Sunday, 22 September 2013

Bagthorpes and Ripping Yarns

It's very lovely being sent books for review but I realise it has been distracting me recently from enough spouting forth on old favourites. So today I am neglecting the small pile of new picture books at my desk to tap you all on the shoulder, nod wisely and simply say- Helen Cresswell.

Her Bagthorpes books probably made me laugh out loud more than any other books of my childhood. I read and re-read them on a loop;not least in the bath by the looks of the slightly puffy, water stained copy of 'Ordinary Jack' I still have.

'Ordinary Jack' was alas, the only copy I still had of her original series of four books. Until this week; when I paid a ridiculously long overdue visit to 'Ripping Yarns' second hand treasure trove bookshop. I have to hang my head in shame here. I think of myself as a Good Bookbuying Girl- making full use of the excellent independent local bookstores I'm lucky enough to live close to. But it's only now, as I read it's under threat of closure (sigh) that I've shopped at 'Ripping Yarns'; a mere 20 minutes walk away from home. It is up a steepish hill and over a busy road but that is NO EXCUSE.

I've been an idiot. It's an AMAZING place. One of those shops that is so crammed with deliciously musty stock that it can't really hold more than two customers at any one time. It has a great mixture of old Puffins and Armadas and many rather older, grander curiosities; including an intimidating shelf of Moral Tales. I spent a small fortune on a large pile of familiar goodies from my past. Here's the link to the shop's website- and please do have a browse and a buy and help keep it open.

Anyway, amongst my haul was a signed copy of 'Absolute Zero'; the second in the series. Now I only need to find 'Bagthorpes Unlimited' and 'Bagthorpes V. The World' and my precious shall be returned to me. She wrote another six later, but the first four are definitely the best I think.

The Bagthorpes books are joyous farce. Pretty much entirely character based comedy, their plots are relatively free-form. I wasn't surprised to read recently that Helen Cresswell never planned her books; she just wrote. A writer of her calibre can get away with it. A family of egotistical eccentrics get into a series of escalating domestic dramas including fires, floods, seances, maggot breeding, a riot in a bingo hall and an appearance in a surprisingly prescient fly on the wall TV show. Think something like the kids from Outnumbered parented by Basil Fawlty. Every page is a treat.

However, re-reading them, I am not as surprised as I thought I'd be that they're currently OOP. Though still extremely funny, they have dated and not least in their use of language. She's not frightened of complicated words or adult references is Helen Cresswell. There's no thought about accessibility or children's vocabulary levels- she just writes the funny. My sense is this is a marked contrast to contemporary 'middle grade' and I wonder how she'd be edited now?
When I read them age 9 or so, there's no doubt that many of the words and phrases went over my head. There are frequent references (Mr Bagthorpe is a scriptwriter for Radio 4...) to quotations from Milton, Shakespeare, Locke, Marx and Freud for instance. Daisy, a borderline psychopathic 4 year old goes through a phase of chaos-causing in the pantry which is termed 'Reconciling the Seemingly Disparate'. I know I had no idea what that meant at the time but I liked the sound of the words.  Here's a sample passage to give a flavour of her prose-

'He ran up the stairs two at a time, to meet a fresh flood on the landing. Now he could hear Daisy's voice.
"Soup, soup, bootiful soup,
Boooootiful pea green soup!"
Horrified by the implications of this chant, Jack threshed his way to the bathroom. His worst fears were confirmed. Daisy had poured a whole bottle of green bubble bath into the overrunning bath and washbasin. She said afterwards that this was to make things more real, that she wanted the water to look like the sea, all green and foamy. When Aunt Celia heard this, she murmured something about 'the foam of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn', and clasped Daisy to her.
"She's going to be a poet," she told everybody.
Daisy at present wore only her knickers and was busy ladling the green water out of the bath and into a flower bowl.
"Hello Zack!" she squealed, seeing him. "It's lovely- oooh, it's lovely!"'

I don't want to make any particularly profound observations about the difference between children's writing Then and Now. Accessibility and clarity are good things obviously. But so are having your vocabulary and thought processes stretched whilst also laughing like a drain.

Hurray for Helen Cresswell...and hurray for Ripping Yarns; long may they keep selling her books.


  1. That is so interesting. I was just thinking - only 5 minutes ago - about how you grow into poems. When I was a teenager my music teacher read out a John Donne poem which baffled me - it said something about (I may have got this wrong) 'indiscreet humility' and I couldn't work it out. Was he talking about Uriah Heep? It didn't feel like it, but I wasn't sure. He wasn't saying 'insincere', but how could humility be 'indiscreet' or damaging? I think I'm slowly getting what he meant, but I think that is because I have had years to quote it back to myself and wonder and ponder 'is that it?' 'Is that what he meant?' I think you're right. I think modern children's books tend to be frightened of references that won't be immediately understood, and that's a shame.

    1. Thanks Anne- from the Bagthorpes to John Donne in one fleet thought. Helen Cresswell would've definitely approved!

  2. I loved the Bagthorpes as a child and still have all of them in my bookshelf. I think I could relate to them as my family were generally fairly bonkers. Ive not re-read them for years and years though - prompted by this I will drag them out!

    1. They're still a proper treat- although I hope not *too* reminiscent of your own family...