Talking of biscuits brings me onto the Mr Men books. Scholars may debate the subtexts of Mr Happy going deep underground to bring Mr Miserable up into the light, or speak highly of the structure of Mr Messy’s journey into cleanliness. But my favourite Mr Man was Mr Tickle because of what he did with a biscuit. You may recall Mr Tickle had extremely long, elastic-like arms which could stretch great distances, enabling him to surreptitiously tickle unsuspecting people. I thought this was funny enough, but Roger Hargreaves’s true genius was to have Mr Tickle lay in bed and extend his long arms all the way downstairs to the kitchen where he took a biscuit from the biscuit tin and brought it all the way back upstairs where he ate it, all without having to get up. I don’t have the book to hand but I believe Mr Tickle repeats the action, which if true is even more brilliant when you consider that he could simply bring the whole biscuit tin upstairs – he (and Hargreaves) simply love the idea of being able to get hold of something from somewhere in the house without having to get up. To me this was (and is still) a much more potent superhero power than being able to fly, run faster than a speeding bullet or spin webs from your wrists.
A book I became very familiar with as a young child was a 1975 Ladybird Special edition of Aesop's Fables, “retold” by Marie Stuart and illustrated by Robert Ayton. The inner flyleaf of the hardback had a picture that haunted me – a drawing of a 6th century marble carving of the storyteller, the arms and legs missing and a fig leaf hovering oddly just below his stomach. The potted biography of Aesop which this drawing illustrates says he was “said to be deformed”, and as a child I thought the poor man was actually quadriplegic. The strange blank marble eyes also made me think he was blind. All of this meant his stories only made a deeper impression on me. My favourite fables were the goose that laid the golden eggs, the fox and the sour grapes, and a great one about a contest between the sun and the wind to see which one could get a man to remove his cloak – the wind tries by blowing at the cloak as hard as he can, which of course only makes the man wrap it around himself all the more, while the contest is won by the sun who simply shines hard, making the man take off his cloak in the heat. The moral “kindness often gets things done more quickly than force” is something I try hard to aspire to. The oddest story in the collection is about a crow who wants to be a swan, thinking that swimming in a pond and eating fish will make him into the majestic bird he wants to be, which of course fails. I feel uncomfortable reading the story with its language of the black crow “wishing it could be white” – as a modern-day liberal and Guardian-reading parent I am probably reading too much into this but I can't help but wonder if the author had a hidden racial agenda. When I read it to my children however I desist from referring to this paranoid theory.
When I was six years old I won a book as a school prize for “music”. I can’t remember what I actually did to justify the award except sing. I have a vivid memory of singing at the actual school prizegiving ceremony when I was given the book, a Ladybird called Do You Know by “W. Murray”. W seemed to be a kind of expert on everything in the way that middle-aged pipe-smoking uncles are experts on everything. The book introduces Earth as one of nine planets (I am psychologically incapable of adjusting to the recent decision that the number is actually eight), and goes on to talk about natural phenomena such as meteorites, volcanoes, rainbows and “things that live in the sea”. It was a fascinating book; my favourite page talked about the Dead Sea, featuring a drawing of a man floating in the water, unable to sink because of its high salt content. As a non-swimmer this idea attracted me, and still does. I’m sure it’s terrible for your skin though.
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