Friday, 16 May 2008

Peter and Jane and Me

Receiving this 'lovely' cake tin and matching tray for Easter from my sister (who always does a great line in ironic, tongue-in-cheek gifts) whooshed me back to the early 60s, when my mother, a former nursery and infant school teacher, decided that it was high time that I applied myself to learning to read, aged 3, so that I was well ahead of everyone else by the time I started school. As befitted my child genius status, naturally.

So off she went to W H Smith's in Reading to purchase a set of the brand new Ladybird Key Words reading books . And thus began my formal education.

Here is Peter.

Here is Jane.

Look at us.

We are always good.

We are never bad.

We are boring.

We are very, very boring.

Here is Father. He cleans the car.

Here is Mother. She cleans the house.

Look, you are only 4 but we can make you yawn.

Do you like to read?

No, if all I have to read is Peter and Jane, I do not like to read.

See, this book is fun!

No, it is not fun, I do not like to read this book, I want to play.

One day there will be Biff and Chip and Kipper.

And then reading will be fun.

My mother has kept some of these curiosities, which seemed out of date even before they were published, and portrayed a world in which mothers were called 'Mother' and wore frilled aprons and high heels while they baked delicious cakes all morning and then put on a well-tailored suit and went shopping, in matching hat and gloves, taking their goody-goody children with them to 'have some fun': for example, pointing eagerly at apples in the greengrocer's.

Peter and Jane were always 'having fun' - a kind of fun which consisted chiefly of wearing a collar and tie while playing in the garden and being terrifically well behaved and polite ALL the time.

Fathers, naturally enough, smoked pipes, read newspapers, and drove home in the evening to find their supper on the table and their nicely scrubbed and polished offspring being good and . . . having fun.

It was a world which pretty accurately reflected aspects of my own life at the time in many ways, except that I didn't call my mother Mother. And I don't remember her actually wearing a hat to go to the shops. Headscarf often, yes, but never a hat. (Grandma did, though. Always!)

Still, I did in fact learn to read from these books - and thus circumvented the horror that was ITA (don't get my mother started on that!), to which my infant school peers were subjected and from which some of them claim never to have recovered.

The theory behind Peter and Jane was perfectly sound, and has recently been revisited and applauded by academics . But though I feel a certain pang of nostalgia looking through Play With Us and Sunny Days again, I'm afraid they mostly put me in mind of the clipping below, which was doing the email rounds a while ago, which purports to be from a copy of Good Housekeeping in 1955 and certainly has the ring of truth about it (but turned out on further investigation to be a hoax ) (click to enlarge):

Suffice to say, re-reading the titles which remain on the family shelves confirmed how very much better my own children have fared, with the fantastic Oxford Reading Tree - full of magic adventures, subversive grannies, inept parents, gloriously untidy houses and chaotic classrooms.

So I suspect I won't be splashing out on a copy of this. It might all be a bit too much for me.

There's a fascinating piece about the original 'Jane' here .

And if you fancy decking out your kitchen in the nostalgic learning-to-read look, you can get tins, trays, tea-towels and more here.


Stephen said...

The 'Good Wife's Guide' is a definite hoax; there was never a magazine called 'Housekeeping Monthly' (the name shown on the actual article).

You're right about Ladybird books though; Penguin have just published a massive anthology of the old ones.

Juliet said...

Hi Stephen, yes I found a piece about it here's_guide. Though it has to be said that it's only slightly exaggerated. I have a 'new wife's guide' which was my mother's in the 1950s which is not far off in its exhortations to perfection. I don't remember it saying that one shouldn't complain if one's husband stays out all night though!!

monix said...

Lovely post,J.I like the sound of your sister, mine buys me such sensible presents!

Did you get to the end of the Ladybird scheme? 'Father and Mother in the Potting Shed' and 'Jane and Peter and the Special Cake' were quite entertaining.

Juliet said...

Sounds as though P&J's family started letting their hair down a bit towards the end of the 60s! No, strangely,I didn't encounter those particular titles, but it's interesting to note that you remember them so well!

Unknown said...

Wendy Cope's poem "Reading Scheme" is a hilarious subversion of the innocent world of Peter and Jane. I'd find a link to it, but la Cope gets very annoyed (reasonably) about people posting her stuff on websites. It's worth finding though.

Juliet said...

Hi Rob - I will have to look up the Cope poem (though won't reproduce it here, I promise!)

Anonymous said...

Love the presents - what a clever sister!

I'm older than you J, but like you learned to read before I went to school - at which point I was introduced to the bland world of Janet and John, rather than that of Peter and Jane (after which we graduated to Beacon Books, which were much more interesting). The sunny days of Janet and John bore about as much resemblance to our dysfunctional home life as the Royal Family's did. But I was blissfully unaware of the incongruity; I just thought that Janet and John were boring goody goodies whom we had to put up with until we were allowed to read the pacier stuff!

Juliet said...

D - I seem to have missed out on Janet and John completely. At school I was put on to Dick and Dora and Nip the Dog, about whom I remember nothing except their names (time for a spot of Googling!). Soon afterwards, I think I must have graduated to real books, thank goodness.

Jane Badger said...

My mother was an infant teacher, and she taught me to read aged 3 too, in the early 60s, from the Ladybird books... It's the pictures I remember best (their lovely red setter), and the constant sun: it was a charmed world, but just a tad short on humour. Like you, I far preferred Oxford Reading Tree. Hurrah for Biff, Chip and Kipper!