Why do classics go out-of-print? Even if you write the title and author in a reading journal – which I sometimes do – with a date beside it, the number of pages, and other arcane data – it does not necessarily recall the actual book.
Perhaps you never wrote down titles of John Verney’s witty 1960s novels. I didn’t! But I never forgot them. And I may be an expert on February’s Road (1961), because I own an old copy and have read it multiple times. This gem of a children’s book has been neglected, forgotten, and might even be banned by right-wingers (if they had read it, that is), because it is political novel for adults, disguised as a children’s book.
Narrated by February Callendar, a witty girl who likes ponies, hunting, comics, and pop records by Cliff Richards, this sharp-tongued narrative heads straight for an investigation of political skulduggery. The Ministry of Highways announces its plans to rush a trunk road through Cowdray Park, an unspoiled piece of land near the Callendars’ ramshackle country house. They cannot fight it, because Feb’s father, Gus Callendar, a writer for The Messenger, has ranted for months about the need for new roads in England.
The villagers are agog. They do not want the road there. But when someone damages the bulldozers the night before work starts on the road, the police suspect February – unjustly, but her fingerprints are found on a pan. Shortly thereafter, a flock of reporters descend on them. When the first reporter knocks on their kitchen door, Mrs. Callendar, though she should know better as a journalist’s wife, invites him in because it is cold.
Here are a few witty excerpts that reveal Verney’s comical impressions of the infelicities of journalism and journalists.
We asked him in for tea and he told us he was what they called a “stringer” – that is, he had a job on the Querbury Advertiser, but also reported for one of the largest, and nastiest, of the London dailies if anything cropped up locally. They had phoned him and told him to get a story about – me!
Mrs. Callendar asks if he is ever ashamed of prying into people’s problems – but she puts sugar in his tea at the same time.
“Well, of course, I do often get asked that question, Mr.s. Callendar,” he answered very politely. “I think you should perhaps try and see it from this angle…” And he told us how he himself deplored unnecessary prying and would certainly put a stop to it when he became editor of The Times, but that meanwhile any self-respecting reporter had a responsibility toward the public at large…
And then other reporters and a photographer show up and are invited in. February goes on: “He asked if Mummy would like a snap of the family having tea. Mummy never can resist snaps of us children…”
The Callendars forget the reporters, busy as they are with the chaos of family life, but then Friday (February’s brother) bursts in on Tuesday morning with an armful of papers.
For sheer imaginative fiction, the young men we’d entertained at tea were geniuses, and to read them you’d think I had sworn to take on the Ministry of Highways single-handed, but the headings will give you an idea of the sort of stuff.”YOU’VE GOT TO FIGHT THESE DAYS,” SAYS FEBRUARY. “GOOD OLD FEB FAIRLY BASHED THOSE BULLDOZERS!” SAYS BROTHER FRIDAY… THE FIGHTING CALLENDARS… . HER FATHER’S DAUGHTER….
Verney also shows the positive side of journalism: a smart American columnist at The Messenger understands that February is a red herring, a distraction from the politics and profit motive of the road. Thrillingly, he recruits February to help him do research. There is a certain amount of espionage.
Oh, and by the way, some papers are classier than others: The Times and The Messenger are the only two that report the damage to the bulldozers without conjecturing about February.
This book is sheer enjoyment, my favorite of Verney’s four books about the Callendar family.
By the way, Paul Dry Books has reissued Friday’s Tunnel (the first book in the series) and February’s Road (the second). This is good news indeed!