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

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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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