Tuesday, 8 February 2011

A Head Full of Readers Digest

Sunnybank State School had a large collection of Readers Digest magazines.  They seemed to me to be already old by the time I read them in the early 1970s.  I was one of the most advanced readers in my class, so I spent plenty of time immersed in their pages while other classmates were still struggling with basic reading tasks like distinguishing was from saw.

It was a strange world to inhabit and I still carry little bits of it around with me.  Many of the stories were childhood memoirs, written in the 1950s and 1960s about a time which seemed both harder and more innocent.  Children lived idyllic lives in small town America.  Their fathers went to work while their mothers stayed home and baked johnnycakes.  We never knew exactly what a johnnycake* was but this didn't prevent my friends from calling me "Cake" in the latter years of primary school.

I suppose the stories were meant to strengthen our moral fibre, and God knows we needed it.  I'm a little hazy now about the morality, though.  Certainly hard work and frugality were praised as cardinal virtues, along with honesty and good manners.  There was a story about the recruitment process in which the formal interviews were supplemented by a set of secret tests - books left lying in the middle of the floor to see if the candidate would pick them up, women entering the waiting room at strategic times to see if the candidates would open the door for them or give up their seat.  You will not be surprised to learn that the successful applicant was the one who paid attention to these little details of etiquette and had remembered to wash his fingernails, rather than the one who had the skills for the job.  Merit based selection be hanged. 

The morality of other stories was a little less certain.  There was one in which the mother baked the most beautiful home-made bread, based on a recipe learned from her mother rather than one in a recipe book because of course she couldn't read.  Sadly, some do-gooder taught her her letters, she started reading the recipes on the flour packet, and from then on the bread went right downhill.  Were we supposed to conclude that there was no point paying attention in class?  That literacy is wasted on women?  Or just that you shouldn't believe anything you read on a flour packet? 

And what were we to make of the epic of the go-cart race, in which the poor, one-lunged hero of the street with his home-made cart challenged the rich kid with the beautifully engineered model supplied by his dad's workshop?  I seem to remember that the rich kid won and the poor kid died in the crash at the end.  The past may be romantic but you can't fight progress?  The rich will crush you at every opportunity they get?  Don't race go-carts at breakneck speed if you only have one lung?

My favourite, however, was the story about the gardening job.  A boy ventured into a neighbour's garden to retrieve his ball and was bailed up by the formidable elderly female owner (why are they always old women in these stories?) who hired him to do her garden.  He was to be paid by results - two shillings for a half-hearted job, three for an OK one, four for a perfect one, five for an impossible one. 

Of course he started out clumsily and was paid accordingly, before learning the job and improving until he plateaued at three and a half shillings.  No-one could be perfect, but one day he realised he was in a rut and decided to go for the full five shillings.  He trimmed back all the hedges in a perfect straight line, removed every last trace of weeds from the flowerbeds, meticulously rolled out all the bumps and hillocks in the lawn before mowing it to a bowling green evenness.  The sun had long set by the time he knocked on the door to claim his five shillings, to the delight and amazement of his hard-marking but ultimately benevolent mentor.  Obviously hard work pays off and you should never admit that anything is impossible.  But does perfection equal getting nature fully under control?  Did he have to pay part of the money back when the old woman realised a few days later that the plants hadn't stopped growing?  And what are we to make of the paradox of his acheiving something that is pre-defined as impossible?

Fortunately no-one restricted my reading and so I also read Lewis Carroll's Queen explaining that with practice you can believe three impossible things before breakfast.  Still, it's hardly likely that my ten-year-old self could have spent so much time reading this stuff without some of it being digested - especially given that I still remember it forty years later.  Perhaps it made me the fine upstanding citizen I am today.  Or perhaps, as we laughed about johynnycakes* and had our own go-cart races and shenanigans down at the creek after school, it just added more fuel to the fire of my growing cynicism.

*Thanks to the wonders of the internet I can now link you to a recipe for this culinary mystery.

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