A little bit of First Aid never goes amiss

Brian Toner

The weekly chart of best-selling books, with its Dan Brown titles and telly tie-ins, usually occupies little of my time but a recent list of best-selling books about language made me pause. At the top, no surprises - Lynne Truss, John Humphrys, Melvyn Bragg. It was the foot of the list, the number 10 entry, that caused me to blink twice. Had I been eating, I would have choked. For there, in all its glory, was New First Aid in English by Angus Maciver.

I was shocked. I didn't even know it was still published, never mind a best-seller. Then, as chance would have it, the next day I spotted the actual volume on the shelves of the local WH Smith. So it was true. I flicked it open and it was 1958 again.

Some readers may wonder what the fuss is about but, for those of a certain vintage, the book's title will ring a bell and it's a school bell. The memory surfaces with ease. I am at my desk in a primary 7 classroom. The whole class, 49 of us, write silently in our jotters, answering questions from a plain, light blue textbook, its cover imprinted with a navy blue cross and the words First Aid in English.

Along with Fred Schonell's red Essential Spelling List, the class reader and a weekly composition, First Aid was all that teachers needed for our English lessons, in the days before having opinions and talking about them were considered desirable for 11-year-olds.

The modern First Aid is in a larger format but otherwise makes no concession to contemporary textbook design. There is no colour and no illustration and an expectation that children are able to work through the exercises and 30 tests covering fascinating topics like principal and subordinate clauses, double nominatives and identification of the eight types of conjunction. The pre-war road signs on the back page have disappeared but other First Aid favourites survive.

The 56 abbreviations now include IMF, Nasa and Fifa; the lists of synonyms and homonyms are endless and there are 91 proverbs - although, sadly, there is no longer space for "a great cry and little wool" (pardon?) or the proverb most appropriate to today's population of indebted adults, "he goes a-sorrowing who goes a-borrowing".

Best of all is the section that was a treat for the last 20 minutes of Friday afternoons, the 259 general knowledge questions. Golden Time, anyone?

First Aid in English was published in 1938, the same year as the Beano, that other long-lived fount of language for Scottish children. It's the work of Angus Maciver, a former teacher at the High School of Glasgow. He wrote it for pupils in the "qualifying class", as primary 7 was known in selective, pre-comprehensive days.

Twenty years later Mr Maciver died, at a still young age, after revising his magnum opus. He lived to see First Aid become a standard text not only in Britain but in many countries of the fading Empire. Nevertheless, even he might have been surprised to find it heading for its 70th anniversary still in good health and having chalked up total sales well in excess of 6 million copies.

He could only have been proud of First Aid's continued success in schools as far apart as Jamaica and India, its presence on the reference list of some American universities and its reappearance in many British schools.

The puzzle is why it is not recognised in its homeland as a great Scottish success story.

There are differing opinions about the value of books like New First Aid in English but, whatever your view, if you wish a quick kick of nostalgia, head for your local bookshop.

A final thought. First Aid was written for primary 7 pupils, yet now it is usually regarded as a secondary textbook. What does that tell us?

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary in Perth.

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