As a child, I was beguiled by library books with eye-catching illustrations printed on the covers (not on paper book jackets). I was particularly charmed by the quirky covers of John Verney’s novels about the Callendar family, a boisterous clan consisting of Gus Callendar (Daddy), a political journalist; his wife, an artist-turned-mother, known as Mummy; February, a savvy teenager with a talent for ferreting out skulduggery; her older brother Friday, who has a penchant for machinery; and five younger children who provide comic relief.
Written and illustrated by John Verney, this funny, intriguing series focuses on the Callendars but also on journalism and political corruption. My favorite of the books, February’s Road, published in 1961, interweaves hilarious sketches of chaotic family life with the digging up of dirt on political skulduggery: a road is about to be built across the scenic downs–far from the ideal location.
Narrated by February, it begins in the Christmas holidays.
We’d had a super Christmas as always–our mother sees to that, and Daddy had done his best to enter into the seasonal spirit. But the truth is he hates the whole thing because it dislocates his work for weeks before and after. This year it had put him behind schedule with a series of articles for the Messenger on the need to build really good modern roads and he had been expecting a letter for days with photos and statistics about a new trunk road in Lancashire or somewhere. Now, when he found the letter still hadn’t arrived, he swore loudly and chucked all the envelopes and their contents up in the air. The bits of paper fluttered down like giant snowflakes on to the remains of breakfast, upsetting a milk jug.
When Daddy comes home from the office, he admits the letter and photos were waiting on his desk. But life at Marsh Manor does not remain peaceful. They are perturbed to learn that the Querbury City Council is building a new road near their house. It will cross the paddock where their ponies graze. Everyone is furious except Friday, who likes bulldozers. But they cannot protest the road, because Gus has been writing articles on the necessity of building them.
And then someone bashes the bulldozers. The police think it is February. She is cheeky when they question her, and she tells a lie: she says she didn’t touch the saucepan in the river. She is not the saboteur, but her fingerprints are all over the saucepan.
As if that’s not enough, the journalists descend on the Callendars from London. They want to interview February: one reporter compares her to Joan of Arc. Mummy kindly lets them into the house not for the interview but because it is cold outside. She serves them tea, and she allows a photographer to take a picture, because she can never resist a family snap.
The reporters easily lead February into saying things she does not quite mean. At one point, she confusedly says she supposes you have to fight sometimes, though she is not referring to the bulldozers. And it doesn’t help when Friday jokes about Feb’s bulldozer-bashing.
The next day she is famous! February writes,
For sheer imaginative fiction, the young men at tea were geniuses, and to read them you’d think I had sworn to take on the Ministry of Roads single-handed, but the headings give you the idea of the kind 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….
Very funny. But guess what? The building of the road has been hustled through illegally, with many political kickbacks. And Gus/Daddy’s American colleague, Mike Spillergun, writes a three-page column about it, which is reprinted in full. He has dug up information about a firm of speculators headed by Lord Sprocket, a Machiavellian businessman who is the villain in Friday’s Tunnel, the first book in the series. The speculators bought the land cheaply to sell to the government at fabulous prices.
So witty, so much fun, and I even bought a duffel coat like the one worn by February in the illustrations. (My mother didn’t like it.)
The complete series consists of Friday’s Tunnel, February’s Road, Ismo, and Seven Sunflower Seeds. All are out-of-print. Perhaps that’s because tehy’re really for adults? I am rarely amused by the books I loved in childhood, but I think February’s Road is a classic.