Raising the Standard for
( The Battle of Bubble and Squeak )
Funny things book awards
and suspect from end to end. Time was when there were only two or three of them for children’s books but now they are like sands upon the Dead Sea shore and a fat tome like Ruth Allen’s Winning Books (Pied Piper 2005) will give you summary listings of the most notable. But thick though the information may come we are rarely told, from occasion to occasion, who the chaps are who were responsible for picking the winners. What matters surely is not the gongs, the statuettes and the red, red roses but one’s respect for the judges and the diligence with which they can be shown to have pursued their task.
I dare anyone to claim
that The Battle of Bubble and Squeak did not deserve the accolade accorded to it when it gained the Whitbread Prize for a children’s book in 1979 – I was there on that heartwarming occasion. But I was somewhat taken aback when the judge assigned to deliver the encomium (Beryl Bainbridge) referred throughout to the author’s delightful handling of the guinea-pigs who were the subject of her story. I was bothered to know whether this was a mental aberration brought on by the lavishness of Messrs Whitbread’s luncheon or a judging procedure that was all-too casual (after all, the thing was only a book for children).
And a like sloppiness
pervades the description of the story that is found in the recent Oxford Encyclopedia that receives some comment elsewhere in this issue of BfK . The author of the article is an eminent person called Maria Nikolajeva (who, on the evidence of several other pieces in that volume, is not much good at this sort of thing). She is seven years out in her dating of the book’s first publication, she mentions neither the illustrator nor the award of the Whitbread prize, and her summary of the work is simply that it is ‘a nice domestic story involving two pets and the children’s struggle to keep them’. (Well – at least that’s a mention. She doesn’t find any room at all for Philippa Pearce’s moving recension of Brian Fairfax Lucy’s The Children of the House .)
If that lukewarm judgment were its due
then The Battle of Bubble and Squeak could hardly qualify for a place among all the worthy volumes that have adorned the back pages of BfK . Perhaps its brevity provoked Mme Nikolajeva’s rather dismissive attitude, for the story occupies only some two-thirds of its generously-printed eighty-eight pages. But brevity does not preclude intensity – and indeed may foster it – and it is the powerful emotional currents that lie below the surface of the tale that turn it from ‘a nice domestic story’ to a small-scale, but intense, human drama.
Miss Bainbridge’s guinea-pigs
are of course gerbils and are indeed at the centre of the narrative, but it’s necessary to stress that they are not ‘pets’ but animals who are given a character wholly independent of the humans amongst whom they find themselves. We are told that they are modelled on a pair of gerbils owned by Philippa Pearce’s daughter (and actually called Bubble and Squeak) and the author’s close observation of their antics provides one of the joyous ingredients of the book. Whether they are gnawing the best curtains, or scurrying around inside the boy Sid’s clothes (‘pop-eyed gerbil faces popped out of trouser-ends’), or are merely present with their household clutter on the table (one of them ‘sat up on its hind-legs behind [a] tube, on which it rested one front paw, as if to begin public speaking’) they persuade the reader to join Sid and his two sisters in caring about their fate.
And that fate is a more complex business
than is implied by Nikolajeva’s ‘struggle’. Certainly, gerbils and children alike are up against the implacable force of Mum, ‘an expert at preventing mess’. She is appalled when the creatures are found, secreted overnight in her pantry, and half the book concerns her efforts to get rid of them. But the tension thus generated is emblematic of strains within the family itself. For the children’s birth-father is dead and their forceful mother is married again to a kindly and accommodating man but seems assailed by what? – regret? jealousy? uncertainty? – over her place within the family circle. Those question marks are necessary because Philippa Pearce is not one for plonking psychological explanations or for the stereotyped portrayal of family rows. You must make what you will of the hints and suggestions that are touched in to the text, but as the story approaches its climax with Bubble, ‘the quiet one’, having been set upon by a cat, it is Mum who marvellously resolves the drama in which she has been the central non-gerbil participant.
When the book was first published
it was, in form as well as content, a most satisfying production with a jacket and illustrations by Alan Baker that were like beautifully composed stipple-engravings (a pity though that he deprived Jimmy Dean’s cousin of his anorak in the final denouement). The book was dedicated ‘To Pam [Royds]’ whose mentor Philippa had been when she succeeded her as editor at Andre Deutsch. ‘Not a gift but a tribute’ ran the full phrase – a tribute sadly returned a few weeks ago when Pam read the lines from Milton’s Lycidas that closed Philippa’s memorial service: ‘tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new’.
Cover illustration by Alison Bartlett and line drawings by Annabel Large from the 2005 Puffin edition (978 0 14 132000 7, £3.99 pbk).
Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce was featured in ‘Classics in Short No. 5’ by Helen Levene in BfK , No. 106 (September 1997).
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and children’s book consultant for The Times .
For the Classics in Short archive, visit www.booksforkeeps.co.uk and go to ‘browse by category’.