On Morris Minors

Morris Minor

When my mother in law died last November one of the things she left behind was the Morris Minor 1000 she bought new in 1960. Apart from a new reconditioned engine at some point in its life, “Beetil”, as the car was known, had survived for 54 years in more or less original condition. Among other things, what that means is no seatbelts, ineffective drum brakes, a four-speed gearbox with no synchromesh on first gear, and “trafficators” (little illuminated metal arms that spring out of the side of the car to show which way you want to turn). But of course “original condition” does not equate to “as new” condition. A 55 year-old car that has been used as intended for most of those years, and has never been restored, is probably going to be in need of a little work.

And so it was with Beetil. Despite strong sentimental attachments, nobody in the family had the inclination to handle a restoration, or to use the car afterwards. So Beetil was sold to a young woman whose enthusiasm for Minors proved to be stronger than her worries about passing MOT roadworthiness tests or the fact that the car wouldn’t start. Her companion, a classic car magazine journalist whose magnificent Triumph Stag was parked round the corner, went over the car with magnets and declared her “sound enough for now”. He probably didn’t expect to have to push a car through the the wet January streets of South West London, but luckily we had some help from a well-dressed couple who appeared out of the drizzle. They seemed unfazed by the prospect of pushing a dead car along a London bus route and melted away, once the car was secured, before they could be thanked.

The next morning I made my way home in my comfortable modern car, anxious about that MOT and whether the Morris would make it back up the M1 to Yorkshire. As it turned out I needn’t have worried. The MOT was no problem and a new battery was all that was needed to make the engine go. After several years of hardly ever leaving the garage, Beetil seemed keen to be running again.

At the end of June, under happier circumstances, we were reacquainted with the car, which is now known as Bee. The new owner, Steph, had little trouble using her as a daily driver through the second half of a Yorkshire winter and has begun the work of restoration. She invited us to meet her at the Morris Minor Owners’ Club national rally at Scampston Hall in North Yorkshire. My wife, who wisely shied away from the emotionally difficult process of selling the car she grew up with, was delighted to be handed the keys. She started the engine and disappeared across the showfield, our wildly grinning daughter in the passenger seat. There were shinier cars on the show ground, but I don’t suppose any of them made anyone that happy.

Morris Minors

And the name “Beetil”? It comes from E.H. Shepherd’s illustration to A.A. Milne’s poem “Forgiven”, which begins “I found a little beetle, so that beetle was his name …” In the illustration the word “beetil” is written on top of the matchbox in which the beetle is kept.

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Some pictures from the rally:

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Crime and Detective Literature for Young Readers–Kindle Edition

For some time now one of the most popular essays on this site as been ‘Crime and Detective Literature for Young Readers’ so I have decided offer a Kindle version. The free web version is not going away, but you can buy it for your Kindle now from Amazon (UK store and the US store). If there is some demand for this, I’ll do the same for other essays, and add epub versions as well.


Crime and Detective Literature for Young Readers

In February Blackwell publishes its Companion to Crime Fiction. My contribution is a long-ish (6000 words) article on ‘Crime and Detective Literature for Young Readers’, which is an historical overview of crime and detective fiction for children. I’ve just added it to my archive. Here’s a taster:

Crime and  Detective Literature for Young Readers

The category of crime and detective fiction for young readers is in many ways an artificial one. Children and young readers are not restricted to stories written specifically for them and anthologies of crime and detective fiction produced for younger readers often include a mix of stories, at least some of which were originally intended for adults. Detective Stories (1998), edited by Philip Pullman, is a case in point. Although the anthology overall is produced as a collection for young readers, it includes stories by Dashiell Hammett, Damon Runyon and Agatha Christie, all known as writers for adults, alongside an excerpt from Erich Kästner’s 1929 detective novel for children, Emil and the Detectives. While the market for crime and detective literature written specifically for young readers expanded rapidly in the early twentieth century, it has frequently overlapped with crime and detective writing for an adult audience. Crime and detective literature for children allows for different possibilities in detection and plotting, especially in cases where the detective is a child, or part of a group of children, but it shares common origins with the genre as a whole.

Most studies of children’s literature, including Peter Hunt’s An Introduction to Children’s Literature (1994), identify a period in the mid-nineteenth-century in which children’s literature began to move away from didacticism and moralising and towards entertainment and adventure. This took place in the 1840s, at much the same time as detective fiction for adults was beginning to gain popularity among readers in the fast-growing cities of Europe and the United States. Dennis Butts (1997) argues that in the 1840s adventure and fantasy stories began to take over from religious and moral tales as suitable material for children, partly as a form of escape from the turmoil and uncertainties of life in the early nineteenth-century, but also because attitudes towards children were changing:

The emerging children’s literature, with its growing tolerance of children’s playful behaviour, its recognition of the importance of feelings as opposed to reliance upon reason and repression, and its relaxation of didacticism because it was less certain of dogmas, all reflect what was happening in the world beyond children’s books. It is surely remarkable that, whereas fairy tales had to fight for recognition in the 1820s, no fewer than four different translations of Hans Andersen’s stories for children should have been published in England in the year of 1846 alone. (Butts 1997: 159-160).

Elements of mystery, crime, and detection have long been important features of stories enjoyed by young readers. Yet despite the element of play that seems inherent to solving mysteries, crime and detective literature written specifically for young readers was slower to develop than the adult form, perhaps because children’s literacy in the major countries of Europe, and in the United States, did not become a general expectation until the late nineteenth century. Arguably the landmark moment in the emergence of detective fiction for children, at least in a widespread and popular sense, did not arrive until the appearance of the first ‘Hardy Boys’ story in 1927. [Read more]


Thomas the Tank Engine

I just added an article about Thomas the Tank Engine to the “Writing” section over there on the left. The article first appeared in The Reader magazine, issue 25. Here’s a snippet:

Growing up near to a railway line, trains were as much a part of my childhood as conkers in the autumn and frogspawn in the spring. The volcanic rumble of the 100-tonne Class-55 Deltic pulling out of the station on its way to London was our alarm clock on school days. In the holidays a favourite activity was persuading train crews to let us into the cab for a few minutes while they waited at the platform. Even now I have a working, if not encyclopedic, knowledge of the diesel locomotives of that era. And naturally Thomas the Tank Engine was big in our house.

What I didn’t realise then, but know only too well now, is that Thomas exerts a tyranny over small children and their parents.

Here’s the direct link to the whole article.


Children’s Literature

I’ve been invited to write a chapter for the forthcoming Blackwell Companion to Crime Fiction, edited by Charles Rzepka and Lee Horsley. I’ll be writing on children’s crime and mystery fiction so I thought it would be appropriate to republish an essay on Emil and the Detectives. You can find it over there on the left hand side of the page under Writing. Like the Harry Potter essay also published there this piece originally appeared in a book I co-edited with Adrienne Gavin called Mystery in Children’s Literature (Palgrave, 2001). The whole book is available as an e-book here.


Children's Literature

I’ve been invited to write a chapter for the forthcoming Blackwell Companion to Crime Fiction, edited by Charles Rzepka and Lee Horsley. I’ll be writing on children’s crime and mystery fiction so I thought it would be appropriate to republish an essay on Emil and the Detectives. You can find it over there on the left hand side of the page under Writing. Like the Harry Potter essay also published there this piece originally appeared in a book I co-edited with Adrienne Gavin called Mystery in Children’s Literature (Palgrave, 2001). The whole book is available as an e-book here.


Thomas the Tank Engine

For about a year now my daughter has been obsessed with the Thomas the Tank Engine series of books. Last summer I attempted to alleviate my despair at having to give yet another reading of Tank Engine Thomas Goes Bezerk in the Sidings (or something like that) by writing a short article about it. The Reader has published the article “The Tyranny of Thomas” in its landmark twenty-fifth issue. To celebrate the twenty-fifth issue and ten years of The Reader you can buy back issues for £1 each for twenty-five days from March 23rd–it’s a bargain. Here’s a taster from my article:

The Tyranny of Thomas

Growing up near to a railway line, trains were as much a part of my childhood as conkers in the autumn and frogspawn in the spring. The volcanic rumble of the 100-tonne Class-55 Deltic pulling out of the station on its way to London was our alarm clock on school days. In the holidays a favourite activity was persuading train crews to let us into the cab for a few minutes while they waited at the platform. Even now I have a working, if not encyclopedic, knowledge of the diesel locomotives of that era. And naturally Thomas the Tank Engine was big in our house.

What I didn’t realise then, but know only too well now, is that Thomas exerts a tyranny over small children and their parents. Skip forwards thirty or so years from those innocent days at the end of the platform and you will find me in an armchair with my daughter on my knee, reading Troublesome Engines or Eight Famous Engines, or one of the many modern stories based on Reverend W. Awdry’s original series. I do them in funny voices, with all the animal noises and steam engine noises. I invent back stories for the characters and suggest silly names for the anonymous ones. Anything to avoid yet another straight read through. When I had a cold, reading Thomas the Tank Engine actually made me lose my voice. …

Here’s the contents page (pdf) for this issue.

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