Swallows and Amazons Forever!

SwallowdaleThere were shrieks of excitement at our place last week when we arrived home to discover a flat brown cardboard box on the front doorstep.  Now, my kids have both wised up to the fact that there are really only two things that get delivered to our house with any regularity, and since this carton was not big enough to contain a dozen bottles of wine, they immediately deduced — correctly — that this box contained an equally precious cargo: books.

“SWALLOWDALE!” yelled Marvel Girl, elated.  When given the choice between a sparkly ice-blue Elsa dress and the second installment of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, my darling girl — bless her — picked the book.  For me, her choice speaks volumes (if you will please, please pardon that dreadful pun).

Swallows and Amazons and the series of books that follow it were first published in the 1930s.  They recount the adventures of the Walker and Blackett children during their summer holidays, first in the Lakes District of England and subsequently in other parts of the world.  Much of the action involves sailing — in dinghys named Swallow and Amazon, hence the title — camping, and a great deal of outdoor exploring and imaginative playing.

My parents read these books (yep, all twelve of ’em) to me and my younger brother when we were children.  At that time the stories were already more than half a century old and evoked an obviously bygone era, but they still motivated us to embark on a variety of nautical escapades.  The most memorable of these took place on a particularly windy day at Narrabeen Lakes, when my mother and I were careening so quickly — or maybe even recklessly — through the water in the family’s trusty Mirror dinghy (both of us high on adrenalin and the rush of freedom every sailor knows and loves) that my father, waving his arms in consternation on the sandy lake’s edge, turned as crimson as our tiny boat’s sails, while my brother fell about laughing watching the combined on-shore/off-shore spectacle. Our other adventures took place on a slightly grander scale on my Grandpa’s yachts, first Aphrodite and later Saracen II (who was built for speed had competed in seven Sydney to Hobart races), before increasing age finally forced my sea-faring grandfather to stow away the sailcloth, and we all putted about Pittwater with him on a Halvorsen cruiser called Chloe.

Strangely enough, The Bloke spent half his childhood on the water too.  His father remains a keen sailor and still races his yacht twice a week, despite being well into his seventies.  More significantly, however, The Bloke’s dad also built a Pirate Boat (from scratch, in his garage) for Marvel Girl, Miss Malaprop and their cousins, and even took the time to outfit this marvelous vessel with a mermaid Barbie figurehead and a bespoke Maltese Cross-bearing sail.  Watching his grandkids sailing about, every last one of them bedecked in a life jacket and pirate hat, brings a huge smile to his face — and to that of anyone else watching that little dinghy tack about the shallows with the Jolly Roger flying atop its mast.

I suspect that Marvel Girl’s own piratical capers have contributed enormously to her taking to the Swallows and Amazons series like a certain proverbial duck…that, and the fact that even though this is only her first year of school, she is loving reading.  She is, apparently, the second best reader in her class (a fact that she is nearly as proud of as her mother is).  When she emerged from her latest school assembly clutching a merit award praising her fluent and expressive reading, the spontaneous fist pump and grin of utter triumph she gave when she saw me in the playground more than made up for the fact that I wasn’t there to see her get the certificate.

But an equally big thrill for us both, and for Miss Malaprop, too, is that there are eleven — yes, eleven! — more books in the Swallows and Amazons series for us to read together.  I will enjoy reading my girls the stories of John, Susan, Titty and Roger (the crew of Swallow) and Nancy and Peggy (the Amazon pirates) and their summer holiday

Swallows & Amazonsadventures — even though there is no way I would ever let my own children camp, completely unattended, on a small island in the middle of a lake for over a week.  (More to the point, I suspect any parent remiss enough to do so these days would be reported to the relevant authorities faster than you can say “Child Protection Officer” or “Lord of the Flies“.)

But I am looking forward to re-visting that age of innocence which, although lost, lives on in print.  And I can think of no better way to spend our own summer holidays than revelling in the tales of theirs.

Swallows and Amazons forever!

My Marvel Girl

Tom Hiddleston in his Loki costume doing it right...as usual...

Tom Hiddleston in his Loki costume with a young fan, doing it just right…as usual…

Well, I’ve written about Miss Malaprop, and now it’s time to introduce my other beautiful creature: Marvel Girl.

There are quite a few reasons why my firstborn is referred to on this blog as Marvel Girl, not least because she is currently obsessed by everything to do with the Marvel Universe and the Avengers, and by Captain America and Iron Man in particular.  Unlike Miss Malaprop, who — no doubt because of her age — is more likely to discuss these weighty topics in simplistic terms (typically, “Hulk, Smash!”), Marvel Girl is fascinated by the dichotomy between good and evil, by the characters’ back stories, by their particular powers and the price they pay to wield them.  She’s too young to watch the movies yet (any of them), but since The Bloke grew up on a steady diet of comics (reading and drawing them) he tells her what he can remember about her heroes and their various escapades, while I teach her about Norse mythology and read her stories of everything from Yggdrasil to Ragnarok — with a natural bias towards anything involving Loki.  And while it might be possible that she might have seen a certain video (yeah, you know…that one) from the 2013 San Diego Comic Con a few dozen times, I do have to admit that knowing my Marvel Girl can spot the God of Mischief (or Tom Hiddleston, for that matter) at twenty paces does make me one proud mamma.

But her love of anything to do with Avengers (or my completely unabashed love of all things Loki) is not the main reason why she is my Marvel Girl.  She is my Marvel Girl because she is also my miracle — the child who was born six weeks ahead of schedule, needed oxygen to get her lungs going, and spent more than three weeks in hospital before we could bring her safely home.  She’s always known the story of her birth in general terms but, strangely enough, it’s something I have only started discussing with her in any detail just today, when she came home from school with a questionnaire to complete for show and tell entitled “When I was Born”.  There were only three questions on the worksheet, along with a request that they bring in a photograph of them as a baby.  So, after chatting to her about it for a bit and filling in answers that she was comfortable with, we had a look at some of the photos from that time.  I picked out only a few to show her, briefly explaining what a humidicrib was, and why she had tubes and wires all over her, and doing my best to normalise the experience as best I could.  And my Marvel Girl, bless her, took it in her stride.

Avengers Christmas Decoration...you can get it from Etsy here.

Avengers Christmas Decoration…you can get it from Etsy here.

It’s such a privilege, for me, seeing her grow up.  Witnessing her personality unfolding, along with her quirky sense of humour (it’s definitely black around the edges…I can’t think where that came from), watching her graceful dancing and swimming, observing her crazy, compassionate and occasionally catastrophic interactions with her little sister.  It has been one of my life’s greatest gifts — knowing full well that her own life came perilously close to being over before it had even begun.  I’ve learned so much from her and from the experience of being a mother to her, and to Miss Malaprop too.

I can’t wait to watch all the Avengers movies with my girls — every single film and spin off!  And in the meantime, I’ll keep showing them snippets of what they have to look forward to, and encouraging them to keep believing in the people and characters who inspire them, fictional or otherwise.

Because I still believe in heroes.  And my Marvel Girl is one of mine.

Melbourne Cup 2014: Triumph, Tragedy and a Touch of the Tawdry

Ryan Moore rides Protectionist to win the 2014 Melbourne Cup (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Ryan Moore rides Protectionist to win the 2014 Melbourne Cup (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

The Race that Stops a Nation.  I mentioned it in my last post as marking the final stop of the crazy train before it makes its reckless descent into the Silly Season, with its whirl of office parties and pre-Christmas drinks.

This year’s win, by Protectionist — the first German horse to win the great Australian race — was undeniably convincing.  British jockey Ryan Moore rode brilliantly, timing his run towards the post perfectly to finish the 3200m race a full four lengths ahead of Red Cadeaux, who placed second in the big event for a record breaking third time.

At our house, the win was celebrated with enthusiasm by Miss Malaprop, who had drawn Protectionist in the two dollar sweep at The Bloke’s office, and by Marvel Girl, who had picked Red Cadeaux in her classroom sweep and won points for her school colour house for placing second.  Yep — you read that right — her classroom sweep.  That’s how big this race is in Australia: at 3pm on the first Tuesday in November, just about everything stops as the vast majority of the population crowds around television screens, radios, or any other handheld device you care to mention, just to find out who will win the Melbourne Cup: schools, shops, businesses — everything but the betting agencies.  It’s so big a deal in Victoria that the metropolitan region of Melbourne has a public holiday.

Now, the Melbourne Cup wouldn’t be the race it is were it not for a spot of controversy, but this year it was for all the wrong reasons.  It wasn’t just about the use of horse whips, or about the fact that Australia lost over a billion dollars in a single non-productive afternoon, or even about the sordid Instagram feeds depicting inebriated young women passed out face down on the grass or vomiting into garbage bins track side.  It wasn’t even about the (very) public marriage proposal made by a canary yellow clad Geoffrey Edelsten to his (very) much younger partner Gabi Grecko in the presence of his estranged (but not quite divorced) wife and a bunch of bemused reporters.

No, this year it wasn’t until after the race was run that controversy — closely followed by its near relative, tragedy — came calling.

Here at home things went slightly awry when Miss Malaprop finally understood that she had won Daddy’s office sweep, not a horse, and that she wasn’t going to get to ride Protectionist at all. (Fortunately she’s a bit too young to realise that she is not likely to see her winnings from the sweep either — I’m still waiting for The Bloke to bring mine home from last year.)

But down in Melbourne, a much bigger drama was unfolding in the yards and stalls of Flemington Racecourse: Admire Rakti, the Japanese horse who had started the race as favourite and placed last, died of a massive heart attack, and Araldo, injured after being spooked in a post-race incident by a couple waving an Australian flag, had to be put down.  Two horses — two incredibly beautiful, gloriously honed, impressively muscled and impeccably trained creatures — were dead.

No, this year’s race didn’t just stop the nation.

This year, it made us pause.  And reflect.  And wonder whether our armies of once a year punters and frocked-up flutterers might have got this whole horse racing thing slightly out of perspective.

This year, I suspect many Australians realised — painfully, perhaps — that the big race, with all its pomp and pagentry and talk of track conditions and trifectas, simply cannot happen without the horses.  And that it might be time we took a long hard look at what life is really like for these superb equine athletes all year round, and not just on their day in the November sun.

Because if the Melbourne Cup is going to remain relevant as a national obsession, I think many Australians would not want Admire Rakti or Araldo to have died in vain.  Hopefully, in future years, we will look back at 2014 as a turning point in Australian horse racing, and we will honour both of these magnificent animals with a lot more than a minute’s silence.