More Bookish Comedy

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.


14 thoughts on “More Bookish Comedy

  1. Just popping in to say your post successfully got fed into Twitter. Hurray!

    And this book does sound charming. I’ve been pondering some nice Yorkshire-based books for my trip to Yorkshire this spring, and this seems like a lovely travel read.

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  3. I love it – a mix of James Herriot and anything sounds like it would be wonderful. James Herriot is one of my biggest comfort authors, and for comfort books I think I am okay with things getting a bit saccharine.

  4. The book sounds like fun. Kids can definitely put adults in their place. I love that they wanted to talk about rabbit eradication and it was very important to know what breed of sheep was in the picture.

  5. I loved the excerpt. Was thinking how different it is teaching at high school. The kids would roll their eyes and say how bored they were and what’s the point of reading this and so on. Well, some kids. This book sounds as though it works very well but I also agree with you that it wouldn’t harm to throw in some real problems now and then. It also makes me wish we had local equivalents. I’ve had some great teachers and would love to know how they experienced their many years of teaching.

  6. This sounds like fun; I love the idea of the kids not getting into the animal sentimentalism at all and being really practical about it. I can just see how Phinn would be completely flummoxed. I can see how this book would be very satisfying, when in the right mood.

  7. Claire – I got mine cheap (a few pence) from one of the amazon market place sellers. Do try again – they are perfect rainy afternoon reading.

    Teresa – I would never have managed twitter without you – thank you!! And yes, these are good pre-Yorkshire reading fare, and good travel books, as easy to lose oneself within them.

    Bluestocking – they practice them when adults are not around! 🙂

    Lilian – it’s very funny about children – I liked those dialogues the best.

    Jenny – this is definitely James Herriot territory – children, animals, practically no difference. And I did enjoy it a lot. Would love to know what you think, if you read him.

    Stefanie – the children are definitely the stars of this narrative, and whilst Phinn is at pains to show the teachers positively, you get the feeling that it’s the small people in charge!

    Pete – you’re so right, it would be a completely different story in a high school, although still an intriguing one. I don’t know many non-fiction books written by teachers, and can only think of novels, like Goodbye Mister Chips. Oh I can think of one – Teacher Man by Frank McCourt. We have that somewhere around and I should look it out, now you’ve made me think of it!

    Emily – you’d like this, I’m sure. 🙂

    Grad – it is so very charming and uplifting. Well worth a try on a dark day.

    Becca – funnily enough I did think of you reading this, as I thought you must have worked with lots of children over the years, and would recognise some of the types involved! I do think you’d appreciate this one.

    Dorothy – definitely you need to be in the right mood (it’s the kind of book I classify as head cold reading) but the scenes with the children in are reliably wonderful. Their attitudes are always fun. 🙂

    Danielle – you are spot on. It was published first in 1998 and then there came three or four sequels (can’t recall exactly). And I quite agree that sometimes this is just the right sort of book. Really easy to get into and then just as easy to keep going! 🙂

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