Alright? Try this polysyllable for a change: methylheptadecylketone. Cheesy stuff from the scientific companion of My Friend Mr Leakey
with a frisson of remembered glory, that the University of Hertfordshire is to have a conference later this month on Marxism in Children’s Literature ( BfK 156 p.4). For I am (I suppose) an erstwhile faculty member of that seat of learning when it was nowt but a lot of FE colleges and I wonder whether it is reviving past times when Children’s Literature was occasionally lectured on by such now forgotten eminences as Joan Butler and Mary Thwaite.
What I don’t see
(and perhaps neither would they) is where Uncle Karl comes in. What classics of the genre does he and his tribe hold up as Beacons to the Faithful? Are we to have translations of those books that were printed by the million amongst the soviets? Why – might it not be more appropriate to run the whole thing under the isms of Calvin, or Rousseau, or even Cousin Cramchild?
are not entirely irrelevant to our present purpose, for if ever a Marxist was up to bringing the credo to the youth of England then it was surely Jaybiess Haldane (that’s roughly how he liked to be named). One of the great geneticists of the twentieth century – adopting the word ‘clone’ in the course of his work – he was also for many years a communist and an editorial director of the Daily Worker , only leaving the party when the Lysenko affair persuaded him that Marxism and Disinterested Scholarship were not altogether compatible. A big man in all respects, a fifteen stone professor at, serially, Oxford, Cambridge, and London, he should surely have been a light unto the cause when he briefly turned his attention to writing for children.
That wasn’t to be though.
I don’t know what determined him to produce the six stories of My Friend Mr Leakey (he had no children of his own, although he did gain a stepson when – amid some controversy – he married the first of his two wives; or he may have been challenged, or guided, by his sister, the great Naomi Mitchison who had been writing stories, plays, and novels for children since 1929). Nor do I know if the stories were published in sundry places before being gathered into a book in 1937. One is known to have appeared later, illustrated by Tony Gilbert, in an Odhams Press anthology* and I suspect that others came out in journals before 1937 (but surely not the Daily Worker ) for one story begins ‘I told you before…’ as though referring back to an earlier time rather than an earlier chapter of the book.
The first edition
is a notable contribution to the much-underestimated children’s literature of the 1930s. It was published by a small, fastidious firm, the Cresset Press, in a spacious square octavo with thirty full-page line-drawings by Leonard Rosoman, an illustrator whose always deeply-pondered work is not widely enough known (he is primarily a painter and muralist – still going strong at the age of ninety-two). These illustrations, appearing so regularly throughout the book, have the useful function of converting what is really an heterogeneous set of stories into something of a unity.
For despite the book’s title
Mr Leakey only figures in three of the six tales, a magician with whom Jaybiess gets involved after saving him from being run over in the Haymarket. First he entertains Jaybiess to dinner, attended by his octopus servant and supported by his small dragon; then he takes him for a day-trip round the world on his magic carpet, accompanied by his personal jinn whom he addresses in Burtonesque Arabian English (‘You have to talk like that or you lose his respect’); and then he invites him to a party, supervised by the angel Raphael, where all the guests are allowed to be transformed into whatever takes their fancy: Shakespeare… an elephant… a regular icosahedron… (there is much scientific verbiage playfully introduced throughout the book). The other three stories are entirely independent: the first a modern version of a Pied Piperish contest to rid London of a plague of rats; the second a cautionary tale about a greedy Brazilian millionaire who is eaten by his own crocodile; and the third a rambling account of a magic collar-stud which the author had bought at a magic shop in Wandsworth.
The only story with a conventional plot is ‘Rats’ which follows the formula of three brothers competing to win the hand of a princess (in this case the daughter of the Chairman of the Port of London Authority), the youngest succeeding through the ingenious use of electro-magnetism. Elsewhere all seems to be the creation of whim with Jaybiess seeming to put down the first thing that comes into his head, rather as parents do when they are making up a story on the hoof. What lifts the book above the trite magic of something like Mary Poppins though is the author’s bluff, confident controlling voice. His own participation in the three Leakey stories may seem to be marginal – the magician makes all the decisions, getting his guest to concur – but it is the guest as anecdotalist, or as recorder of Mr Leakey’s conversations, who brings everything to life: ‘Princes and kings have such a lot of names because it makes it harder to bewitch them’ says the magician, adding that you have to pronounce all the bits properly and get them all in one breath. And he gives a marvellous example of a ruler with twenty-six names which run through the alphabet: ‘You haven’t much breath left for a spell when you’ve said that, especially if you pronounce Ixtlilcochitl and the first X in Xerxes properly’ – and there’s a footnote giving the source of some of the names, including Dagobert ‘a good king, but he wore his trousers back to front’.
My Friend Mr Leakey
won recognition for its originality and its comic verve from the start and was no.16 in the pioneering series of Puffin Story Books that began in 1941. (More recent editions have seen Rosoman supplanted by Quentin Blake, who nonetheless pays full tribute to his predecessor, and have been sensibly reorganised by placing the Leakey stories first in the book. Some bright editor also changed ‘gramophone record’ to ‘tape’ which itself now looks a bit dated.)
Not much in all this
smacks of rampant Marxism however. Millionaires and moneylenders (but not the angel Raphael) get due punishment – but they, along with property developers, are regular fall-guys in literary circles – and although Moscow and communism rate a single mention neither Mr Leakey nor his friend are in the business of proselytising. Story and storyteller are paramount.
* See Pat Garrett’s reminiscence of reading Mr Leakey as a child in Newsletter 76 of the Children’s Books History Society pp.29-35.
The illustrations by Quentin Blake are taken from the 2004 edition published by Jane Nissen Books (1 903252 19 9, £6.99 pbk).
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and children’s book consultant for The Times .