Eventually in Primary One we got round to the serious business of reading.
Up to that time it had supposedly been reading preparation though if the truth be told, we were far too busy eluding the grasping fingers of Sister Hairpull to bother with much else.
Readers – as our Primers were affectionately known – were few and far between (one per table of three to four pupils) and ancient. I mean really ancient. They depicted a world long gone that even our parents then would find alien.
They allegedly told the family story of their heroes, Dick and Dora (some had Janet and John: only these names changed!).
No parents of our day would inflict these monikers on their unsuspecting offspring (the first meant something unspeakable!) so you knew instantly that it was all make-believe.
Despite being bound in heavy-duty (red and blue) fabric these solid hardbacks had seen a better day: and many previous pupils (I hesitate to say owners for it was a full generation later before any child could claim to own his own schoolbook).
It appeared that despite what the teacher might say, one’s first aim was to write one’s name on the reader at the table. As a consequence the books told – in parents’ and neighbours’ names -the social history of the immediate post-war generation (with added insult and comment scrawled in the margin about previous ‘owners’).
But the handsome watercolour illustrations were unparalleled. I never could concentrate on the words for skipping forward to admire the beautiful drawings to come! These pages were filled with happy, prosperous, handsome, law-abiding citizens from strange but fascinating families. I really wanted to learn more about this make-believe world where mothers were addressed as Mother, fathers as Father and Grandfather and Grandmothers by their titles too!
Mother was always calm and controlled, immaculately-groomed at all hours and always dressed in a clean frilly apron. Father always wore a suit with shirt and tie, even when out working in the garden (a lot of the time). They lived in a pretty pink house on a pleasant street regularly patrolled on foot by jovial, robust policemen in light-blue uniforms and rounded helmets and frequently serviced by a plethora of grocers, postmen and other utilities personnel.
They never needed to go to the toilet – indeed I don’t think there was a toilet in their perfect house. There was certainly no radio or TV to disturb their perfect peace. The children’s toys were simple and timeless: a ball, a wagon, a kite and a wooden sailboat.
In these stories nothing ever went wrong, except perhaps the post might be a little late. But the footpaths (and the gardens) were never covered in dogs**t, no one ever shouted or lost their temper; there were of course, no cars on the streets, no meals ever got burned, no dust ever invaded the home, Father was always home on time from work. A perfect world.
The ‘town’ was peculiar too. Pet shops with live puppies in the window (which seemed appropriate enough because the song, ‘How Much is that Doggie in the Window’ was topping the pop charts of the time): toy stores where all the toys were robust, designed to last a lifetime and made of wood: grocers where all your items were brought to you by a cheerful man in a white apron.
But the most peculiar thing of all was the way the people talked – like Stepford wives but pre-empting that film by four decades.
‘Here we are at the farm!’
says Father, in one of his more loquacious moments.
He normally spoke in monosyllables.
Dressed to kill in his best suit, he has just bounded from his new car. He has no need to worry. There is no animal litter on Grandfather’s farm! And yes there were a few cars then – and of course our perfect family was first to purchase one.
‘Hello, Grandmother’, Father continues, ‘Here we are on the farm’.
I thought he had already announced that!
Still, over to Grandmother …
‘Yes, here you are on the farm!’
Gracious! She’s an automaton too!
‘Here we are on the farm’, continues Father – as though he’s just heard a contrary theory! – and determined not to be outdone by (his or his wife’s) mother.
‘Here is grandfather too!
Here we are on the farm.’
At first I was grateful enough for all this repetition, for I had rather a restricted vocabulary myself then, especially my reading vocabulary.
And if you had lost your place – when called upon to read – it was a safe bet that the next line was … yes, you’ve guessed it …
‘Here we are on the farm!’
One knew never to argue with Sister Hairpull but I felt compelled to enlighten her as to the ridiculously-skewed characterisation of Constable Blob.
‘Please, Miss! Please Miss! Please Miss!’ as I desperately sought her attention.
‘I am NOT a Miss!’ she would roar! ‘I’m a holy nun of
‘SISTER!’ It’s ‘PLEASE, SISTER!’
That was the last thing I needed! ANOTHER sister!
‘Please Sister,’ I ventured. ‘That’s not what a real policeman looks like.’
‘Oh, pay careful attention, children,’ she mewled caustically,
‘This boy …
(she didn’t bother to learn pupils’ names)
… this boy … is going to inform us what a real policeman looks like.’
I had never previously encountered sarcasm.
I had never previously encountered sarcasm.
‘Well, Sister’, I began earnestly, leaping blindly into her trap,
‘He is tall, skinny and stern with a grey face.
He is dressed all in black and looks fearsome.
He carries a long gun and shoots you if you come near him!’
I concluded all in a rush.
‘Is that SO, Mr Smart Alec.’
For one so fastidious about titles, she cared little about other people’s.
And how would you know that?’ she added sarcastically.
”Because there he is out that window standing in front of the Police Barracks!’
I roared triumphantly.
And so I learned my first real, life lesson.
Never, ever, ever appear smarter than your superiors.
I paid dearly for my lesson.
I spent the rest of that day in the corner wearing a large cone paper hat with the little D drawn upon it.
No wonder I still hate the police, right up to this day!
I pass this life-lesson on to you for free!
…. more later ….