Claire DunnLively lesson with Principal Marsden

NEW SCHOOL: Writer John Marsden is now a full-time teacher.A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of interviewing John Marsden – one of Australia’s national treasures and a quiet campaigner for the rights of education, imagination and nature.

For most of us, Marsden is best known as the author of Tomorrow, When The War Began and the Ellie Chronicles, his provocative and often dark novels gathering a cult following here and overseas.

In what is almost the ultimate sacrifice for a prolific writer, in recent years Marsden has put down his pen and taken upfull-time teaching at Candlebark, one of two independent schools he founded on properties outside Melbourne.

While Marsden once said that he dreamt of fame and fortune before his writing career took off, the time constraints put on our interview make it clear how priorities have shifted.

“Before becoming a principal I wrote about three books every two years. Since then, it’s been three booksin 11 years. My days are filled with school management issues. I work on school stuff 10 to 12 hours a day, six to seven days a week,” he says.

As a kid, John read voraciously, one of his favourites The Children of Cherry Tree Farmby Enid Blyton. Some have likened John to Tammylan, the main character in Blyton’s fiction, who lived rough and had a great affinity with nature.

“Certainly, like Tammylan, I pick up other people’s rubbish wherever I go – in the bush, at school, along the street, at the kids’ soccer matches. And I hate to see wild animals killed, or wild places desecrated,” John says.

Time spent in the bush is still one of the things that he relies on to nourish his soul.

“I’ve always loved the bush and bushwalking. I bought this property, the Tye Estate, near Romsey, supposedly the biggest privately owned block of native vegetation in Victoria, to preserve it from developers. Spending time in the bush, watching kangaroos, wombats, echidnas, cockatoos and wedge-tailed eagles, is the most profound spiritual experience I know.”

Described by some as a cross between Steiner and The Simpsons, Candlebark is based on a philosophy of creative ‘lively’ learning, including how to use log splitters and chainsaws, microwaves and blenders; lighting fires and playing ‘rambunctious roughhousing games’ like British Bulldog.The school quickly filled to capacity, and in 2016 Marsden opened Alice Miller, the arts-focused secondary school, also in the Macedon Ranges. He considers the schools viable alternatives to the “inherently unworkable” model of mainstream education.

“The basic idea, that you take the biggest possible number of kids, squash them into the smallest possible space, and provide the fewest possible number of adults to look after them, is not viable. We should have brilliant, knowledgeable adults working with small groups of kids – and we should provide heaps of room for the children to run, play and explore.”

When asked how he maintains hope while remaining aware of the dangers of climate change and ecological crisis, Marsden is characteristically both philosophical and practical.

“When I was a kid, I read a quotable quote in, of all things, Readers Digest, which said: ‘Loving the world is easy; it’s loving the guy next door that’s difficult.’ I think this applies to many situations. We can all talk glibly and beautifully about the need for global action, but do we stoop to pick up the plastic bag in the gutter that otherwise may end up in the ocean? I think we should campaign globally, but at the same time make sure we do all we can on a micro level.”

Thinking globally but acting locally is exactly what Marsden has achieved, although the ripples of his actions have extended far beyond the pond in which they began.