Friday, October 28, 2011

SIster Madge and the Daleks

One of the more delightful projects on which I'm working at the moment - and which nicely suits my meditative stroke-recovery state  - is a reissue of the big 'yellow cover' version of Sister Madge's Book of Nuns. It seems that quite a few adults nurse fond memories of the original hardback book, and secondhand copies have been receiving impressive bids on eBay. llustrator Craig Smith has done some lovely extra artwork and I have written two additional verse stories, one of which describes how The Convent of Our Lady of Immense Proportions came to be.

Here is an old article from Magpies magazine, which was unearthed by Lauris Pandolfini at the Booked Out Speakers' Agency. Thanks, Lauris. The article gives a synopsis of the correspondence that publisher Jane Covernton and I enjoyed during the creation of the first book.

Now that we are releasing a new edition it's possible to fix up some of the things in the original that aren't quite right. But should we bother? Here is the first verse of the introductory rhyme in the yellow book:

Convents are religious places
Peaceful and serene,
Nuns go there to say their graces
(Prayers are what I mean)
Through the arches dark and lofty,
Round the sacred tree,
All the nuns are treading softly -
All except for me.

Now, this really makes no sense. Nobody says 'graces', they say 'grace', and it's a cheat to say 'Prayers are what I mean'. As for 'the sacred tree' , more about that in a moment. So I can now fix this verse, which I admit is fairly wobbly. But some people, who learned the rhymes when they were in school, are perfectly happy to keep 'the sacred tree'. They've already rationalised in their minds that the convent should have its very own 'sacred tree' and are rather fond of the image of nuns walking around it, while saying their 'graces'. Originally, the line was to be 'Round the sacristy' - which actually does make sense because, as good Catholics know, it's a room in a church where all the religious props are stored - the hymnbooks, the bibles, the collection bowl, the communion wine, the hosts, choirboys, etc, but not many young readers would know this. More importantly, most would not know how to pronounce it, so sacristy became 'sacred tree'. I probably should have left it alone, but The Sacred Tree bothers me - which is why I changed it in the new edition:

Convents are religious places
Peaceful and sublime
Full of nuns with solemn faces
Praying all the time.
Through the arches dark and lofty
Meek as they can be
All the nuns are treading softly -
All except for me.

Time for a dalek, I think:

I've been watching some of the old Doctor Who DVD's recently, and I notice that a few of the early stories have been reissued with new digital special effects. The Day of the Daleks is a wonderful story that I remember seeing when it was first aired on the ABC. The story's climax features a battle between humans and an 'army' of daleks in the grounds of an English mansion. I recall clearly that there were only three dalek props constructed for the story, so the 'army' consisted of the same three daleks being shot from several different angles, to give the impression that there was a mighty dalek army. I don't think that any kids would have been fooled by the ruse, but I really don't think it mattered - young viewers were prepared to suspend disbelief. As far as we were concerned, there really was a whacking great dalek army - even through we saw only glimpses of very small parts of it. It helped that the story was clever. In order to prevent a third world war, guerillas from the future go back in gtime and try to destroy the man, Sir Reginald Styles, who purportedly sabotaged a vital global peace meeting by murdering the delegates in an explosion, thus bringing WW3 upon the planet. But in trying to eiliminate Styles, the guerillas from the future (an altrenative 22nd Century) unintentionally cause the explosion themselves - in other words, they are going back in time to prevent an event that they made happen. This idea is so hard to get your head around (and like all time-paradox stories, it does have holes) that you really don't worry about the fact that the mighty dalek army seems rather under-sresourced. But it obviously bothered some people, because a lot of money was later spent on adding extra daleks and dubbing on new dalek voices, because apparently the original ones were rubbish. (I certainly never notived that). I suppose if a dalek is screaming 'Exterminate!' and happily blasting away, the tone of voice it uses is probably the last thing you worry about- unless, of course that voice is very wrong. If Gretel Killeen had voiced the daleks in her best Telstra recorded message voice, even kids would probably twig that something was amiss.

The new improved version of Doctor Who and the Day of the  Daleks (More daleks! New voices!) is great stuff, but we probably could have done without it. And did we really need George Lucas to add some extra stuff to A New Hope, the first Star Wars movie he made? The South Park guys obviously didn't think so,and devoted a whole episode of their terrific show to pointing out why it was  a bad idea.

(Okay, comparisons are odious. I'm not putting Sister Madge on the same level as daleks and C3PO. )

So maybe the mistakes that I see in the first Sister Madge book aren't quite so blinding, and should be left as they are. (Some critics complained that the scansion wasn't consistent. That's quite true, it wasn't, but that might not be such a bad thing, and anyway, critics who write about verse books love to throw in words like 'scansion' to prove how erudite they are, even though they usually have no ear whatever for rhythm themselves. 'Scansion' for those who are interested, and I'm sure there aren't many of you, means the meter or rhythm of a verse. As for the meter of Sister Madge's Book of Nuns, it's known as 'trochaic tetrameter'. You definitely didn't want to know that.)

I seriously considered adding one more poem - but won’t, since it is such a departure from the original. But as a blog bonus, here it is:

As you wander through these pages
Full of things composed by me
Though they’re full of rhyme and rhythm -
Never call them poetry.

Poetry is wise and witty,
Sometimes long and sometimes short,
Full of feeling and emotion
Words of beauty, words of thought.

In these pages you’ll discover
Writing of a different kind:
Several stupid situations
Told in words that aren’t refined.

Read them slowly, read them quickly,
Shout them loudly as can be,
Read them any way you like, but –
Never call them poetry.

The sole reason I wanted to include this, which should be pretty self-evident, is that I'm a little uncomfortable about referring to the Sister Madge rhymes as 'poetry'. They are verse, maybe even doggerel, (Terry Jones, from the Monty Python team is quite happy to refer to his rhymes as doggerel, even though the word has unpleasant connotations.) If it's good enough for Terry Jones, it's good enough for me.

The Curse of the Vampire's Socks and Other Doggerel by Terry Jones.

The nun verses, unlike some doggerel, have strict tempo and rhyme. They're quite hard to write but fun to speak out loud. Kids who attempt to write this stuff are often prepared to sacrifice meaning for rhyme because they think the rhymes are more important. The results are usually terrible, the kids get discouraged and never want to tackle verse-writing again. I think it's a big mistake to do a lesson in class where the kids are expected to write their own verses. In fact, if I were a teacher I would never set 'verse-writing' as a classroom activity - because the kids who like it will do it themselves anyway. I think the best way to impart the fun of verse is to recite it, just as Mum and Dad used to recite the Dr Suess verses to us. Who could forget The Sneetches? (I wonder if the good Dr Suess ever messed round with his work once the first edition was published. Probably not.)


Mike said...

Doug, great to hear that Sister Madge and friends will be out and about again. And anything that strengthens the arm of poetry for children is to be cheered. (Alright, verse, then.)

DougMacLeod said...

Thanks Mike, congratulations on your recent promotion. You know where to find me.