I am way behind in my reading for the module on Science Fiction and Fantasy. Not that it’s a problem, because I’m only auditing this on-line course and so can take it at my leisure. So, while the rest of the students are busy reading Dracula, I am re-visiting Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.
The Alice books are part of just about everyone’s childhood. I suspect that many people won’t have even read the originals but they will know the general storyline and the characters either from Disney or from commercial outlets that rely on familiarity with Carroll’s work to sell their wares. Certainly, I can’t remember a time when they weren’t part of my consciousness even though, settling down to explore Wonderland again this afternoon, I think it might be the case that I haven’t actually read the books themselves in the last fifty years.
Even in my childhood my favourite episode was always the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, a partiality which in many ways has proved prophetic. As an adult I love afternoon tea, along with breakfast it is my favourite meal, so I would have been in seventh heaven if, forced by Time, I had to spend my life feasting on the delights of tea (loose-leaf, of course), scones, jam and cream. Although I might have drawn the line at having to move into the seat left by the clumsy March Hare. Why can’t they all have clean place settings?
However, even more prescient in respect of the way in which my life developed is the way these characters play with language. Was this an early sign that my career would centre around the way in which the English language works and the fun that we can have with it when we realise its flexibility and the opportunities for verbal dexterity it can offer to the speaker and writer?
The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, ‘Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’
‘Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. I’m glad they begun asking riddles. – I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.
‘Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it? ‘said the March Hare.
‘Exactly so,’ said Alice.
‘Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.
‘I do,’ Alice hastily replied; ‘at least – at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know.’
‘Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. ‘You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’
‘You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, ‘that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’
‘You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, who seems to be talking in his sleep, ‘that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!’
‘It is the same thing with you,’ said the Hatter.
The conversation could have been a forerunner of dozens I would have with students over the years, although the best times were always when I was teaching primary children and they would come across some totally bizarre rule in a text book and challenge me about it.
‘Please, Miss, why can’t I start a sentence with because?’ demanded nine year old Mark, one day.
‘You can, Mark.’
‘No I can’t,’ brandishing a book under my nose. ‘It says I can’t, here.’
True enough. There it was in black and white. You must never start a sentence with because.’
That was the first time I threw a book at the ceiling and shouted ‘rubbish’. Mark, having first dived for cover, emerged from under my desk and then spent the rest of the year trying (and succeeding) to provoke the same response again.
Then, of course, there was the never to be forgotten occasion when I was reading aloud from the first published form of the Literacy Hour only to discover that the Government ‘experts’ were trying to tell us that if a verb had ‘ed’ at the end it was past tense, but if it had ‘ing’ it was present tense. Really, I promise you.
On that occasion it was a ring binder I threw at the ceiling, which promptly flew open and showered twenty odd startled students with fluttering sheets of paper. Startled they may have been but they never forgot what a participle was, be it past or present.
Re-reading Alice has brought so many memories back. I don’t know if encountering those wonderful word games so early on in life was formative or not but I enjoyed them as a child and I still enjoy them now.