At Bókin, the used bookstore in 101 Reykjavik where Bobby Fischer spent his endgame, the clutter goes all the way up to the ceiling, from which hang collages of magazine clippings picturing Halldor Laxness and the great beauties of the world (an eighties-era Miss Iceland poses with the collected works of her favorite author, William Shakespeare). Christmas-tree lights adorn a waist-high pyramid of hardcovers next to the register. The English-language section, right by the door when you come in, is half blocked off by unsorted boxes and piles of new acquisitions with pages already curling, glue already dissolving.
In Iceland, it’s traditional to open presents on Christmas Eve: a new article of clothing, so the Yule Cat doesn’t get you, and a new book to curl up with. So it was that last December I angled my way into the English stacks, scanned the green spines of Fay Weldon novels and Van Der Valk mysteries sold on by British backpackers, and found Slim John.
Published in 1969, with a cover betraying the influence of Penguin under the swinging, Saul Bass-esque art direction of Germano Facetti, Slim John is in fact the companion volume to a serial of the same name produced by the BBC for overseas broadcast as part of their English by Television initiative. The book is part textbook with exercise sheets, and part shooting script with accompanying stills. Slim John, building on the previous English by Television program, Walter and Connie, is a course for “near-beginners” in English; this means, explains English by Radio and Television head Christopher Dilke in his foreward, “that a coherent and life-like situation can be created from the start.” Though under the supervision of a linguist, the episodes were penned by four veterans of TV thrillers, including Brian Hayles, who wrote thirty episodes of Doctor Who during the tenures of Doctors One through Three. The serial format, which “tends to make the viewer come back for the next lesson just because he wants to know what happens,” per Dilke of the BBC, was undertaken because “fashions change in teaching as well as in dress.” In order to integrate narrative sophistication with regular language pedagogy within Slim John, Dilke explains, “a situation has been invented which makes it necessary for robots planning a take-over of the world to learn English.” Read More