Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Learning to Read

When I was about four Miss Monck Mason (whose older brother insisted that the adjective that was the ultimate superlative in the English language was super-duper-export-only) introduced me to Mac and Tosh. Mac and Tosh were two Scottie dogs who wore tartan coats when they went outside. Miss Monck Mason was my teacher, and I loved her. I loved Mac and Tosh too - they were the heroes of my first ever reader.

Given my affection for the two things, I found it hard to be wholeheartedly thrilled when Miss Monck Mason married my classmate Gavin's widower father and retired from teaching, abandoning us to a bony, birdlike woman called Miss Pickard who removed all traces of Mac and Tosh from the classroom and gave us Janet and John instead.

Mac and Tosh may have been in black and white but at least they were fond of a joke. Janet and John were in jarringly bright blues and yellows and they were so appallingly cheerful that, frankly, it turned your stomach. What was more, on top of - or because of - their subjects' dullness, the Janet and John stories were ridiculously easy to read.

With Mac and Tosh, there'd be so much to reflect on as you followed the twists and turns of their subtle plots. It would rain, they'd have to put their coats on, one of them would lose his coat, the other would get muddy, they would return home, there would be the dilemma of the missing coat, the problem of the mud, there would be high emotions, there would be drama, there would be tears, there would be laughter, and finally there would be a - usually amusing (well, faintly amusing - look, at least they were making the effort ) resolution.

With Janet and John, there would be Janet, there would be John, there would be Janet and John, Janet would go, John would go, Janet and John would go. And that would be that. You could whip through the things in the space of five minutes. And I regularly did.

But that was when the full horror of the new regime set in. When you told Miss Pickard you'd finished the latest in the sequence of dreary Janet and John stories (diplomatically omitting the adjective, if you knew what was good for you, which, surprisingly, even at four, you somehow usually did), did she give you the next one? Did she what. The complete and total injustice of the woman still rankles with me. What she would do - I mean, can you believe this: she didn't trust us, even though we were only four! - was say, 'You have to read it to me so I can be sure you've really read it. Now sit down and, when I'm ready, I'll call you over.' 'But what will I do while I'm waiting?' Acid smile, cold eyes: "Why don't you read it again a few more times?' Again? A few more times? That drivel? Are you crazy?

It was at that point that I might very easily have thrown in the towel on the whole reading business. But luckily Miss Monck Mason - lovely, wonderful Miss Monck Mason, (now Mrs Gavin's dad) - stepped in, just in  the nick of time. That angelic woman invited me round one weekend to have tea at her place. I arrived at three thirty on a snowy afternoon and within five minutes we were all lined up - her, me and Gavin - on a chintz flowered sofa in the little sitting room of the garret flat that was Gavin, Miss Monck Mason and Gavin's dad's new home.

We spent the whole time there, drinking hot chocolate and eating cake and reading. Thanks to her - and most particularly to an especially  lovely book about a cold winter's day and a dropped glove and the series of animals that made it their home, I decided I would, after all, persevere with reading, despite horrid Miss Pickard and her dreadful double Js.

And that meant that I did actually go on not only to learn to read but even to learn to quite like it. And, wonder of wonders, I have now even managed to read a whole grown up book (although quite a short one). In fact, I liked the book I read so much (partly because it was so short) that I've written about it over on the Dabbler.


  1. Lovely. You have an impressive memory. And now you mention it Janet and John (or did we have Peter and Jane? see, my memory's not so good) were excruciatingly boring.

    I saw the point of reading when I was about six or seven and the headmaster read us The Hobbit. I wanted more of this sort of thing and was willing to apply myself to get it.

  2. Such a sweet story. do you know what happened to the new Mrs Gavin's dad? Did they live happily ever after like the fairy tale said?

  3. Gaw - will it be even harder to be engaged by reading now that there are so many more vivid and easily accessible distractions for children? I can't imagine what childhood must be like now; I suppose what I had was astonishingly dull, but it was also intense and free of distraction, which is probably why I remember it fairly clearly
    Nurse - I hope so. Mr Gavin and Gavin both seemed extremely likeable and Miss Monck Mason had some rare quality that made the entire class adore her.