‘Michael’ has to be the most irritating kid ever invented. At least I hope the insufferable little know-all was invented because if he’d ever actually been born he would go around in life being constantly slapped. He’s ten and he marches around pre-war London with Elizabeth Montizambert, his creator/ aunt showing off his preternatural knowledge to his poor long-suffering cousins Peter and Janet.
He was first inflicted upon introduced to the British public in Michael’s London – a book I have often picked up in second hand bookstores and put down again, so I can’t say anything at all about it – to be honest I’m not sure I could deal with an entire volume devoted to the child’s smugness. The book I have is one of a series commissioned by London Transport (price 6d) so there are very good (if somewhat dated) public transport directions to everything mentioned, and the range is wider, to encourage travel, natch. In a piece of superbly bad timing, London Adventure was published in 1939, just at a time when London Transport probably didn’t need extra visitors, but hindsight is a marvellous thing, and bizarrely 1939 was generally a good year for books on London; several on my shelf seem to have been published then.
The conceit of the book is that Michael is being a detective, looking for clues of various famous people in London – and it’s a good conceit, if you can ignore (or snigger at) Michael’s comments as reported by his aunt – ”Michael said he knew Queen Elizabeth had something to do with Middle Temple,” “Michael was entranced by the armour “, “I didn’t dare tell Michael about it, he would have wanted to go back at once and see it at the Public Records Office” – and a lot of references to obscure places even then, like the delightful Cuming museum, the perpetually-dark bookstore in the Strand, Canonbury Tower and Clerk’s Well. There is, of course, a lot of “we took a tube train to Piccadilly , then another to Hammersmith where we got on a 667 trolleybus…” but that just adds charm.
Michael is tracking down both General Wolfe and Queen Elizabeth, so they go to Greenwich twice in a book of just 84 pages. They take the train and the 53 bus, then get a 48 bus up the hill to Blackheath, where they have lunch at the council tea rooms in Ranger’s House.
And there is much to learn. For example, when they go to see the coat of arms plaque on the side of the vicarage in Park Vista, they run down ‘East Moor Street’ – I didn’t know it was ever called that. And Michael, who has, of course, been reading up about St Afege’s church (“the church was closed, so we went round to 8 Church Passage, where the clerk can be found any day except Tuesday. He came at once…’) ) wants to show his cousins the keyboard of the organ upon which Queen Elizabeth once played. He’s unaware of course, that it will be bombed to buggery a couple of years later. Poor Janet shows her ignorance -
“When did she die,” asked Janet, whose dates wobbled unashamedly.
- but Michael naturally finds it very hard to tear himself away from all the monuments and memorials. The kid’s ten, for Pete’s sake. Why isn’t he sniffing glue or beating up old ladies?
Actually, I giggle at the values this book embraces – a world where kids do know dates and read history books for fun, know who the hell General Wolfe was and enjoy rootling around London for weird stuff (and, given its size, the book’s full of London weird stuff) but to be honest, if ‘kids today’ were half as interested in London as Michael and Co. are, I might be rather more interested in ‘kids today.’
It’s pretty freely available round the second hand bookshops, usually at around £3-£4, and it’s worth picking up at that price, if only for the novelty value. Just don’t take the travel directions too literally.
the attachments to this post: