Major Glad, Major Dizzy | in brief
Major Glad, Major Dizzy is a story about two toy soldiers hidden beneath the floor of a London house in 1870, during the reign of Queen Victoria. As years go by, the children who once owned the toys grow up and have children of their own, and unknown to Major Glad and Major Dizzy, all kinds of changes happen above their heads until, when they are finally rescued 140 years later, the world they knew is almost unrecognizable.
This book should appeal to children aged from 5 – 9 years, and will entertainingly introduce the topic of recent British history. Warning! You may like to position a grandparent nearby to answer the questions that will ensue.
Author: Jan Oke
Photographer: Ian Nolan
published August 2011 | £9.99
Where did the idea come from?
Some time after Jerry died, I decided to have the floors in my house repaired and sanded, and the men who came to do the job had to take up some of the floorboards and relay them, where they were uneven. Under the floorboards in my bedroom, just in front of the window, they found a little pile of children’s toys, but there was no indication as to how they had got there.
To me, the hoard was like buried treasure. It clearly had to be written about – had to be turned into another photographic storybook, this time with the two little toy soldiers as its main characters – but what would the story be?
Considering where the toys had been placed made me think about how the scene outside the window above them had changed, in the years they’d been hidden away, and made me decide I wanted to incorporate the soldiers’ story into a history of the house and the people who’d lived in it.
Our house was built in the 1860s and its first owner was a sea captain, but in about 1870 it was sold to a young couple called Sarah and Robert Edwards, who had children named Amelia and William. They lived here with one servant and later, the children’s grandmother moved in too. The hidden toys must have gone under the floor soon after the family arrived, I think. I decided to use the children’s real names but then invent a story for them, and I ‘moved’ the house to London.
I wanted to combine real historical photographs with modern staged photographs to show what was going on in the world outside the house as the years went by. There are so many absolutely fantastic photographs in the collections of institutions like the Museum of London and the London Transport Museum and I would have liked to use many more, but I wanted this book to be an appetizer – a tasty introduction to the topic of modern British history – which might leave you wanting more.
Why are the soldiers called Major Glad and Major Dizzy?
Well, I have no idea what Amelia and William called their soldiers really, but the names I have given them come from two names which Amelia and William would have heard often: Gladstone and Disraeli were the two most famous politicians of their day and took turns being prime minister while the children were growing up.
Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) was a Conservative and his big rival William Gladstone (1809-1898) was a Liberal. Queen Victoria preferred Disraeli and once said that Gladstone, “addressed her like a public meeting,” but he must have been popular with the people, because he was prime minister four times and finally left the job when he was 84 years old.
Benjamin Disraeli had the nickname ‘Dizzy’ when he was alive. From there it was a short jump to inventing the names of our heroes. And besides, I like the play on words.
In the book, what are the objects under the floor?
The first thing we see falling through the gap between the floorboards is a coin. It is a Queen Victoria ‘bun’ penny. On it Victoria has her hair held up in a bun on the back of her head and she looks quite young.
Victoria became queen when she was 18 years old, and the first pennies with her portrait on them began to be used three years later. She was then a pretty young woman, and she must have liked her portrait because she kept the same one on the coins until she was 76 years old! After that the picture was changed to that of an elderly woman wearing a draped veil over her hair.
The next to go under the floor are Amelia’s sewing needle and thread and Major Glad, ‘posted’ through the gap out of annoyance, and Major Dizzy, a skittle, the camel and the little lead sheep follow close behind.
The torn pages from a child’s book that we’ve used in ‘Major Glad, Major Dizzy’ photographs are the real pieces that were found under my floor. I think they had been quite carefully selected, and they show an early steam locomotive engine and the words ‘First Book’ from a title page. A third piece has a hand-coloured picture of ‘Puss in Boots’ on it. I wonder what caused the real Amelia and William to tear their book?
Once Glad and Dizzy have made themselves comfy in their new home they hang a portrait of their dear queen on the wall. This is a ‘Penny Black’ stamp, the world’s first stick-on postage stamp, which was issued in 1840. Before this stamp was introduced, the person receiving a letter had to pay for it, rather than the person who sent it. Penny Black stamps are now over 170 years old, but they are not very rare, because in those days most people did not use envelopes, they just folded and stuck down their letters and then wrote the address on the outside and stuck on their stamp. So many of the letters from that time which survive, still have a stamp on them.
Later on in our story, Major Glad and Major Dizzy make a flag with the stamp and the needle, to wave through the floorboards and try, in vain, to attract attention. Our stamp was a photocopy – so no real stamps were harmed in the making of this book!
Amelia marries in 1890 and leaves her childhood home in a horsedrawn Hansom cab. Perhaps she has opened the window to ask the cab to wait, and the breeze riffles the curtains and blows her confetti off the table. Paper confetti would have been very fashionable at this time.
After the First World War a photograph of a young soldier slips under the floor. We used a photograph of my grandfather, Ernest Covey, who fought on the Somme in Northern France in 1916, aged just 19. He kept a diary and sent back postcards to his family, which were some of the first original documents or ‘primary sources’ to spark my interest in history.
When a bomb drops nearby during the London Blitz in the Second World War, Amelia’s sampler falls to the floor and catches fire, slipping down to where Glad and Dizzy heroically stamp out the flames that threaten the house. Lots of shards of glass from the smashed window and charred fragments of wood also end up under the floor, but many of them are sucked up by vacuum cleaner during the 1950s.
By 2010, a new generation is living in the house, old buildings outside have been torn down and the room where Billy and Milly play is bright and modern, but their floorboards still have gaps!
Below the floor there are a pair of tickets to the Empire State Building in New York City. Built in 1931, it was the tallest building in the world for 40 years, but the first iron-framed building in the world was built in Shrewsbury in England. The ‘Maltings’ or Flaxmill is also known as the ‘Grandfather of Skyscrapers’. When the ‘Shard’ building in London is completed, it will be the tallest building in the European Union.
Lying on top of the Victorian penny is a half-pence piece from the 1970s. It has the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II on the front.
When the British government changed the kind of money we use to a decimal system in 1971, we needed half-pence coins so that we could convert the value of goods to their new prices more accurately. For example, a sweet costing sixpence in the old money would cost two-and-a-half new pence after 1971. But soon, shopkeepers stopped using half-pences in their prices and there was no need for the little coins anymore.
Scattered on the ground are some Christmas tree needles. I bet if you have real trees at Christmas time you’ll have old pine needles under your floor too! They get everywhere.
And finally, there’s a Remembrance Day poppy. Paper poppies are sold in the street and worn in November when we mark the anniversary of the end of the First World War. A famous poem called ‘In Flanders Field’ told how poppies grew on the graves of soldiers who had fought and died in that war, and the paper flowers remind us of all the servicemen and women who have died since then, fighting for our country and to keep us safe.
Where did the old photographs we see through the window come from?
I chose three of the photographs from two large online collections: one is held by the Museum of London: www.museumoflondonprints.com and the other is from London’s Transport Museum: www.ltmcollection.org There are some really fantastic images available to view and if you want prints, they are simple to order.
The very famous photograph of St Paul’s Cathedral was taken on 29th December 1940, from the roof of the offices of the Daily Mail newspaper, by a staff photographer named Herbert Mason. It was during the Second World War, at the height of ‘The Blitz’ on London, and bombs were being dropped on the city every night by aeroplanes flying overhead. Thousands of buildings were hit by the bombs and many lives were lost. To warn people the bombers were coming a loud air raid siren was sounded, and the people would run to take shelter. When the planes had gone, another siren would sound the ‘all clear’ and everyone came out to see the damage, hoping their own homes had not been destroyed, and checking that their families and friends were safe. This photograph came to symbolise the bravery and determination of the people not to give in. Many other cities in Britain had blitzes of their own, including Coventry, Liverpool, Hull, Sheffield and Plymouth.
The photograph of RT-type buses outside Victoria Station in the 1960s is from a photo collection held by a London bus enthusiast, Mr Ian Armstrong, who has a website all about them: www.busesatwork.co.uk.
All the other photography was done specially for this book by Ian Nolan: www.iannolan.com