

I haven't experienced much overt sexism in my career -- unlike, say, the City, the media is full of women -- but, like all working mothers, I've faced issues since having kids; the cost of childcare, the hours, the "is it worth working at all?" moments, the guilt. I've seen mediocre men rise to senior positions just by virtue of being there all the time.

So I jumped at the invitation to attend an industry conference, last week, aimed at inspiring senior women in the advertising industry to fulfil their potential. I was there to report on the day and also to speak (on a panel about dealing with the media) but what I loved about it was the chance to hear some really inspirational women speaking about their careers and lives. The speakers included Jo Swinson, the junior minister for Women (she was also at BritMums and is one of the few politicians I genuinely admire), Emma Freud and the Paralympian Karen Darke, as well as senior women from the ad industry who shared their stories.

One of the sessions was on working after kids, and I noticed that many of the younger women who were thinking about starting a family seemed anxious -- that they wouldn't be able to manage, that they didn't see many working mothers who were managing well, that there weren't any good role models. And I do think we have a long way to go in this country. We need more shared responsibilities between men and women, more shared maternity/paternity leave, more flexible working arrangements from employers. Working women still do the majority of looking after the children -- and that can be true even if you have a helpful, supportive partner. We are far, far, far from real equality.

As a mother of boys, I don't have daughters to worry about but I think I can help to shape the next generation. My boys are going to learn to cook, clear up, do the laundry, and all of that (at some point) but even more important, they are going to have it drummed into them that women are absolutely equal to men.

We've read a lot of 19th century books recently (like The Secret Garden, and the Little House on the Prairie series) and I've explained to the boys that while the little girls in these stories had to behave in a certain way, this is not how we think of girls and women now. 1950s books like The Secret Seven, and the Famous Five are just as bad -- the girls have to be good and nice, while the boys get all the adventures. I've told them very clearly that this is wrong and unfair, and only how things used to be.

But I think we still have to be careful. Even in books like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, the girls are still the sidekicks to the main event. I don't want them getting ideas ingrained about women somehow being inferior or the weaker sex. I want strong female role models for my boys -- and if I can't find that book about the suffragette girl, then gosh I might just write one.