Some forbidden reading
THE DANGEROUS BOOK FOR BOYS: Australian Edition
by Conn and Hal Iggulden
Hardback: 302 pages
Rec. price: $45.00
The term “helicopter parents” has recently entered the language. It refers to mums and dads who continuously hover over their kids to keep them from any conceivable harm.
My parents certainly didn’t fall into this category. As long as I was home on time for meals, I was free to spend my time outside school hours at a busy intersection selling newspapers to tram commuters and motorists, riding my bike around the neighbourhood, playing in other kids’ back yards, and generally “mucking around”.
Some of the activities we engaged in, especially those involving climbing trees, or investigating the destructive capacities of fireworks, were probably dangerous, but it was accepted that that was what boys did.
The Dangerous Book For Boys aims at dragging today’s boys away from computer games in darkened bedrooms. It wants to stimulate their curiosity, and encourage them to try some outdoor activities.
These ostensible aims are laudable enough. Whether or not the book will work is another matter. Most of the material it contains, along with an almost infinite additional amount of information, can be easily found on the internet. Why would you bother with a piece of print media, especially one from the mediaeval pre-computer age?
A more basic question is how serious the authors are about appealing to the present-day boy. Their volume is shamelessly retro in appearance, with marbled endpapers, and a cover with a pre-war design.
It is obviously (and cynically?) aimed at the nostalgia market, and has been an outstanding sales success in the UK with baby-boomers who remember the annuals and similar books for boys which were still popular in the fifties and early sixties.
These publications inhabited an innocent and cheery world of facts and adventure, which ignored the impending existential angst of adolescence and the dreary complexities of adulthood.
Even the information categories reflect those of decades ago. The sections on history include the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; kings and queens of England; famous (British) battles; a history of the British Empire; and biographies of heroes such as Horatio Nelson, Scott of the Antarctic and Douglas Bader.
This Australian edition adds some Australian icons such as John Monash, and Simpson and his donkey, and a list of Australian prime ministers. A reference to the persistence of the popularity of the cavalry charge cites Omdurman in 1898, but does not mention the famous action of the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba in 1917. Some of the facts are just plain wrong, such as the statement that James I was a Presbyterian, despite his well-known assertion that, “A presbytery agreeth as well with monarchy as God and the devil”.
There is a plethora of well-illustrated explanations of the natural world. Items include stars, the solar system, navigation, trees, fish, snakes, fossils, dinosaurs, clouds, tides, spiders, insects – you name it!
The contributions on language and literature are a mixed bag. There are quotes from Shakespeare, meanings of Latin expressions, and poems in the retro vein such as Kipling’s If. On the other hand, there are also slabs of grammar which I cannot imagine any boy or parent tackling voluntarily, no matter what their value. Anyone for modal auxiliary verbs and variations on the subjunctive? I thought not.
Sports and amusements are well represented. There are summaries of the rules of cricket and the main football codes (including Australian Rules), as well as sections on marbles, coin tricks, juggling, paper planes, chess and – conkers! How many English boys, let alone Australian boys, play conkers? Probably about the same number who whip spinning-tops.
Perhaps the most useful information in this area, in terms of a boy’s future livelihood, is an explanation of the rules of poker, complete with methods of calculating odds.
Recurrent implied themes throughout the book, with their origins in sources as diverse as John Buchan’s adventures and Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven, are intrigue and the amateur spy, and crime and the boy detective. “Essential Kit” on page 1 includes a compass, torch, box of matches, pocket-knife and magnifying glass. Then there are articles on invisible inks, timers, tripwires, codes, ciphers, Morse Code, knots, first aid, and how to make a periscope.
As far as moral and spiritual guidance is concerned, there is, in addition to the poems (“Play up! play up! and play the game!”) a list of the Ten Commandments.
I rather liked the section on girls. Readers are cautioned that girls are not impressed by farting. And then there is this piece of advice. “If you see a girl in need of help – unable to lift something, for example – do not taunt her. Approach the object and greet her with a cheerful smile, while surreptitiously testing the weight of the object. If you find you can lift it, go ahead. If you can’t, try sitting on it and engaging her in conversation.” Exactly.
Some of the directions smack of the superfluous. If a boy’s God-given genes do not irrevocably impel him to skim stones, build a billy-cart, or craft bows and arrows and catapults of varying degrees of lethalness, then it is unlikely that an article in a book is going to remedy nature’s deficit.
As for the treehouse, it looks like something out of Club Med holiday camp with a pseudo-ecological theme, and would require a qualified cabinet-maker to build. All the treehouses that I recall being involved with consisted of random planks lashed across any fortuitously horizontal branches to form a platform.
The Igguldens end with a list of “Books Every Boy Should Read”, which ranges from Mark Twain and C.S. Lewis, through Roald Dahl, to Stephen King!
An interesting omission is the Just William series by Richmal Crompton. Readers of Crompton might recall a story in which William causes mayhem after being given a copy of Things A Boy Can Do. When it is inevitably confiscated, he responds with ponderous sarcasm: “Seems to me that it should be called Things A Boy Can’t Do!”
There are some activities in this book, too, which are of dubious practicability, such as shooting rabbits. I can remember buying a .22 rifle over the counter at Kmart, but the anti-firearms hysteria of today’s society guarantees that those halcyon days are gone forever.
While indulging in nostalgia, I must also point out that the book nowhere refers to “messing about in boats”. I grew up close to Gardiner’s Creek in Melbourne, and spent a considerable proportion of my childhood building devices with varying and unpredictable capacities for flotation. Any normal boy would be fascinated with directions for making a simple raft, at least.
Finally, a paradox. The Dangerous Book For Boys reminds us of the circumscribed lives led by boys in Western countries. However, at the same time as they are being forbidden so many activities enjoyed by their fathers and grandfathers, they are also being endlessly indoctrinated with the belief that they are (or should be) free to do anything they like.
Specifically, this takes the form of inculcation with the dogma that no adult authority figures (parents, teachers, police) have any right to block the execution of any whim which a child or young person experiences. “Just do it”, as the ad says.
Needless to say, this putative freedom to indulge any impulse comes unencumbered with any corresponding awareness of responsibilities or obligations.
This ideology was graphically illustrated earlier this year, when a video was released of a priest at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, abusing a group of boys who had been skateboarding in the precincts of the cathedral, and possibly in the cathedral itself.
The priest’s obscenities and racist remarks were inexcusable. Ignored, however – and far more disturbing – was the mentality of the boys, who obviously believed that the laws of trespass and vandalism meant nothing if they impinged in any way on their right to go where they liked, and do whatever they liked, and that any adult who suggested otherwise was being totally unreasonable and confrontational.
Here, then, is the challenge: to get boys re-involved in possibly risky but ultimately broadening and enriching activities, à la The Dangerous Book For Boys, while reinstating a healthy regard for the rights of others and the rule of law.