Monday, January 04, 2016

Radical nostalgia? Helen Macdonald on 'What to Look for in Winter'

'What to Look for in Winter' comes from a time when children were expected to relate sensuously and intellectually to the great profusion of life around us.
Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk and admirer of this blog's hero T.H. White, has written a terrific article on the New Statesman.

'What to Look for in Winter' is a Ladybird book with illustrations by Charles Tunnicliffe (who designed the dustwrappers for three similar titles by Malcolm Saville) that was first published in 1959.

She writes:
Books of this kind were designed to build young naturalists with an in-depth knowledge of Britain’s natural and national heritage. Full of assumptions about the correct relationship between children and the natural world, 'What to Look for in Winter' suggests that the world is full of mysteries, such as the mechanism of the germination of mistletoe, which you, the reader, might one day help to solve. 
And it expects you, too, to interact physically with things outside: shake the branches of ivy so that “drunken insects fall to the ground”; collect fungi that are “nice to take home”; discover that snowberries have a strange softness when you squish them; bite the pungent seeds of cow parsnips, which taste of “earth, and autumn and sunshine, and several other things”.
If this is a personal, spiritual response to the Ladybird world, then back in 2005 Malcolm Clark offered a more political appreciation of it:
Public space was not thought to be dangerous then, and this is not just nostalgic idealisation. I grew up in a small town in the early 1970s. The vast public park really did have attendants. It also happened to have well-tended flowerbeds and a boating pond. These days, you have to train your dog to tiptoe over the syringes. The war memorial is covered in graffiti and there isn't a police station for ten miles. If you sent Peter and Jane there to fly a kite, you'd kit them out in bulletproof vests first. 
In fact, the entire old Ladybird project had an indefinable public-spiritedness about it. This partly reflected a strain in British culture that went all the way back to Samuel Smiles's Self-Help and the Victorian reference libraries. The quest for knowledge was seen as an uncomplicated and enjoyable pursuit, one in which young citizens should be encouraged to share.
Dismissing such analysis as mere nostalgia seems to me an inadequate response.

At the heart of political radicalism is the idea that the world could be different. And the idea that the world once was different is not such a bad starting point.

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