Wishes, dreams and lies
As a small boy I had no idea, when I hungered after romance, what the adults were up to who wrote children's books. Of course all their efforts to palm off on us their own beliefs were a wonderful waste of time. Children are impervious to that method of propaganda, whether religious, political or social, and reject what they sense is proselytising with a brutality which is positively heroic. The child reader treads an enchanted path through the minefields of grown-up theology, which is why when George Orwell made his two sensational discoveries, first that Billy Bunter was a Tory propagandist, and second, that the only effective antidote was a left-wing comic, it was difficult to decide which was the more picklebrained theory of the two. Judging from her text, The Renaissance of Wonder (Canongate £4), Marion Lochhead is a kind of ecumenical Orwell, who, having convinced herself that the dominant impulse in the child reader is a religious one, now attempts to convince the rest of us too.
What Miss Lochhead means by wonder is exclusively religious wonder, and to be specific, the wonder of Catholicism. She is
especially strong on holiness, a concept which appears repeatedly in her book — I almost said tract. Now there is much to be said for holiness; the only trouble is that a children's book is just about the worst place to say it. In Miss Lochhead's case it has unbalanced her argument so hoplessly as to obscure even the good points she is trying to make. For in pursuing the hobgoblins of her own Christian demonology, she has succeeded only in chasing herself up several gum trees simultaneously. Having decided that the looming shadow of God the Father is an essential ingredient for a children's classic, Miss Lochhead has been forced by her own arguments into boosting the lesser at the expense of the greater. For example, one of her great heroes is George Macdonald, because his best stories, particularly At the Back of the North Wind, have irresistible implications of the gates of Paradise, where God the great Publisher waits for all his little friends. (Miss Lochhead, being a Scot, may also lean towards Macdonald as an act of unconscious chauvinism.) Macdonald is, of course, still well worth reading, although in my experience the mod em child doesn't think too much of the ending where young Diamond gets his heavenly reward, in the company, as Miss Lochhead puts it, 'of the holy innocents'. But Macdonald was essentially small fry compared to his dear friend the Reverend Dodgson, who, notwithstanding the fact that he remains to date the greatest genius to write for children, is brushed aside by Miss Lochhead in a few passing references. Perhaps it was that Dodgson, being in a religious line of business himself, knew better than to mix that business with the pleasure of being Carroll; at any rate he gets short shrift, in fact almost no shrift at all, from the evangelising Miss Lochhead. She also makes some curious judgments regarding the relative merits of the E. Nesbit books, nominating the Psammead tales as the best works because of the degree of wonder they contain. I believe that what Miss Lochhead thinks of as wonder was in this case no more than a whimsical fancy, and that what appears at first glance to be a more prosaic work, The Railway Children, has far more wonderful properties. But in Miss Lochhead's account of Nesbit's ,career, The Railway Children is never ever referred to. Curiouser and curiouser, as George Macdonald didn't say.
Having grown impatient with Miss Lochhead's attempt to use fairy stories as so many sticks with which to beat the unfaithful, I turned to a book for thirteen-year-olds called Under Goliath (Oxford University Press, £2.95) by Peter Carter, and read this: 'A rage at plaster saints and brass Vaticans and barren chapels.. .' With that solicitiousness which bubbles at the very wellsprings of my unbeliever's soul, my thoughts sprang to poor Miss Lochhead. I hoped passionately that her pietistic eyes would never fall on such harsh words. Having thus expended all my compassion for that morning, I got on with Mr Carter's well-intentioned book which turns out to be really not a bad attempt to convey to the Juvenile reader the tragic lunacy of the . troubles in Northern Ireland, troubles, I need hardly say, not altogether disconnected from the religious predilections exposed in Miss Lochhead's text. Carter links the opposing sides by the device of making a boy drummer from one faction befriend a boy piper from the other, and although the writing makes little pretence to fine style, the story holds up as well as any story of contemporary history can be expected to. For my own part, I believe that the allegory of the past is the most effective Way of teaching a child history. Stevenson's Covenanters retain all their power to symbolise fractious factions.
But then, why teach the child anything at all through fiction? Especially when the art of juvenile documentary has evolved so impressively? There is, for instance, the Splendid R.J.Unstead, who walks with consummate skill the tightrope between patriotism and candour. He is editor of a new series called 'See Inside', from Hutchinson, in which a team of writers and artists
re-create some aspect of history. Don't be misled by the picture-book format. I have been going through See Inside a Ronan Town and See Inside a Galleon (£1.50 each), and emerged' from the experience a wiser man. The illustrations have been drawn meticulously to scale, and there is a down-to-earth, how-to-do-it air about the whole series which is bound to appeal to children of, say, between seven and eleven whose minds are likely to be stimulated by the lesson that history is about chaps. It is about girls too, and Barbara Willard's romance, A Cold Wind Blowing (Puffin 50p) is the sort of tale, concerning the court of Henry VIII, likely to have a benign effect on the teenaged vocabulary.
Macmillan, however, have been having great success with books designed not to have any effect on vocabulary at all. Their books-without-words, where the illustrations are linked by half-pages having application both to what went before and what comes next, deserve their current vogue, and my only complaint is that of the three Paddy Pork items on the list, only two seem to be available. Where, I ask the House of Macmillan, is Paddy Pork Goes Ballooning? In the meantime, The Surprise Picnic (£1.50) has a family of anthropomorphic cats • drifting through a vaguely Victorian dreamworld. What those cats would have made of Ronald Duncan's• mice I cannot imagine. Mr. Duncan has Written his first fairy story. Mr and Mrs Mouse (Rebel Press £3), but I have an idea it is less a fairy story than an allegory of something or other. It is a touching little book to read, but I don't know that many children would make much of it. The story concerns a loving couple so horrified by the realisation that one of them must die before
the other that they make a suicide pact, which is foiled by the non-cooperation of cats, owls and bats. Eventually they are buried together in a touching scene of passive acceptance which I suspect would please Miss Lochhead more than it does me.
There is an item called The Vanishment of Thomas Tull by Janet and Allan Ahlberg which no parent of a lively eight-year-old should overlook (A. and C. Black £1.25) Tull . is a young boy who starts to grow smaller, by kind permission of an old movie called The Shrinking Man, The cure turns out to be altogether too efficacious, and the end sees young Tull growing like Alice in the 'Bill the Lizard' episode, thus opening the way most conveniently for a sequel.
I cannot end this attempt of mine to revert to literary type without reference to a new series published by FredericWarne under the imprint of 'Stuff and Nonsense Books'. These brightly packaged items at £1.60 each, around the size of an EP, raise an interesting ethnical point. Ought classics to be pillaged, and extracts from them put on the market? In recent years the Winnie the Pooh industry has burgeoned through this practice, with the result that people have been buying the same stuff twice without realising it. The position is rather dif, ferent with the Stuff and Nonsense brigade. Nodbody is going to mistake 'The Pobble Who Has No Toes' and 'The Quangle Wangle's Hat' for new poems. The two items are put together to make a slim Stuff and Nonsense volume which will delight any child who has not so far made the acquaintance of Mr Lear, so rudely ignored by MissLochhead. Companion volumes are Carroll's The Lobster Quadrille and The Lion and Albert, and each issue has a different illustrator.
The question which exercises me at the moment is this: is it sensible to fork out £1.60 for a poem or an episode when you can buy the whole book for as much or even less? I leave each reader to arrive at his own
• answer, and go on to say that The Lobster Quadrille in particular is so finely illustrated, by one Tony Cattaneo. as to come as close as any publication I can remember to challenging the rightness of Tenniel. As a Carroll-Tenniel advocate I never seem to take kindly to the Rackham-Steadman school which attempts to liberate the stories from Tenniel's sketches. But Cattaneo, in a way utterly divorced from the black'• and-white severities of Tenniel's world, does succeed in making us see the quadrille in a different light. The effect is delightful, of genteel cavorters on a lost Victorian strand. As for The Lion and Albert, Warne are to be commended for actually finding a child-item which has not been overexposed. Shelagh McGee's illustrations are as deliberately plebeian as Cattaneo's are elegant, and once again match the text to perfection. But almost never can any verses have grown so famous without the public knowing the names of the authors. It gives me pleasure to provide them: Marriott Edgar and Stanley Holloway.