It has been suggested that to make sense of the recent riots we should put down our commentpapers and turn to our bookshelves. At the Economist, ‘Bagehot’ has been reading Hooligans: A History of Respectable Fears by Geoffrey Pearson (D.G. Wright reviewed it in the LRB in 1983). Slavoj Žižek looks to Hegel. But the book I’ve been brought back to most often over the last couple of weeks (at the urging of someone too young to know about the riots) is The Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont, illustrated by Raymond Briggs.
Published in 1969, it tells the story of an Elephant who offers a ride to a Bad Baby. The Bad Baby – talk about giving a dog a bad name – says ‘yes’ and off they go, ‘rumpeta, rumpeta, rumpeta, all down the road’, helping themselves to whatever they fancy and being pursued by a growing number of shopkeepers. David Cameron would call it a case of criminality pure and simple. Easy to blame the parents, too: what’s the Bad Baby doing out by himself? For that matter, what’s the Elephant doing out by himself? Breaking the terms of their Asbos, no doubt.
But the book – on the nth rereading, anyway – seems to demand a denser allegorical interpretation. And the more I look at it, the harder it is to ignore the idea of the Elephant as symbolising the Corporate Behemoth and the Bad Baby the Insatiable Consumer, carelessly destroying together the livelihoods of small, old-fashioned high-street retailers, while the shopkeepers abandon their plundered premises and run off after them in a hopeless attempt to keep up.
Eventually the Elephant sits down suddenly in the middle of the road and the shopkeepers go ‘bump into a heap’ – or, if you will, into recession. The Elephant has the audacity to blame the Bad Baby, and the shopkeepers join in pointing the finger. Then off they all go to the Bad Baby’s house, where his mother – laissez-faire beyond the point of negligence during the good times – bails them out with ‘pancakes for everyone’. Or that’s what the text says: the picture tells a slightly different story, as we see the Elephant, whose fault it all really is, guzzling a large bucket of milk while everyone else at the kitchen table waits expectantly for the single pancake the Bad Baby’s mother is tossing in the pan.
If this reading seems absurdly far-fetched, consider for a moment the authors’ politics: Vipont was a Quaker; Briggs’s other work includes When the Wind Blows, in which Jim and Hilda Bloggs fail to survive a nuclear holocaust, and The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman, a satire on the Falklands/Malvinas conflict.
Or, to get back to the book in question, there’s the snack bar from which the Elephant pilfers a couple of bags of crisps. A man on a ladder is painting over the old shop sign, ‘…’s Fried Fish’, and a poster in the window announces: ‘As from Mon 1st Sept These Premises will open as “Sam’s Super Snacks” – a comment perhaps on the decline of the British fishing industry as well as the Americanisation of British consumption habits. The notice also confirms that the story is set when it was written: in 1969, 1 September fell on a Monday.
Finally, take another look through the window of the grocer’s shop. There, unobtrusively in the background, creeping in, like the elephant’s trunk, from the left-hand edge of the page, is a branch of Tesco.