A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
In Philippa Pearce’s children’s book A Dog So Small a young boy struggles with life in a London tower block. Forbidden to have a dog because of council rules, he retreats into a dream world where he plays with a magical chihuahua before being given a real dog to look after. It is a story of the sad goodbye we give to our childhoods as we move towards being adults. Except, of course, it isn’t. It is quite the opposite of this. It is much more the clash of stubborn childhood immaturity with the reality of living as a social being, with all the responsibilities that come with that insight. It is a celebration of the push we sometimes need to leave behind our childish toys.
Had you asked me about the novel before I reread it in 2008, I would have told you a number of things about it; that it had been bought for me as a birthday present; that though I was put off by its cover I read and reread it many times – often when I was ill; that I identified with the boy. It was, with The Legion of the Ninth and Stig of the Dump, one of my favourite books. Had you asked me about the novel after I reread it, when I was in my late forties, I would have probably answered that I was not certain that I had ever read it as a child, as the above paragraph shows only too clearly. It was not that I had forgotten things about the novel. It was that I had never known them.
Where to begin? I didn’t know that the boy was called Ben, I didn’t know that the family was called the Blewitts, I didn’t know he that he had brothers and sisters, I didn’t know he lived in a terrace house or that the problem with the flat was the size of the rooms and not that dogs were prohibited (they weren’t). Ben had grandparents who he visited; it was they that had the bitch that gave birth to the puppies. He is injured in a road accident. He is dreamy at school. He struggles to look after a lively puppy. All this passed me by. I never knew that Ben was, in many ways, a pain in the arse who is saved by the patience, wisdom and love of those around him.
Was I such a poor reader? Was I expecting too much of my nine year old self? I must have read something with more care. I bought a copy of The Victor annual for 1969 which I remembered getting as a Christmas present and reread it too. I found out many things. For example, I found out that the Scarborough Herring Trophy was awarded for the greatest (aggregate) amount of herring caught while fishing out of Scarborough, I found out that the paratroopers in The Raid on Bruneval were Scottish, the Spanish football team in Barney the Boot were called the Caballeros and that the characters in the Flyer of Chundabad said things such as “I’ve got some bad news for you, Peter. I spotted a body on a goat track outside the town…” Mind now, I was forty-eight when I found out these things. As a boy, I had, I discovered, only looked at the pictures and ignored the text.
Why not blame the teachers? After all, from looking at the copy I bought of Signposts to English (the textbook I remember using in Primary 6) I saw that I would, by the end of that year, have found out how to address a letter to Miss Ada Smith, 24 Golden Street, Newcastle; that a ringleader is the leader of gang; that a herring is a fish whereas a donkey is an animal; and that a porter carries luggage at a station. There was nothing of the spirit of enquiry that the 1965 publication Primary Education in Scotland, better known to a generation of Scottish educators as the Primary Memorandum, called for when it stated that: “The teacher, by judicious questioning, can enable the pupils to read more into the passage, and to weigh words and sentences carefully, so that they appreciate not only what is said but also something of what is assumed or implied…” And yet, as I see from the set of Puffin Club newsletters from 1968 that I bought on eBay, I was one of many children who went to comprehensive schools, who read the same books as me and who not only enjoyed them but understood them as well.
Television? Ask the Family, What’s My Music? Songs of Praise, The Two Ronnies, The World About Us, Chronicle, Call My Bluff, Man Alive, Top of the Pops, The Generation Game, The Val Doonican Show, Colditz, On The Buses, Dad’s Army – I watched them all and enjoyed most of them. Is this where the damage was done? Did I watch so much television that I simply didn’t develop the critical faculties I needed to be able understand the themes of the books I read? Did I watch so much television I couldn’t even remember the books I read? However, whatever problems I had making sense of what I read, according to Television and the Child: An empirical study of the effect of television on the young, published in 1958, I could not put the blame on TV. Published just as television covered the whole of the UK, it showed that despite the fears of the impact of Sheriff of Cochise, Wagon Train, Dragnet and Assignment Foreign Legion on British children, the results showed that far from reducing the types of books being read, by dramatising these books on television, children were encouraged to read books which otherwise they might not have read. Top of the list of books dramatised by the BBC for girls between eleven and twelve was Jane Eyre.
Ezra Pound in his book The ABC of Reading wrote, “Men do not understand BOOKS until they have had a certain amount of life. Or at any rate no man understands a deep book, until he has seen and lived at least part of its contents”. Apart from the incongruity of quoting a man who made radio broadcasts supporting Mussolini’s fascist Italy during World War Two in an post about a children’s book, and who was also in the habit in writing in capital letters, his words, I think, apply in large measure to me as a young reader. I was too much of a child to read deeply into a child’s novel.
A nicer insight came from Iona and Peter Opie, the chroniclers of childhood. Reading The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren and Children’s Games in Street and Playground, I found the dog that did not bark. In their accounts of the games and rhymes, the history of Not last night but the night before, three little monkeys came to the door… (a version first recorded in a letter written by Lewis Carroll in 1866 and sung to me by my dad a century later – his version had the monkey with the pancake stuck to its bum) there is a notable absence – parents. In the index under Parents there is “their attitude to begging … abuse of person’s … children swearing on their dead bodies … adopting their beliefs … hoaxing them”. Under Mother, you will find “prediction that she will turn black” and “that her china will be broken”. Apart from three references to Father Christmas, that’s it for the world of adults.
But it was my world. One filled with swear words, rude jokes and games of Best Man Falls (called in Glasgow What do You Want?); where each game we knew we had invented even though the Opies show that we had not and that we were simply part of a much larger game. In this eternal now, where time slipped effortlessly by in the shallows, there was no place for depth in anything, far less the central theme of being careful what you wish for in A Dog So Small.
Guest poster Colin Fisher has read and blogged his way though Arnold Bennett’s Guide to Literary Taste, which led to a great many graphs. He also Tweets cartoons. He is the author of A Republic of Wolves, A City of Ghosts (2012).
Illustrations by Anthony Maitland from the original 1962 edition from Puffin.