Saturday, 11 February 2017

The Sliding Eye - Catherine Butler

From "The Rights of the Reader"
by Daniel Pennac and Quentin Blake
Do you skip pages when you’re reading?

I think of myself as someone who never skips. I may give up a book halfway through, but if a book gets read by me it knows it’s been read, and no half measures. That said, if my eye doesn’t quite skip it does occasionally slide…

Children are supposed to be easily bored, requiring constant stimulation to secure their fickle attention, which needs as much tickling as a trout. Accordingly, children’s authors are told to avoid long descriptions, especially of inanimate things like landscapes. As long as the narrator’s mesmerized by a sunset, not else much can happen, after all. What good is a book without pictures or conversations – or chase sequences, for that matter?

There may be something in that rule of thumb, although generalising about children is a dangerous game: there are two billion of them, after all. But if children dislike long descriptions, perhaps it’s also because they tend to have a greater proportion unfamiliar vocabulary? Architecture, botany, geology, meteorology… all these descriptive stalwarts have large technical vocabularies. Children are used to encountering new words, of course, but slabs of alien text are not a very welcoming environment.

As a child, I found flowers and trees particularly problematic. Take the following passage from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911):

At first it seemed that green things would never cease pushing their way through the earth, in the grass, in the beds, even in the crevices of the walls. Then the green things began to show buds and the buds began to unfurl and show colour, every shade of blue, every shade of purple, every tint and hue of crimson. In its happy days flowers had been tucked away into every inch and hole and corner. Ben Weatherstaff had seen it done and had himself scraped out mortar from between the bricks of the wall and made pockets of earth for lovely clinging things to grow on. Iris and white lilies rose out of the grass in sheaves, and the green alcoves filled themselves with amazing armies of the blue and white flower lances of tall delphiniums or columbines or campanulas.

I think I would have struggled to see what all the fuss was about. Of course flowers bloom in spring and summer: what did they expect to happen? (These days I experience far greater wonder at this annual miracle than I did in the more cynical years of childhood.) I might have been interested in Ben Weatherstaff’s mortar-scraping trick – in that sentence at least someone’s actually doing something – but the list of colours would be have been no more than a blur. And as for the flower names at the end, well, forget it. Even now, I can’t tell you what delphiniums or columbines or campanulas look like, let alone when they’re meant to bloom, whether they’re hard to grow, or anything of that sort. Don’t rush to tell me! I’ve tried to learn many times – I even listen to Gardener’s Question Time when I can – but for some reason it just doesn’t stick. Hodgson Burnett is a great storyteller, but descriptions bristling with plant names would have had my eye sliding like crazy.

It’s the same with other technical terms, unless someone stops to explain them. I like a good seafight or exploratory sail up the Amazon or even just a potter around Coniston Water, but once you start telling me that your main character hauled aft the foresheet or reefed the mizzen you might just as well be talking Tagalog. (I admit, of course, that explaining nautical jargon as you go along would slow the narrative even more: it’s a dilemma.) Perhaps through a concentrated diet of such books one might eventually acquire an education in life aboard ship, but in my experience it takes quite a while to get one’s sea legs.

On the other hand (and I’m sure this says nothing good about me), when it comes to money I insist on understanding. Take this passage from Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes (1936):

     “How much money have you got?”
     Petrova fetched her purse and laid out two postal orders – one for five shillings, and the other for ten – and the Simpsons’ gold half-sovereign. She reminded Nana that the gold was worth more than ten shillings.
     Nana got a pencil and paper and made calculations.
     “We could get a nice organdie for two and eleven. Four and half yards those dresses take – that’s nine yards.” She passed the paper to Petrova. “You’re good at figures: how much is nine yards at two and eleven?”
     Petrova worked it out in her head; it came to one pound six and threepence. They all looked at the money. Allowing for the extra on the ten shillings, they had enough.

I stop there for the sake of brevity, but that’s not the end of the fun. Nana immediately remembers that they also need to buy stuff for petticoats, which occasions many more calculations, some involving farthings.

I would have been with Petrova, working it all out, though perhaps not in my head. In Ballet Shoes, money is important, after all. If you don’t know the number of pennies in a shilling or shillings in a guinea, and if you don’t know what you might expect to be able to buy with either, how can you understand the extent of the Fossil sisters’ financial woes?

But I know from having taught the book on several occasions that hardly any of my students know a thing about pre-decimal currency. Their eyes slide uncomprehendingly over talk of guineas and shillings; they don’t know a bob from a tanner, or a halfpenny from a half-crown. Nor do they feel that this seriously compromises their enjoyment of Ballet Shoes (or indeed pre-1971 English literature in general), any more than I feel that my ignorance of delphiniums and sailing lore disqualifies me from enjoying The Secret Garden or Swallows and Amazons.

Perhaps we’re all right?

But I fear we’re all mistaken.


Penny Dolan said...

Cathy, it was the "organdie" in that quoted paragraph that got my interest, with my eyes sliding over the money, even if I am old enough, ho hum. Various flowers names always attracted me and got stuck in my mind too, despite not being very keen on practical gardening as a child. The Secret Garden could make you feel as if you could be good at gardening without having to face worms and slugs and other horrors.

Maybe some words have a music about them for young ear, even though other categories are almost totally ignored.

Catherine Butler said...

Yes, I think we latch onto those things that connect with our own concerns, whatever age we are. Though I think I could always feel more strongly about a snapdragon than an antirrhinum...

Linda Newbery said...

Cathy, I found this interesting because I know I have a 'sliding eye' for action, fights and suchlike which just don't interest me much unless exceptionally well handled. On the other hand, as a child I loved description of the countryside, weather and landscape, and still do. Re the gardening points, I don't think anyone has a problem with cowslips, bluebells, meadowsweet, etc. because of their folkloric, traditional and pastoral associations. But I agree that Latinate names are best avoided - so yes, snapdragon not antirrhinum.