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.
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.
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.