Gillian Avery on recent attempts to make children laugh

Gillian Avery

  • The Children’s Book of Comic Verse edited by Christopher Logue
    Batsford, 160 pp, £3.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 7134 1528 2
  • The Children’s Book of Funny Verse edited by Julia Watson
    Faber, 127 pp, £3.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 571 11467 9
  • Bagthorpes v. the World by Helen Cresswell
    Faber, 192 pp, £4.50, September 1980, ISBN 0 571 11446 6
  • The Robbers by Nina Bawden
    Gollancz, 144 pp, £3.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 575 02695 2

What makes children laugh? First and foremost, disaster – other people’s disasters, naturally. My daughter, at the age of two, was so overcome by the exquisite funniness of her cousin knocking a plate from the table that she lay on the floor and sobbed with laughter. Disaster is, of course, a vital element in farce and clowning, but a child can find humour in the sort of domestic mishap that an adult would have to see on the stage before he could laugh. (Or does the humour of disaster appeal only to the Western mind? We were once the only Europeans present at a Boxing Day performance of Oh Mr Porter in a back-street cinema. Four men were whirled around on the sails of a windmill; we fell about with laughing, the Pakistani children who made up the rest of the audience were silent. They either found the situation totally unfunny, or else lacked the instinct that an English child would have, that everything would come right in the end.) It can go beyond ordinary calamity – Mitford aficionados will remember the glee with which that terrifying family chanted: ‘Crushed to death in a lift-shaft; man’s long agony in a lift-shaft.’

Impropriety comes second. One goes into convulsions of giggles at the daring of repeating surreptitiously words which adults have indicated are not for polite society. ‘Strumpet and stomach and damn must never, never be said,’ sang one Victorian vicarage family in the isolation of their nursery. ‘Red, white and blue, dirty kangaroo, sitting on a lamp-post doing number two,’ was what we used to mutter in our Surrey back-garden. My great uncle, a Presbyterian minister, once told my father the rhyme that had so delighted him in his childhood in the 1860s, a rhyme where the wicked word was never actually uttered.

Matilda ate jam,
Matilda ate jelly,
Matilda went home
With a pain in her –
But don’t be mistaken,
Don’t be misled,
Matilda went home
With a pain
In her head.

How little Rousseau understood child nature when he suggested that children’s acute interest in their body and its functions could be repressed by connecting coarse words with these, which they would be unwilling to recall.

And then of course there are the riddles and puns from which the six to 11-year-olds derive such inexplicable pleasure. ‘What did the cannibal have for supper? Baked beings on toast’: though one does not laugh so much as feel a profound intellectual satisfaction at the beauty of it – much as a logician might enjoy a Euclid proof. It also gives scope for the collector, who can rattle out his stock of riddles like a machine-gun, to the fury both of adults and of peers lacking such a capacious memory. The appreciation of irony comes at a far later stage. ‘Women, children and revolutionists hate irony.’ Conrad meant, as a weapon used against them. The first and the last hate it while understanding what their attacker is up to; the child hates it because he does not. One is usually adolescent before one can be certain whether adults are speaking seriously, or think it funny if they are not.

Christopher Logue who has compiled The Children’s Book of Comic Verse for Batsford, and Julia Watts in The Children’s Book of Funny Verse (Faber), have both grasped the essentials about a child’s sense of humour – far better than the 1935 editors of The Dragon Book of Verse where I first encountered ‘light verse’ and found it depressingly ponderous. To be sure, that particular section included a couple of Lewis Carroll poems, but I knew these already. The general tone was the wordy waggishness of Punch of that period, and the themes wholly adult: lovesick swains, tobacco, golf. Occasional exercises in this genre have crept into the Christopher Logue selection. The anonymous ode to ‘Lizzie, my Old Car’.

I love you though your radiator’s busted,
I love you though your gudgeon pins are worn,

smacks of the Dragon Book attitude that ‘light’ is synonymous with ‘suitable for children’, and the satire of ‘My Lord Tomnoddy’ would be lost on children, and in any case requires extensive explanation.

Her Majesty’s councils his words will grace.
Office he’ll hold and patronage sway.
Fortunes and lives he will vote away.
And what are his qualifications? ONE
He’s the Earl of Fitzdotterel’s eldest son!

But these are isolated lapses. Both editors understand how children want comic, rather than light verse. The boundaries between these can be disputed for ever, but it is generally conceded that light verse, while its subject-matter is low, demands an elegance, a nicely-assembled structure, that comic verse dispenses with, concentrating on the impropriety. That was what was wrong with the Dragon Book’s section of light verse: the elegance was wasted on me, the impropriety insufficient.

Thou who, when fears attack,
Bidst them avaunt, and Black
Care, at the horseman’s back
Perching, unseatest;
Sweet, when the morn is gray;
Sweet, when they’ve cleared away
Lunch, and at close of day
Possibly sweetest.

This is how Calverley opens his ‘Ode to Tobacco’, which I never bothered to read beyond the first couplet. Calverley’s Schoolmaster Abroad with his Son, which I have never seen in any anthology for the young, would have been far more suitable, though the Dragon editors, schoolmasters themselves, might have thought it subversive.

O what harper could worthily harp it,
Mine Edward! This wide stretching wold
(Look out wold) with its wonderful carpet
Of emerald, purple, and gold!
Look well at it – also look sharp it
Is getting so cold.

The editors of both collections have seen that impropriety and disaster are well represented. Knickers, false teeth, false legs, fleas, all have a place, along with over-eating, spitting, and putting nettles in your grandma’s bed. There is also (chosen by Christopher Logue) the ‘musical student from Sparta [who] was a truly magnificent farter’. Beyond him he does not venture. Julia Watson stops with the old man of Blackheath who sat on his set of false teeth.

Calamity and the gruesome, the crude and the slapstick, are given a suitable amount of space, and Harry Graham is perhaps overworked, though children, who are never satisfied with a mere taste, may not agree. None in this genre is as good as Ogden Nash’s ‘Termite’.

Some primal termite knocked on wood
And tasted it, and found it good;
And that is why your Cousin May
Fell through the parlour floor today.

(Included in Watts but not in Logue.) It has the calm acceptance of fatality that is the essential of a Ruthless Rhyme, but the added parody of a didactic parental explanation, where the desire to impart information overrides all other considerations, makes it supremely funny, while the rhyme of Billy whose ashes one cannot rake, thereby making the room chilly, is merely macabre and too easy to imitate.

The Faber Funny Book, in its section on adventures and mishaps, also includes A.A. Milne’s ‘Disobedience’, the tale of James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree, who took great care of his mother, though he was only three. The mother, you will remember, disobeys James James’s order that she should not go down to the end of the town without consulting him. She never comes back. It is shrugged off very casually:

King John (somebody told me)
Said to a man he knew:
‘If people go down to the end of the town, well,
what can anyone do?’

I used to recite it (in my day children were called on to torture visitors in this way), but while I enjoyed the rhythm and the pace, it gave me a considerable amount of unease, and I certainly didn’t find it funny. Nor, I think, did A.A. Milne intend it to be funny ha ha: he was paying tribute to the child’s extraordinary self-absorption and egocentricity. For me it was all far too near the recurrent dread that one’s mother might disappear one day and never come back; that one would come back from school and find an empty house, or worse still, no house at all. Disaster is enjoyable as long as it does not affect oneself. The same child who laughed so uproariously at a plate falling on the floor was appalled at the far more comical sight of her pushchair buckling and then pancaking under a too heavy weight inadvertently piled on it. It was her pram; she wouldn’t have minded if it had been somebody’s else’s.

The bits of comic doggerel by Anon that both editors scatter freely through their collections occasionally sit, to an adult eye, in uneasy juxtaposition with real poetry like that of Lear and Eliot and Emily Dickinson and de la Mare, but this is surely a good thing: the eye can wander from ‘Deborah Delora, she liked a bit of fun’ to the Gumbie Cat, and enjoy both. Lucky dips are always good sport, even if, as I did aged six on the hottest day of the year, you only fish out a pair of woolly bedsocks.

Both authors have drawn on the same anthologies (one tries to push away the gloomy Gissing view of the British Museum Reading Room being full of people copying out bits from old books to make into new books, for these are both very attractive collections), so much material is common to both. The Faber book is probably, with its larger type, intended for younger readers, but the Batsford book is much better value: more poems, a proper list of sources and an index of authors and first lines – how could Faber publish a book without these! But both books will give much pleasure, even to (perhaps especially to) the child addressed by Christopher Logue on his title page who never reads anything, except TV programmes.

But sadly, neither of them include the song I have been trying to find for years, the saga of Sir Smasham Uppe (is it by E.V. Rieu?) who, asked to tea, breaks the Crown Derby, the Hepplewhite chair, ruins the carpet – in short, all his hostess’s most treasured possessions, while she, dreadful woman, murmurs unnerving assurances that it is of no consequence. The whole situation appeals to a child’s sense of the risible – a holocaust that hasn’t been caused by oneself.

Helen Cresswell’s Bagthorpe’s v. the World is also meant to make children laugh. This is the fourth in the saga of that dotty family who have many admirers. They are now trying to achieve immortality and a place in the Guinness Book of Records with their Great Bagthorpe Daisy Chain. Mr Bagthorpe has an apparent overdraft of millions (an error in the bank computer) and is conducting an economy campaign, and little Cousin Daisy has entered an Intimations of Mortality phase and is obsessed with funerals. This is fairly sophisticated humour, and perhaps a little strained.

Nina Bawden has always excelled at persons and places, and in The Robbers she has created some that will give much pleasure. Here is Philip living with his grandmother in a grace-and-favour apartment in a castle by the sea. The young and the old are in perfect harmony; he looks after her, treats her as an equal. Then Philip’s unsatisfactory father wants him back as company for his new wife. The trouble is that Nina Bawden’s instincts are to write about pleasant people and happy homes; she has the rare gift of being able to make simple goodness seem positive and admirable and wholly delightful, and the shining optimism that until recently was considered a virtue in books for the young. But now the fashion has changed. Children, it is felt, should be brought face to face with harsh reality, with the fact that adults, particularly their own parents, are not only horribly fallible but can be downright nasty.

So she feels bound to give Philip a father who is selfish and irresponsible, and who carried him away from the grandmother, back to London as a temporarily interesting toy. There he makes a friend from over the canal, Darcy, a boy whose brother is a receiver of stolen goods and gets put into prison. Darcy’s home, his crippled father who delights in quoting from The Bard to Darcy’s deep embarrassment, his Jamaican sister-in-law, Addie, are beautifully conceived and memorable. When Darcy’s family begin to have money problems the boys, in a half-hearted way, break into a rich person’s house, hoping to get some loot to pay the electricity bills. The author’s motives in this incident are not clear: is it to show up Philip’s father, who is morally far less responsible than his son, but knows which is the near and which is the far side of the law, and is incredulous that his son apparently does not? The boys are caught, separated, Darcy is put on probation, Philip sent back with his grandmother (who gives his father a dressing-down before the leaves: ‘You always were a bully, Henry’).

But that return to the castle which in the old-style children’s book would have been a triumphant happiness has been spoiled for us by the new-style convention that you must see things from all sides. It has been made clear that Philip was becoming old-womanish from habitually consorting with the elderly in the grace-and-favour apartments: are we now supposed to forget this and rejoice? Children’s fiction, now the assumption that moral issues are simple and clear-cut has been shed, is nowadays in the uneasy state of not knowing what direction it should take, and the result is often a hybrid – a book that is neither a children’s nor an adult’s novel. But there is much to enjoy in The Robbers, not least the ‘robbers’ themselves, both attractive characters who deserve something better than the hideous drawing Charles Keeping has made of them for the cover.