Saturday, 19 April 2008

Ivan Southall's Simon Black In China - one of twenty or so books I bought today at the 2MBS book bazaar in Leichhardt - didn't register. No blast from the past. No intimation that I'd enjoyed a book (Ash Road, 1965) by this writer when still a child. No connection evident between a boy's adventure book from the 1950s and a very beautiful book of "danger and immediacy" (so says David Beagley on the La Trobe children's books website).

From "RAAF adventure stories" that "were based on Ivan’s own wartime experiences" (so says the Dromkeen Medal PDF on publisher Scholastic's website) to Ash Road is a long way in aesthetic terms.

The Dromkeen Medal is an Australian award begun in 1982 and awarded by the Governors of the Courtney Oldmeadow Children’s Literature Foundation. The name Dromkeen was given to a "homestead" in Victoria, bought by Joyce and Court Oldmeadow. The Oldmeadows ran an "educational" bookshop and in 1978 Scholastic Australia took over responsibility for their collection of children's books.

Kaye Keck, the Oldmeadows' daughter, is the current director of the collection. Other recipients include Colin Thiele and Mem Fox - both 'iconic' brands. Thiele died last year but probably few read his books any more. Fox is a name frequently used by Australian politicians aiming to garner the support of middle Australia.

Southall's early efforts, while working in a print shop, are not well known. The Simon Black books, it appears, are better known but unknown to me. The unnamed writer of the Collecting Books and Magazines website stridently declares a preference for Simon Black over Ash Road. I beg to differ. What I've read (today) of Black and his adventures gives me the geebies. Xenophobic and superior, the character of Black is a two-dimensional 'genre' type that belongs in the past.

More recent genre heroes, beginning perhaps with Philip Marlowe (in books set in Los Angeles), are far superior. Black is an anachronism. This book shows why. In the Big Jack sequence, it's all threat and counter-threat with, finally, Simon producing a gun, which he points at Big Jack.

Luckily, the likes of Big Jack have come of age. The picture is of Bob Abbot, the new Mayor of the Sunshine Coast who ran on a jingle: "Big Bob for a Big Job".

Not ashamed of his bulk or his beard, Bob is a (welcome) contemporary take on a cliche that is part of the book, where Big Jack is a "traitor", and looks it.

But the Chinese fare much worse, as the illustration shows. Every cliche is in the book, the illustrations underscoring woodenly what may only be implied in the text (which I've yet to read; apologies).

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