In The Children of Noisy Village, or Alla Vi Barn I Bullerbyn to give it it’s Swedish name, Pippi Longstocking author Astrid Lindgren returns to the landscape of her childhood for a series of vignettes about a perfect childhood in a rural Swedish village.
This is how Astrid remembers her childhood, ‘That beautiful environment which framed my days then and filled them with such intensity, that as a grown-up you can hardly comprehend it. Wild strawberries among the rocks, carpets of blue spring flowers, meadows full of cowslips, special places where blueberries could be found, the forest where dainty pink flowers were nestling in the moss, the paddocks around Näs where we knew every little path and every little stone, the creek with the water lilies, ditches, streams and trees.’
Lisa is one of six children living on three adjoining farms known to the locals as Bullerby, ‘Everyone calls the farms Noisy Village because there are so many children around, making so much noise all the time.’
These partly autobiographical stories come from a place that’s a Swedish equivalent of Arthur Ransome’s England, long lost but still vivd and yearned for in the popular imagination. In Ransome’s stories play leads to adventure and intrigue, but for Astrid Lindgren the play is quite enough by itself. Whether they are ‘crayfishing in Nocken, dipping the pot at Christmastime or nutting for the New Year’, the everyday activities of the Bullerby children sound to the modern (adult) British reader both nostalgic and quite exotic.
There are great tracts where nothing really happens. For example when Anna visits her grandfather you think we might be about to meet a twinkly old timer, like Charlie’s Grandpa Joe. Not a bit of it, this guy definitely has one foot in the grave, ‘His eyes are so weak he can hardly see anything.’ So Lisa, Britta and Anna read the newspaper to Grandfather as he chills in a rocking chair, adverts, death notices and all. The best part of his day he says is ‘cuddling down in my bed. I feel very tired.’ But for all that, the scene is full of charm – the children’s interactions with adults reminding me of Dorothy Edwards’ Naughty Little Sister books.
The adventures, such as they are, stay rooted in the everyday but take on a fairy tale quality. In one story only child Olle gets a new dog. The animal belongs to a shoemaker called Mr. Kind (by name, not nature). He’s an archetype right out of Grimm, what with his shoe mending, being fearsome and living in a cottage in the forest. But Mr. Kind isn’t harbouring any enchanted princesses or anything, just a mistreated dog, who Olle befriends and eventually buys off the horrible old man.
Life at Näs was also intertwined with the fairy tale world in the mind of Astrid Lindgren. She recalls visits to the kitchen of her friend, ‘We were sitting there on the floor, my brother and I, listening to her reading this wondrous story about “the giant Bam-Bam and Viribunda the fairy”. Well! That I didn’t die on the spot! In that instant a hunger to read was born in me, and with the impatience of a four year-old, I stared at those strange black squiggles. As if by some curious magic, the whole kitchen could suddenly be filled with fairies, giants and goblins’.
Although there are no fantastical creatures to be found in Noisy Village, it is a place brought to life by the imaginations of six children. They turn a walk home from school into a mythological quest, building a bridge out of a broken fence, taking refuge on a rock in the middle of a flooded field, where they are saved from starvation by a cheese sandwich and a packet of barley sugar. They escape but must return to recover their pirate treasure (a pair of shoes) only to be routed by the furious shoemaker, whose rock has been the centre of their world that afternoon.
Lindgren has that great ability, shared by all great children’s writers, of having not only a memory, but an understanding of what it was like to play as a child. The illustrations capture this beautifully. The original editions by visionary artist Ingrid Vang Nyman are just stunning. We’ve seen her quirky depictions of children’s fun and games before in Pippi Longstocking, but here there’s the extra dimension of the natural world to play with, introducing a new cast of stylised birds, cows and annoyed looking rats.
After Vang Nyman’s early death Ilon Wilkland re-illustrated the books, bringing something quite new to the stories. Her style is similar to Shirley Hughes, adding a more naturalistic side to the stories, and far more detail to the rooms and exteriors in which the children, and Astrid played.
Lindgren remembers the exact moment in her life that the playing stopped. ‘I remember it so well. We always used to play with the priest’s granddaughter when she came to Näs in the holidays. But one summer’s day, when she came and we were going to start playing as usual, we suddenly discovered that we couldn’t play any more. It just didn’t work. It felt odd and sad, because what would we do if we couldn’t play?’
This comment makes it sound as though there might be a sadness in Lindgren’s writing. Quite the opposite, her task is to make Bullerby as vivid and lively as possible. Her childhood lives forever, as the final lines from the story Crayfishing at Nocken make clear, ‘The sun was shining on the windows of the houses, and they looked beautiful.
“I feel sorry for people who don’t have any place to live,” I said to Anna.
“I feel sorry for people who don’t live in Noisy Village,” Anna said.’
Thanks to Astrid Lindgren we all can.