Look, Baby, at how things used to be: Peepo!
Holey books hardly have as
long a history as the holy variety, but they’ve been around for a couple of hundred years. You could peer through eye-holes to see down a panorama of the tunnel under the Thames; the firm of Dean offered ‘magic transformations’ where a visage pictured on the last page of the book could be seen to belong to various bodies on the previous pages where a hole had been cut through where the face should be. (This later developed into the ‘flexible-faced children’s books’ where the visage – hardly a becoming one – was made of treated rubber so that contemporary readers could alter its features around. The few examples thatturn up today – even less becoming – have all solidified.).
Probably the best example
is the famous Hole Book by the American ideas-man, Peter Newell, first published by Harper Bros. in 1908. Tom Potts is here found fooling with a gun ‘when bang! The pesky thing went off / Most unexpectedly’ and the bullet’s passage round the town is marked by holes through all the pages till it is flattened to a halt by hitting the icing on Mis’ Newlywed’s cake.
we get selective holes. To begin with, the Baby (claimed by Allan Ahlberg to be himself) wakes up and stands in his cot and ‘What does he see?’ – ‘PEEPO!’ says the next page and there is a hole above it showing no more than his sleeping father. Turn the page and the hole transfers itself so that we look back at the baby’s head while the bedroom is depicted in all its grand clutter. (An alarm clock on a chair shows that it’s ten to seven and mother still slumbers peacefully with her hairnet on.)
The hairnet is not the only clue
in this picture that the child reader (and many an adult too nowadays) is encountering a scene not altogether conformable to a bedroom circa 2011 – or even 1981, when Peepo! was first published. An electric fire is to be seen which would excite frenzy in the pillared halls of the Health and Safety Executive – as too might the dangling switch for the rather rickety bed light over the bed. A mysterious brown box is hung over the bedpost of the iron bedstead and Baby’s Dad’s jacket draped over a chair is army issue, with the two chevron stripes of a corporal.
Had you stayed
to observe carefully the ten roundels with which Janet Ahlberg has decorated her double-spread title-page an earlier clue might have impinged. These roundels are all excerpted from pictures that will come later, but one of them shows, rising above the roofs of some local houses, the still perhaps recognizable sight of a barrage-balloon. For if Allan, born in South London in 1938, is indeed the Baby then we are at the start of the War and it is a gas-mask box that is dangling from the bedpost. (No others occur in the book though everyone was meant to carry them, and the Baby’s family are likely soon to be confronted by an air-raid warden for not having proper blackout curtains.)
Rather than emphasising
wartime affairs though Peepo! is much more interested in the Baby’s eye view of the life of the times. We follow him through the day: dabbling his fingers in his breakfast slosh; going to the park; pulling his sister’s hair and dropping cake on the floor while his mother tries to have an afternoon nap; then, splashing in a tub in front of the kitchen range, and finally off to bed – Dad already kitted-up to end his weekend leave. Each scene is preceded by a peep at a significant element in what is to follow, with a rearward peep at what has gone before. There is no story, but what is revealed is the intensity of a home life and a local life which is heart-warming in its jumbled busyness. Just like the packed house, Janet has packed her pictures with the ordinary and the wholesome – things lying about everywhere, a child balanced precariously on a coal-heap, grandma quietly getting on with the washing and the ironing in the background. The only near-dramatic moment occurs when a busy pooch, first seen hustling along outside the garden fence turns up inquisitively at tea-time to the annoyance of the family cat.
Peepo! was greeted with delight
from the start, but whether this was because people had a notion that it reflected contemporary family life or represented some ideal, now vanished, I never found out. The publishers certainly happily exploited it through paperback, board book, and miniature editions and now – such is our love for any old anniversary these days – they have mounted a 30th birthday edition. This has a slightly enlarged format to accommodate a cheerful red border to the customary yellow covers and is furnished with a neat slip-case which has a hole of its own on the front and some evocative notes by Allan on the back. I don’t think it would last long in the Baby’s house though. It would probably be pitched into a toy-box, or onto a heap of stuff in the corner, as an impediment to the important bit of relishing the book itself.
The illustrations by Janet Ahlberg are taken from the 2011 edition of Peepo! by Allan Ahlberg, published by Puffin (978 0 1413 3710 4) at £14.99.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times.