I think if you grew up with a book since babyhood and know it inside out, it’s almost impossible to look at it objectively. I’m like that with Pooh books, both the stories – The House At Pooh Corner, and Winnie The Pooh – and the little books of poems, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six, which I am revisiting for this post.
Yes, there are twee aspects to them, and a distinct lack of female characters in the stories – though not so much in the poems. Mary Jane and Emmeline appear alongside boys who – often in curls and loose smocks over shorts in the distinctive drawings by E H Shepard – I’m sure I thought were girls, anyway. Yes, the poems feature children in buttoned gaiters, with nannies, and nurseries, and all that privileged pre-war clutter. But there are also plenty of animals – wild and domestic – and a good dose of imaginative transformation. It didn’t jar when I looked back at the books when I had small children to read to. Of course, I was selective, and I left out the sillier or rather aimless bucolic poems, but I suspect they got left out when the books were read to me too!
What I still really like about the strongest poems are their rhythms, which are so well-suited to being read – or recited – aloud. A poem that sticks in your mind is sure sign of a good bouncy rhythm (though I suppose that’s true of some doggerel, too – er, theory confounded, then.) There are plenty of natural-feeling and satisfying rhyming words. But best of all – despite the buttoned gaiters – is that many of the situations are very simple and very child-centred, and are about gently defying adult expectations. The joy of just running madly around, of stepping in puddles, the pleasure and terror involved in avoiding the cracks in the pavement, and the hatred of being cajoled to be polite or eat up or hold hands.
There is the assumption that tiny children will understand when the opposite of what’s being said is true – always fun: they’re in on the joke. We know exactly what’s the matter with Mary Jane, even if the grown-ups are too dim to spot that’s it something to do with ‘lovely rice pudding’. Bullying Sir Brian Botany really isn’t ‘as bold as a lion’ and we love it when he gets his come-uppance,
‘They took him by the breeches and they hurled him into ditches’
and then we love it again when he has a change of heart. King John is ‘not a bad man, but he has his little ways’ – doesn’t he just? James James Morrison’s glamorous but wafty-looking mother is ‘LAST SEEN WANDERING VAGUELY’ – no wonder he has to pedal off on his trike and fetch her. All these grown-ups are being gently lampooned, just like the flawed and foolish adults in Richmal Crompton’s Just William books.
It’s a world that was very real to me when I was little, a world of small daily activities and large imaginary ones. Looking at them again, I realise how much I like the space in some of the poems – how ordinary things like chairs, long curtains, and the famous ‘halfway down the stairs is the stair where I sit’ – are places where the imagination can roam free.
‘Where am I going? I don’t quite know…
Anywhere, anywhere. I don’t know…’