All known life is here

3rd November 1995 at 00:00
Klondyke Kate and other Non-fiction, Age range 14-plus. Edited by Barbara Blieman, Sabrina Broadbent and Michael Simons The English and Media Centre #163;6.50. - 0 907016 12 X. Available from NATE, 50 Broadfield Road, Sheffield S8 OX7

This satisfying publication fulfils a perceived need the national curriculum requirement for pupils to encounter a wide variety of challenging non-fiction texts set in the present and the past.

The texts here are superbly chosen and mediated through carefully planned and demanding activities for years 9 to 13 which bear all the hallmarks of practicality and classroom experience. The book as a whole is absorbing even overwhelming in its cumulative effect and can stand apart from its pedagogic purpose as an anthology of value in its own right.

There are eight sections: in Style and Popular Culture, from Klondyke Kate the female wrestler to the juxtaposition of a piece of Madonna hagiography with a Private Eye parody, via a lovely extract from Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch and the truth about Doc Martens, the editors' tone is set catholic, critical, discriminating, iconoclastic, biting hard into pupils' experience and extending it.

In Travel, Johnson and Boswell write separately of the same crofter's hut; Paul Theroux occurs twice, each very different; Angela Carter in Tokyo and Bill Bryson in Des Moines are wryly profound in their observation. Such insights are liberating.

So it continues in Argument, Writing from Life, Reportage, Information Texts, Political and Legal Documents, Letters. John Pilger and Tony Parsons present completely opposed, equally pungent views of homelessness and begging. Germaine Greer writes despairingly of the West's reaction to disaster and even more despairingly of what she sees as David Belton's wilful misunderstanding of what she said. Phil Redmond, from the standpoint of Brookside and other programmes, sets about violence on television with articulate, seemingly unanswerable logic.

It would be easy to itemise the whole book thus: everything cries out to be noticed. Maya Angelou and Brian Keenan in Autobiography, Pliny on the eruption of Vesuvius, as immediate as Mayhew in London, Sunday Times and Daily Mail articles on Baghdad in the Gulf War and Kurds fleeing into Turkey, Primo Levi in Auschwitz. Information has Tollund Man, tantrums and drugs: there are three startling juxtapositions in Political and Legal Documents a transcript of the Craig and Bentley trial, the Chartist Petition and the Criminal Justice Act, 1994 on raves.

Lastly, Letters, where Raleigh, Rupert Brooke, Dorothy Wordsworth share space with Mira's letters from America to her mother in India and a sequence from the Independent on prison reform. Garrison Keillor demonstrates how to write them.

So this anthology can be read, browsed in, even kept by the bedside for its own sake. It raises non-fiction to fiction's classroom status. These pieces can be read aloud, performed even, making the pages flare with life.The assignments are particularly well-designed and thought through, encouraging discussion, group work, close attention to language, tone, particular arguments and their worth and give full reign to students' emulation of the writers' achievement. They are models of how to look at texts in the classroom.

The only blemishes are some irritating proof-reading slips. The bold title to the Chartist Petition gives its date as 1942! The effect is alarming. I found myself thinking of the Beveridge Report and longing, on behalf of another generation, for the 2040s. But this book is full of insights usually planned which pull the reader up short. I regard it as the definitive work on non-fiction for secondary schools and beyond and have no hesitation in recommending it thoroughly.

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