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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Fearsome tales in our Readers 1

The not-at-all-fearsome Introduction
The love of field and coppice,
Of green and shaded lanes.
Of ordered woods and gardens
Is running in your veins,
Strong love of grey-blue distance
Brown streams and soft dim skies
I know but cannot share it,
My love is otherwise.
   So begins Dorothea Mackellar's poem, more recognisable no doubt by most Australians for its second stanza, beginning:
I love a sunburnt country,...
   What the hell has that to do with the title? Relax, I'm just setting the scene, and you'll appreciate it in the end. Let me retrace a few steps into my past, and guarantee you that the promise I made in the title will be honoured.

   "Grade Six, get out your Readers and turn to Page 88."

   A flurry of activity under desks would follow, green Reading Books would appear, and Grade Six would sit, ready to go.

   "Now, read 'My Country'."

Grade 1 Reader with colour illustrations: SOURCE
   Before I go on, I should explain that this is 1955, and I am in that Grade Six class, and I'm nine years old, going on ten. We're in a little two-roomed school, the "Big Room" housing Grades Four to Eight. 

   Poor mathematicians will whip out their calculators and they'll take 4 from 8, and get 4. 

   Wrong. You just jumped straight in there, didn’t you? There are five grades there. Count them on your fingers, assuming you've got the regulation number on each hand. See?

   This meant that when Grade Six read "My Country" aloud, all five grades had the benefit of Ms Mackellar's poetry. In fact, every grade had the benefit of every other grade's Reading Book contents, and I'll come to that in due course. The point is, by the time we got to Grade 8, there was little we didn't know about what was in every grade's Reader.

   So what did we know about from them, word for word?

   This explains it rather well, but don't go there right now. It's probably of interest only to those who have been through the experience, but those who did will never forget it. You'll see why later.

    Most of the Readers reflected the ambiguity to which "My Country" alludes. I knew all about the sunburnt country because I spent half my childhood milking cows in its sunburnt bit, but that first stanza fascinated me.

    The paradox sprang from the fact that the literary adaptations were chosen to give us an attachment to and love for the "Old Country" that our parents and grandparents had fought for in two World Wars, and simultaneously to cater for the 1950s brand of Australian nationalism, which was as monochrome as most of the illustrations in the Readers.

    From these Readers, there were dozens of illustrations from Great Britain etched into our consciousness – Westminster Abbey for example, which to me seemed supremely ugly, but the villages in the English countryside seemed wonderful.

    Exotic and powerful images they were, of an alien chocolate-box world I was drawn to. What was a coppice? I had no idea. We didn't use the term "field" except to play cricket on; to us, they were paddocks. Nor did we have "woods". No, we had "the bush", or "scrub". We didn't have villages; we had... what? "Townships."

    I rather wish we'd had villages – a much more attractive notion than "township", which seems like something just waiting to grow into something bigger, like a town. Let's face it, some of our townships weren't all that pretty.

    But how easy for us "village" kids it was to identify with:
When the voices of children are heard on the green
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast
And everything else is still.

Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down
And the dews of night arise;
Come, come, leave off play, and let us away
Till the morning appears in the skies.

No, no, let us play, for it is yet day
And we cannot go to sleep;
Besides, in the sky the little birds fly
And the hills are all cover'd with sheep.

Well, well, go & play till the light fades away
And then go home to bed.''
The little ones leaped & shouted & laugh'd
And all the hills echoed.
Songs of Innocence (William Blake)

   [Oh Mr Blake, for a brilliant poet, that last rhyme is unworthy of you. Of all the things that rhyme with "bed" you settled for "echoed", which meant we had to pronounce it "echo-wed". Can Do Better.]

   In those Readers, we had joyful poems from our own experience to which we could also relate, those of us who knew something of the tropical and subtropical rainforests, or even our little creeks and rivers:
By channels of coolness the echoes are calling,
And down the dim gorges I hear the creek falling:
It lives in the mountain where moss and the sedges
Touch with their beauty the banks and the ledges.
Through breaks of the cedar and sycamore bowers
Struggles the light that is love to the flowers;
And, softer than slumber, and sweeter than singing,
The notes of the bell-birds are running and ringing.
Bellbirds (Henry Kendall)

   In the higher grades, the content darkened. We were being prepared for real life, with no illusions, kiddies. Even the choice of English poems reflected this:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

   It's not the poetry so much I wanted to talk about; not the pretty stuff. It's mainly the prose extracts and adaptations that were served up to us to improve our minds, to instil solid values derived from Victorian England and the early twentieth century. Some of them were vividly and starkly painful for sensitive children.

    Dare you go on? Dare I? Of course I will, and so should you. I'll give you some examples of what we heard over and over for five years. It's a wonder some of us didn't end up as psychopaths or emotional wrecks.

Next: The Daisy and the Lark [256 words]
Fearsome tales in our Readers 1: Introduction [1000 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 2: The Daisy and the Lark [256 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 3: The Little Match Girl [206 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 4: The Crocodile and the Bull [280 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 5: Escape from the wolves [444 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 6: Mazeppa's Ride [438 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 7: A Tale of Two Cities [336 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 8: Gelert [343 words]


  1. I started to read after my sister directed me to your writing.
    I got to the picture of the 'reader' and could feel a frisson of memory stir. I read it all out loud to my husband. I got to play a little game with the poems where I would read three words of the first stanza's and off he would go..finishing the whole poem by heart.
    By the time you wrote; "the literary adaptations were chosen to give us an attachment to and love for the "Old Country" that our parents and grandparents had fought for in two World Wars, and simultaneously to cater for the 1950s brand of Australian nationalism," I was crying.
    Then that photo of the painting of the English village undid me.
    All cell memory of my schooling in the 1950's (at one time in a one teacher school where each row was a grade).
    We read it all...and the one thing that spoke to me was how male-centric was our 'education'.

    Thank you for encouraging me to revisit my own primary education on a hot Saturday morning on the mid north coast of NSW.

    1. Heck, I clicked on Delete instead of Reply to your fascinating comment – luckily I needed a second step before wiping you out! That would have been embarrassing.

      That picture of the Gr 1 reader page is as clear in my memory as anything in my life, and was really top quality pedagogy. I thought Ben had a girly hat though, and looked much too girly all round.

      Which leads to your final point. It was surely a male world in the 1950s. Anything too feminine in those later stories was bound to be regarded as weak. We boys and girls absorbed that through the pores of our skin. And the school curriculum.

      Luckily male inventors made kitchen toys to keep women back there where they belonged and not to keep hanging on to the jobs they look over in wartime, and kept the process of indoctrination going through TV shows like "I love Lucy". BUT within ten years, quite a lot had started to change, though the changes are taking a long time.

      The readers do take you back and pull all sorts of things into consciousness. So many of us can repeat those poems almost word for word.

      If I get the chance I'd like to write about the unique organism a multi-grade school in those days was.

  2. It was not until I went back to 'school' in my thirties as was doing English that I realised how male-centric was my previous education as the English teacher started the whole process over again ( in the 1980's). I stopped him short ( being the oldest one in the night class).He said; well get me some others if you can that aren't so masculiine but makes the grade. So I did. One in particular was "I have come to claim..." a poem about the death of Marilyn Monroe.
    Anyway, the other realisation was that in the 1950's the 'norm' was the male (animal,point of view.bology etc) and the 'female' the adjunct. I was not aware of this at all until after I had children...becoming more aware of how to raise a son and daughter equally capable.

    Apparently the teacher in our one teacher school was a drunk. I was not aware of it ( being in grade 2) but remember his daughter ( grade 6) would sometimes take the 'class'...which was virtually..'When you have finished your column on the blackboard go on to the next column ( which happened to be the next grade's up). Also we heard 'school of the air' as a whole group so were exposed to all on offer.
    One of the booklets I distinctly remember as a young'n was the 'colour in the picture that is different' and 'sewing around the edges' activities.
    Apart from that there was no greater influence then when we moved to a larger school and my 5 grade teacher became my hero. He taught us music, singing and poetry ( as well as the rest). But his 'tuning fork' was a delight and pleasure for me.

    Thank you for your sharing such wonderful ideas, memories, thoughts. Your blog is a pleaure.


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