The love of field and coppice,So begins Dorothea Mackellar's poem, more recognisable no doubt by most Australians for its second stanza, beginning:
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.
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|
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.
[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.
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]