Only time for a brief post tonight, and so what could be better than a simple book to review? In the space of about twenty-four hours I read Gervase Phinn’s The Other Side of the Dale, a cross between Miss Read and James Herriot, recounting the exploits of a school inspector in the Yorkshire Dales. It has the kind of prose you really don’t need to chew and provides a steady drip-feed of entertainment as Phinn settles into his new job, travels all over the fiercely beautiful Dales to visit dozens and dozens of schools, and learns to handle his new colleagues – sort of. Despite having his best strategies to hand he nevertheless manages to fall foul of the aptly-named Mrs Savage, the scourge of the County Education Department. Oh and there’s some romantic interest, too, as he falls quietly in love with the charming headmistress of one of the local infant schools.
All in all, it’s a delightful and soothing sort of book, whose only real fault is a magnetic tendency towards the saccharine. In a year of visiting schools, Phinn doesn’t seem to come across any that are failing standards or beset by serious problems, and maybe I’m cynical but I found that a bit hard to believe. Or maybe, put differently, I don’t think it’s an obstacle to loving one’s job, believing in the power of education, or writing an entertaining book to include problematic situations. But like many books, this one is here to serve a purpose in the market place, and that’s to cheer the reader up and give them a laugh, and it would be churlish to reproach it for only doing its job.
I’ll share one of those entertaining moments with you, when Phinn is still new to the job, and having a surprising morning of it in the reading corner with his choice of book material. His tale from Beatrix Potter has not brought forth the expected responses, as the vast majority of the children, all from farming families, are firmly on the side of Mr McGregor and only interested in discussing the best way to eradicate all rabbits from the face of the earth. He’s not having much luck with a story about sheep, either:
‘Graham, a six-year old, began reading the story with great gusto. “Ronald was an old, old grey ram who lived in a wide, wide green valley near a big, big old farm.” At this point he promptly stopped reading and stared intently at the picture of the ram for a moment. It had a great smiling mouth, short horns, a fat body and shining eyes like black marbles.
‘What breed it that?’ Graham asked
‘Breed?’ I repeated.
‘Aye,’ said the child. ‘What breed is he?’
‘I don’t know,’ I answered in a rather pathetic tone of voice.
‘Don’t you know your sheep then?’
‘No, I don’t,’ I replied.
‘Miss,’ shouted the child, ‘could Tony come over here a minute? I want to know what breed of sheep this is.’
We were joined by Tony, another stocky little six-year-old with red cheeks and a runny nose. ‘Let’s have a look at t’picture, then,’ he said. I turned the picture book to face him. The large white sheep with black patches and a mouth full of shining teeth smiled from the page.’
‘Is it a Masham or a Swaledale?’ he asked me.
‘I don’t know,’ I answered in the same pathetic tone.’
This continues for a while until the teacher intervenes.
‘Well,’ smiled Miss Beighton. ‘You are causing quite a stir in the reading corner, Mr. Phinn. In order to solve the mystery, will you pop next door, Tony, ask Mrs. Brown if we could borrow Marianne for a moment. Say we have a little problem she can help us solve.’ Tony scampered off into the next room. ‘Marianne has eight breeds on her farm,’ explained the teacher, ‘and her grandfather’s prize ram won a blue ribbon at the Fettlesham Agricultural Show.’
‘She knows her sheep does Marianne,’ I was told by a serious-looking girl with dark plaits. The children nodded in agreement. Marianne strode confidently into the classroom from the juniors.
‘Is it sheep?’ she asked.
Gervase Phinn may not know his sheep, but he does know his children, and their portraits are always immensely appealing. Despite himself, he shows us here that education, of the kind delivered in school, is only an interruption and a dilution of the powerful ongoing education that children receive from their environment. And without ever saying so (and it’s not in the nature of the book to make such assertions) he shows us that we end up with the children we need, or maybe that we deserve.
A fun and sweetly amusing read, definitely one to chase away the winter blues.