Still in tune, Brent Southgate

A Nest of Singing Birds:100 years of the New Zealand School Journal
Gregory O’Brien
Learning Media, $59.95,
ISBN 9780790319636

It has almost no equivalent elsewhere. Margaret Mahy has called it a “national treasure”. For many, it has been the beginning of a lifetime of reading. It may even be the world’s longest-running periodical for children.

In view of all this, it’s curious that the School Journal has had to wait until now for a book to be written on it. Admittedly there have been a few academic studies, but these have examined the Journal as a vehicle for changing theories about children and reading, as a record of social history, or as a case study in the government provision of educational material. Reading one of these studies years ago as a Journal editor, I remember feeling that it was interesting but that it would be nice if someone examined whether what we printed was actually any good.

Gregory O’Brien’s stimulating survey A Nest of Singing Birds delighted me above all by its recognition that the School Journal isn’t, or at its best hasn’t been, just some sort of blunt educational instrument. The book’s focus is firmly on the publication’s role in providing children with quality literature and design and, above all, on the writers and artists whose work has sustained it. It’s worth adding that although this is a commissioned “centennial history” and on the whole celebratory in tone, O’Brien has not felt inhibited from making some interesting and thoughtful criticisms, not to speak of dragging out the bones of some long-buried Journal controversies. That, too, pleased me.

Looking at the history of the School Journal, O’Brien senses that “while the publication began life as the most rational and pragmatic of ventures, it always had it in its nature to become something of an adventure.” Founded in 1907, the year the colony became a dominion, the School Journal was largely intended by the Education Department to be a means of providing schools with New Zealand history and geography material. But rather than do this by way of supplementary books, the inspired decision was taken to issue a periodical miscellany.

It was also decided that the new publication would be directly produced by the government. To a large extent this really was the fine and enlightened thing it seemed. Every child in the country received a free copy (until the 1940s, this was their personal property) and for many the Journal was the only literature they ever saw. Jack Lasenby, who contributes a thoughtful foreword to the book, says it constituted his “gateway beyond Waharoa”. Still, the very universality of an official publication posed obvious dangers, notably that it could also become an instrument of indoctrination and social control.

Something like that does seem to have happened in its early years. Apart from reprints of verse and other literature, the Journal mostly provided a steady drizzle of unsigned instructional articles, usually with some moral or other design on the reader. Occasionally there would even be a “God-like pronouncement”, in O’Brien’s words, straight from the director-general or other high dignitary.

If the School Journal had continued along those lines, there would not be much to celebrate today. Fortunately it was soon to be transformed. The credit for this belongs to many people, though C E Beeby, from 1940 Director-General of Education, was certainly a leading figure. As well as returning to the theme of national identity tentatively broached in 1907, Beeby placed a new emphasis on fostering children’s intellectual curiosity, and engaging their interests, imaginations and feelings.

But in O’Brien’s perceptive words, “It is not only a story of good management and strategic planning but of happenstance as well.” One element in the transformation of the School Journal, for instance, may have seemed a small point at the time. This was when the Journal ceased to publish anonymous in-house articles and threw its pages open to freelance writers, individually credited. Ultimately this was to change the whole tone of the publication: the official document became a collection of personal writings. Formal coverage of the school syllabus being increasingly the province of bulletins and textbooks, the Journal was free to take on the nature of a children’s magazine.

A Nest of Singing Birds devotes one of its longer chapters to a kind of roll-call of the more notable writers printed in the School Journal from about 1947 onwards. Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame appear in this, but O’Brien rightly calls their contribution a “walk-on part”. More substantial offerings, and over a much longer period, came from Ruth Dallas, Roderick Finlayson, Maurice Duggan, Ruth Park, Margaret Mahy, Joy Cowley, Jack Lasenby and Patricia Grace, as well as the four poets who were editors at School Publications during the 60s, James K Baxter, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Louis Johnson and Peter Bland. All are represented by characteristic extracts accompanied by some often fascinating biographical background.

Similar space is accorded to the illustrators. It’s one of the strengths of A Nest of Singing Birds (unsurprisingly, perhaps, given O’Brien’s engagement in the art world) that the visual side of the Journal is treated with such evident understanding. O’Brien is particularly interesting on the post-war period for the Journal, which “was not only contemporaneous with, but also umbilically linked to, exciting developments in New Zealand art.”

New Zealand visual art had in fact “arrived at the School Journal a good few years in advance of New Zealand literature”, with Russell Clark, “the first unofficial art editor” for School Publications, showing the way in the early 1940s. Clark’s illustrations and those of E Mervyn Taylor give a strong definition to the Journal of this period. Both are individually profiled in A Nest of Singing Birds, as are a number of other remarkable artists whose work appeared later: Roy Cowan and Juliet Peter, Anne and Colin McCahon, Jean and Rita Angus, Jill McDonald, Graham Percy, Clare Bowes, Dick Frizzell, Bob Kerr, and the photographers John Pascoe and Ans Westra.

Two niggles. The writers and artists O’Brien chooses to highlight are largely those best known for creative work intended for adults. It’s true that often these were also brilliant performers for the Journal, but Sargeson, for example, clearly found writing for children uncomfortable. While it’s interesting that he, or M K Joseph, say, appeared in the School Journal’s pages, I’d like to have seen more space given to less heralded but more characteristic contributors.

Also, in his justified celebration of the School Journal’s local writers and artists, O’Brien has perhaps overlooked some significant input from overseas. During my time, the Journal art editors regularly commissioned work from such well-known names as Quentin Blake, John Griffiths and Tomi Ungerer. (One art editor, Jim Gorman, even tried to commission a cover from Picasso.) While its predominantly local content is an important fact about the Journal, most of its editors have also tried to keep a window open to a wider world – acknowledging other cultures, other times, other ways of seeing.

But in the end these are minor points. A Nest of Singing Birds is a fine, rich book, both a visual treat and a pleasure to read. Aided by research collaborators Susanna Andrew and Jenny Bornholdt, O’Brien has brought to light some fascinating history, and he is particularly illuminating on the many crossovers between the Journal and the wider cultural scene. This and the instant appeal of the illustrations make A Nest of Singing Birds potentially of wide general interest.

It will certainly stir memories for most. For me personally, there was the unexpected pleasure of reacquainting myself with Anne McCahon’s bold and strongly designed illustrations to “Lazy Jack”. I must have last seen these in October 1954, when the newly printed Journal containing them would have been given out to our class, but I remembered them instantly. And I was delighted to learn that the artist and designer Peter Campbell, whose fine covers for the London Review of Books will be familiar to many readers of this publication, is the same Peter Campbell who, 50 years ago, illustrated Maurice Duggan’s much-admired Journal story “Falter Tom and the Water Boy”.

Book production by Learning Media is superb, on quality paper with generous margins. The illustrations, most of them from the Journal, are well chosen and interestingly varied: on many pages, a black-and-white drawing or woodcut will be set off by a lively splash of colour from a modern Journal or a photograph. I was surprised to notice that the author’s name has been omitted from the title page, but other slips are minor. Roger Hall is wrongly said to have been a Journal editor (he actually edited Education magazine). Toss Woollaston figures as “Wollaston” and Jack Lasenby on one occasion gets “Lazenby”. Otherwise, the copy editors have done their work with loving care.


A former School Journal editor (1979-95), Brent Southgate provides our regular cryptic crossword.


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review
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