Picture yourself in a boat by a river

It makes me feel ancient to say this, but TV was still relatively new in Australia when I was a child in the 1970s. TV existed before this, of course, but it was not until the 1970s that it became common for most households in Australia to have one.

Although they dutifully purchased a Black-and-White Television Set, my parents were never really converted. My father watched the news, and my mother would sneak into the lounge to watch Get Smart or Dr Who – other than that, they didn’t really watch TV at all.

My generation – Generation X – was the first for whom a TV was a standard item in the house from the time we were very young. There was a new realisation of the educational role that TV could play, and new programming targeted at our generation from the time we were pre-schoolers reflected this: the long-running American program Sesame Street aired its first episode in the year I was born, and the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) had developed the educational children’s program, Playschool, just a few years earlier.

I don’t remember much of the TV from the pre-school years of my life, other than those two educational shows mentioned above. My other vague memories are all shows with a fantasy element, featuring magical creatures or magical events, so I assume that magic was a popular theme in the shows of the era.

I guess there was a lot of magic, or something like it, in the air in the late 1960s. (episodes being aired in Australia in the early to mid 70s were often made in the UK or America in the late 60s). For example, I can recall a well-known magical roundabout, a magical flute, and a magic pencil.

Of all the above items, it was the magical pencil that struck me most. What a fantastic tool. All the hero had to do was draw something he needed and voila! – it became real. What I needed was one of those pencils.

(Despite spending at least 10 full minutes searching online, I can’t locate or identify the show I have a vague recollection of, featuring a magic pencil. I found a boy with magic chalk and a gnome with a magic pencil but neither of those looked right. Either the internet, or my memory, have failed us.)

Somehow, in my 5 year old brain, drawing an object and having it become real seemed even more exciting than your every day, garden variety magic, where you were (for example) granted a wish by a benevolent fairy godmother and could just verbalise your desire for something to appear. (When I was 5 this was undoubtedly still on the cards as a realistic possibility.)

Perhaps the in-built limitation of having to draw your desired item was the key  to making it seem more realistic – there was a clear restriction on what you could create (you had to be able to draw it) so therefore it seemed more like real life. As a kid who loved to draw, I found the idea tantalising.

That was 40-odd years ago now, but I would still enjoy a magic pencil. Just imagine it. Oh boy. Where would I start?

First: a cure for this damned head cold please. Aha, but madam, you must be able to draw the desired item, you can’t just ask for “a cure” in a general way. Oh alright then, here, I’m drawing a glass of Cointreau on ice, thank you. It’s got a slice of orange in it, right?

A pencil drawing of cointreau on ice, with a slice of orange

© blathering 2017

Next? Ok, well, if you read my last post (or maybe it was the one before that) you’ll guess that the next picture I’d scribble would be a car, before my current car totally conks out. Then….I’d draw another room, to add on to our tiny house, so that visitors had somewhere to stay. You’d like to come and stay in the new magical room, wouldn’t you?

(This leads me to wonder though, how do the logistics of this whole magical pencil thing work? Do I need to draw a floor plan as well, in order to arrange where the new room will be placed? Or will it just appear from the sky and plonk itself in the middle of the back yard? If so, can I please have a moment to make sure the cat is not sitting in that spot first?)

What would I draw after that?…well, I’m sitting upstairs writing this and the kitchen is downstairs, and I’m too worn out from all this drawing to walk downstairs, but I’d love a nice warm cup of tea….

 

A pencil drawing of a wonky cup of tea

© blathering 2017

Of course, a pencil like this could never exist, because if it did, we’d grab the nearest piece of tracing paper and the nearest $100 note, and trace 100 of them with the magic pencil, wouldn’t we? (tracing a $500 note would be more expedient, but after writing that half a sentence, I did some fact checking, and there is no $500 note in Australian currency! I checked because I couldn’t recall ever seeing one, but that didn’t prove that they don’t exist. It might just have meant that ATMs don’t dispense $500 notes. But I’ve checked and it’s a fact; they don’t exist. I must have been thinking of Monopoly money.)

Given the difficulties that we, as adults, encounter playing Pictionary™, I wonder how successful we’d actually be with a magic pencil in real life. We know from agonising over that board game, that there are many things we can’t draw, that we might often privately wish for – more confidence, courage, assertiveness, generosity, patience, selflessness, for example. The pencil will be no use at all in trying to improve oneself, I’m afraid.

Forget trying to depict abstract ideas; even our ability to command into being the physical objects we are hoping for is dicey at best. It comes down to the rules of the magic. How much accuracy and detail does your drawing need to have for the magic to work? Does it need to be a detailed hyper-realistic rendering giving an illusion of 3-dimensional perspective, or can it be stick figures, squiggles for clouds, and square houses with triangle rooftops?

If the rules of the magic dictate that you get exactly what you draw, there will be a lot of people hobbling around in lopsided shoes that look like dinner plates, and walking around with a life-size, wooden cut-out cartoon car strapped to their front like a sandwich board, instead of driving the cars they hoped for.

Unless of course you can cheat, and draw a large box tied up with ribbon, and say “I’d like a large box tied up with ribbon and inside that, a pair of Prada sandals just like the ones I saw on the cover of Vogue!”

A coloured pencil drawing of a box with Prada shoes inside it.

© blathering 2017

Onomatopoeia! Thud-Whallop-Crash!

Experts around the world agree almost universally on this point: cows go moo.

There is also fairly general consensus that cats go meow, birds go tweet, and dogs go woof.

If, for any reason, I’d previously harboured doubts about the sounds made by those animals, my queries would have been put to rest when my daughter was little. One of the really enjoyable aspects of being a parent of a baby, toddler, and then pre-schooler, was the books I got to read. It was hard to stay grumpy with sleep deprivation, while reading, out loud, nonsense rhymes, poems and stories, and pulling the appropriately silly faces, and making the appropriately silly noises, to go along with the words.

The best were, of course, the books written by authors who are masters in the use of words, and of manoeuvring rhyme and rhythm* to suit the story, while exhibiting an irreverent sense of humour at the same time. Of those, Dr Suess, Rohald Dahl, and Spike Milligan, were some of my favourites.

If you must read to a small child, see if you can locate these two books first!

If you need to read to a small child, see if you can locate these two books first!

Spike Milligan was one of the most fun to read, and, I think we can cautiously venture, reveals himself to be somewhat of an expert in animals and the sounds they make, as illustrated by the article below.

On the Ning Nang Nong

Well ok, Milligan was obviously brought up in the city, since cows don’t go bong, they go moo, as we’ve previously covered. And trees don’t go ping, he must have been thinking of all those pesky microwave ovens that are always pinging away noisily everywhere you go in the city.

Nevertheless, when I received another request (?!) this week, to write a post on a specific topic, this time on onomatopoeia, my first thought was, who better to introduce the concept than Spike Milligan?

Who indeed. I got hours of enjoyment from his book of silly verse, delightfully titled Unspun Socks From A Chicken’s Laundry, a well-worn paperback that we found second hand in an Op (Thrift) shop. It’s yellowed with age and pages are falling out, but I had a lot of fun reading out loud to my daughter and possibly even sometimes to myself, just for laughs. The book design conveys what a hive of creativity the author was – some pages have traditionally printed text on them, while others reproduce handwritten poems and scribbled drawings done by the author.

Milligan’s poems have no morals or logic, and are simply downright silly. It’s precisely for that reason that it’s so refreshing to read them. I should probably mention that in keeping with the period (the poems were written through the 1970s – the book was first published 1981), there are some warnings: political incorrectness (eg Chinkey Chinkey Chinaman), inclusion of topics nowadays deemed unsuitable for children (I locked all the drink in the cellar/so nothing could get at the gin) a combination of the two (A Scotsman drowning in a whiskey vat) and no messing around with euphemisms. And always with such silliness that all offensiveness is surely dissipated.

Witness The ‘Veggy’ Lion:

I’m a vegetarian Lion

I’ve given up all meat,

I’ve given up all roaring

All I do is go tweet-tweet

….

I used to be ferocious,

I even tried to kill!

But the sight of all that blood

made me feel quite ill.

 

A tip for any parents feeling a mixture of curiosity and trepidation: the good thing is, when reading to small children, you can just leave whole poems out and they won’t know! For example, looking back at the book tonight, I dare say that in the interests of not creating a phobia about going to the dentist, we probably didn’t read our daughter the poem called By Gum:

Death to the Dentist!/Death to his drill!/Death to his ‘open wides’/Kill! Kill! Kill!

However, it softens the otherwise rather sinister tone to know that poem was inspired by his five-year-old son saying that he wanted to kill the dentist! Notes throughout the book indicate where and when poems were written, (eg Sydney, 1980) and some poems have extra notes to indicate when they were devised with his kids, or when something they said inspired Milligan’s imagination. For example, under the limerick about a girl called Nelly who has a nylon belly, which turns out (not entirely surprisingly) to be full of custard and jelly, is a note written by Jane and dad on the way back from the Natural History Museum, 15 October 1977.

Anyway, since you are probably wondering by now, the reason I thought of Milligan is because he has a poem called (this is how it is spelled in the book) Onamatapia. It goes as follows:

 

Onamatapia!

Thud – Wallop – CRASH!

Onamatapia!

Snip – Snap – GNASH!

Onamatapia!

Whack – thud – BASH!

Onamatapia!

Bong – Ting – SPLASH!

 

Onomatopoeia (pronounced, at least if you’re Australian, On-om-atta-pee-ya) is the formation of a word to make (as closely as possible) the sound it describes – eg cuckoo, meow, bam, whack, slap, bong, snip, splat.

The Miriam Webster dictionary says that onomatopoeia is:

the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it (as in buzz, hiss)

Onomatopoeia helps the reader to hear the sounds in the world created by the writer. The interesting thing is that so many onomatopoeiac (?not sure what the adjective is) words are really fun to say and hear.

It’s clear that Milligan has an ear for such words and loves to use them. Unspun Socks…. fairly clangs, pops and thuds with the noisy fun of silly words bursting out of it. In the Author’s Note at the beginning of the book, he says that the poems were inspired by listening to the way his children used words, and noting down mispronounced, misunderstood, and self-invented words. “Knowing children’s love of vocal exclamation, i.e. Boom! Bang! etc. – I’ve included a few bits of onomatopoeia,….”

He certainly has. Consider these lines from various poems in Unspun Socks:

Chip chop/chip chop/down comes a tree, Chip/chop/wallop/plop/Help, it’s fallen on me!

…They practise every night at nine/Plankety plank bumm-bumm!!

….He tied them back/with bits of string/But they shot out again/with a noisy – PING!

….Wallop! Wallop Thud! I go/until the bell goes ding!

….Gurgle gurgle gurgle!/that’s urgle with a G!!/The sound that people make I hear/when drowning in the sea!

They are also full of the self-invented and mistaken words that he loves, particularly imaginary creatures, like The Squirdle:

I thought I saw a Squirdle

I think I thought I saw

I think I thunk I thought

I saw a Squirdle by my door…..

There are creatures such as the Hipporhinostricow, the Leetle, the Multikertwigo (who says Sniddle, Iddle Ickle Thwack/Nicki-Nacki-Noo) and something inside his Granny’s boot that goes Binkle-Bonk Ickle-tickle-toot!*

I’m getting off the topic of onomatopaeia here but trying to illustrate that Milligan’s silly verses are just bursting with playfulness, and his use of onomatopaeia is one part of that. If these poems have an agenda, it is to impart a sense that words are a lot of fun!

I feel I should also apologise, or explain, because the request to write a post about onomatopoeia was prompted by my last post, where I said that the word bioluminescence almost seemed to have an element of onomoatopaeia to it, with the soft hiss of the “scence” encapsulating the sound that, in my imagination, is made by the light that softly emits from bioluminescent creatures under the sea. It’s not really onomatopoeia – as I think it’s safe to assume that it’s only in my imagination that bioluminescent light makes a soft hiss.

After all, it’s usually under water.

Spike Milligan poem - Onamatapia

Spike Milligan poem – Onamatapia

 

 

*rhythm – that was my second attempt at spelling it correctly

*the boot is now in the zoo

 

I’ve watched the children come and go

Notebooks. I have them all over the house. Notebooks from years ago, years before I ever started a blog, ideas scribbled down when I thought of them, as well as shopping lists, books to read, and websites I mean to look up.

There is no method to any of them. I need a secretary, to come and sort them all out for me, transcribe the ideas into an ideas book, look up the websites and tell me if they were worth saving, read the books and tell me if they are worth reading, and do the shopping. I’d love someone to do the shopping.

Last week’s post – about my propensity to write some very compelling blog posts in my head while busy doing something, but then totally forget the entire thing as soon as I think about writing it down – an event that occurred again this very morning as I cleaned the shower – has spurred me to action. This morning (after the shower incident) I implemented one small thing. It’s literally a very small thing: it’s a little notebook about 7 cm long, smaller than my iPhone – for scribbling down ideas. It’s so small, one idea pretty much takes up a whole page, and I quite like that. It forces the appearance of some kind of order onto it, at least.

I also like that it is disguised to look like a tiny version of A Room Of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf.

IMG_3883

Smaller than an iPhone, larger than an old-timey iPod.

I’m pleased to say that three pages are already filled, two with brief description of true stories I read in the news this week, and one with a sentence I heard the elderly lady over the back fence say to a child that I assume is her grandson.

I really must do more of that – capturing snippets of conversation, I mean.

The snippet I heard today was the little boy playing happily and the Grandma playing along with him, and then suddenly her tone changed. She told him that what he’d just done was naughty, that he “could have hurt Wilbur.” Wilbur is an unusual name, and I couldn’t see over the fence, but I hadn’t heard another child start crying, so at first I thought perhaps Wilbur was a rather fragile toy, or a pet, but it turned out that Wilbur must be a baby, because Grandma was very cross indeed, repeating to the little boy (I think his name was Fred) that he needed to understand that pushing Wilbur was dangerous. She told him if he did it again, she would have to take all the cars he was playing with. “You’re very lucky to have a little baby brother,” she said, and then tried to get him to repeat what she’d said back to him, that is, the part about that he must not do it again or Grandma will have to take all his cars.

I finished hanging out washing, and it seemed a bit creepy standing in the yard just to listen, so I went inside at that point, and can’t tell you if Fred was able to repeat that message back to Grandma or not. I suspected he was not old enough to do so.

The bit that I scribbled in my notebook (with brief notes explaining the context) was You’re lucky to have a little baby brother.

I hear the sounds of kids playing in that yard, and that woman interacting with them, whenever I’m home during the day, so I assume that she regularly minds her grandchildren while her kids are at work. It’s a lovely sound, the sound of kids playing happily, around an adult who has the time and motivation to potter around and play with them. (it feels as if that image is so much more likely to be a grandparent than a parent!) It’s inevitably a sound that arouses a bit of nostalgia, and as a parent, for me the nostalgia is on two levels, both for my own childhood, and for the time when my daughter was so young that she was pottering around in the back yard playing games.

hillshoist

Pic: The Hoopla

There must have been times when I happily sat and played too, but when I think back to her pre-school days, in my memory I always felt under pressure to be “getting things done” and found it hard to give myself over fully to playing for indefinite amounts of time. Even though – or perhaps because – I was not working full time, I had an internalised sense that I needed to be achieving things, not just playing imaginative games.

If only I’d devoted as much time – and concentration – to playing with her as that grandmother seems to do with her grandkids. My daughter is 16 now, she doesn’t need me playing with her. Instead I find myself watching really bad TV (eg.Teen Wolf) so that we have something to bond over together.

The little scenario with the boys next door also made me think specifically of my brothers (I have four, all younger, one of whom has passed away) playing at home when they were young. By the time there were two boys in our family to replicate a scene like this, I would not have been around to see it, as I would have been in prep at school. By the time I was in grade six, the same scene could have been replayed again with my youngest two brothers in the roles.

The grandmother’s declaration that Fred was lucky to have a little brother held a lot of resonance for me. I’m lucky to have little brothers, a fact that I’m hyper-aware of since one of them died a few years ago. So I endorsed her sentiment: the little boy should cherish the little brother he has, while he has him. In some ways, he could be seen to be luckier than my daughter, who is an only child and therefore doesn’t have any little brothers. The grandmother was right, he has something that not everyone has.

Of course, as I well know, sometimes having a little brother does not seem like luck – quite the contrary. When you’re a kid, little brothers are most famous for wrecking your stuff. When there’s more than one of them, they fight one another. (I guess if you’re a bigger brother, they fight you. As the oldest, and a girl, I was exempted from physical fighting, however my sister did get bitten by the brother who was her immediate younger sibling.) If you happen to be the older sisters in a large family, your younger brothers compete with you as a team – for example, under the lead of the oldest boy, one year the boys spoil your tradition of being up first to see the presents at Christmas, by deliberately getting up even earlier, and then brag that they saw, touched, even moved or played with, all your presents from Santa before you did. You are filled with hate and wish your life was not totally ruined by having these shitty little brothers in it.

So I can understand that for Fred, over the next 18 years or so, there will be some challenges in his relationship with his brother, and there will be times where he will not rejoice that he has a little brother. But I hope that beneath it all, he remembers his grandmother’s words.

 

 

Into the Woods

A significant portion of my childhood, it seems, was spent being driven by my long-suffering father, along winding country roads. We’d all pile into whichever Holden my Dad owned at that time – this was before the birth of the sixth child necessitated the purchase of a Nissan 8-seater van when I was in about grade 6 – and be ferried to and from church on Sundays, and to and from multiple relatives every weekend.

 

c1973 Cath Maria on bikes Wendouree

Exhibit a: one of my mother’s typically lopsidedly-framed photographs, myself and my sister in bottom right, & behind us, the Holden we owned at the time…I think this was a station wagon.

All I recall of those seemingly endless car rides now is that I used the enforced down time to stare out the window and daydream. According to my school reports in the very early years of school, I was a daydreamer – and my fantasies back then were generally inspired by the books I had encountered so far,  and featured me, starring as a character from a fairytale or childrens’ story, and the surrounding landscape as the setting for the story evolving in my head as we drove.  So naturally, when Dad drove past the plantations of pine trees around my local area, I used to wonder – was that an Enchanted Wood?

When I read the Enchanted Woods series, written by British author Enid Blyton, I distinctly remember longing to be one of the “gang” of Jo, Bessie and Fannie, the British kids who regularly had thrilling adventures in the woods that was a short walk from their back gate. I was jealous. Those lucky kids had an Enchanted Wood next to their home, full of endearing magical characters and with an ever-changing variety of magical lands that were accessible from the top of the Magic Faraway Tree – while next to our house was an unattractive, tracksuit-wearing family with an old, cranky corgi. Jo, Beth and Fannie would set out from their back gate with a parcel of sandwiches and a sense of excited anticipation, while I would set out my front gate with a squashed banana at the bottom of my school bag and mounting anxiety about the corgi that would inevitably run out to snap and bark at my heels as I hurried past. It didn’t seem fair.

So I used to keep a vigilant eye out on our road trips, for any forest that could potentially be an Enchanted Wood.

As it happened, we went into the bush quite a bit when I was young, because my father’s family owned some uncleared bush property (sadly now sold off) that we would go to with our cousins, for family barbecues. (No significant bush fires resulted from our bushland barbecues, I promise!) Despite, or perhaps because of, my familiarity with the bush, I never considered the Australian bush as I knew it, with its sprawling gum trees and native wildflowers, to be a contender for a possible Enchanted Wood.

Enchanted Wood

The terms woods, and forest, seem European and convey dark, dense foliage, with overgrowth and very little light coming through – very different to what we here in Australia call the bush. Due to the amount of sunlight in Australia – at all times of year – and the relative lack of density in the leaves of native Australian trees, even the direction in which the leaves of Eucalyptus trees hang, a lot of Australian bush tends to be airy, and allow a decent amount of light to filter through. Airiness and light do not create the right setting for the deep, dark hidden pockets, eerie sounds, watchful trees, and mysterious creatures that authors like Blyton, Tolkien and other European writers imagined residing in the depths of a dark European forest.*

Forests are ripe settings for magical stories, but I grew out of reading magical stories after my Enid Blyton years, and was never drawn to the fantasy genre as a teenager or Young Adult. It was not until I was in my thirties and had a child of my own, that I found myself lost in fictional forests again, when I finally read the Harry Potter series, The Hobbit, and The Lord of The Rings series. Reading those, I experienced the phenomenon that I’d felt as a child, of being so utterly absorbed in an imaginary world that it’s almost impossible, on ending the book, to come entirely back to banal reality. Despite their impossibility, the characters, events and settings linger and fill my thoughts for days afterwards, causing me to be not quite there. That’s because I have been transported to somewhere else – and more often than not, that place was a dark, mysterious forest.

*

When I was a kid, pine trees fitted the requirements for a magical forest in my imagination, (maybe that is because the plantations of pines around the area where I grew up were referred to as pine forests), so it was usually when we drove past a plantation of pines that I would strain to try and pick out the tallest, most mysterious-looking tree somewhere in the midst. (Logic told me it wouldn’t be right on the edges near the passing traffic). It was common for us to be driving home at night, and passing by a still, dark pine forest, I could easily convince myself that I had caught a glimpse of one of the beloved characters from the books. Sometimes I even thought I could hear the trees whispering to one another.

I guess all kids believe in magic for a while.

 

*

“Wisha-wisha-wisha”, said the trees loudly…

“Help the Faraway Tree dwellers!” the leaves whispered. “Help them!”

“But how can we?” whispered back the children eagerly. “Tell us!”

– The Enchanted Wood (Ch 22, The Army of Red Goblins) – Enid Blyton

*

They walked in single file. The entrance to the path was like a sort of arch leading to a gloomy tunnel made by two great trees that leant together, too old and strangled with ivy and hung with lichen to bear more than a few blackened leaves. The path itself was narrow and wound in and out among the trunks. Soon the light at the gate was like a little bright hole far behind, and the quiet was so deep that their feet seemed to thump along while all the trees leaned over them and listened.

– The Hobbit (Ch 8, Flies and Spiders) – J.R. Tolkien

*

*Note: some authors have set children’s fairytales in Australian bush settings, but perhaps as a result of the very different physical environment, they are tales for very young children and the psychological environment of those tales is very light. In the early part of the 20th Centure, English/Australian author May Gibbs famously created Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, two endearing little bush-creatures. Around the very same time, Norman Lindsay’s story for children, The Magic Pudding, was published. Although not set primarily in the bush, many characters in the story are natives of the Australian bush.

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