Many years ago, O Best Beloveds, when the world was young, sixth formers often used to do something called General Studies as an extra A-level. It was an opportunity for teachers to show their eccentric side, or to shyly brush off and dust down a special interest.
I can’t remember most of the things we studied, but for one term, we had a science teacher called Mr Spiby. He was small, with bright dark eyes and a mop of frizzy dark hair standing up around a prematurely receding hairline, like a sort of fuzzy tiara. And he was brilliant. Why? Because he made us think. And what he taught us has remained with me more than almost anything else I learned at school.
His method was this. He would come into the room and, for instance, scrape a ruler along the surface of the desk, so that it made a squeaky, scraping noise. Then he would look at us and grin. “Now,” he’d say. “What makes that noise?”
He would lean forward confidentially. “It’s a race of tiny, tiny beings. When I scrape the ruler along the desk, it squashes them. Hurts them dreadfully. And so they squeal.”
From us, knowing laughter. From Mr Spiby, a raised eyebrow. “What? You don’t think that’s the case? Well then, prove it.”
We never could. Not even when he came in and announced that the world was flat and all this about it being round was sheer nonsense. We thought we were in with a chance on this one. “Astronauts have been up in space ships, and they’ve seen that it’s round,” we crowed.
He shook his head gravely. “No. The photographs are all faked. It’s not difficult to do, you know.” He had an answer for everything we could throw at him.
He was trying to teach us about the basis of scientific theory – to show us that you can assume nothing, that you must have evidence for everything. But in doing this, he also showed us how much we thought we knew – when really, we didn’t know it at all: we just believed what we’d been told. We thought ourselves so much cleverer than Galileo’s contemporaries, silly twits, who really did think the earth was flat – but actually, we were just the same: we believed what we’d been told, and we didn’t test the assertion for ourselves. (Or perhaps we were not the same: they believed the evidence of their own eyes – which perhaps makes more sense.)
Mr Spiby didn’t make me into a scientist. It was too late for that – maybe if he’d taught me further down the school, he might have managed it. But he did teach me to question: and he taught me that to prove something, you need evidence. It’s not enough just to make an assertion. So I’m very annoying in arguments: everything’s bouncing along in a delightfully fiery fashion, and then in comes me, with a little anxious frown and a: “But where’s your evidence?”
And I think this is one of the reasons – I can think of others – why, when I’m presented with a rule – or indeed, a regulation – I think: “But why? Where’s the evidence that this is the right thing to do?” So when someone admonishes: “Show, don’t tell,” or, “In a children’s book, the story must be seen through a child’s eyes,” or “Readers won’t put up with description” – I begin to frown. And I think it’s why, when I come across a book or a writer that cheerfully breaks all these rules, and yet still produces something that works wonderfully, I feel quite exhilarated.
Mal Peet’s latest book, Life: An Unexploded Diagram, breaks the rules. It’s been reviewed extensively, so I’m not going to review it again here. Suffice it to say that though the main character is a teenager, the adult characters are frequently a main concern; that he frequently has passages which are nothing much to do with moving the story on, but which the reader wouldn’t be without; that he has pages and pages of conversations in closed rooms between American politicians, which are of only tangential relevance to the main story – that he does all this, and the book is generally held to have succeeded magnificently. (Though for myself, I still think Keeper is his masterpiece.) Oh, and for evidence of that last point, just google reviews of the book. If it’s not on prize lists next year, then I’ve learned to like olives.
One last point about breaking the rules. Those of you who read my post for the ABBA Litfest will know that I’m on a mission to read Dickens, having avoided him all the way through an English degree and almost all the way through a fair few years as an English teacher. Dickens – who I think foreshadows a great deal in contemporary children’s writing (an assertion which – sighs sadly – I haven’t the space to back up here, but may come back to in the future) breaks the rules for a pastime. He spends ages on characters who are almost completely peripheral to the plot, he wallows in lengthy description just for the fun of it, and he leaps from one viewpoint to another.
And for evidence of all that, all you need to do is read the books!