Talking up to children

The TV show The Apprentice last week featured both teams writing books for children and then attempting to sell as many copies of these as they could. One team had three or so words which were outside the vocabulary of most kids of their target age. Stock buyers at the biggest book store in London expressed concern at this, as though challenging kids with words they didn’t immediately recognise is a bad thing.

I couldn’t help but contrast this with the prevailing attitude of my formative years and also with what I learnt some time ago about language acquisition, as a linguist myself.

One of the key ways we learn vocabulary in our own mother tongue and in foreign languages is by hearing words we don’t recognise in context with other words. How somebody who doesn’t grasp this is charged with sourcing suitable books and buying stock for London’s biggest book store is truly shocking.

Our youngest (aged 7) is currently reading Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. You will already have gathered that some of the vocabulary is beyond him. He loves the book. Last night he was reading to me from an English translation of Wilhelm Busch’s German classic children’s book, Max and Moritz, which uses words and expressions completely alien to a modern child, even using a borrowed French word in the line “Are our Max and Mo’ perdu?”

This reluctance to patronise children didn’t used to be confined to the written word either. By way of demonstration, see if you can spot the source of this…

“This calm, serene, orb, sailing majestically among the myriad stars of the firmament.”*

Homer? Confucius?

Nope. All from the pen of the creator, writer, and narrator of Bagpuss, The Clangers, Pogle’s Wood, and Ivor the Engine; the late, great, Oliver Postgate.

I grew up watching his work from the time before I could crawl. He didn’t do “dumbing-down” and a generation of my contemporaries are all the better for it. Children born now are no less intelligent than children of my generation were. Unfortunately, some of those overseeing their education in key positions of influence appear to be.


Mourning the passing of a man who shaped my childhood

Today marks a day I had been part expecting/part fearing in recent years. The creator of Bagpuss, The Clangers, and Ivor The Engine, Oliver Postgate, died yesterday, aged 83. The three titles will be familiar to those of my generation and will, in all likelihood, be as significant a part in their lives as they were in mine.

Oliver Postgate made innocent programmes for children in a way that didn’t shy away from difficult subjects or melancholy. He was never condesending towards his audience, quite happily using a level of English that would have gone above most of his audience’s head, but which would have been absorbed into that area of the brain responsible for language acquisition.

Postgate made many more programmes besides those mentioned above, but those are the ones which impacted mostly on me in my formative years, along with the Trumptonshire series.

And yet there was much more to Oliver Postgate than children’s programmes.

A few years ago, my younger brother bought me his autobiography, Seeing Things, as a Christmas present. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read and a fascinating glimpse into Postgate’s world. It also came with an accompanying CD, which contained a wealth of video clips, images, and PDF documents on a wide range of topics.

Oliver Postgate lead an interesting life, growing up in a well-off family environment, but a family which was firmly entrenched in a belief in social justice. His maternal grandfather was a founding member of the British Labour Party and as a child he grew up with the likes of HG Wells as regular house guests.

Another aspect of his upbringing which would have a strong bearing on his life was his family’s involvement in the Quaker movement. This would have a strong impact on his firm belief in pacifism – a belief which saw him serve time in prison during World War 2 for refusing to take up arms.

After the war he had various jobs, working as an artist, a Red Cross worker in Germany, an actor, a farm worker, and industrial worker amongst other things, before he found his vocation as a film maker.

Together with Peter Firmin, whose role in Smallfilms (his and Postgate’s home-grown company) should not be underestimated, he developed his own approach to film-making, without any preconceptions as to the way the film-making industry worked. They very much learnt their trade from scratch for themselves, learning from their own mistakes as they went along.

Ivor the Engine was first shown in the late 1950s and then remade in the 1970s for children of my generation. The Clangers and Bagpuss also came along at around the same time, all narrated by Postgate himself, in his own inimitable way.

Inbetween film-making, Postgate was an inventor, successfully designing a solar-powered home for his In-Laws, years before widening interest in solar power. His invention worked too well and the potential manufacturers of his system turned him away on the basis that there was no ongoing revenue from a system which just worked, without any maintainable parts.

He also carried his pacifism through to his final years, regularly writing to movers and shakers in world politics and organisations. He was an idealist, and a member of CND. I say that with no sense of sarcasm, for I do not share his world view, but out of admiration for his determination in pursuing this cause with every fibre of his being. He continued to write articles on issues of peace right up until his passing.

Although we didn’t see much from him in recent years on television, he remained active in the world of art, illustrating a book on the life and martyrdom of Thomas Becket in collaboration with his partner, Naomi Linnell, and enjoying his autumn years by the sea.

I hope he was aware of the great impact he had on countless generations of children. I note the number of messages on the BBC website, which show a genuine mourning at his passing, and a familiar message of ‘if only we could return to such an age of innocence’.

If only indeed.

Rest in peace, Oliver, and thanks…