Here’s a question: which author has done the most to get children into poetry? Michael Rosen? Julia Donaldson? Modest old ‘Anonymous’, with all those nursery rhymes?
You can make a strong case for all of them. All three are brilliant. But I have a fourth, preferred candidate – Edward Lear.
2012 is the 200th anniversary of Lear’s birth and, while it has not gone entirely unmarked, when you compare it to the fuss accompanying Dickens’s bicentennial, the marks have been so light as to be easily removed with just a damp cloth.
Yet only as far back as 2001, Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ was voted ‘The Nation’s Favourite Children’s Poem’. And, given the response it gets when I perform it in public nowadays, I’m sure it would continue to top the polls today.
Lear provides my earliest memory of finding and enjoying poetry for myself. I was probably no more than four or five and I had been taken on my first ever visit to a public library. Not only was this marvelously exciting in itself, but I had also been issued with a brand new bright white library card. I was fizzing with the joy of it all.
I remember browsing all the children’s novels (the beautiful covers of BB’s ‘Little Grey Men’ books still stick in my mind) but what really caught my imagination (warped, even then!) was Lear’s Book of Nonsense and all those limericks with their calamitous cast of characters: The Old Person of Dundalk/Who tried to teach fishes to walk; The Old Man of Cashmere/Whose movements were scroobious and queer; and even the Old Man with a Gong/Who bumped at it all the day long.
They were strange, and they were funny – a combination which continues to appeal to me today, with my innate fondness for Milligan, Cutler, and anything eccentric.
Indeed, on that same visit, I can also recall encountering Spike Milligan’s ‘Silly Verse for Kids’ and being just a little confused as to whether Lear and Milligan might be one and the same person.
But with both books, it wasn’t just the words, it was also the drawings.
I love Lear. Not just for his writing, but also for the inimitable illustrations to all those limericks. The people with bird-infested beards, noses like hoses, and thumbs sundered by the irresponsible use of a saw.
I’m not in the same league but, as a children’s poet and performer who also draws cartoons for Private Eye, I feel a deep degree of kinship.
Indeed, a cartoon I drew for the magazine some years back was directly inspired by Lear’s most famous verse. It set the mismatched relationship of the Owl and the Pussycat in the context of a Sun-style agony column and ended with the advice that they sail away in order to avoid public opprobrium.
It was fun to do, but best of all was the response from one reader – a fellow Lear fan – who commended my casting of the Owl as the male partner in the relationship. Many illustrators, he said, dressed the Cat up as the ‘man’, giving the Cat a pipe and waistcoat, but that Lear had been quite specific about their gender in a later (unfinished) poem ‘The Children of the Owl and the Pussycat’.
(NB You can find this poem on the internet, but it makes for sad reading as it explains how the Cat dies after falling from a tree, and the Owl spends the rest of his days weeping. And all their money has long since been spent …)
I have been re-reading Lear’s entire canon in the course of compiling a show about Lear and his limericks for this year’s Ripon International Festival. And, again, it has been a joy. There is so much original material that knowing what to leave out has been my biggest problem – that, and making all the masks and props with which I hope to bring Lear’s runcible spirit back to life. It even includes a guest appearance from his cantankerous cat Foss.
Called ‘Cheer for Lear!’, the show gets its first dress rehearsal at a primary school in North Yorkshire next week. Who knows what they’ll make of it, but as it ends with a rousing, audience interactive version of ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ I’m pretty confident about the finish.
Lear may have died back in 1888, but to me he seems just as much alive as he ever was. Will today’s top poets be as popular in 120 years’ time?
© Mike Barfield, text and images, 2012 - please do not use without Mike Barfield's permission. A hugh thank you to Mike for this wonderful guest blog!