Good Reading : August 2001
readingaloud This month, Barbara Blackman considers books for fathers and sons to listen to together. I n the mid eighties, when I was collecting oral histories for the National Library, I interviewed a woman in her mid nineties. She was a spinster art teacher and one of the happiest people I ever recorded. She grew and painted roses, was loved and visited by past students. She recounted how, at the turn of the century, her family moved up from Omeo in Victoria to Brisbane, with six children and all their possessions, by coach, stage by stage. When they had arranged their belongings in the house that awaited them and had their first dinner in it, their father gathered them round the fireplace – no fire yet – pulled out from his pocket the book they were reading and went on from where they had left off. These nightly readings were an essential part of their family life. One whole century later, my friend David, a man on the land in these parts, takes off in the Landrover with his ten- year-old son for the longish drive to Canberra. The car is not so much a coach as a book on wheels. In they hop and in goes the cassette. He, who was a devout bedtime reader to his children, now joins them in book listening. They have enjoyed C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books as well as books from his own childhood, Robinson Crusoe and Ivanhoe. They have just finished Bernard Cornwell’s Excalibur with all its Arthurian adventures and are going on to his Richard Sharpe stories, beginning with Sharpe’s Waterloo. Other dads fossicking at my local library in the Shoalhaven say they and their sons like the Brain Jacques’ Red Wall series. These are peopled by English woodland creatures – stoats, moles and badgers – shades of Wind in the Willows. The joy is in the detail of their feastings, mouth watering stuff. It is read by Jacques himself in good north country accent. The writer reading is also part of the charm of The Indian in the Cupboard, a story of a toy, a key, a mystery coming to life, evocatively told by Lynne Reid Banks. 48 In another family of four sons – the father a furniture maker – the young boys used to huddle and clatter about the living room making things and actually also repairing things, listening to story cassettes as they worked. I got the cassettes from the National Screen and Sound Archive in Canberra: a set of the old radio series of Yes What, antics of the fourth form at St Percy’s, with Mr Snootles the harassed and hoodwinked headmaster, dunderhead Bottomly, aggravator Greenbottle, and fall guy Stanford. The boys liked the parts of the recordings devoted to interviews, fifty years later, with actors who had taken part. Still very popular, so they tell me. Now these boys are in their teens and go out on fishing trips with their dad. On the way from Canberra to the coast and again in their tents at night, they listen to books. All day the fisherman stand and wait or stand within their ocean of dreams and fantasies of sea things. How appropriate for them then to have most recently been listening to Les Murray’s adventures of the nautical superman Fredy Neptune. The story comes with strong swigs of the sea and carries the close whiff of heroes and savageries of recent times – boys’ own stuff told with a poet’s tongue. In schools, as in libraries, the good company of the classics is now forsaken. Possibly my greatest audio book experience ever was in London in the early sixties. At that time the recording studios for Talking Books were located alongside the BBC so that the best of its radio presenters offered themselves for reading the great books. Robin Holmes, long time newsreader, not only read Alice in Wonderland, but also the whole of Proust. Jac de Manier, mellifluous morning program presenter, read Fathers and Sons by Turgenev, perhaps the greatest novel by the greatest novelist, with its fragile moments of love almost grasped and its poignant understanding of the gap between generations that love cannot bridge. Perhaps father and sons who listen to these books together are bridging that gap. Sydney to Singapore, Singapore to Mumbai, Mumbai to Bangalore, Bangalore to Chennai and Chennai to Mumbai – Vanessa, 40 What are you reading? The first volume of A Dance to the Music of Time: Spring by Anthony Powell Why did you choose that particular book? Many years ago, my mother raved about it and it has been on my shelf for ages as one of the must-get-to-reads and as I was going on a long business trip it looked perfect. Did you buy or borrow it? I borrowed it from my brother and he keeps wanting it back so I need to finish it soon. Has it lived up to your expectations? It is just as my mother described it. Lots of people who intrigue you and then the story moves on, but you keep thinking they are going to pop up later so it keeps you wanting to find out when they will re-emerge and how it will all link up. Would you recommend it as a good read? Yes, it’s great for travel.