Wednesday, 14 July 2010

One of our local authors

had a "childhood" piece in the weekend paper. You know the sort of thing I mean. He talked about who his parents were and where he was born and what a precocious reader he was. It was all very well done because he is a very good writer. The little details were fascinating - they had a kerosene heater for bath water. (We only had a woodchip heater.)
Yes, the little details. Nothing terribly exciting happened to him as a child but he still managed to make it interesting. We shared similar but different experiences. I could relate to what he said.
That set me thinking about the historical novels I read as a child. I think it was the little details that I liked.
The Children's Country Lending Service, that marvellous and long since gone service which sent books to children who had no access to a real library, sent me Rosemary Sutcliff's books and Cynthia Harnett's books. Both those writers had a marvellous capacity for writing about ordinary people, ordinary lives and ordinary comforts and discomforts. My knowledge of Roman Britain came almost entirely from Rosemary Sutcliff's books. I did no Roman history at school, in fact I did nothing but Australian history until my last year at school. By then I was bored rigid with tales of Australian explorers in the outback, the convict past of the eastern states and the way that Colonel Light planned Adelaide. My great-uncle may have lived in Sturt's cottage but it was just a house to me - and remains so. But Roman Britain was something different. It really was different. It came alive for me because, instead of dry historical facts unimaginatively taught, here was a story that told me how cold the winters were, how uncomfortable the conditions were. I was told how harsh the discipline was and how terrible the food was. There were all the personal as well as the public conflicts. It was marvellous material, especially for a lonely child in remote Australian bush. I wrote to Rosemary Sutcliff and told her that. She replied, even though I asked her not to, because she said that the idea of someone sitting under a gum tree reading about Roman Britain fascinated her. I think it did too but she would have been less fascinated with the way I was taught history.
Cynthia Harnett's books are, if anything, even more domestic. The wealth of detail in those is probably not for every child. The Whirlwind loves them and has read and re-read each one but other local children have just said they are "okay", "pretty good" and "not bad". They are not enthusiastic. History has no real meaning for them. They still seem to get a bit of what I got in school. There is occasionally even a bit of other history thrown in but the sense of history is not there for them in the way it was for me. Cynthia Harnett's description of the earliest pressure cooker (Italian and an instrument of the devil) is fascinating to me but many children have never seen a pressure cooker. Their mothers use microwaves and slow cookers. Equally many city children have no first hand knowledge of modern shearing so the description of how things were done in "The Woolpack" is often of no interest to them. Often they do not even own a woollen garment. Microfleece is the order of the day - because their mothers can fling that in the washing machine.
I know the world is a different place for them, a different country altogether. I just wish they could know my country too.

6 comments:

Sheep Rustler said...

Two of my all-time favorite authors! I think books like that are why I went on to major in history at university. I desperately wanted to write historical novels but found I was better at the research than the writing. My son complains about having to study Australia too much - he loves history and will read anything about Ancient Rome or Greece - but gets Aboriginal culture in every respect forced down his throat every year. He recognizes that Aboriginal culture and history is important but wants to study other stuff too. So he reads novels, just like we did. He was able to study a small unit of ancient history last year and this year but remained unsatisfied because they covered so much less detail than historical novels. Fortunately there are still some writers using similar themes today.

catdownunder said...

Of course we need to know about indigenous culture but I also think we need to know about our own cultural heritage as well. There are so many things for which our understanding of that depends - e.g our entire legal system!

elle @ lapsushumanus said...

Well... I am trying to make pressure-cooking hip again! Let's hope it catches on!

catdownunder said...

Oh pressure cooking is wonderful. I do not know how people manage without a pressure cooker!

Sheep Rustler said...

I have recently bought a pressure cooker and two cook books and am just trying to gather up the courage to use it!

catdownunder said...

You will wonder how you ever managed without a pressure cooker!