Monday, 10 November 2008

XI : Reading to Children

The pictures in this book are related to performances of poems and other written works; and while I cannot give any general appreciation of them, it seems a pity not to say anything about their content. There is one specialised way in which I have had reason to assess them, and that is by their suitability for reading to children. Of course, most of them including Finnegans Wake were not written for that purpose.

I further specialise here, being concerned with audiences aged 11 to 16 years. By the time my own children were eleven I had practically stopped reading to them, and when they were young I chose, not to the exclusion of others, the firm foundation of Alice, Pooh Bear, and Ginger and Pickles. These are all books in which the adult reader can take as much pleasure as the child, and can better appreciate the sharp wit and psychological insight which inform them.

My readings at school were given as end of term treats to classes which normally came to me for science lessons. The requirements, in a comprehensive school of little academic distinction, are quite demanding, There is a certain amount of goodwill in the audience, without which the enterprise would be impossible, but not very much: the work must create its own appreciation. It must not call on too wide a cultural background or language ability, but it must treat the audience seriously; I reject the idea of purveying ‘the culture of the masses’.

My standard works for this purpose are by Hillaire Belloc, mainly his “Cautionary Tales”, and by Don Marquis, his “Archy and Mehitabel”. These are poetical, and make their impact by their music (good thumping rhythms and rhymes) and by their tart and cynical attitudes, which promote the child to the status of adult, complicit in their wickedness. My third standard work is in prose, “Cock-a-doodle-dont” by Ivor Cutler.

Ivor Cutler, Morden Tower, 16/09/1970

The same, 23/01/1976

Ivor Cutler, Morden Tower, 09/10/1980

Nigel Wells, listening to music, Coelfrith, Sunderland 02/12/80

Audience, listening to music, Coelfrith, Sunderland 02/12/80

Ivor Cutler’s quiet precise little Scots voice is familiar to those who listen to BBC Radio 3 and to his records. The pieces in this book are prose, much of it dialogue, which have the conciseness and craftsmanship of poems. Since they are in any case gnomic, the child is at no special disadvantage in failing to grasp their strict logic. They offer the reader some opportunity to perform too; “This Man Want that Woman” performed with sufficient energy and conviction, always makes a good end-piece.

To these authors I must add one, and only one work of his at that. This is “Nativity” by Nigel Wells, which is in his collection “Winter Festivals” (Bloodaxe Books, 1980). I have read this most Christmases since 1980 to school assemblies: it is a poem of great power.

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