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Jo'Burg Days: The Red Books

Barbara Durlacher pays tribute to Arthur Mee, author and compiler of the Red Books, the famous Children’s Encyclopaedia which has brought her so much pleasure down the years.

When she was six Barbara said "If the house burns down, the two things I’ll save are the Red Books, and my Teddy Bear!”

Background: Johannesburg in the 1940’s. A quiet suburb, with a countrified air; elderly ‘Victorian-style’ parents; lonely small daughter.

Development: Long, empty days with very little happening. Radio in its infancy, no television, limited access to popular entertainment, including magazines and books.

Setting: Simply furnished suburban “lounge”. A two-bar electric wall heater surrounded by hideous pale green mosaic is the main focus of the room. Highly polished parquet floors reflect the light entering from wide, metal-framed windows. A couple of comfortable easy chairs, a small bookcase containing a set of encyclopaedias, a few pieces of Victorian furniture and good, original watercolours and small oils indicate the occupant’s taste.

World Events: Beginning of World War Two and Rommel’s advance into the Western Desert. Most South Africans over 18 are enlisted in the Army and are serving “Up North”. Life seems to be ‘on hold’ with families back home waiting with bated breath for their return. In the Libyan Desert the soldiers wait out the days in the blistering sun and wind, poised to do their duty for ‘King and Country’. Will Rommel advance, and what will be the outcome of the battles to come?

Action: “What can I do Mom, I’m so BORED” the young daughter nags, aimlessly gazing out of the window at the summer garden.

Mother: “Why don’t you look at the Red Books, darling. You know you always enjoy them.”

So, once again, a volume of Arthur Mee’s famous “Children’s Encyclopaedia” is taken from the bookcase, and the small girl settles quietly to scan the magic pages. There were the delightful mezzo-tint pictures by Arthur Rackham of fantastical goblin-like families living in eccentric half-timbered houses, the first story jutting over the street, and crooked-tailed dogs chasing fierce-whiskered cats up trees.

There was the blurred picture of the aurora borealis, curtains of moving light hanging from the heavens, with a simple explanation of this strange natural phenomenon. On other pages she found the heroic story of Grace Darling and how she had rowed her boat through a fierce storm to save survivors of a shipwreck. Stanzas of poetry by Tennyson and Wordsworth shared the pages with Aesop’s fables and Greek mythology. Tips on how to make simple objects and thousand-and-one oddities of nature were followed by scientific inventions, or proud recitals of industrial achievements ‘at home’ in the British Isles and economic progress in the Dominions.

On another page are illustrations in a different style; a fat man and his skinny wife sitting at a table, with the caption “Jack Sprat would eat no fat, his wife would eat no lean, but between them, they licked the platter clean.” She has always loved this image, and studies the wife diligently chewing the bones while the man fastidiously wipes the plate with a heel of bread. Such delicious greed …or was it peasant hunger after a hard day’s work?

In another volume were reproductions of famous statues, Michaelangelo’s “David”, the “Pieta”, and the “Winged Victory”, amongst many others, and what did it matter that the reproduction was not of the finest quality, that the pictures were a little blurred, and the editor’s selection eclectic and wide-ranging? It all contributed to the allure of those magic books, and fed the young imaginations and enquiring minds, eagerly seeking information.

Coloured and black and white reproductions of famous paintings graced the pages; elegant Gainsboroughs, subtle Van Dyks, lusty Rembrandts and Frans Hals became familiar objects of many children’s everyday lives, even though at that age, most had little appreciation of the underlying meanings of the paintings and the emotions of the painters who created them.

So much information and knowledge was contained in those magical ten Red Books, and was read and enjoyed by thousands of children in Britain and abroad, in all the English-speaking countries of the Commonwealth and America; from the Far Outback of an Australian sheep-station to a miner’s cottage on a gold reef in South Africa; to a pioneering apple farm in Canada and a lighthouse keeper’s isolated croft in the far north of Skye.

Children of all ages read and enjoyed these wondrous encyclopaedias; many were taught from them by parents struggling with scant or non-existent resources in the raw new Dominions, far from teachers and conventional schooling. In the Red Books, the down-to-earth information served, in many thousands of cases, to form and shape a child’s ideas and appreciation of the world around him for the rest of his life.

So, who was this extraordinary man, Arthur Mee, the editor of one of the most famous children’s encyclopaedias ever published and the author of well over forty other books and hundreds of other publications?

Born in 1875 and dying unexpectedly in 1943 after an operation, his life spanned the end of the Victorian era, the secure Edwardian age, the First World War and the expansion of the British Empire by trade and economic development and ended mid-way through the Second World War. The self-confidence and assurance shown in the creation of these simplified encyclopaedias, refined to a point where even the smallest child could find information in them, was a masterly achievement, none more so than when one considers his humble beginnings and origin.

… Arthur Mee was born into a working class family in Stapleford (near Nottingham, England), in 1875. He was the second child and oldest son of Henry Mee, a mechanical engineer, and his wife, Mary. The family was a very happy one, and in time there were to be ten children altogether. Both of Arthur's parents were noted for their piety, and his father was a deacon in the Baptist Chapel they attended.

Arthur's formal education lasted till he was 14 years old. A friend later wrote that he left school a sound English scholar, but too soon for even a peep into classical realms. He had no aptitude for chemistry, mechanics, or geometry, and as an editor he imagined that present-day pupils might have been equally unattracted by these subjects. Hence his disinclination to the use in his publications for the young of technical terms common to most schoolboys of today. Never would he use such words, for example, as "diameter" or "circumference," but always width, and so many feet or yards round.” If a technical term was not familiar to him, he argued, then it might be unfamiliar to thousands of others, both adult and juvenile. The practice had its disadvantages in lack of precision and directness, but Arthur had ever in mind the one who might not know and might be gravelled by technicalities.”

According to his friend and biographer Sir John Hammerton, one of the reasons for his amazing popularity was that "[he] had the power to make plain to the average man, woman, and child the aspects and imports of the problems which the very men who had wrested them from nature could not make so plain" (p. 158) - and this was done in such a way as to communicate the writer's own enthusiasm for his topic to the reader. There are scientists and historians today who credit Arthur Mee with introducing them to the subject that later became their specialty. Others tell of how they taught themselves to read with the aid of the Children's Encyclopaedia, or how they read it from cover to cover, with obvious delight.”

Arthur Mee was a prolific writer. In addition to the Children’s Encyclopaedia and various serial publications, he wrote many other books: more than forty between the years 1917 and 1943. To quote his friend, Sir John Hammerton, “One could find something interesting to say about almost every one of these books, produced sometimes at the rate of two or three in one year. Not one of them failed to find a large body of readers…In number they are so many that their mere enumeration suggests the output of a literary syndicate, not the outflow of one man’s diversified mind; but read them all…or choose a number of them at random, and you will find the steady flame of one mind illumines them throughout.” (Sir John Hammerton, writing in Child of Wonder: An Intimate Biography of Arthur Mee, p.194-195)

I suspect we get to know as much about Sir John Hammerton as about Arthur Mee through this book! The author makes it very plain that (a) this is not a conventional biography, and (b) he is relying largely on memory rather than on notes for the things he wrote. While it is a good introduction to the life and thought of Arthur Mee, there are a lot of gaps, and a lot of questions left unanswered. I believe there is a definite place for a new full-length biography of Arthur Mee, based on original research (a collection of his personal papers are held in a library in Nottingham). And when somebody has written it, I would love to read it!

As the author of “Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia: Imagination in Education” and “Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopaedia: An endangered achievement of 20th century Art” says …”We treasure illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells. A painting by Cezanne sells for several million dollars. Artists overseas make ephemeral art out of rotting foods and bicycle parts.”

“It is still possible to buy a ten-volume set of Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopaedia in trading (trade) magazines. But for how much longer? A treasure of the 20th century may be lost. Yet every library for young people should have a set to browse, from an edition no later than 1968 and our museums and State libraries should all have early sets in all their glory.”

A recent cartoon in the Guardian Weekly displays 'The 20th Century Revolution's' massive technological advances followed by 'The '21st Century Revolution' of IT fizzled down to a teenager huddled over an Internet game, 'Download-boing-phut-crash!'

“It would be a sad loss of heritage if remaining sets of the Children's Encyclopaedia go the way of all pulp for lack of interest. It would be also tragic if belated recognition resulted in sky-high collectors' prices, instead of making this great work, lightly re-edited, universally available by Web, CD or print. Libraries, classrooms and parents could keep this Temptation to Learning available in juniors' corners for undisturbed reading, for children to handle with love and care, and to occasionally rescue a no-hoper.

'But the children of the Information Age are different today,' I am told. 'Arthur Mee is old hat. The pictures are too dull.' Certainly children habituated to 'flick-twitch-thank-you-miss', 'barely-reading' flip a few pages and return to TV or computer game. Perhaps, perhaps, some may later return and discover how to dig. Others use the extensive index pragmatically for information - as I still do. But the children who could be illuminated and sparked alive would include many lively-minded children that schools find hard to cope with - bright children who reject classroom learning, boys who prefer to know about the world of men, and children who reject literacy because they know of nothing they want to learn to read, since everything in their early classrooms is pitched to a mental age of two to four.

Gifted children do not restrict themselves to living on the cusp of novelty; they can enjoy the content of what is old and even tatty when it adds value to living. The 'outdated' science and technology and geography still supply foundations that show how we have come to the present, with what struggles, and how drastic the changes have been.

The children of today still need excitement and passion - here it is at the constructive end of the spectrum of life, a contrast to the pressures around them for negative intensities to be the only perceived alternatives to stuffiness.”

Arthur Mee’s influence stretched over several generations, imparting a sense of all that was sound and good to children of many nations and backgrounds, and creating a respect for knowledge and learning which led to many illustrious careers in later life. It seems a shame that this body of knowledge should be lost to children of today through lack of interest on the part of our educators and administrators, people who could use their influence to shape the thinking and direct the enquiring minds of youngsters just starting school. By overlooking a ready-made source of knowledge and information such as the Children’s Encyclopaedia much which is still applicable is being lost, where, with a little application and care, it could be utilised to form a valuable source of easily assimilated knowledge for many.

My mother’s moment of weakness when she agreed to buy the books from the travelling salesman, and paid off her purchase at half-a-crown a week for years afterwards, gave me a gift which has lasted all my life. The Red Books woke my imagination and stimulated a desire for knowledge and a love of arts in all its forms that has been an enduring solace and companion. The value I placed on the books is expressed by my six-year old remark “

If the house burns down, the two things I’ll save are the Red Books, and my Teddy Bear!”


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