Category archives: Books
So, I was on the wireless-radio-box last night talking about Adam Abraham’s fantabulous new book When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA. While the animation histories of Warner Bros and Disney have been rehashed ad nauseam, UPA’s significant contributions to the art have been somewhat overlooked (though they’re adored by the cartoon cognoscenti). Abraham’s timely, and exhaustive, effort might (hopefully) go some way to setting that right.
The studio may have burned at its brightest for a brief span,
Their first Oscar winner (in 1950) was the magical Gerald McBoing Boing (based on a sound recording made by Theodor Geisel/Dr. Seuss).
One of the main men behind Gerald was Robert “Bobe” Cannon, who in partnership with T. Hee made some of “purest” UPA cartoons – in terms of that flat, bare-bones, modernism. One of their best is Christopher Crumpet – the tale of a boy who would imagine himself into a chicken when he didn’t get his own way.
Christopher Crumpet by WackyJacky
The absence of a rigidly imposed “house style” meant UPA could range from delightful whimsy like the above to the Gothic gruesomeness of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart (narrated by James Mason).
Oh, and then (of course) there was the indefatigable Mr. Magoo – an odd-ball Victorian gentlemen adrift in the modern world. One whose near-blind misapprehensions are almost wilful. As Abraham says, the cartoons are not so much about his inability to see the modern world around him, but his dogged refusal to see or acknowledge it.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap] have read Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea aloud many times. I have had read it aloud, perhaps, 6322 times. That’s no exaggeration. Or if it is, it’s only slight. I’ve read it in day-lit rooms. I’ve read it, squinting, in gloomy rooms. I’ve “read” it in pitch-dark rooms, where I’ve realised that the physical book has now become just a prop for the benefit of a toddler who likes things just so. I know it off by heart. Every line.
So I feel I’m speaking with some expertise when I say that the Tiger is not just a trickster and a sprite, but a sort of Macguffin. He enters the world of Sophie and her mother, eats the edibles, drinks the drinkables, and departs. Leaving Sophie’s mother unable to give her child a bath (the Tiger having consumed all the water in the pipes) and, crucially, unable to prepare tea for the father/husband who’s due home imminently.
The image of her alone in the desolation of her kitchen, pondering this dilemma, sadly, always makes me cry. Even when it’s dark. And I can’t see her (but can still imagine her).
Enter the father/husband.
We then have the book’s most haunting, and telling, image.
Sophie’s mother animatedly explains the outrageous reasons for the absence of food on the table. The father/husband sits, listening, with the weary/resigned (?) look of someone who’s been down this road before. Domestic chaos. No tea. Bare cupboards. An unwashed child. A “Tiger” blamed.
If this were a gritty, kitchen-sink, 60s play the drunken ogre of a husband might now explode into “Where’s me dinner?!” violence. But there’s no judgement. No fury. Just the tender suggestion that they all head out into the night to the local café for sausages and chips and ice-cream. The crippling loneliness, boredom and frustration of Sophie’s mum’s socially-enforced domestic servitude (echoing Betty Friedan’s “the problem that has no name”) may have conjured the Tiger – as a friend and a companion, an excuse and a justification – but he has perhaps, served his purpose. As an agent of change. An animal spirit guide. And Sophie loves him.
And so, in the morning, they go shopping and buy lots more things to eat. And a very big tin of Tiger food in case the Tiger should ever come to tea again.
But he never does.
When I was a child I had a fairly good nose for moralising that masqueraded as entertainment. I’d see it coming. I’d spot the signs. A tingly sensation warning me that the adult world was trying to insidiously slip one past me. Disguising their nasty medicines with a spoonful of sugar (see “Educational Board Games” for more of same).
Occasionally, however, I’d lower the guard and gobble up the goods without really checking what I was consuming. Only later, when I saw, say, Christians sniggering behind their hands and elbowing each other would I realise I’d been had. Such was the case with the Narnia books. It was a grim day when I discovered that Aslan was really just Jesus hiding inside a fancy-dress lion suit. Still, at least those swarthy, scimitar-wielding baddies were creatures of pure fantasy, and in no way, shape or form a baleful example of Orientalist demonising…
But, by and large, my instincts and suspicions were sound. My daughter, sadly, has yet to develop these deductive skills. In her defence, she is only two, and thus not to be judged too harshly for recently finding this in a second-hand book shop and insisting (in a way only toddlers can) that I buy it. Immediately.
After flicking past the yummy Battenberg-ian cover – and a title page telling us that this is Volume 43 (!) in series that has, apparently, sold 30 million copies – we arrive at “Uncle Arthur’s Letter”. A 2-page missive from the bespectacled and avuncular man himself. There, in the final paragraph, are words that would, and should, chill any lively and imaginative child’s heart.
“Readers may rest assured that every story is true to life, and that every one contains some uplifting, character-building lesson.”
True to life? Character-building? Noooooo! This fucking sucks!
Happily, the contents page lightens the mood slightly with a list of titles that are so transcendently banal they become the stuff of high hilarity. Who, for example, can resist the exotic lure of “The Boy with a Bag”? Who can fail to be seduced by “Peter’s Pyjamas”? Or the Hitchcock-ian thrills and intrigue of “The Unclipped Ticket”? Or “Daddy’s New Watch”? Or (gasp!) “How Barbara Went to Sleep”?
Though the text may be tedious (and stuffed with “Jesus is amazeballs!” platitudes), the images, throughout, are glorious. Especially if (like me) you don’t bother reading the associated tales and just view them as decontextualised things of creepy beauty. Enjoy.
About 6 months ago, on a night (dear readers) very much like this,
Look, I don’t usually conduct telephone interviews in my parents’ “Good Room”, OK? It was very late, and I think I was worried about shouting at an 85-year-old in California (who might, after all, have been a bit deaf) and the effect that might have had on my sleeping toddler daughter and…I’m sure there was probably some other stuff too, but, anyway, there I was. Phone. Mahogany table. Sweaty head.
The reason for the call was to (hopefully) hoover up a few choice quotes for an SFX piece I was writing on The (Incredible) Shrinking Man. The reason for the sweaty head was a combination of fan-boy jitters, and an unsureness as to how Matheson would react to questions about the (absolutely unavoidable) sexual/gender subtexts of the novel.
The phone rang. A frail and barely audible voice answered. I blurted out my spiel. Who I was, what I was doing, how it had all been arranged.
The kind of silence that feels hideously like one of those “I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about” silences. Then:
“Can you hold on for a few minutes?”
I held on. For several minutes. Richard Matheson was speaking to another (unknown) man. Speaking to this other (unknown) man about the security of his property. About how there were gaps in this security. Gaps that were allowing things in.
Unknown Man: “…this here is an open area. It used to…uh…have barbed wire but it broke on the other side. So…I was wondering if you wanted that filled in?”
Matheson: “Will coyotes still get in?”
Unknown Man: “Well…if coyotes want to get in, they’ll get in.”
And on and on it went. I was both thrown and thrilled. Matheson was sounding just like Robert Neville. Or Scott Carey. The doomed “heroes” of his deeply paranoid (and deeply wonderful) pair of genre classics – I Am Legend (1954) and The Shrinking Man (1956). Novels absolutely dripping in angst about invasion, loss of integrity, loss of self. “I bet he’ll love my question about The Shrinking Man, male diminishment, nascent feminism and the undermining of patriarchal structures!”, I all-but-chuckled to myself.
Several minutes later still, after much unsuccessful (and desperate) fishing for answers I knew must be there, Richard Matheson signed off with the following:
“Don’t emphasise any kind of subconscious desire on my part to make social commentary.”
I assured him I wouldn’t. And I didn’t – in the piece at least. But I may have now.
Will coyotes still get in?
Right. It has been pointed out to me, by morbid sorts, that the last two authors this club has fixed its gorgon-like gaze on both exited our weary world by means of suicide. Charlotte Perkins Gilman deciding on an overdose of chloroform. Robert E. Howard (the author of tonight’s tale) choosing the more contemporary option of shooting himself in his car.
While this might seem to indicate a certain perverse obsession with self-destruction on my part, I refer you to our the Dreadful Thoughts record book. Therein we find that out of sixteen, horror-fixated, authors we have but three suicides: the pair listed above, and poor old John Polidori (who, fed up to the gills with show-off Byron getting all the credit, tore into the prussic acid). That’s only 18.75%…proving that, by and large, our chosen folk are mostly jovial types who cartwheel merrily through sylvan glades (chuckling as they go).
Well, off you go. I’ve uncorked the cyanide-tinged Chardonnay. Be with you in a minute.
After flirting (coquettishly) with psychological/feminist/political creepiness during our last club outing, Dreadful Thoughts 16 steels itself to feast on a bloody chunk of visceral, traditional horror.
I should add that when last I read the below I filled the days/nights by playing with my AT-AT and wetting the bed (thought not, usually, at the same time). Back then, it shook me to my core…and probably extended the bed-wetting period by another year or two. As a jaded old horror-stuffed cynic, I doubt it now retains quite the same power to affect mind and bladder, or so my wife must hope.
Read it. Return at the appointed hour. Try not to piss yourselves.
Story: “Pigeons From Hell” (html), (html).
Discussion Opens: Friday, 28th January @ 9 p.m. (and runs for seven full days).
It’s probably fairly uncontroversial to observe that the punchlines in much children’s literature – from Heinrich Hoffman to Roald Dahl – involve heaps of just desserts, lashes of moral comeuppance, and (un)healthy doses of let-that-be-a-lesson-to-you-itis (served up with a big disturbing spoon).
Examples? Foolish pyromaniac Harriet getting burnt to death while her feline pals watch on in jaw-dropped horror…
…or little “suck-a-thumb” having the offending digits lopped off by (Gah!!) the “great, long, red-legged scissor-man”.
Misbehaviour is banished. The moral centre has its foundations strengthened. Awestruck young readers are scarred for life.
Flying defiantly in the face of such traditions, however, is my daughter’s small, cardboard copy of Percy in Trouble.
What lesson it teaches young minds, RE: mischief and destructive naughtiness, is by no means clear. We start off cheerily…
Then enter the “bad child” – played here by two roguish trucks…
“It’ll all end in tears”, the inner nag-o-monster parent in all of us cries. And sure enough…
Poor Percy! It’s at this point that you realise there is but one turn of the cardboard page to go. Can order be restored that quickly? Can the mighty sword of comeuppance do its righteous work in a single stroke? Er, no…
That’s it. The end. The trucks have won. Percy sits arse-deep in water, “in trouble” for evermore. The Rev. W. Awdry channels the spirit of Sam Beckett. Chaos and disorder reign. Bad little children everywhere high-five each other, hop aboard those gurning troublesome trucks, and trundle off into the sunset.
Right. Littlest one curled up in bed with much-loved teddy and Minnie Mouse blanket? Check. Tasty mid-range Merlot decanting on the worktop? Check. Curry bubbling away satisfactorily? Check. Tube of Pringles on standby (in case of vino-induced munchies)? Check. The spectre of that indefatigable feminist, lecturer, and occasional writer of fiction Charlotte Perkins Gilman standing behind me and watching (with a fierce and critical gaze) each and every word I type? Er…check.
All things are present and correct. Including, hopefully, some lovely punters out there: huddled o’er their keyboards, minds ripe and ready for juicy chatter and natter about one of the creepiest (and most political) short stories of the late 19th Century.
Lash down a nerve-stiffening draught of whatever you’re having yourself. Smooch your loved ones goodbye (just in case). And let’s boogie – like it’s 1892.