Windows on Geography
These four small books (64, 19 x 25 cm, pages) intended for primary schools, published in 1962 – 64, were the first I had ever written. I was lecturing in geography at Kenton Lodge Teacher Training College in Newcastle upon Tyne and had written one or two short articles for the local teachers’ magazine. One of these was entitled Teaching Geography Without Textbooks. As a schoolteacher myself I had often used newspaper and magazine clippings in my lessons to try to convince the kids that I was dealing with the real world outside the classroom. It was a surprise, in view of this article, to receive a letter from L.G. Marsh, CEO of Hulton Educational Press, asking if I would be interested in writing some primary school textbooks. If so, I should meet him in London to discuss the matter.
Excited, I went to see him in his strange little office in Saffron Hill. He had a desk and some bookshelf space in a sort of cubby hole at the end of the Hulton warehouse, which was full from floor to ceiling with textbooks.
I was full of ideas but he had no time for these! He showed me a history book that had been written by Larkin, a lecturer at my own college, Borough Road. Larkin had actually been my supervisor during my student teaching practice. I did not get on well with him then. (Nonetheless he allowed me to pass the course!) Marsh insisted, Larkin’s books were to be my model and I must not depart from it. There would be four books. In each there would be a page of illustrations drawn by an artist he would choose. On the facing page would be 500 words of text, no more, no less, followed by some questions for the children to answer; no photographs, no colour printing, no extended accounts of any topic beyond 500 words. He made his purpose quite clear. Teachers who did not know any geography at all would be able to conduct classes with these books. The kids would read the text, look at the drawings and answer the questions. That would be their geography lesson! They used Larkin’s histories in the same way.
I did not like the idea of working within such rigid limits. I would be forced to suppress my own notions of what a primary school book should be like but this could be an important break for me. Was I prepared to do it? With these books in print I might be able to do other books for more imaginative publishers. I admit did not hesitate for long.
When I began the work, I found it much more interesting than I had expected. The discipline of the 500 limit proved very good for me. I also felt, when the books were done, that I had nothing to be ashamed of. Where Marsh had asked for questions I included some important ideas, especially that the world was changing. Rather than mere test questions I inserted Things to Do, where I suggested the children should find out for themselves what had been happening since the text had been written. This was particularly important in Africa, for example, where, at that time, every day seemed to bring news of a new country being formed and renamed as the old colonies broke free.
The series went on selling for about twenty years in various reprints and new editions. Teachers liked them even if the children didn’t. I visited a school in Oxfordshire forty years later, and found them still being used! Perhaps they did no one any harm.
The British Isles was an obvious starting point. The map I included showing the extent of coal mining is an example how things have changed. The same applies to shipbuilding, the cotton industry, London docks, roads and railways and other things that have altered almost beyond recognition.
A sentence on page 7 of this book read ‘Some European Countries have linked themselves together in the Common Market’. I did not foresee where that would lead. Nor did I, or anyone else, imagine that one day the USSR would break up!
Nobody now talks about The New Worlds but in retrospect, I think this was not a bad little book for its time.
To restrict China to 2000 words of text and four pages of illustrations, was ridiculous but I did include ‘Find out all you can about the changes which have taken place in China during recent years.’ If any child took that seriously, they are surely still working on it.