Anne Berkeley was born in Ludlow, England. Her father served in the RAF, where postings entailed seven changes of school by the time she was eight. After Oxford, she qualified as a solicitor. With The Joy of Six she has read poetry up and down the country in theatres, art galleries, village halls and back rooms of pubs. She edited Rebecca Elson's acclaimed posthumous collection A Responsibility to Awe and edits the poetry journal Seam. Anne's first full collection The Men from Praga, which chronicles a Cold War childhood, came out from Salt earlier this year. Here she looks at two nursery picture books: Mother Goose: The Old Nursery Rhymes and The Magic Trumpet.
Anne Berkeley on Arthur Rackham's Mother Goose, and The Magic Trumpet by Mary Durack
My battered childhood copy of Arthur Rackham's Mother Goose bears the pencilled price of 1/6d. It must have been bought second hand. In those days we lived far from a library or bookshop. We had no television. Books were expensive, especially illustrated books, and rarely came for me except at Christmas and birthdays. Now that children's books are so plentiful, various and cheap, it is hard to imagine how much they used to be prized. Most people reading this will be immeasurably better off than most people in England back then. My first home did not have mains electricity or drainage. We drew our water from the stream. We lit oil lamps in the evening. When Jack jumped over the candlestick, I knew he was doing a very foolish and dangerous thing.
He probably lived in the same town as Wee Willie Winkie, who ran though the streets in his nightgown crying through the locks; the town 'where boys and girls come out to play, the moon doth shine as bright as day'; the town where 'hark hark, the dogs do bark, the beggars are coming to town, some in rags, some in tags, and some in velvet gown'. They might get to Babylon by candlelight, there and back again.
For all the domestic clutter of kettles, clocks, carving knives and pudding-bag strings, I could see that it was not our world in there. Rackham's streets were crooked, houses hunched with secrets. When they were not growing magical fruit, trees were animate with eyes and accusing fingers, and his natural world felt conspiratorial and malign. Some artists - Cézanne, say - change the way we see things but apart from an occasional willow tree Rackham's grotesqueries were a lesson in fiction, safely confined to the book. I wonder now at his dark imagination, suited to the conspiracies and evils that supposedly inspired some of the rhymes. But in those days I wandered freely in the garden looking for cockle shells, and in the woods listening for the wind that might break the baby's bough.
'The wind said: "I warned him!/ Come away from there!" I warned him [...] The wind tells the story/ For he never keeps a secret...' The Magic Trumpet, written by Mary Durack and illustrated by her sister Elizabeth, came from the other side of the world, where my father was born. The first book I remember that comprised a single narrative, it tells in 200 lines of verse the story of a fairy child who becomes mortal, or nearly so. This fairy wasn't a soppy girl with gauzy wings sitting in a flower - I knew they didn't exist - but an Aborigine boy, scandalously naked.
He finds himself a bamboo trumpet down in the swamp and the 'sweet hours passed unheeded [...] while he piped the years away'. The elders having failed to tame him, he escapes to enchant mortal children with his music. The authorities want to put a stop:
"We will take him with the others;
"We will put aside his trumpet;
"We will clothe him like his brothers
"We will tame the wild rhythm
"Of his dusky, dancing feet.
"He must learn the laws of music,
"Though the tunes he plays are sweet."
So they led them from the wild wood
From the magic glades of childhood
To the ordered city highways
And a school house in a street.
It may not be great poetry, but it was full of mystery. Who was the fairy boy 'peeping, creeping over the rim of the world'? Where did he come from? If the wind finds him a mortal mother, does that mean he has a real mother somewhere else? And does he miss her? How could he escape the school the other children went to? Could he fly? Did he die? I knew that real people couldn't fly without aeroplanes, or stay away from school unpunished.
Every word is hand-written in curly block caps, and printed in sepia. The illustrations are swooping and fanciful, the boy's limbs impossibly elongated, his 'slender bamboo trumpet' curved unlike any bamboo I have ever seen. Everything swirls with the spell: Elizabeth Durack reserves the straight line for telegraph poles and city tenements, the 'smoky alleys that never saw the moon'. Away from those who would clothe the rebel and tame his music, the book is alive with Australian flora and fauna. Unlike Rackham's, these creatures are guileless, susceptible to the fairy's gift. He pipes himself across vast and dramatic landscapes, even 'the desert's grim expanse', flocks of birds in his wake. I knew it by heart and longed to go there.
It was through rhyme that I learned to read as I followed my mother's finger, realizing suddenly that words that sounded similar looked similar too. Then I discovered that some of the rhymes in Mother Goose were different from those I'd learned from my mother. My black hen was Heckledy-Speckledy, not Hickety-Pickety. Mother Goose's farmers didn't ride like ours: 'hobbledy-dee, hobbledy-dee, and down into a ditch!' It would be nice to pretend that these discrepancies gave me a precocious wariness of the authority of print.
I was saddened to learn recently that only 36 per cent of UK parents now teach their children nursery rhymes, and dismayed that their favourite is the anodyne 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star'. For generations of us, these little aural dramas created neural pathways for a lifetime. Nursery rhymes are supposed to have hidden, political meanings though that seems beside the point. Rhythmically varied, child-sized and mentally portable, they could carry you away.
'Follow, follow where you hear him, for you have not lost him yet'. Back in 1946 The Magic Trumpet must have seemed enlightened. Its fly leaf claims: 'the Durack books are helping to enrich Australian literature and to bring about a genuine understanding of the first people of this land'. The Duracks grew up on a remote station in Western Australia. They befriended Aborigines at a time when others shunned and persecuted them. Controversially, Elizabeth even assumed an Aboriginal identity for some late artwork. The book may seem like settler kitsch, reeking of privilege, but it was a response to the assaults on the Aboriginal way of life. It is impossible to read it now without thinking of the stolen generation. The escapist yearning it evokes is the merest ghost of the ineffable tragedies of wrecked families and devastated indigenous culture.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]