When I was in primary school, there was no day so dreaded as wet-weather day. It troubled me perhaps less than some, as I spent much of the break time in the playground or school library debating or creating fantasy worlds and games with friends. We were obsessed with Douglas Adams, Dungeons and Dragons, Fighting Fantasy, Warhammer, Monty Python, Monkey, Star Trek, Doctor Who and X-Men.
In early 1990s Australia, the triumph of the nerd was a long way off, a future that we did not even dream could be somewhere just on the horizon. In the meantime, chlorine-scented teachers wearing winter shorts looked down upon our borderline Satanic interests with suspicion, as watching the watchers from afar were sleeper cells of fellow travellers, like Mrs Harris the librarian and Carlos the Cleaner (with his magic tricks). I would swap Terrance Dicks novels with one Year 5 teacher like spies in Zagreb Station.
For the most part, though, the energy that coursed through the buzzing bodies of my peers was channeled into balls: handballs, footballs, tip footballs, basketballs. Shaq and Michael Jordan were trading card and TV gods, while the best among us hovered high above the asphalt on cloudlike Reebok Pumps. Sometimes – when the teachers looked away – martial arts offered a release for our enthusiasm. This was the height of Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat mania in Sydney schools. The playgrounds of ’93 reverberated with cries of, “Hadouken!” and “Get over here!” At the same time, the Terminator films were prized on VHS – searing our brains with James Cameron’s nightmare vision – so there were T-1000s sprinting around the playground too, ordering huddled Year Three boys to “call to John.”
So when the rain came and drove everyone indoors – God help us! – all together, the sporty kids, the Dungeon Masters, good kids, bad kids and polymimetic machine men from the future, the teachers had to find something to unite the playground clans.
In Keating’s Australia, there was only ever one thing for it: Round the Twist. The Australian Children’s Television Foundation’s adaptation of Paul Jennings’ beloved tales had become the glue that held our school together whenever it was teetering towards a clammy and diluvial decay. Once the teachers tried screening The Five Doctors, a feature length 20th anniversary special of my favourite Time Lord. I was one of a junta satisfied, explaining points of Dalek history to anybody kind enough to listen. That experiment was not repeated.
Henceforth, rainy days were Twist and Gribble days. The lighthouse of Port Niranda was our beacon of warmth and heart and humour in the damp of ’93. Not since Peter Viska’s Far Out, Brussel Sprout and Unreal, Banana Peel! was there a temptation so universally delighting to so many of my classmates. On page or screen, Jennings tapped into the heart of a primary school unconscious, entertaining students and teachers alike. In his company did the wolf lay with the lamb, young lion with the fatling, Raiden, Ryu, Blanka, Shaq and Michael Jordan alongside Marvin the Paranoid Android and the Knights of Ni. On a rainy Sydney day, only Jennings could unite the playground clans.
“Have you ever… ever felt like this?” asked Tamsin West as she sang the familiar theme. I’m not sure we had. In fact, I think we sometimes wanted it to rain so that we could watch Round the Twist together as a community of children who – despite our differences – all loved those tales. I don’t think this made Jennings a better writer than the authors I preferred reading in my own time, nor do I think it made him in any way a worse one to command such wide appeal. Rather, I think it made – and makes – Paul Jennings special, perhaps even blessed, to be able to write, prophet like, in a way that resonated with a generation, when I was ten in ’93, and many millions more readers since.