From my seventies suburban childhood some aspects, objects and books still cavort in my mind, taking succour from thin after dinner mint chocolates and the recalled smell of ‘Le Jardin’ perfume.
There was the avocado-coloured bath, the pine kitchen table with yellow vinyl seats, the olive and taupe floral wallpaper in my room, then those special books:
The ‘How and Why Wonder Books’ kept me informed and titillated with art and history, chemistry and anatomy. I loved the way each double-page spread in ‘Anatomy’ delved one layer further at a time, like a fleshy striptease, from skin and hair, to muscle and ligament, to bone, to internal organs, culminating in the weirdness of a forming foetus in the wildly curious and curiously addictive ‘Human Reproduction’ chapter.
My ‘Illustrated Children’s Bible’ shocked and intrigued with it’s provocative breast-of-Salome exposed amidst a flirt of jewel-hued veils; turn the page and John’s head bled like an uncooked corned-beef on a gilded tray held in her talonned hand! There was David peeping at Bathsheeba and YOU COULD SEE a little watercolour furriness above her thighs…
But best of all was the inherited set of ‘Arthur Mees Children’s Encyclopaedia’.
For a reclusive kid seemingly everything could be learned from those soft burgundy tomes from art, to wise thoughts, to natural wonders, great men and women of history and even French! But the very best and for purely the reason of what it’s title denotes was the ‘Things to Make and Do’ section in every volume from two through to ten.
I still have the complete set of ‘Arthur Mees’ (mine are circa 1951-1954) and recently trailed loving fingers through them. Yes! Those ‘Make and Do’ sections (usually three per volume) were as good as I recall. They put the ‘Dangerous Books’ for girls and boys into the mediocre-shame bin they deserve.
In the world of Arthur Mees’ children there are tooth-decaying recipes for toffee apples where no ‘get Mum to boil the sugar’ is required. There are lab experiments involving sulphur, naked flames and mercury. You can learn how to make a high speed Billy-cart with laughable ‘brakes’, how to light a fire, make a firecracker, make a battery then make a light. How to sharpen your pocketknife with sand or how to semograph that there are spies in your village. In Arthur’s world kids don’t just run with scissors, they learn how to engineer a working guillotine from Daddy’s spare razor.
And the loveliest part? Despite all of Arthur Mee’s epochal love of the English as the God-blessed race and the English Child as the Superlative Human, through every book and every tale of art, science, philosophy or things to make and do- girls were there. They were depicted alongside little boys in apple-catchers making the toffee or waving the semograph flag, they were depicted as women building short-wave radio or leading an army, discovering a bacteria or writing a literary classic, and oh, there they were again making a model-plane on a rainy afternoon, while the eggs and custard boiled for their ‘nursery tea’.
Later, fully into the fifties and away from that second war that saw all hands and brains in use this would not have happened. Arthur, for all his faults, depicted his times, an era where (albeit briefly) strength and knowledge were both required and cultivated in all.
He can cop a lot these days, but for us fans the books are beloved treasures, smelling of silverfish and early adventures on rainy days. I’m digging through them again; it’s time my little one learned how to toffee an apple and make a waxed-paper sailboat.
The explosives section can wait until he can read it himself.