On a journey along the Lycian coast last year (a coach trip but don’t tell Brian who has a horror of such things), my invaluable guide was art critic Brian Sewell’s South from Ephesus: travels through Aegean Turkey. By the time our party reached the tour highpoints of Ephesus and Aphrodisias, my reading of the relevant sections would be interrupted by companions demanding, ‘What does Brian say?’
Those of you who are readers of London’s Evening Standard will already be familiar with the extraordinary Sewell cocktail of wit, acerbity, scholarship, passion and story telling that is his writing about art. Brian educates in the most enjoyable way and in Turkey he educated our capacity to appreciate the wonders before us.
And now this new departure – a children’s book that is his first work of fiction. Mr B (‘a wiry little man of fifty with white hair’) is travelling with a film crew in Peshawar when he suddenly flings open the Land Rover door and disappears amongst the rush-hour carts and lorries. It transpires that he has spotted a donkey foal bleeding from deep wounds caused by a load far beyond the tiny creature’s strength. Despite opposition from the film crew, nothing will convince Mr B to abandon the donkey to its fate and proceed with them to the airport for the flight home. If need be he will ‘walk home, with the donkey’.
From these opening pages the reader is hooked, indignantly on side with Mr B against such cruelty to an animal and hoping that he will prove equal to saving Pavlova, as he names his fluffy new travelling companion. It turns out that she is only three or four months old and not in fact strong enough to walk the four thousand miles back to London. What is to be done? Fortunately Mr B is resourceful and perhaps his goodness and decency help to provoke those same qualities in the many strangers he and Pavlova encounter (from Farooq the pharmacist who stitches Pavlova’s wounds to Mirzah the Persian bookseller) who help them on their way with lifts, shelter, food and kindness.
And providing them both with the necessary shade from the burning sun on their epic journey is of course Mr B’s trusty bespoke umbrella of strong white canvas, the umbrella of the title.
Not since Anna Sewell’s anthropomorphic novel of 1877, Black Beauty, a passionate plea for the good treatment of working animals narrated from the standpoint of a horse, has there been a novel on the side of animals written with such conviction. The nineteenth-century Sewell’s came about, perhaps, from the physical disability following an accident in childhood that made her dependent on horses and thus deeply appreciative of their qualities. The genesis of our Sewell’s heartfelt story is apparently a real life encounter with a suffering donkey that he was not able to save. That donkey remained on his conscience.
Brian Sewell has never underestimated other people’s capacity to be curious and enjoy the wonders of the world – if given the opportunity. As a volunteer tutor in prisons he taught art history without making concessions and his classes were greatly appreciated by prisoners of whom little was usually expected. Now he takes the opportunity of Mr B and Pavlova’s journey from Pakistan to England via Persia, Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Germany and France to excite the interest of the curious young reader with asides about former travellers (eg Alexander the Great) or different foods, or languages, or Turkish rugs or great artists. (A surprise and delight to discover that Mr B (aka Brian) considers Käthe Kollwitz ‘the greatest woman artist ever’.) Lines of poetry also slip into Mr B’s mind. Thus a world of interest and opportunities for exploration is unfolded in a friendly, unpatronising, chatty narrative that will empower as well as delight.
The book would have benefited from a more detailed map of Mr B and Pavlova’s journey than the simplified version given on the endpapers. However, Lasson’s decorative ink and wash illustrations afford Pavlova a gamine charm.
The story ends with Pavlova safely at home in Wimbledon with Mr (and Mrs) B and their dogs until the day that Mr B dies of old age. This is a poignant ending made the more so since the 84-year-old Sewell wrote this book while enduring radiotherapy. The story reveals aspects of its author – kindness, thoughtful honesty, gentleness, humour – perhaps not always apparent to those who only know him as an art critic. Now young readers have an opportunity to know him too via this delightful story.