diamond geezer

 Monday, February 21, 2005

Everybody's doing it. So I thought I'd jump on the bandwagon and launch...

the diamond geezer Book Club
Ladybird Key Reader 1a: Play with us

I'm sure most of us have read this seminal novel, a hardback classic which opened up the world of literature to a new generation. Play with us was one of the first books to tamper with conventional plot development. In just 56 short pages it redefined pre-conceived global perceptions of contemporary fiction. Strong characterisation and dramatic story-telling were the hallmarks of this literary masterpiece. Carefully chosen vocabulary made this a book that demanded to be read and re-read, and no doubt you can still recite every word from memory. We thank author William Murray for his clarity. Praise too for Harry Wingfield and Martin Aitchison whose illustrations brought the text so vividly to life. Please join me in the comments box to dissect and discuss the complex narrative.

The year is 1964. It is a time of social change and political upheaval. Enter the Ladybird Key Reader series, holding up a mirror to the evolving cultural environment and reflecting the cultural zeitgeist to a new audience of enquiring minds. The cover illustration deftly alludes to struggle and inequality, depicting contrasting attitudes to both race and gender. Central character Peter surveys the new world order from beneath the head-dress of imperialism. Beneath him lies downtrodden Jane, preparing for the day when she and the rest of the female population will rise up and reclaim their rightful position in the wigwam of power.

In his concise opening line ("Here is Peter"), Murray introduces us to an urbane young man with a chic taste in red jumpers. Jane's debut ("Here is Jane") is relegated to the second page, trailing limply behind her dominant sibling. Before Jane's limited impact can be consolidated she is upstaged by the pair's ambiguously-named canine companion ("Here is Pat the dog"). Murray invites us, in an unseen subtext, to picture Peter taking this loveable mongrel out for a long walk while Jane stays at home to open a can of dogfood and mop up any resulting stains. A repetitive verse structure is then established as the characters are reintroduced ("Peter is here. Jane is here. Here they are") and Jane's position as the underdog is reinforced. In just six lines Murray has summarised Sixties society. Here is the pre-feminist world in microcosm.

Plot development continues unabated. Peter, Jane and the dog spend several pages establishing mutual admiration ("Peter likes the dog. Jane likes the dog. The dog likes Peter. The dog likes Jane") before everyone goes on an unsupervised excursion to the toy shop. Peter eyes up the train sets, cricket bats and plastic rifles ("Peter is in the toy shop"). Jane has her heart set on a new doll, or perhaps a pram, or perhaps some nice washing up gloves like the ones Mummy uses ("Jane is in the toy shop"). But the author has cleverly manipulated our perceived expectations and the children proceed to buy a toy for the dog instead ("Pat has a toy. Pat likes the toy").

Murray delights in leaving clues for the reader to follow ("The dog likes the ball. Here is a tree"), before moving towards the inevitable plot denouement ("No, Pat, no. The ball is in the tree"). True to character it is fearless Peter who springs to Pat's rescue ("Peter is in the tree") while wretched Jane watches helplessly from the ground, no doubt afraid of snagging her yellow cardigan on some sharp branch. A satisfactory conclusion is reached ("Peter has the ball. Pat has the ball"), but at what human cost? The three characters then take their leave in a cliffhanger ending ("I like Peter. I like Jane. I like the dog") and natural order is restored. 35 follow-up episodes were to follow.

Global allegory or misunderstood classic? Please share your thoughts in the comments box. Because anyone can talk bollocks pretend to be a book critic these days.

Ladybird links

• three great in-depth Ladybird sites
• collect the full set of Ladybird Key Readers
Adrian Heath, the boy who was the real-life model for Peter
a real cultural analysis of the Peter and Jane books
• a spoof Peter and Jane story, and poem
Ladybird still sell Book 1a today

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