Reading the Years

Janet and John

Janet and John

I learned to read with Janet and John; that is to say-I was taught using the reading scheme, Janet and John, not alongside 4 and 5 year olds with those names [although there may well have been Janets and Johns in my class]. The prose was simple, repetitive and tedious but did the trick. I recall that the satisfaction of achieving the decoding of the words was enough to motivate me. I believe the time taken to learn to read was very short, as I was very quickly moving on to the likes of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ which I was soon able to quote long chunks of, so familiar did I become with its enchanting story line.

Janet and John was of its time, the 1950s. The family was standardised mother, father, boy, girl and dog. They were white and middle class. Janet was pictured helping mother in the kitchen while John and his father did manly chores involving the garden. These were not riveting tales. Most sentences ran along the lines of ‘Run, John, run’. He would not be running to avoid the attention of the police or to save the planet but in some vague notion of play.

By the time I was myself teaching children to read, the Ladybird scheme had arrived, although the cultural and socio-economic portrayal of the characters was not a jot different. This time the children were called Peter and Jane, the dog Pat. I feel I should apologise, here and now to the children in my class in Stockwell, London who had no option but to use these books with their white, middle class nuclear family. They must have seemed as alien as the bar in Star Wars for children whose cultural backgrounds were African, West Indian or Asian and who lived in tenement blocks in 1970s London.

Later still, my own children were given ‘One, Two, Three and Away’ books, which at least had story lines-albeit surreal. There were the beginnings of some kind of diversity, with deviant ‘Percy Green’ portrayed as a naughty boy-the character small children loved the most.

When I returned to teaching after an eight year child break there was a bright, shiny new scheme. Political correctness was burgeoning and the books went some way towards addressing it. There was still a white family with a dog [‘Floppy’] but there was the addition of Wilf and Wilma, Nadim and Aneena and their families. Everyone continued to be middle class, with no depictions of unemployment or single parents, but this is to be expected since nobody wants children to learn to read using material based on dispiriting circumstances.

Since the early 90s subsequent governments have meddled with increasingly heavy-handed interventions in the teaching of reading-each new education minister eager to make their mark and overturn the previous ‘big’ idea, regardless of what teachers know and have always known. Normal well supported children can learn to read from the back of a cereal packet but get their richest experiences from real, proper books. Those from homes with little language input and impoverished bookshelves cannot.

Who can resist the lure of children’s books these days? They get better every time I visit the book store!

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Mars-Travelling Hopefully-Never to Arrive

If the writers in my writing group, The Spokes had begun writing whilst young I’ve no doubt that any one, or all of them would, by now have become best-selling authors. As it is we have left starting on the writing journey much, much too late. This is not a catastrophe-as we none of us are dependent on writing for an income [just as well] and all most of us want at this stage is some recognition.
This week there were a variety of readings as usual; one extremely hilarious on the subject of political correctness gone mad, another a whimsical tale of neighbourly domestics, one a police drama, one an extract from a [very promising] mystery novel and one a science fiction short on the subject of a manned mission to Mars. The Mars story got me thinking. An expedition to establish a human colony on Mars is no longer the stuff of sci-fi drama and written fiction. It is most definitely on the cards and is, as I write, being planned.
I understand that humans are programmed to want to know about everything within their world and beyond it. I understand that exploration and science are vital for any improvements in any area in the future. But I do think it dispiriting that having made an unholy mess of one planet, man is now set on going off to another one and messing that one up, too. It is not difficult to imagine how Mars will be in the future-over-populated, polluted and beset by tribal, religious and power wars. It all has a depressing predictability. Humankind as a species is programmed to cock up…isn’t it?
There is a wonderful children’s book called ‘Dinosaurs and all that Rubbish’, about a wealthy industrialist who, having destroyed his own environment sees a beautiful star and wants to travel there. In his absence Earth is restored by the forces of nature, becoming beautiful again and unrecognisable to him. Thinking it is another beautiful ‘star’ he returns and is taught his lesson. Simplistic, yes-pertinent, also yes.
In 2013, more than 200,000 people applied to become part of the Mars mission.          Although there is no upper age limit [applicants must be over 18], a cursory glance at the application criteria is enough to demonstrate that an attempt from the likes of me would be futile since I am defective in most areas. Besides being dependent on medication I am also prone to aches and pains, as well as inclined to believe the apocalypse has come when there is a power cut.
But surely we should be putting our own house in order before going off and getting another one?
Once you have reached that age where there is more of life behind you than in front, do plans such as these seem to ease the pressure of life ending? Or are you excited enough in your dotage to want to know the outcome of such exploits? Myself I feel we are most fortunate not to have the choice.