I’d started this last Saturday
But Dawkins blew those thoughts away.
To Nutwood’s world I now return,
To ponder what there is to learn.
I’d started writing this in my head last Saturday, but it was supplanted by thoughts provoked by Richards Dawkins’ talk on The Magic of Reality. Earlier in the day, however, I’d listened to Radio 4’s documentary Rupert Bear and Me, in which Mark Radcliffe explored the long history and enduring appeal of the white bear with either only one set of clothes or multiple sets of red jumpers and yellow check trousers. Although he started life in a newspaper comic strip, I encountered Rupert only in the pages of the annual Annual (oh … so that’s why they’re called annuals), and for many years it was one of the significant attractions of Christmas as well as the instinctual source of comfort at times of bed-ridden illness.
In case you have never encountered this literary institution,1 I here proudly display the earliest example from what remains of my collection.
Revisiting books of childhood can be a variable experience. Sometimes fondly remembered texts look pale and thin in the cold light of adulthood; others, Rupert annuals included, seem more fascinating than ever, albeit for different reasons. Rupert’s world is essentially a marvellous one (in the Todorov sense) where the extraordinary and supernatural are taken for granted, and in quite complex ways. In this multi-layered marvel, the ‘everyday’ world of Nutwood is apparently a version of Surrey, inhabited by talking animals in Edwardian costume, surrounded by ‘thirties interior decor and co-existing with a small population of humans who see nothing untoward in all this. Their idyllic existence is regularly interrupted by extraordinary and magical characters who include gnomes, imps and sprites; mythical creatures of forest, air and sea; nursery-rhyme figures; sixties-style, mad-scientist inventors and nutty professors – all of whom the good folk of Nutwood take in their unruffled stride.
As you see from the cover, Rupert author–illustrators, among whom the most celebrated is probably Alfred Bestall, were also unhampered by any requirement to abide by normal rules of scale. Rupert is thus roughly the same size as the human children that occasionally appear – which seems ok. But of equal stature are Rupert’s many chums, who include a three-foot-tall Pekingese dog, a miniature elephant and a monstrously overgrown guinea-pig.2,3
Interestingly, there are no really bad characters in Rupert. Some create mischief, and some cause all manner of problems for other through ignorance, weakness or sheer absorption in their own ends, but none reveal even a hint of malice. Here is the most evil-looking troublemaker I could find:
This dodgey-looking character clearly wouldn’t be allowed onto the pages of children’s books these days, except perhaps as a dire warning about stranger danger, but the greatest threat actually posed to Nutwood is that passers-by may be recruited to take part in some odd but basically harmless experiments involving floating balls. Rupert’s world is essentially a completely safe one.
The safety is perhaps reinforced by the way the story is told in four modes: the page headings, the illustrations, the rhyming couplets in soothing, approachable iambic tetrameter, and the neat blocks of prose underneath. I never read the prose. I did try once or twice, thinking that’s what one really ought to read (why?) but found it tedious. Reading the couplets, you could look at the pictures almost simultaneously; they seemed perfectly in tune with each other. Reading the prose, you felt wrenched away from the pictures, and were faced also with the task of working out which bit of prose went with which picture. Looking at it now, I’m astonished to find it’s in present tense, which I never noticed.
But the stories weren’t the whole story. The tales were interlarded with a fiendish mindbender-type puzzle, some inscrutable instructions for making an origami model of something in one of the tales, a suitably themed board game and, best of all (and we know this because they receive a special mention on the cover) the Magic Painting Pictures. Perhaps you have the unfortunate disadvantage of never having experienced Magic Painting? Well, you are given what looks like an ordinary line drawing, and when you ‘paint’ over it with a wet paintbrush – hey, presto! – all sorts of different colours appear … as if by magic. But it’s not as simple as it sounds. You have to keep within the lines, otherwise the colour bleeds messily from one part to another. Here is one of my early works.
It didn’t get much more exciting than that in the 1970s, let me tell you.
Like postmodern picturebooks so beloved of children’s literature scholars, the whole annual, with its carefully crafted paratexts, can be seen as an objet d’art. The endpapers, especially, offer a behind the scenes glimpse of the magical world beyond that available to Rupert and thus offered in the stories. (Note also the meta-fictional fish.)
They added to what Terry Jones in the radio programme described as “a tantalising sense that this world is somehow close by, separated from our own by a gossamer-thin veil”. It was a brilliantly surreal world, which seemed utterly convincing.
‘How we know what’s really true’
Is Dawkins’ way of telling you
That cold reality is all
There is, but still, I will recall
That Bestall’s is, of all, the best
Of worlds. So there, my case I rest.4
Until now, I’ve been a bit of a closet Rupert fan. Ah, that explains a great deal, friends and colleagues are probably thinking.5 But it turns out I’m in some respectable, if rather male, company.6 In fact, I felt rather outraged when Julia Eccleshare said, “the only I thing would say about Rupert is that it’s very male and I don’t think there are many women who are passionate about Rupert and found it life-changing as children.” Alas, the evidence of the official website appears to support her suggestion. If there are any other women whose lives have been similarly influenced: please, let me know I’m not on my own with a bunch of slightly unusual men and a giant guinea pig in Nutwood.
1. We are talking here of the Rupert comic strip (which first appeared in 1920) and The Rupert Annual; the various TV versions, most especially Rupert – Follow the Magic, are as much a travesty of the original as Disney’s Pooh is of A A Milne’s creation.
2. Gregory Guinea-pig is dressed in a sort of artist’s outfit complete with smock, which is intriguing in itself. I’m very fond of guinea-pigs, but they’ve never struck me as obvious symbols for the artistic.
3. Is this serious misinformation for the young and impressionable? My daughter was well into her teens when, during a conversation on a walk about some mole-hills, it emerged that she was labouring under the impression that a mole was about same size as a badger. A similar problem of scale in the Country Companions stationery turned out to be the source of the misconception.
4. Alarming though it is to see / How couplets trip off tongue and key.
5. Now I think about it, people do often remark on my predilection for dressing in red. I also have to admit to previously possessing pairs of tartan trousers. Umm …
6. The highly creative Terry Jones said it was about the only book he ever read until the age of about 12.