Musty Books: “Freaky Friday” by Mary Rodgers (1972)

More of a Wet Wednesday than a Freaky Friday, this familiar tale of a mother/daughter body-swap feels, appropriately, like an engaging, powerful story being forced to masquerade in the form of an ungainly knockabout comedy. Four (four!) feature-length screen adaptations to date, all produced by Disney, have given Mary Rodgers’ tale a genuine pan-generational appeal, but the book is very firmly rooted amid the middle-classes mores of Nixon-era New York, and is centered around a family whose reactions to a perspective-altering case of otherworldiness seem disappointingly glib.

Disappointing, because it’s a genuinely brilliant premise. 13-year-old Annabel Andrews wakes up to discover that she now inhabits her own mother’s body; and has therefore inherited a full gamut of family responsibilities: her busy executive father, her six-year-old brother Ben (or “Ape Face” as Annabel has nicknamed him), and – indeed – her own absent physical form, which she assumes to be now inhabited by her mother’s personality, although this supposition remains tantalisingly vague until the book’s final chapter.

Things predictably go awry: overwhelmed by the obligations of the adult world, Annabel – a typically scatty and wayward teenager – finds herself baffled by her mother’s vague diary appointments; out of her depth in a school meeting about her own underachievements; and – ultimately – not only concerned about the disappearance of her own physical form, but also that of her younger brother. Because Ben, we learn, has been inexplicably allowed to leave the house with a “beautiful chick” stranger who calls at the apartment, charming teenage babysitter Boris into letting the trusting infant wander the streets of New York in her company.

Boris, an adenoidal 14-year-old adored by Annabel – although, predictably, he himself is in love with the senior Mrs Andrews – does actually provide effective comic relief: I certainly laughed at the revelation, after an entire book’s worth of sleight-of-hand, that his name is actually Morris, but a cavalcade of sinus-troubling allergies render him unable to pronounce it correctly. It’s the 1970s New York equivalent of the “Decond Class Redurn Do Dottingham”. But elsewhere, it’s the humour that actually stymies the story. Which would be fine, if the book was intended as nothing more than light whimsy; but it clearly has pretentions to making a serious point about the responsibilities of adults towards children, and it occasionally veers into unexpectedly dark territory. At one stage, Annabel – in her mother’s body – fires the family housekeeper for using racist language; and in another scene fears that her own physical form may actually have abducted, raped and murdered.

This uneasy combination of the shocking and the lighthearted comes to a head in the book’s closing chapters, when Annabel eventually attempts to report both the disappearance of her own physical form and that of her younger brother to the police. What should be a moment of heart-pounding tension is depicted as high farce, and a serious of knockabout telephone misunderstandings (“I can’t figure out whether the dame is a fruitcake or for real!” chuckles Patrolman Plonchik to a colleague, as – no, really – a distressed woman attempts to report the abduction of her six-year-old son) fizzles away the tension into (very) sub-Mel Brooks wisecracking.

Unlike other readers whose reviews I’ve poked through, it doesn’t bother me that the exact method of the body-swap is left unexplained. In fact, I rather like weirdness that’s simply left there for us to deal with: that ambigious oddness is a staple of many of my favourite Twilight Zone episodes, and clearly Mary Rodgers was of the generation that took inspiration from some of Rod Serling’s finest TV work. But, unlike in the best Zones, the reaction of the characters in Freaky Friday never really convinces. Annabel responds fairly calmly to finding herself in her mother’s body, setting methodically about living Mrs Andrews’ life rather than responding in any believable way (my own response, I suspect, would be to scream obscenities at the mirror and pound the walls until my hands bled), and although she (and we) gain a few insights into the world her mother inhabits, it feels, frustratingly, like we barely scratch the surface.

But perhaps most disappointingly of all is Mrs Andrews’ response to spending the day in Annabel’s body, and any committed “Women’s Lib” advocates (to quote the book itself) might want to bite their lip and take a moment here. While it would have been fascinating to learn of the insight she gains from spending the day inside her teenage daughter’s body, she is absent from virtually the entire book, re-emerging only at the end to reveal that she has taken full advantage of the body-swap scenario to give her 13-year-old tomboy daughter a makeover, a new hairdo, a new wardrobe and a spot of dental work for good measure.

Boris – or Morris, if you will – is predictably delighted. But although there are some very funny and very thoughtful moments scattered throughout the book, I was a little less enamoured.

Update: Thanks to reader David Brunt for pointing out that “Collins Cascades” was a 1980s/90s series of reprints of childrens books, and did indeed seem to be geared towards schools. Other “Cascades” titles listed on Amazon include The Third Class Genie by Robert Leeson, and Alan Garner’s Stone Book Quartet, and there’s even a Coursework Folder available.

Mustiness Report: 1/10. My copy is as fragrant as a Spring morning, a 1987 hardback reprint that seems to be No 16 of a series called “Collins Cascades”. There’s no price tag and no bar code, so I’m wondering if this was a selection of childrens’ books reiussued specifically for British schools? The “Stokesley School” stamp on the first inner page of my copy suggests so.

Musty Books: “Rebecca’s World” by Terry Nation (1975)

It’s almost possible to play Terry Nation Bingo with many of the scripts that the debonair Dalek supremo turned in for Doctor Who during his 1960s and 1970s heydey. There will be a remote planet with a frighteningly hostile environment (check); there will be a futuristic citadel that provides fragile respite from the dangers present on the planet’s surface (check); there will be an eccentric scientist working alone on a secret project (check); and a sizeable chunk of the story will essentially consist of an “obstacle course” journey across a hazardous landscape populated by deadly beasties, with the eventual goal of reaching – literally – the story’s ultimate place of resolution. It’s usually on the other side of an acid lake, or a deadly, petrified forest.

Check. All of these elements are present in Rebecca’s World: it only really needs the lingering threat of radiation poisoning for the complete Terry Nation Full House.

What separates it from the bulk of his TV work, however, is the book’s ultimate strength – a delightfully surreal and clearly Goons-inspired sense of humour. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise given Nation’s background as a comedy writer: his first–ever professional credit was for a sketch sold to Spike Milligan in 1955, and he subsequently worked on hundreds of radio scripts for likes of Eric Sykes, Harry Worth and Frankie Howerd, before joining the long list of illustrious collaborators to have been fired by Tony Hancock.

For better and for worse, Rebecca’s World clearly draws heavily on these experiences. The titular lead character is a sparky young girl, bored to tears during a school holiday in her sprawling country home. She has an unmistakably Edwardian quality – clearly reinforced by the book’s interior illustrations – although there’s also a single, slightly surprising reference to her once watching television. Perhaps a leftover from a previous draft? Either way, after unwisely dabbling with her father’s gigantic astral telescope, she finds herself transported across the universe to a decidedly unusual – and curiously unnamed – “Forbidden Planet”.

At this stage, Nation’s influences become clearly apparent: we’re essentially thrown into a Milligan-esque reworking of The Wizard of Oz. Rebecca discovers that the planet is in thrall to the dastardly Mister Glister, a debonair tyrant with the sartorial tastes of Liberace. Glister keeps the population subjugated by controlling – and charging for – access to shelters that will protect them from the murderous GHOSTS that are roaming the planet’s surface; and yes, the capitals are Nation’s, and are used throughout. Keen to become an unlikely hero on her new home world, Rebecca teams up with three lovable local misfits and embarks on a lengthy quest across the planet’s surface to liberate the cowering populace.

So there’s Grisby, a fur-coated hangdog (in fact, almost a fur-coated Hancock) with the most painful feet in the world; Kovak, a hopeless spy and hilariously transparent “master of disguise”; and Captain K, a feeble, bespectacled superhero whose power lies in his possession of a “GHOST stick” – the last remnant of the forest of GHOST trees that kept these malevolent spirits at bay for generations. Until, that is, Mister Glister chopped the trees down to build said “GHOST shelters”, charging the public a small fortune to enter these tiny refuges, their only way to remain safe during the dangerous GHOST raids that frequently sweep the planet.

Pursued by Mister Glister and his hapless henchmen, the mis-matched foursome travel across land to reach the mythical “last GHOST tree”; encountering a succession of genuinely great characters along the way: my favourites being the creepy “Scarepeople” – a legion of giant, dark-robed screaming figures that line the rim of a desert canyon; and the “Bad Habits”, a initially genial elderly couple who transpire to be the originators of all the irksome peccadilloes picked up by children the world over; training tiny, furry creatures to whisper “Bite Your Nails” into the ears of sleeping infants at the dead of night.

The landscape too is the stuff of fairytales, all towering needles and bottomless feather wells. It’s genuinely terrific stuff. But Nation’s background as a sketch writer, and the influence of Milligan in particular – a strength when it comes to the book’s humour – is perhaps his downfall, too. The story is essentially a sequence of fairly unrelated incidents and set pieces, and never quite connects as an genuine journey, with character and consequence. Maybe I’m asking too much of a book clearly aimed at a very young audience, although it’s not a criticism I could level at – just thinking out loud here – The Wizard of Oz. Regardless, it’s never less than good fun, and shows an interesting flipside to Nation’s typically traditional TV science fiction scrips.

Point Of Order: This is the first “Musty Book” of which I can claim previous experience. In 1982, my primary school teacher Mr Hirst read the opening chapters to me and my fellow ten-year-olds, shuffling impatiently on the parquet floor of Levendale Primary School. I intended then to complete the rest of the book one day, so never let it be said that I don’t play a long game.

Update: Thanks to ‘Joe Dredd’ on the Roobarb’s TV forum for pointing out the Rebecca was, in fact, the name of Terry Nation’s daughter. And to Chris Orton, who added that she also lent her name to the character of Rebec in Nation’s 1983 Doctor Who story, Planet of the Daleks.

Update: Thanks to reader Mike Dickinson for pointing out that audio company Big Finish released a Paul Darrow-narrated adaptation of Rebecca’s World in 2010. It’s available here:

Mustiness Report: 1/10. My copy is a 1984 reprint, and smells inexplicably of vanilla blancmange.

Musty Books: “The Nature of the Beast” by Janni Howker (1985)

What is “The Nature of the Beast”? Literally speaking, it’s the identity of the mysterious animal that is slaughtering livestock on the hills above Haverston, a remote moorland town in North-West England. But it equally applies to the simmering fury that threatens to overwhelm the book’s central characters – teenage narrator Bill Coward and his father Ned – as well as being a remarkably philosophical dismissal of the whole sorry situation by Bill’s beer-sodden grandfather, Chunder.

Surely written during (and inspired by) the troubled fury of the 1984 miners’ strike, the book is a damning condemnation of the economic policy of the era. Haverston’s main employer, Stone Cross Mill, is closing down, forcing the bulk of the town’s working population – including Ned – into redundancy, and robbing an already-depressed area of its main identity. Bill, effectively sharing a home with both his father and grandfather, sets out his stall early on: confiding, with best friend Mick, that his long-term plan to escape a seemingly hopeless future is to live in a cave on the moors, shooting rabbits and grouse with his air rifle and raiding allotments during the winter months.

Into this situation comes “The Beast”, whose arrival – surprisingly late in the tale – at least gives Bill a sense of short-term purpose. Brutally slaughtering the hens that Chunder has acquired in a vague plan to build a lucrative cockfighting empire (yes, the book is that bleak) and picking off the sheep of windswept moorland farms, it naturally excites the headline-writers of the town’s sensationalist Gazette newspaper (“HAVERSTON BEAST STRIKES AGAIN!”), and the paper’s offer of £500 for a clear photo incites Bill and Mick to steal a camera from their well-meaning teacher “Oggy” Oglethorpe’s car and head to the moors, seeking both glory and brief financial respite for their families.

The exact setting of the novel might be left a little vague (there are mentions of Lancashire, but also of Border TV and seagulls, so my educated guess is somewhere close to the Lancashire/Cumbrian coastline… if I had a map, the pin would be hovering above Barrow-in-Furness) but the sense of place and landscape, and indeed of a very distinct and depressed era of social history, is almost overpowering. This a town seemingly permanently shrouded in darkness, with a strong community huddled into pubs and houses virtually unchanged since the 1940s. Indeed, the occasional intrusions of modernity – the TV crews, for example, that cover the Mill’s closure – seem starkly incongruous.

And the moor itself, a black deathtrap of peaty marshland and bare-boned sheepfarms, smothers the town and effectively as effectively as the prevailing economic climate. Bill – a perceptive and intelligent teenager – is trapped in Haverston in every conceivable sense, and his righteous fury at this situation threatens to increasingly overpower him. I was even a little disappointed when a rational, believable explanation for the presence of “The Beast” is ultimately offered: it works so well as a metaphor for Bill (and Haverston’s) anger, a physical manifestation of their rage, its nocturnal raids on livestock and livelihoods effectively an act of self-harm.

But nevertheless, what a book. It effortlessly weaves the desolation of its setting and situation with the charming internal monologue of a typical smalltown teenage boy. The friendship between Bill and Mick – hiding in ramshackle dens, adding to the pointless graffiti (‘MOOR MODS RULE OK’) in bus shelters – is touchingly and believably portrayed, and given an extra depth by the revelation that Mick’s father is Stone Cross Mill’s put-upon Union Rep, blamed by the community for not making a firm enough stand for their jobs, and himself bitter about what he perceives to be his own workforce’s apathetic lack of militancy.

The ending is shocking and heart-rending in so many ways. Bill finds personal vindication in his quest to uncover the identity of the moorland killer, but his story is characteristically written-off in favour of the local media’s preferred narrative. Even in triumph, he has no voice. And you may even find some sympathy for The Beast: I did. Janni Howker wrote only three books and a handful of short stories, and – as far as I can see – there’s been nothing since 1997. But she rightly earned the Whitbread Literary Prize for Childrens’ Books for this, her debut novel, and you’ll rarely find a book that reflects the anger and hopelessness of the 1980s Northern industrial experience in such a devastating fashion.

Update: Read the comments below for a wonderful development… regular blog reader Mark Holden was the boy who posed for the cover of this book, back in 1985. His family was a friend of artist Stephen Lavis, who often based used images of people he knew for his cover illustrations!

In April 2020, Mark kindly agreed to restage the cover picture 35 years on, with photos taken by his nine-year-old daughter… needless to say, I’m delighted with the outcome.

Mustiness Report: A fragrant 3/10. My copy is a 1987 reprint, so there’s time yet for for it to achieve its full Mustiness Potential. The pages, though, are the colours of an old-school pub ceiling, which is pleasing: for sake of argument, let’s say it’s the Hare and Hounds, in nearby Kirkby Haverston.

Musty Books: “Cora Ravenwing” by Gina Wilson (1980)

Grief, outsiderdom, friendship and prejudice: they’re all explored in this beautiful, poetic and perceptive book. It’s an extraordinary piece of children’s literature, and it haunted me throughout.

Untypically, the outsiderdom is not that of the classic “new girl” who narrates the story: she is Becky Stokes, a personable schoolgirl uprooted from her Birmingham roots to live in Okingham, a sleepy 1950s Buckinghamshire village; and she is quickly co-opted into the close-knit social circle of classmates Hermione, Barbara and Susan. However, she has to conceal from them a burgeoning – and arguably more intense and genuine – friendship with Cora Ravenwing, a lonely and morbidly troubled young girl who has become a pariah within this tiny community.

Cora is a fascinating character: the daughter of a free-spirited, proto-hippy mother who died during the birth, she was nursed as a baby by village busybody Mrs Briggs (whose own child has been a victim of cot death) before being returned into the care of her gravedigger father, whose grief is so absolute that he has played little part in her subsequent upbringing. Cora’s proximity to so many aspects of death and mortality has had a profound influence on her character, and a terrible impact on the community’s opinion of her. Spending her days obsessively tending her mother’s grave, she has gained a reputation as almost a harbinger of doom; even being described as a “devil child” by Mrs Briggs, now the chief instigator of the village’s unanimous policy to ostracise Cora from its everyday activities.

She is awkward, pale, detached and friendless… at least until she meets Becky, who is unsettled by Cora’s morbidity, but fascinated by her unaffected authenticity; an authenticity in stark contrast to the seemingly shallow, aspirational lifestyles of Hermione, Barbara and Susan. This contrast is epitomised, curiously, by poetry: Hermione’s “nature poetry” is lauded by teachers, pupils and parents alike… but despised by Cora, whose loss has given her a genuine connection with both the beauty and brutality of nature, and who sees Hermione’s verse as twee and superficial. Obsessed by her dead mother’s diaries and nature writing, Cora also possesses an impressive knowledge of traditional folk song, and a singing voice of remarkable purity. She reminded me a lot of Mina, the nature-obsessed teenager in David Almond‘s book Skellig (and its later prequel, My Name Is Mina), whose all-consuming relationship with the natural world, and her willingness to turn it into art, is equally profound and – indeed – has similar hints of the macabre.

Becky, of course, is tormented by a typically teenage dilemma: if she follows the advice of adults and fellow children alike, and abandons Cora, both children will be robbed of a friendship that has genuine depth and resonance. But maintaining the relationship will lead to Becky’s exclusion from virtually every other social group in the village, an impossible situation for someone so young. The book depicts this appalling quandary with incredible sensitivity and depth of character, and boldly offers little in the way of resolution: the ending, in particular, is both dramatic and unflinching. I was completely unaware of Cora Ravenwing until I found a copy recently, hidden in a used bookshop in a quiet North Yorkshire town, but I’m delighted to see that it was reiussed by Faber & Faber in 2013, and that Gina Wilson continues to gain praise and acclaim for her work as a poet.

Friendships at the turn of adolescence can be intense and profound, and often cast a long-standing shadow over our ensuing adult lives. That influence has rarely been more beautifully explored than in the story of Cora Ravenwing.

Point of Order: The back cover of my 1986 edition described the main protagonist as “Becky Schofield”, but in the text she is very definitely “Becky Stokes”. A late name change, perhaps? Can anyone with the 2013 reissue confirm whether poor Becky is now uniformly a member of the Stokes family?

(Update: thanks to Rachel Coverdale for pointing out that Becky is definitely a Stokes on the back cover of the 2013 edition!)

Mustiness Report: A delicate 3/10. My edition’s pages have the reassuring waft of an old, wooden wardrobe on a fresh summer’s morning.

Musty Books: “Jill Graham and the Secret of Druids Wood” by Lesley Chase (1974)

Perhaps the most intriguing mystery for intrepid teenage detective Jill Graham to investigate is this: who was Lesley Chase? And how does the author of six novels, all published within the living memory of anyone over the age of 50, vanish without a trace? It’s perhaps reassuring, in an age when the the internet has removed almost all of the mystique from our information-drenched lives, that the enigmatic Lesley has somehow managed to remain firmly off-grid. I can see that she (or he? Even the name is tantalisingly ambiguous) wrote half-a-dozen “Jill Graham” books between 1974 and 1980, but – as far as I can ascertain – no other work has ever been published under that name. And that’s it. Neither Google nor the books themselves offer any further clues as to the author’s identity.

Thankfully, I can tell you more about Jill Graham. She’s an endlessly optimistic 16-year-old school-leaver in the midst of a long, lazy summer holiday whose life, by anyone’s standards, appears to be nigh-on perfect. She lives in a rambling cottage in the tiny village of Shayle, tucked into the corner of some fairly non-specific rural English idyll. She has two loving parents; her father being the editor of the local newspaper, and her mother a cheery, stay-at-home mum seemingly happy to provide wholesome, home-cooked meals for anyone who passes through the house at any time of day or night. Her older brother John is an tousled trainee journalist, and his best friend Geoffrey is Jill’s dashing would-be suitor. And Jill has a best friend of her own, Susan, who lives in the neighbouring village of Fallowfield and works for a local estate agent.

Jill also rides a horse called Conker. Of course she rides a horse called Conker.

There’s something almost weirdly timeless about all of this: so much so that I have a nagging suspicion that the book might not actually have written in the 1970s at all. Jill, Susan, John and Geoffrey all seem to exist in a bubble entirely divorced from the experiences of ordinary 1970s teenagers: there are no mentions of TV, pop music, fashion, or films. And the escapades that follow feel more like 1950s derring-do than swinging 70s adventures, so it possible that the enigmatic Lesley Chase had been sitting on these stories for some time before finding a publisher?

Either way, it’s a gentle, straightforward ramble through a crime caper worthy of the Childrens Film Foundation. Jill, while cutting through the sun-dappled trees of the local Druids Wood, chances upon a red-bearded and vaguely untrustworthy-looking sort of chap (“He was a shabbily-dressed man, short and broad of chest”) acting suspiciously around a dilapidated woodland hut. As she peers from behind the bushes, he sinks a metal box of used lightbulbs into a dank pond, and arranges a midnight tryst at the same location with Susan’s creepy boss, Mr Mostyn.

Much to-and and fro-ing through the woods commences, as the intrepid Jill takes it upon herself to prevent the unspeakable crimes that she seems convinced are an inevitable consequence of these dastardly actions. After all, what good could ever come of a man with a lop-sided eyebrow sinking a tin of lightbulbs into a woodland pond? As it happens, she’s right – there is, of course, a murder plot to uncover, and an impromptu kidnap along the way, too. All of which Jill faces with the unshakable confidence and righteousness of… well, a well-heeled Home Counties girl who rides a horse called Conker. If there were hockey sticks involved here, they would – we can be assured – be far from sullen.

It’s interesting to read a story clearly targeted at a young female readership of the 1970s: the female characters are strong and undaunted (Jill is never afraid of the dangerous situations in which she is placed), and the males remain fairly peripheral. The pleasures of domesticity are heavily stressed too, and it has none of the “wyrd” trappings that I suspect might have been included had the publishers been attempting to attract an fanbase of teenage boys. It’s a perfectly pleasant read, concise and tightly-plotted with likeable characters, and left me with the nagging suspicion that teen fiction for female readers has been somewhat overlooked in the great 21st century audit of 1970s ephemera. I look forward to discovering, in some musty bookshop of the near future, the little-known seventh book in the series, Jill Graham and the Mystery of Lesley Chase.

Mustiness Report: A wholesome 4/10. A book with the odour of a fresh breeze, gently wafting across the Fallowfield meadows on a bright, August morning.