on Saturday 1 November 2008
'Ah, Milly-Molly-Mandy! Traduced and reduced over the years to little more than a byword for tweeness and sentimentality, let us see if I cannot make some small contribution to restoring you to your rightful place in the pantheon of childhood splendours.
Joyce Lankester Brisley's 1920s collections of stories about the little girl in the nice white cottage with the thatched roof were among the first books I read independently, and from the beginning they were the source of my greatest joy and my greatest torment. Joy because each story is a miniature masterpiece, as clear, warm and precise as the illustrations by the author that accompanied them, crafted by a mind that understood the importance of comfort reading.
Milly-Molly-Mandy leads a delightful existence in a pink-and-white striped dress. Her time is largely taken up with buying eggs for Muvver and Farver (these spellings are the closest Milly-Molly-Mandy comes to subversion), stripping village fete stalls of homemade cakes, courtesy of sixpences bestowed by munificent grandpas, and having picnics in hollow tree trunks with Little Friend Susan and Billy Blunt. You could ask for literally nothing more out of life, except, possibly, another dress. She never seemed to do anything on laundry day and I suspected she had to sit naked on an upturned bucket until her single frock was dry again, which seemed a waste of a day's idling.
But she was a torment because even then I knew the world in which these tiny, domestic non-adventures were set had already vanished. I would never live there, never buy a skein of wool for sixpence or wait for potatoes to bake in the village bonfire on Guy Fawkes night. It all seemed deeply unfair.
But maybe I was lucky. At least it was a way of life still culturally comprehensible to me. I'm about to start reading them to a friend's five-year-old daughter and there is every chance that she will turn a bewildered gaze upon me, mutely baffled by references to village post offices, cottages unsold to developers, and hollow tree trunks that haven't been turned into branches of Tesco Express. She may, in an age that measures attention spans in nanoseconds, start writhing in frustration before we are even halfway through the chapter devoted to spending a penny on mustard and cress seeds or making a miniature garden in a china bowl.
But I hope not. I think the power of Milly-Molly-Mandy to comfort and compel will endure. The stories are simple, not stupid. They provide succour, not sentimentality. And if they spark a flicker of yearning within a child for a lost world, you can always point out that they only have to turn back to the first page for it to live again. That is what books are for.'
If you have not yet read any of Joyce lankester Brisley's stories of a little girl growing up in a little village with her friends in the 1920s.... PLEASE TREAT YOURSELF to a copy of at least a few of the stories...