Maybe it’s me

I learned to read a long time ago, but not as long ago as the people who were teaching me to read. Not my parents, or Sunday school, or teachers at school. I mean the man – and I think it must have been a man – who wrote the books I learned to read on.


It puzzled me all through my 20s and more, why nobody else had the same books at school. For French we had the Bertillon family, three children called Marie-Claude and Philippe at Alain, because Mme Bertillon, apart from epitomising understated Parisian chic (and how did that work? Her husband worked at the airport, for heaven’s sake) was undoubtedly Catholic, like Ken Leary, like the kids who went to The Other School, St Augustine’s. Which was never talked about, being about 400 yards away. Monsieur Bertillon was a douanier, the guy who asks if you’ve packed your own suitcase, out at Orly, commuting by motobycyclette. Moped then, before FS1Es were even a twinkle in a designer’s eye.

                         When things were real.

Because while everyone else in the UK learned to read on Janet and John, I got Dick and Dora. Who nobody’s ever heard of, except it seems, in Australia. Possibly because one internet source tells me Dick and Dora were replaced in schools in 1949, which isn’t when I went to school, but explains quite a lot about my world view.

A bit like the time I spent half an hour on a vicious argument in the street with a girl who insisted we’d been to a club last week, but the aircraft hanger with 200 TV sets nailed to the wall where we had to drink warm beer out of plastic glasses sitting in total isolation while our ears bled to Tainted Love (which couldn’t have had any bearing on our relationship whatsoever) wasn’t anything like a proper nightclub, or at least the Rick’s Bar that was in my head with that label.

Pretty much a blueprint.
Pretty much a blueprint.

I blame Dick and Dora. Actually, I don’t, because they taught me right from wrong.

Right is Aga cookers in warm, cosy, bright, welcoming kitchens. Right is where you’re always accepted and adults are there to help. Right is umbrellas blowing inside out in November and men’s hats blowing off in March, and April showers and daffodils and supper is always waiting for you. Right is proper artwork and hardbound covers and rabbits and imaginary elephants in parks devoid of syringes and proper wooden benches and balls and Airedale terriers and cats called Fluff. And cars with running boards. And cigarettes. And real men wore silk scarves.

I’ve spent years wondering when all this is going to actually happen. I was coming to the conclusion that it actually might possibly not until I did some teaching at summer school and found myself making a mask of a horse’s head using a badminton racket (ha! Ingenious, non? Obviously it wasn’t my idea), A4 paper, some crayons, sissors and a well-known brand of glue. I had a helper, naturally. She was 11 and advised on the colouring, and whether the bridle should be drawn on or applique paper. She thought drawn on was better, despite her success with the brown blaze on the horse’s nose and the eyes, chiefly, I suspect because she thought I was doing too much of it and wanted a go herself.

And suddenly, it really was Dick and Dora world. It was sunny outside. We were making something people wanted, something that made people happy. We were totally absorbed in it. We made something, literally, out of nothing. A pretend world, where horses really are made of paper and badminton racquets. Or at least, enough so that when they saw our horse, pretty much everyone smiled that day. And I smiled too, at what I didn’t know. But I think it was the fact that finally, I’m an adult. And I was helping.

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I’m not from round ‘ere. Eerily like Ben in Not Your Heart Away, I grew up in a country town. Also like him, I don’t think I knew anything much about the countryside that I hadn’t got second-hand and decades out of date from Thomas Hardy or Housman. The process was helped by my school, the local C of E (it was just the school, not a lifestyle choice. People didn’t have lifestyles in those days) village Primary in Wiltshire, where we learned to read on Dick and Dora. Well, not me, my parents made sure I could read before I went to school. That said, Gibbon’s Decline And Fall was still a bit of a struggle. Dick and Dora wasn’t about co-eds in Minnesota at all, but a reading primer that I later found-out had been replaced everywhere else in 1949.

Well, not at Southwick Primary it hadn’t. It’s fair to say it totally warped my world view. Obviously every decent family had an Aga. Daddy went out to work every day, wearing a suit and tie (brown or dark grey in summer, of course. Why do you ask? Everyone knows that), slipping casually into a pair of flannels and a cardigan when he got home, invariably on time, by steam train. Daddy had a car with running boards and an income sufficient to keep Mummy at home in some style, long before our fetishisation of Agas and vintage cars felt stylish to anyone at all. Dick and Dora the children, (no, one doesn’t talk about contraception. Mummy and Daddy may well be and obviously are quite progressive in that respect, but one simply doesn’t) in their own turn looked after Fluff the cat (also eerily named after my cat, I think) and a dog. I can’t remember what kind of dog it was. Probably an Airedale or something similar, one of those sturdy dogs you used to see on wheels, pushed around as children’s toys. Well, I used to, anyway. It almost certainly wasn’t a Rottweiler or a trendy Iberian waterdog or a pit-bull, muzzled or not.

Chaps’s hats were expected to blow off in Spring gales as March roared in like a lion and went out like a lamb and somehow that was something to do with the lamb of god. Houses had fences around them, gardens provided eggs and vegetables as well as flowers and umbrellas (remember them?) blew inside out, usually in November, unless you were lucky enough to get one through to March, when the lamb/lion combination would mean another visit to the umbrella shop.

It marked me. In almost every garden I’ve ever had it hasn’t felt right unless there was rhubarb and mint growing and let’s face it, that isn’t the hardest stuff to grow on any rubbishy old soil. (Gardening tip: plant it. Leave it alone until it’s ready to eat. Eat it. You will have more rhubarb and mint than you know what to do with). One of the most pathetic things I ever saw was coupled with hearing one of them. The pub chef was walking down to the shop while someone told me what a great chef he was. When he came back he’d bought a jar of ready-mixed mint sauce. Obviously the pub had run out of vinegar, sugar and the bushels of the stuff growing practically everywhere. Maybe he’d read the new Janet and John books instead. I never have. Spiritually as well as at Southwick Primary, they were after my time. Childhood leaves its mark, good or bad. But adulthood is its own responsibility.

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