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What is a Bong Tree?

What is a Bong Tree? Articles and Talks 1976 – 2021 Michael Rosen, Edited by John Richmond

I will try to put my finger on what I loved about What is a Bong Tree. I loved reading it so much that I carried it round the house, allowing myself a break from chores to read another chapter. I engaged in conversation by commenting in pencil in the margins; ‘Yes!’ ‘Haha!’ declaiming, underlining and asterixing.

Michael Rosen says you need stamina to read the ‘whole lot’ but I disagree with him on this point only. The collection is an easy read, especially if, like me, you are interested in the wide-ranging subjects of education, culture, politics, art, poetry, interculturalism, words and relationships. In my view, you simply need time to read the whole lot, and as the chapters are short, your pleasure can be spread over as long a time as you like. No hurry. I was aiming for the final section, ‘Politics, Education, Culture,’ as this attracted me most, but I started at the beginning and indulged in the autobiography, literature and poetry on the way. When I reached the penultimate chapter, ‘Languages of Migration,’ I stopped. I didn’t want the book to end.

The collection of 41 talks and articles in What is a Bong Tree is a luxuriant read with recurring themes and ideas grounded in real (unprivileged) life, with a consistent air of authenticity. Great to read aloud as the words on the page emanate from Michael’s own voice. The storying of the everyday.

So why did I love this book so much?

Firstly, the conversational tone (many of the chapters form written records of speeches and lectures) invites the reader’s participation. The oxymoron of oral writing. I liked this because it made me feel powerful as a reader. I was gifted autonomy. I was enticed to become a literature activist too.

Secondly, I know that I have become a changed person after reading it. Thirty years in the education machine, especially inspecting and working in local authorities, had drummed closed questioning into me. Michael’s ever-present cry that we ask the questions we don’t know the answers to, will stay with me. Embedded. As will his plea for children to choose their own reading material, and for classes to dance the words. We can hope that we will see an end to the stultifying extracts for counterproductive and indeed discriminatory SATs. Exam questions and the need to decode the code … not many of us have seen all this play out as a school parent non-stop for over 40 years, or noticed that the spinners in the newsagent used to be full of ladybird books, but now house spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Throughout the book, numbered lists of suggestions enrich the debate, for example in School Rules, the 10 Elements of Successful Arts Education.’ This book is no mere cerebral indulgence, the collection offers a wealth of practical approaches to effective teaching, at home and in the classroom.

Dive in, and this book might change you too …

Thirdly, as I am sure there will be for many readers, there were several personal hooks which propelled me into my own memories and values. Reading the book was reminiscent of those wonderful Open University units of the 1980s. My TMA (tutor marked assignment) would be entitled, What is a Bong Tree? and they would all laugh. I stormed out of a good traditional university literature degree, to study through the OU. I never felt as proud of my naïve life-changing decision as when I read Michael’s words about the lack of connection being made between English literature and the battle of ideas. Until we read Orwell. That was me, too. The Elizabethan World Picture didn’t provide me with the insight I needed into Greenham Common. Orwell did. And Steinbeck. And D102. And of course, having proudly taught innumerable children to read using a dynamic combination of techniques adapted to each child’s learning style, I revelled in the chapters that lambasted synthetic phonics. The good old days overlayed by Nick Gibbs got a ‘Haha’ in the margin. I passed the eleven plus, attended a secondary modern, and am proud of this. It was the year grammar schools were meant to end, and it grounded me. ‘Emil and the Detectives,’ ‘Junior Voices’. My childhood.

Fourthly, I loved the inclusion of Michael’s poetry, and the well-argued claim that literature is for adults and children together, when books come off the page, become social and belong to everyone. The hot potato poem, the torch, the lift, corned beef, the homework book … and the threads joining today’s experiences to Gradgrind, Miss Havisham, Trabb’s boy. These all resonated with me, as did the claim that English poetry books for children have traditionally featured dead, white, English men.

I also learnt lots of interesting things, about Michael’s unusual Jewish home experiences, peppered with Yiddish, and about the real meaning of Heim. Domestic life as a home university. How many fathers read Great Expectations to their children in a tent? I am sure that many mothers, like mine, ‘collected bits’ for school on walks. This selection is intensely and overtly personal, and gains impetus from that, but it also recognises the equal value of the full range of home experiences. In fact, by the end of the book, Michael upends it all. ‘I mean, just who is culturally deprived?’ ‘Teachers educated away from vernacular and oral working-class cultures have a unique chance to make up for this deprivation in our lives.’

Finally, I revelled in a disrupter’s portrayal of words: words don’t just bob about like lottery balls, they stick together, have secret strings. We can indeed subvert the power relationships between texts and utterances. The current education system in England is, we know deep down, all about ‘conform, conform, conform.’ As Michael says, ‘My son Joe did streets last term and the teacher didn’t even take them into a street.’

So, what is a bong tree? Now I understand, as I wallow in my bath of ideas, it is not only a nonsense, it allows the reader power. Agency. Brilliant!

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