First, may I thank Goldsmiths, and in particular, Prof Carrie Paechter, the Department for Education Studies and the Warden, Pat Loughrey for appointing me as Professor of Children’s Literature. Thanks also to the staff I’ve already met and worked with for being so welcoming and generous with what they’ve said to me.
Thank you all too for coming. The words ‘Professorial Inaugural Lecture’ don’t sound like the most inviting of reasons for coming out on a Monday night, so I can tell you from up here that it feels very good to see you all here. Thanks.
When I was at school doing what were then called ‘O-levels’ - and - who knows - might one day soon be called that again, for as we all we know, those times were the best of times when me and my pals were much brainier, had much more knowledge in our heads, behaved ourselves much better and were in all respects nicer, kinder and more moral than the wicked and stupid young people of today because we sat in rows in desks and our teachers wore suits.
Yes, when I was at school and doing what were then called ‘O-levels’, we were told many times never to start an essay with the words, ‘There are many kinds of...’ . ‘If you are writing an essay on ‘Rain’ they said, never begin your essay with ‘There are many kinds of rain...’
I’ve carried this message throughout my writing life and you will never find anything written by me that begins with the words, ‘There are many kinds of...’ However, today, I’m going to begin with something nearly as awful. There was no escaping it. Here goes:
‘There are very few....(that was it)...there are very few books about children’s humour, children’s sense of humour, things children find humorous and in particular books that children find humorous. There are some, but very few.
As you might expect me to say, I think the reasons for this are political and ideological. Over the hundreds of years that we have created a literature for children, we have also created religious, educational, social and intellectual reasons for encouraging it and promoting it. Mostly these have been to do with saving the child. Going through the whole period right from the beginning: what the child-reader was going to be saved from has ranged across such things as hell - that is eternal damnation after death, sin, sinful thoughts and sinful deeds, ignorance, stupidity and more recently something that has been called ‘a lack of cultural capital’. It has been hoped by some that children’s literature at different times could save children from any of these things In the span of my lifetime, and much more so today than ever before, evidence and proof that a child has been saved can in the final analysis only be provided by doing exams. Loads and loads and loads of exams. The minority who do well in the exams are saved, the majority who don’t do well are whatever you are if you’re not saved - lost presumably. If literature can be enlisted for this great project - alongside much more instrumental stuff to do with reading out loud nonsense words, naming the difference between the active and passive moods, and doing what has been called, without irony, ‘retrieval’ - then so much the better. Indeed, if by chance you are a secretary of state for education you can make great play of how you are increasing the cultural capital of the nation with the compulsory input of great, classic texts, and you do this at the very same moment you ensure that these great, classic texts are used to in tests and exams to segregate between the saved and the lost.
That’s just the present-day context. I would say that for much of the time, over the last few hundred years, for various religious, educational, social and intellectual justifications for children’s literature, the funny book doesn’t fit the bill. It is full of latent danger, full of the potential to be trivial, distracting, pointless, subversive, debasing and dirty. This I suspect is the reason for its neglect as something worth thinking about seriously, and so today, I’m going to give it a go.
Now, there’s no point in my saying all this if we don’t get to look at the creature itself. So, though there are very few books ABOUT funny books for children, there ARE of course many books OF children’s humour. And over the centuries, there have been many, many more. So it exists in bucketloads.
To get an angle on this, we can think about ‘funny books for children’ in three dimensions:
The first: the thousands of funny books available now.
The second: the tens of thousands of funny books that may or may not have amused children in the past, stretching back hundreds of years.
The third: the handful of funny books that each of us can think of that we were personally amused by.
So three dimensions: now, the history and our own personal reading history.
In the time available today, I’d like to tackle this third one, partly because it’s stuff going on in this dimension - that is, in our own personal reading histories - that explains why most of us are here today. I’m going to guess that we have each read and enjoyed books. Going back to each of our childhoods, I’m going to guess that at least one - probably some - perhaps many - of these books - aimed at you as a child - has been funny.
So, why not turn to the person next to you, and tell people of a title of any book or piece of literature that you read, saw or heard when you were a child, let’s say, before you were 13, some part of which you found at least mildly funny and tell the person next to you something about it and something to do with why you found it funny.
Now I would dearly love to collect all that up. I think it would provide an instant cross-section across the last 60 years or so, of what this particular milieu of people found funny in what they read or had read to them. Perhaps I can cull one or two of them quickly..
OK, now, as this is a lecture and not a seminar, let me do a bit of personal delving in this dimension myself and you can compare your personal history with mine. On the way, I want to identify some features of funny books for children for you to consider. Can I say, this talk will not be littered with references to books of theory, as in my experience, they are very hard to take in, in a talk like this. However, I am quite happy to share with people the kinds of critical books I’ve looked at in thinking about this subject. Just email me. I will be mentioning today the titles of the books I read as a child, though.
So let me begin with my very first memories:
One is a book which says on the title page, “Mischief the Squirrel by LIDA, lithographs by Rojan, translated by Rose Fyleman, No 1 of Père Castor’s Wild Animal Books with that delicate gaiety which shows they come from the French”.
It was first published in England in 1939 but I must have been given it some time around 1950 but it was published first in France in 1934 as ‘Panache l’écureuil’ .
I’m intrigued by that phrase ‘with that delicate gaiety which shows they come from the French’. I suspect that it’s a health warning. It sounds to me as if the publishers of the time wanted to warn buyers of the book that there might be something INdelicate going on, and so dressed it up as: uh-uh watch out, here’s a book with some of that delicate gaiety stuff that those funny, unconventional French people do.
Two moments in the book tickled me: first with the baby squirrels. (By the way, I promise, I’m not reading this with the intention of making adult double-entendres):
“Mischief, Sprite, Elf and Flame grew so fast that you could almost see them getting bigger under your eyes. They all had glorious red coats. But Elf’s was the finest. And wasn’t he proud of it! He spent no end of time cleaning it with his paws and his little tongue. As for his tail, it looked as though it was blown out with air, almost like a balloon. Elf was always fluffing it up. His mother never had to say to him, as she did to Mischief - “Fluff out your tail.”
What a clown Mischief was! All day long he frisked about and played the fool, and didn’t mind the least about his tail being dirty and sticky with resin from the pine-tree.”
For me aged five, in the time and place I was, this seemed funny. The way Mischief was a fool was wrapped up with the idea that he was dirty and the way he was dirty was that his tail got sticky with the stuff on pine-trees that I knew about from the pine-trees in the park. So, like I got resin on my hands playing in the park, so Mischief got resin on his tail. However, I should tell you, that the moral code of the book suggests - it’s not made explicit - that Mischief not cleaning his tail leads to him being shot by a hunter, injured in the leg and captured. Not that I picked up that sense of punishment at the time. I just had a sense of it being bad luck. No, the fact that Mischief, ‘didn’t mind the least’ suggested something much more powerful: that he was a free spirit, something brought out in the next passage:
“...a squirrel’s tail, you must know, is the most wonderful thing imaginable. It is a sort of aeroplane. A squirrel can jump from the highest tree, a tree that seems to touch the sky, without doing himself the slightest harm, thanks to his tail...He lets it float out while he is falling, and comes to earth as though he had wings.”
This sense of freedom is strongly represented in the illustrations which showed me a paradise of lush green trees, everlasting woods stretching into the distance with avenues of lush, long grass while high up, the red squirrel family leap and float between the branches. This, I think owes something to the Garden of Eden.
But there is also a second moment in the book which produces a different kind of humour - that exultant, ‘yessss’ laugh when your hero does something tricksy to overcome an obstacle.
As I said, Mischief is shot, but he is also captured and put in a cage. In the cage, Mischief, thinks that his ‘little swing’ can’t (I quote) ‘compare with the living branches of a larch or pine-tree! That’s the place to swing in. Mischief couldn’t forget his great forest trees.’
In other words, Mischief’s lost paradise calls to him... but
“One day, just as Mischief was thinking about all this, he noticed that little Jean had forgotten to fasten the door of the cage.
Mischief put out his head, very, very quietly. He looked to the right, he looked to the left: not a soul about.
Hop! He was out of the cage. Another hop, and he was at the open window. Hop, hop, hop - he was in the garden and hop....he was over the low wall.”
This passage is illustrated by a picture of an open window with Mischief leaping out of it, his tail splayed out behind him.
So, though I might think today on re-reading this that there is a not-at-all-funny sub-text going on here about, let’s say, first being bad, followed by punishment, penance and incarceration - doing time, if you like - as a child, the passage told me something that was a funny and glorious victory. After all, it’s a jail-bust, not a release.
So, looking back on this, I can see that the stuff I found funny in this book, revolves around two things to do with the body: soiling it and enclosing it. Of themselves, these two things don’t make for laughs. For soiling the body and enclosing it to be funny, they both have to be in the context of power. When it comes to the soiling in the book, it’s the mother who has the power, it’s her power he defies. When it comes to the incarceration and escape, it’s the humans, he defies.
So even though I can read this book today and see underlying themes of Mischief the squirrel in the Garden of Eden discovering sin, receiving his due punishment and finding redemption through being incarcerated, my memory of the books is of pleasure in his defiance. Today, I can find a theme in the book to do with the body being the location and focus for all this - the free flying, the sinful soiling, the bullet to the leg, the cage and the free flight as if it’s on the body itself where these moral issues are played out. So I ask, why should that be? Why should the body be the site for this little drama?
This connects Mischief to hundreds of years of struggle in the West over the idea that goodness rests in our minds and in its ability to control the bad, naughty and sinful things that our bodies might do. The joke at the core of the scene in ‘Twelfth Night‘ when the steward Malvolio reads the letter that he imagines has come from the aristocratic lady he serves, Olivia, is that he is a Puritan, supposedly in control of his body, complaining that Sir Toby Belch and his companions do uncontrolled things with theirs - like getting drunk.Yet, when the Puritan Malvolio reads the letter, he doesn’t know - but we the audience do - that he is saying out loud stuff to do with women’s anatomy. He is out of control.
As a four year old, this age-old struggle, dressed in the very different clothes of a squirrel’s fur was given to me and in spite of itself gave me the giggles and drew me back again and again to it. It was a book I loved and still have my copy of it.
A little later in my life, a page in a book called ‘The Building of London’ by Margaret and Alexander Potter published as Puffin Picture Book in 1945 seemed to me very funny. The text alone was not a barrel of laughs:
‘Stopping Londons [sic] Growth
During the Reformation, the monasteries were closed and their grounds closed. Outside London the grounds were used for building. The Government was afraid that the city would be too big to control and passed laws against such building. It even ordered houses to be pulled down. More often the kings made money by selling permits to build. Thus, in James 1st’s time, Red Lion Square was built and Covent Garden.’
I have no memory of actually reading this. Looking at it today, I can see that what the passage describes is a complex sequence of events, confused and bumbled into empty or meaningless phrases like ‘the monasteries were closed’ or ‘made money by selling permits to build’...Closed by whom? Selling permits to whom? In fact, they’re rather like the weird, confusing sentences dished up in the tests and exams I was talking about earlier. They sound as if they’re telling us important stuff even as they prevent us from knowing it.
This is partly why the picture next to this text was so funny. This shows three men looking a bit like Desperate Dan or men in a Viz cartoon heaving on a rope attached to one of the stilts under a half-timbered house. They are pulling the house down. They are under the direction of a bearded, high hatted, Charles-the-first-looking gent in very fancy coloured breeches. Up above, looking from the windows, balcony and roof are full of people hurling down bricks or, even more importantly for me at the time, one of them tipping a potty on to the heads of the gent and the guys heaving on the rope. The stuff coming out of the potty is yellowy-green. My brother told me that this was wee.
For me at the age of around 7, this was unbearably funny. I should say that in the context of my own home, it didn’t cross any taboos. My father was a great performer of ribald and scatological songs like:
You ought to see Michael water
It makes such a beautiful stream.
It runs for a mile and a quarter
and you can’t see poor Michael for steam.
The gag in the book is a gag because of where it is, in the context of this particular book in this particular time: that alongside such a formal text there should be something so informal and incongruous as wee being tipped on to the heads of these men. Hand on heart I can say that I have never done this myself, however I have lowered plastic spiders on to the heads of people walking into a youth hostel, and stuffed a twig into my brother’s bed as revenge for him telling on me. All this is the humour of indignity, meted out through defiling. The reason for it in the book is that the posh developers have turned up and the house is in, what we might call today, a ‘regeneration zone’. It’s not that the wee itself is funny but that it is wee talking to power. So, when people say things like, ‘O children love wee and poo jokes.’ Or, something more disparaging like, ‘O there’s no need to sink to that level’...this misses the point. Context is all.
Wee itself has symbolic power. Our modern existence revolves around putting wee in the right place and if you put it in the wrong place this arouses condemnation and the consequence of condemnation is shame. So loose wee, wee on the run, wee escaping, wee leaking is a carrier of shame. At the heart of a good deal of comedy is anxiety. Will I receive condemnation, will I experience shame if I am found out, if I reveal what’s worrying me, if I leak? If I am relieved of that anxiety, if the focus of my anxiety is taken out of the context of shame and put into, let’s say, the context of defiling the powerful, then this seems to become funny. I am relieved of the anxiety. In this particular book, there is not only the power of the developer and his team of workers pulling down ordinary people’s house, but there is also the power of that empty, abstract, educational text which is too in its own way defiled by the potty-emptying.
About this time, or perhaps a little later, a book given to me by a friend of my parents and read to me by my mother was called, ‘The Amazing Pranks of Master Till Eulenspiegel’ retold by L. Gombrich, with figures, scenes and drawings by E. Katzer, photographed in colour by The Adprint Studios published by Max Parrish in 1948.
This was a selection of stories that were first written down in the early 1500s about a German trickster figure who comes from a poor peasant background. When he’s a boy, he plays tricks on the adults from his village; when he goes to the towns and cities, he plays tricks on shopkeepers and when he goes to palaces and universities, he plays tricks on princes, kings, bishops and even university professors. His name appears to mean ‘owl glass’ or the mirror which Till holds up to society to show its follies. However, in dialect, as ‘Ul’n speghel’, it means ‘wipe your arse’.
The book I had has 46 stories, the first complete collection from 1515 has 95.
I can’t tell you how much I loved this book. I thought it was the funniest, cleverest book that existed. The tricks, the repartee, the outrageousness of Till was burstingly funny to me and after my mother read it to me I read it and re-read it many times over.I still have my copy. I’ve often wondered why and how it gave me such pleasure.
Let it be said, if I had known some of the originals I would have found it even funnier. So, for example, after Till is caught trying to trick a wine-seller by secretly swapping a jug of water with the jug of wine, he is sentenced to be hanged and stands on the gallows ready for his sentence. He points out that there is a custom in this town - it’s called Lübeck - that a convicted man can ‘crave a last boon’. He’s granted that wish, and in my book (that is in the 1948 edition) Till Eulenspiegel’s wish is that:
‘You, the magistrates and aldermen of this noble city, together with my friends here, the hangman and his mate, shall hold vigil here with my dead body for three nights in succession from sunset to dawn.’
And it turns out, says the text, that ‘not one of the city worthies felt inclined to spend three nights in the open, under the gallows, in company with the hangman, to keep vigil for a felon and a thief.’
The magistrate tries to reason with Till and break the deal. But Till sticks to his guns, he demands that the favour is given. As they won’t, and each gives his excuse - ‘one was far too delicate to face a night in the open without running a grave risk to his health’; one admitted that he was scared to death by the mere thought of it’ ...and so on, so Till takes the noose off his neck, his hands are freed, he makes (I quote) a ‘magnificent bow to the crowd, thanks them ‘for having turned out in such great numbers’ and off he goes.
As a child, once phrases like ‘crave a boon’ and ‘hold vigil’ were explained to me, I thought that this was a wonderful, clever, funny trick and I would read and re-read it with delight. Along with the other 45 or so tricks and snares in the book, this particular episode was of course a fine example of the little guy escaping the clutches of the powerful. One moment his life was in their hands. They had the power to hoist his living body up on a rope in front of the people of Lübeck till he was dead, and the next he was a free man. One moment his body was theirs, the next it was his again. And they were rendered undignified. They were humiliated in public. Looking back on it, it was as near to political humour an 8 year old might expect to understand. It had all the politics of the pay-off in Browning’s ‘The Pied Piper’ but with humour rather than pathos.
In the Oxford World’s Classics translation of the 1515 earliest known complete edition of the tales, it reads thus:
“...Till said, ‘You honourable gentlemen of Lübeck, as you’ve pledged your honour, I’ll make my request of you. And this is it, that after I’ve been hanged, the wine-tapster [who Till had tricked] come here every morning for three days - the bartender first and the skinner, who’ll dig my grave, second - and that before they eat, they kiss me with their mouths on my arse.’
Well, they vomited and said this was hardly a civilized request.
Eulenspiegel said, ‘I consider the esteemed Council of Lübeck honest enough to keep its word with me - that it has pledged me by their hands and sworn oaths.’
They all went off to consult about this - with the result that, by permission and for other appropriate reasons, it was decided that they would let him go. Well, Eulenspiegel went on from there to Helmstädt, and was never again seen in Lübeck. “
In another scene from the book that I read when I was a boy, Till pretends to a prince that he is a great painter, but when he comes to show his painting to the prince, we see that he has left the canvas empty. He tells the Prince that fools won’t be able to see it, so of course the prince, not wanting to admit that he’s a fool, pretends that he can see it. In the original, from 1515, the joke is that Till tells the prince that illegitimate people can’t see the painting - a painting, Till says, shows the Prince’s glorious, royal past. Again, the Prince and everyone else wants to avoid being known, as the text puts it, as the ‘son of a whore’, so they pretend they can see it.
So, intriguingly, the book that I found so unbearably funny had done some cunning juggling, on the one hand snipping and clipping what at the time would have been thought inappropriate for children to read - the stuff to do with illegitimacy - in order to keep some elements of the subversive power-play humour going, with ‘fool’ being substituted for ‘illegitimate’.
The whole history of what children’s literature does with the re-tellings of anything from the Bible, the Greek myths and Shakespeare to the whole world of folk and fairy-tales is represented by these two texts. And of course, it’s not a constant story, with the books children read changing even as society changes. In the version of the Till stories, known as ‘The Wicked Tricks of Till Owlyglass’ by Michael Rosen, the ending of the hanging scene goes:
“I would like every judge, the Lord Mayor and all his aldermen to come every morning for three days to where I am lying dead and one by one, I would like each of them to kiss my bum three times before breakfast.’
And again, they refuse and have to let him go.
In the painting story, my version has the Prince boasting about his royal blood but it isn’t true. So I’ve made it that it’s liars who can’t see the picture and of course the prince pretends that he isn’t a liar and can see the picture displaying his royal forbears. This time, though, it is in a way true. The picture is blank because the royal forbears don’t exist anyway.
In all three versions, the humour lies in the exposure of the hypocrisy and vanity of the rich and powerful. And Till, from a humble background is the one who benefits - he makes off with a handsome fee for having supposedly done a great painting. It’s only afterwards that the court admit that Till left the canvas bare and that they have been done.
In 1933, Norman Hunter wrote a book called ‘The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm’ illustrated by W. Heath Robinson. Puffin Books published it in 1946 and how I read it was as important as the book itself.
I shared a bedroom with my brother who is four years older than me and something in his personality meant that he felt that it was his duty and his pleasure to educate and entertain me. On the one hand this meant teaching me to read, and when I was older, teaching me such things as calculus and modulation in Beethoven’s symphonies. On the other, it meant putting on shows, doing imitations of our father and reading out loud anything and everything he found funny. So Professor Branestawm came to me as a piece of shared fun, something that made me and him tick. I’ll say in passing that traditional criticism - and, in the contexts of exams, the kind of criticism used to judge children by - starts and finishes with the book or the text. The meaning of books is supposedly in the text and the job of the critic or the exam candidate is to extract that meaning. It’s not the meaning for that candidate or critic. It’s not the meaning for that candidate or critic in that moment, in that situation, in that time, in that place. Magically, we critics and exam candidates are supposed to be able to leave our moments and places and situations behind and find an absolute or essential meaning that is outside and beyond the specific moments or our specific selves. It’s not the ‘meaning for me’, it’s The Meaning, the One True Meaning. One of the reasons why I’m standing here today, I confess, is that I got to be quite good at saying that I knew what this One True Meaning is, especially in exams. I suspect the same also goes for anyone who has ever set an exam, marked one, or perhaps sat in the Department for Education and sent out a directive requiring children and students to do more of the same.
Now the meaning I make in my situation may well overlap with the meaning you make in yours - that’s why exams and a lot of criticism can get away with saying that the meaning in my situation is the One True Meaning. I want to talk about Professor Branestawm in the particular context of my situation.
So, with Professor Branestawm, yes, there may well be all kinds of fun and meaning that I share with some or even many other people, but in truth, the starting point for me has to be a bedroom upstairs in a flat in Pinner, Middlesex, with two parents who are teachers, who have no idea why they are living in Pinner, Middlesex, because apart from anything else, they are probably the only Communists, probably the only Jews and definitely the only Jewish Communists living in Pinner Middlesex in 1950. One of their refrains was, ‘Why are we here?’ As a child, you can’t answer that question.
Our flat was my home but to anyone from Pinner Middlesex who came into it, it was a bit suspect: it was mysteriously full of books, the walls were strangely covered in reproductions of the paintings of Pieter Brueghel the Elder, the tables were littered with dangerous newspapers and magazines.
Something was going on in that home to do with knowledge. It was important, - very important but also up for questioning. It appeared as if anything that anyone said, broadcast or wrote could be challenged. My parents shouted at the radio, using Yiddish, French or German words, ‘Kvatch,’ my father would say, ‘What about Oswald Mosley?’ my mother would say. At the same time, they breathed a reverence for knowing stuff, for figuring things out, for getting to the bottom of things. Their explicit maxim was, ‘Be curious.’. The non-explicit message that they passed on was, ‘feel entitled to go anywhere, find out anything. Never think that you are someone who is not entitled to know that, see this, watch that, read this, get to understand that, whether it be ‘Hamlet’, the origin of the species, a folk-song or a joke, it’s yours if you want it.’
So, around 1954, my brother is reading me, Chapter 4 of ‘The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm’ - “Burglars!’
Branestawm has a housekeeper. At the time I had no idea what a housekeeper was, I had no idea what class and gendered information is wrapped up in that one word.
‘Mrs Flittersnoop,’ says Branestawm, ‘looking at her through his near-sighted glasses and holding the other four pairs two in each hand, ‘put your things on and come to the pictures with me. There is a very instructive film on this evening; all about the home life of the brussels sprout.’
On the one hand this was nothing like our family set-up, on the other hand in that sentence, ‘there is a very instructive film on this evening; all about the home life of the brussels sprout’, there was something of all of us. My mother taking us for walks, telling us that she was collecting specimens for the nature table at school, my brother teaching me Boyle’s Law while I was still at primary school and my father looking up from a book he’s reading to tell us that the naturalist Konrad Lorenz hovering over a nest full of hatching goose eggs led to the goslings following him forever more.
The joke of the cranky, obsessed, life-ignoring professor was in part a joke on us.
While Branestawm and Mrs Flittersnoop are at the pictures they are burgled. So Branestawm says that he’s going to invent a burglar-catcher. Mrs Flittersnoop thinks they should tell a policeman. While she talks to the copper, Branestawm goes to his shed.
‘[The burglars] couldn’t [...] take any of the Professor’s inventing tools, because the door was fastened with a special Professor lock that didn’t open with a key at all but only when you squeezed some tooth-paste into it and then blew through the keyhole.
Again this was instantly recognisable. My parents thought that one of their duties was to take us on long, cold, rainy camping holidays with gear that was improvised and lashed up with rope, tape and something called ‘webbing’. Actually these camping holidays were more than a duty. There was something ideological about it, that part of being Communists was that we should go camping. I don’t remember the bit in ‘Das Kapital’ where Marx says that families should go camping but it must be there somewhere.
Anyway, “toothpaste in a lock to make it work” sounded in its own way like a mickey-take of our parents.
Branestawm invents a ‘burglar-catching machine‘ and Heath Robinson drew it with all the bits of piping, brackets, knotted string, re-cycled bellows, brollies and hooks that he is famous for. We loved following the logic of these pictures, absurdly right and wrong at the same time. The 1950s were full of people who bodged and diddled and impro’d with junk. When an old thing broke, like a tea-pot or a table-lamp my father would sigh with a regret that floated up from an impoverished childhood in the East End or from the shtetls of Poland. Heath Robinson speaks to many people in different ways.
Having tested the burglar-catching machine with a pillow, Branestawm goes to the pictures again, because ‘he’d missed bits of it before’. Strangely, Mrs Flittersnoop finds that he doesn’t come home.
‘Forgotten where he lives, I’ll be bound,‘ she said.’
She’s just about to fetch a policeman when
‘Brrrrring‘ went the Professor’s burglar-catching machine.
‘There now,‘ cried Mrs Flittersnoop. ‘A burglar and all. And just when the professor isn’t here to see his machine thing catch him. Tut, tut.’
She picked up the rolling-pin and ran down into the cellar. Yes, it was a burglar all right.’
Now, it turns out that the burglar is so trussed up with ‘straps and tapes‘ that it’s not possible to see any of him.
‘Ha,‘ cried the Housekeeper, ‘I’ll teach you to burgle that I will,‘ but she didn’t teach him that at all. She hit him on the head with the rolling-pin, just to make quite sure he shouldn’t get away.’
Then she goes to fetch the police. The policeman puts the burglar head-first into a wheelbarrow, still trussed up.
And, mysteriously for Mrs Flittersnoop, the professor still didn’t come home.
Meanwhile, the burglar, still trussed up is taken to court.
“The court usher called out ‘Ush,’ and everybody ‘ushed.‘
[READ THE REST OF THE SCENE]
[nb can’t do this in this text, as it is in copyright]
As I said, I was surrounded at home by people who knew loads, wanted to know more, challenged everything, took the mickey out of a lot of things including each other, and regarded authority as something which at the very most had to justify itself, but which for most of the time was not legitimate.
That’s where, if you like, that scene landed when it turned up in our bedroom. That was its ‘reading-situation’. And the result was an explosion. A repeated explosion. It became one of my brother’s turns, along with many, many, many readings of a book not usually thought of as children’s literature, ‘Down with Skool’ by Geoffrey Willans with pictures by Ronald Searle.
So, what should we make of Branestawm in the personal history of my children’s literature?
I think Branestawm is a kind of anti-matter. He is on the one hand an inheritor of the spirit of Loki, the Norse God of fire, who is capable of making and destroying. He can create something in order to safeguard life but what he makes can take life away - even his own. After all, that trussed-up figure, described at one point as a ‘mummy’, is an image of death. Then, the court, because it has to follow its procedures, is unable to interpret the very thing we as readers can comprehend, so the procedures which are supposed to secure justice and light, turn out to be self-destructive. They give and they take away.
At one level, this ought to be troubling. It’s a scene which in the first half implies the destruction of self and in the second the destruction of society. And yet, my brother and I found it hysterically funny. I think that’s because it’s about authority. We read that book before the 1960s. The 60s probably mark a time of many changes but one of the most important of those changes concerns authority. Again and again in the 1960s, somebody or some event questioned whether the way things were set up were right and correct simply because that’s the way things were. To take one example that may seem trivial but which also joins up in a way with children’s literature: to my mind the Beatles act in itself was not particularly subversive or questioning. If anything, Elvis or Little Richard some 8 years earlier had stirred the waters more than the Beatles did in terms of how and what they performed and to whom. No, it was the Beatles’ interviews on TV that were out of the ordinary. They didn’t obey the rules of waiting for questioners to finish their questions, they interrupted each other, they answered things in ways that made the question seem banal. Rather than looking as if they were being questioned, they looked and sounded as if they were having a laugh and someone rather dull - the interviewer - was trying to interrupt them. Sometimes they glanced at each other as if to say, ‘who is this plonker?’
Apart from Spike Milligan going off on one on his own, I don’t think anyone had ever done this sort of thing before.
This watershed - and all the other authority challenging-moments and events of the 60s came after us reading Branestawm. So, Branestawm in that pre-60s moment, in that pre-sixties place felt risky, breath-catching, dangerously absurd. Perhaps I had a sense that it created cracks in the edifice of order. It wasn’t as naughty or as mischievous as the Beatles’ interviews felt a few years later. But in the first half of this Branestawm chapter it felt ridiculous, that a clever man - like our father perhaps, like teachers at school, or someone like AJP Taylor on the TV, say, - could be so wrong; and the second half of the scene said that the people above that, the judges, MPs, prime ministers could talk complete rubbish even as they thought they made sense to themselves.
Perhaps there was something Oedipal about all this, knocking down the patriarchal figures who, according to this theory, sat in our minds, policing and governing our thoughts and feelings. So, to erode the power of these figures - represented by a Professor and a Judge, to destroy it even, gave us a great release. And in turn, we might say, that can be traced back to the old rivalry for the love and affection of Mrs Flittersnoop, who we might think of, perhaps, as the displaced figure of our mother, who, thankfully, we may have thought, regards Branestawm as a bit of a dead loss especially as he symbolically emasculates himself.
But the origin of that patriarchal power lies where? Purely or only in the tiny network of mums, dads and sons? I don’t buy that. Or does that kind of power derive its energy from structures of ownership and control in society as a whole? Which, by the time I was 8 or 9 and my brother was 12 and 13, we were getting more than an inkling of who had it and what they did with it. So, were Branestawm and the Judge perhaps not only transformations of the father-figures we knew perhaps, but also of the versions of people paraded in front of us in the 1950s as infallible saviours like Winston Churchill? Or the people they called ‘captains of industry’?
So, I’ve looked at ‘Mischief the squirrel’, ‘The Building of London’, ‘Till Eulenspiegel’ and Professor Branestawm. One way to look at all this is to think of funny moments and funny books as being quite serious. It’s not so much that they raise serious matters, but that the underlying causes of the laughter, are serious.
Because not an enormous amount of attention has been paid to it, a good deal of this is unexplored territory. As I mentioned at the beginning, there are the other two dimensions to look at - the history of funny books for children as a whole stretching from now all the way back to the popular street literature of 17th century, or: what’s going on in the world of funny books for children today. I’ll leave these two dimensions for another time.
I’ll finish with an irony.
Millions of pounds have been spent by the government on subsidizing schools to buy what they say are the right kinds of reading schemes. Schools have spent millions of pounds buying these schemes. Millions more pounds have been spent creating and running what they call the Phonics Screening Check given to children towards the end of Year 1. Millions more is spent testing children with the Spelling Punctuation and Grammar Test at the end of Year 6. There is no evidence in existence anywhere to suggest that any of this helps children to understand what they’re reading or to help children write in more interesting or informative ways.
Many, many people, myself included have been to see ministers and advisers, mostly because we’ve been summoned - and we have said that for children to understand what they’re reading and for them to be interested in writing, they need to be surrounded with books and writing which they want to read, are given the chance to choose what they want to read, and are given time to talk about what they’re reading. While we have been saying this, libraries have been closing, there is no statutory requirement for schools to have a library and it is not easy for many schools struggling to keep up with the requirements of the curriculum, the requirements of the testing regime and the anxiety about league tables and Ofsted inspections, to link literacy to the pleasurable activity of ‘reading what you want to read’. It is much easier and more obvious for some schools, to link literacy to worksheets, online imitations of worksheets and exercises made up of imitations of whatever the tests ask for. This is what I would call ‘literacy-in-doing-tests’, not literacy.
I’m inclined to put this situation into the context of a mix of Puritanism - (or Calvinism if you prefer) - and the morphing of the concept of Education into a servant of business. A form of Puritanism or Calvinism delivers suspicion of pleasure, it delivers work as a virtue in itself - no matter how pointless or mind-numbing it might be - and it delivers the idea that we should accept our lot in life no matter how hard-up, bored, oppressed and exploited we might be. An exam-driven curriculum does this kind of Calvinism very well. If you are part of the majority who don’t get the top marks, but you were told that everyone can succeed, then surely you have only yourself to blame. You’ve no right to complain. Job done.
Meanwhile, education has become tied to ideas about international economic competitiveness or more simply: tied to what employers ask for. But hang on, international competitiveness relies mostly on paying employees as little as they can, whilst making sure that those employers can avoid paying taxes as much as they can. And employers may well say that school leavers aren’t good enough. But then they’ve been saying that school leavers aren’t good enough for a hundred years. If Pfizer take over Astra Zeneca and thousands of people are laid off; when Barclays announce that they are laying off thousands, it won’t be because the employees aren’t good enough. What business needs at the moment of lay-offs is not what they say they need: that every school leaver should be highly skilled. What business needs at that moment is that people should leave quietly. What business needs at that moment is for people to blame themselves for not being good enough.
A school system that turned out a whole population (and not just a minority) who read ‘widely and often’ would be informed and critical. One of the great spurs to reading widely and often is amusement and entertainment. As I’ve tried to show, amusement and entertainment are serious matters. As I hope I’ve shown, humour is often critical of power.
Call me paranoid, but I suspect that the ultimate reason why reading for pleasure is kept at arm’s length by the authorities and why comics and comedy in children’s books are treated by the authorities as trivial, is because quite often they are a threat to those authorities.