Fire and Literacy

Most of us have, at one time or another, willingly or not, once or several times, learned to read. How you learn to read depends on many factors: the income of your parents, the century of your birth, the quality of your eyesight, and how often your school is likely to be razed to the ground by sloppy precision bombing or the careful use of lovingly crafted home-made devices. In those places and times where the likelihood of a school's being burned down in a conflagration arising from the carelessly discarded pipe ash of a member of the teaching staff exceeds the probability of explosive destruction by exogenous influences, those responsible for the propagation of literacy may find they have the inclination, leisure and financial resources required to buy a carefully constructed series of literary works, specifically designed to be read in a particular order by beginner readers to nurture their developing reading skills. Such a series of books is known in the trade as a 'reading scheme'.

Cut the Words

One of the United Kingdom's most successful reading schemes is and was the Ladybird Key Words Reading Scheme. The inspiration for this was research by William Murray and J McNally which suggested that most speech consists of a few words that are used over and over again. This insight led to a series of books that gradually introduced more and more words, starting with the most commonly used: the 'key words' of the series' title. The series was introduced in 1964, and is still in print. I learned to read using it in the school year of 1967 to 1968, and still have not forgotten how. Something else I have not forgotten is the illustrations. Even then, when the books were only a few years old, they appeared dated, showing a plump-cheeked family from the previous decade engaged in wholesome familial activities with horrendously appropriate allocation of sex roles. The garden was big, the car had rounded corners, and the entire family looked like it lived mainly on beef and lard, with no vitamins allowed anywhere near it that had not been carefully boiled for at least half an hour beforehand.

The Key Words Reading Scheme, apart from its casual sexism and allergenic illustrations, had one huge drawback: it was finite. The span of time between starting book 1a (Play with us) and finishing book 12c (The Open Door to Reading) may have appeared semi-infinite to five-year-old schoolchildren, but it is but the bat of an eyelid in the life of a teacher, or indeed a publisher. Of course, there were other Ladybird books, but what if a teacher felt like branching out? What if it were felt that it was time to broaden the horizons of the Youth of Albion, to take them out of the suburban garden, away from the lawn and the apple-trees and the stink of daddy's pipe? To awaken them to the virtues of a life of honest toil and enterprise, a life of risk and adventure, embued with the spirit that made the British Empire? What should the children read next? The answer is obvious, once you ask the question, and Sheila K. McCullagh was the woman to give the children what they needed: stories about pirates!

On Pity, Repression and Ignorance

Pirates have always had a difficult life. Not only are they required by the nature of their trade to attack innocent ships, to kill those that they find on them and steal all their stuff, and that moreover at no small risk to their own life and health, but they are ostracised by polite society, forced to deny the nature of their trade when engaged in conversation at weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and cocktail parties, and subjected to the cruellest of repression should it ever come out. Small wonder then, that they have always tended to keep themselves to themselves and to shun the limelight. How many of us today, if we read of the pirates off the coast of Somalia, would be able to recall the name of even one of them? How many of us would recognise one of their faces in a family photo as they stand there proud amongst their nearest and dearest, one hand in the hand of their loving wife, the other on the shoulder of their dear old white-haired mother? How many of us can understand and imagine what it must be like to live the life of a pirate? What a tragedy that more of us did not read the books of the Pirate Reading Scheme!

Primary Colours, Darkness, and Oblivion

The books are often referred to as the 'Griffin Pirate Stories', presumably because of the part played in the stories by a Griffin, and were published starting at the end of the sixties by Arnold-Wheaton. They stayed in print at various publishers until 1991 at least. They should under no circumstances be confused with the Dragon Pirate Stories, which Sheila K. McCullagh had previously published. The first book of the series is entitled 'The Three Pirates', and introduces the fine upstanding young men that are the heroes of the remaining nine books of the first series and ten books of the second series. These are Roderick the Red, Gregory the Green, and the Blue Pirate, who was my favourite because he didn't have such a stupid name. In fact, I don't remember him having a name at all. None of the three ever engaged in a single act of murder, rape, larceny or even simple obscenity on any single page of the twenty books. It remains unclear until and beyond the end of the series how they financed the construction or acquisition of their vessels, and why they are referred to as 'pirates', given the generally innocent nature of their voyaging.

This is not to say that the stories leave the impression that all pirates were nice guys: the Black Pirates make it into the title of two of the books (book 10 'The Fight with the Black Pirates' and book 14 'The Black Pirates and the Silver Net') and do what they can to get in the way. But even their presumably heinous deeds are left off-stage and outside of nightmare range. We know that they are bad; we don't need to be shown it.

Although I would love to tell you all about the adventures of the (good) pirates, how they meet the Griffin and the mermaids, where they find the treasure, and how they keep it out of the clutches of the black pirates, I can't. And I am sorry to say that I am not ashamed: I cannot seriously be expected to remember that kind of trivia after four decades. If you want to know what happens you'll have to spend serious money buying the books second-hand: they have become rarities, although not so rare as information about their author.

You can see some of those wonderful old Ladybird illustrations at

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