Authors’ visits take many forms. William Mayne‘s led to a book –
SALT RIVER TIMES.
In recent years William Mayne has spent a lot of time in Australia, some of it working with children and their teachers in schools in and around Melbourne. One was Footscray Technical School (Junior department, kids 12-14). Footscray is a city suburb of Melbourne, heavily industrial and with a large immigrant population (Greek, Maltese, Chinese, Italian, Yugoslavian). It’s also the setting for SALT RIVER TIMES (Iramoo is the Aboriginal name for Footscray). The river, the children, the houses, the trams, the park, the school are all as they are. Many of the real kids have reading problems. Here they knew exactly what they were reading about – themselves and their place. They loved it.
But how will it travel? We asked Steve Bowles.
Salt River Times isn’t a book for everyone. Yet it has a great deal more humour and sheer vitality than any Mayne novel I can remember, for all their technical brilliance.
It’s a sequence of stories set in a poor Australian community on the edges of an encroaching city. The focus shifts between individuals and groups – oldsters, teenage, nine-ish, even middle-aged in a couple of sections. Mayne’s obsession with the relationship of the present to the past is still here. Lives touch and rebound, one small event leads to another and gradually a kind of pattern emerges. Whether the lack of drama makes it necessary or whether it’s ingrained in Mayne’s pen, the style is often elliptical or oblique and it demands more perseverance than most kids can give. Nevertheless, there are definitely some stories (notably Show and Tell, The House That Jack Built and A Puff of Steam) which could be very useful if read to secondary kids as illustrations of particular narrative techniques or tricks of the writer’s trade.
It’s possible that some of the stylistic difficulties arise from the book’s Australian-ness. Certainly Mayne seems to have thoroughly absorbed the idiom and speech rhythms, if one can judge by the resemblance to Ivan Southall (especially evident in the opening story). His ear for dialogue is put to good use and I’d not mind a small bet that some of the characters bear a considerable likeness to kids he worked with out there, especially some of the young girls who come across in particularly vivid and attractive fashion. The character-shuffling means that the book doesn’t make a consistent appeal to any one age-group and I’m not sure about the garish cover either (though the illustrations are excellent). Not really one to offer individual kids then but a very stimulating set for teachers. At a mundane level, there are ideas for lessons just below the stories’ surfaces; on a higher plane, you can just enjoy a Master at work.
Salt River Times
William Mayne, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 10196 4, £4.95