Jean, our final guest for this year’s Witch Week, draws our attention to a neglected children’s novel where treason and plot are the main drivers of the narrative, a great instalment for Bonfire Night
John Verney’s Friday’s Tunnel
by Jean Ping
John Verney’s stories are more like Tintin adventures than anything else I have ever read, short of actual Tintin adventures. I have read four, all centered on the Callendar family of Sussex, and they are all stuffed with fantastical schemes, suspicious characters, and strange coincidences. Friday’s Tunnel is the first, published in 1959.
February Callendar, aged 13, is the second of the many Callendar children, and she is the narrator. Summer holidays have only barely begun — Friday, the oldest, can’t wait to continue his ongoing project of digging a tunnel in the hill at the back of the garden, and February cares only for riding her Shetland pony — but their father spoils the fun by announcing that he has to go off to the Mediterranean right away.
He’s a newspaper journalist and an authority on the tiny island of Capria, and the news says that there’s a coup underway; but he’s sure that there isn’t, and that he’s needed to save the situation before the Americans and the Russians each swoop in to grab the newly-discovered, and very valuable and mysterious, mineral — caprium. There is quite a lot of treason and plot going on, but on the part of whom?
So the family is a bit worried about their father flying off to Capria, in a storm no less, but there’s plenty to occupy them at home. Robin Fawcett, a college student, comes to stay and the tunnel has run into a literal brick wall; what is a brick wall doing buried in a hill? February goes riding, sees a surprising number of army lorries, and meets a somewhat threatening man. Then they hear that their dad’s flight has crashed — but was he even on the plane?
Capria is written as the ideal mysterious fantasy island; I was, in fact, strongly reminded of Prospero’s island in The Tempest. There’s even a callback to the play, as Friday was Caliban in his school’s production, which makes February a highly improbable Miranda — though she is discovering a whole new world!
Capria is in the Mediterranean, but no one ever says just where. It sounds Greek, but it’s also described as Middle Eastern. It’s got a progressive president, Umbarak, and his rascal of a brother, Zayid. And it’s home to a legendary magical metal, caprium, which features in ancient mythology, and the modern mineral which may or may not exist. Zayid claims to have discovered caprium, and that it’s lighter and stronger than aluminum. In fact it appears to be either violently reactive, radioactive, or both at the same time. It can heal and kill.
The rumor going around is that Zayid has attacked his brother and is taking over Capria. But although they are so different, the brothers are supposed to be devoted to each other; and why would Zayid want the boring job of president when he spends most of his time engaging in smuggling and other sorts of trouble? Somebody, however, is definitely doing a lot of plotting, and it might be Zayid.
Besides ponies, February is interested in her favorite comic strip, featuring the adventures of General Wheazy-Fidgett and his talking monkey, Snuzz. The mysterious and reclusive artist, Rupert Squirl, seems to have some strange inside knowledge of the caprium plot, because his comic is an eerie refraction of current events. February is sure that if she follows the clues and figures out what the deal is with the lorries, she can find out what’s really going on… The plot is actually a good deal more lunatic than I can describe here, but it gets quite thrilling!
February is not the most likable of protagonists; I like her anyway. She’s impatient and short-tempered, and not really very nice. She is, however, very real. She thinks like a 13-year-old, and is far too easily distracted into squabbling with siblings!
February’s Road, the second Callendar adventure, is the other one that is pretty easy to get hold of. Seven Sunflower Seeds and ismo are both narrated by Berry, a younger Callendar, and are much more difficult. I have a copy of Sunflower, but ismo costs a lot of money at the used booksale sites. And the fifth story, Samson’s Hoard, is quite obscure. I only just found out that it exists — it’s narrated by an even younger sibling — and there are hardly any copies around.
John Verney was an illustrator, and author for adults as well. His first book, Going to the Wars, was his journal/memoir of joining the British cavalry on a whim in 1937, and the first line is “My brother officers. Are they human?” Then he spent much of WWII in Italy, and wrote that up in A Dinner of Herbs. I would love to read them. Judging from the imaginatively unhinged fun of the Callendar stories, he must have been a very interesting person to know!
I would say these stories are for ages 10+, but for good readers, because of the complex plots and the fizzy language. Or it would make a great read-aloud! American kids would have a bit of difficulty with the words. The first time I read it, I didn’t know that ‘boffins’ is a British term for sciencey types, and since they only ever say boffins, it took me quite a while to figure out.
Jean is a librarian and mom of two in rural Northern California, and blogs at Howling Frog Books (www.howlingfrog.blogspot.com). She enjoys world literature, history, and lots of other things, and when not reading, she likes to embroider and quilt.