Thursday, 17 May 2012

Mary Plain diversions

Marked diversions because I must warn you from the outset that the books about Mary Plain the adventuring bear from the bear pits of Berne by Gwynedd Rae are currently more or less out of print. I don't normally write about books which you can't immediately read if you want to but there you go. This may be just a post for pre-existing bear enthusiasts and you have fair warning to stop reading now if you're in a Practical Frame of Mind and have no time for wallowing in someone else's nostalgia.

Now I know I said Noel Streatfeild was my favourite author and Ballet Shoes was my favourite book growing up but BEFORE she was ousted by the Fossil sisters the Mary Plain books were my very first 'chapter book' loves. I read them again, and again and again; introduced to them by my mother who had in her turn loved them I think.
Gwynedd Rae wrote the first; 'Mostly Mary' in 1930 and thirteen more, the last appearing in 1965. We can't have had them all, but most of them; some in their original edition hardback copies with illustrations by Irene Williamson and some Knight paperbacks from the 70's with illustrations by Janina Ede (which I have to confess I think I preferred). Only three books remain in my possession, but I can still recall the covers of the others incredibly clearly with that definite memory imprinting that only happens in childhood. I think an apology may be due to my older sister for those hardbacks that I DO have though. I can see they are from an issue of 1961; the year of her birth, leading me to guess they must have been an excited purchase or gift from my mother to her firstborn ready and waiting for her to 'grow into'. Bill had quite a library awaiting him by 6 weeks old or so from his impatient mother too.

Mary Plain is an orphan bear cub at Berne zoo who is befriended by the spectacled 'Owl Man' by means of the regular application of bear friendly treats (sugar carrots! condensed milk delivered by hose! cream buns!) and persuaded to leave the safety of her home and her bear twin cousins Marionetta and Little Wool and embark on a series of adventures or 'svisits' with him and his friends Bill Smith and 'The Fur Coat Lady'. These range from winning first prize in a show, to capturing Nazi spies and outwitting kidnappers, from escaping a field of angry bulls to being washed up on a tropical island . Mary is always funny, practically fearless, wonderfully manipulative, endlessly imaginative and just the best company ever. I identified so strongly with her it's possible I developed furry ears.

There is, you may not be surprised to hear given my identification, a thread of glorious gluttony that runs through all Mary Plain books. She eats constantly and always things that sounded completely delicious to me; hot bread and milk, cream buns, chocolate eclairs and meringues (which I always read as mer-in-gyoos and wondered what they could be). She also has an excellent, if limited wardrobe of clothes comprising a ballet skirt, striped bathing suit, nurses hat and a bus conductor's uniform. How much simpler life could be if that was all one had to choose from. She has her own style of pictogram writing too which made passages of the books fun to decipher. Lastly I commend to you her catchphrases which you may find handily cover all moments of Triumph and Despair in life:

To convey sadness and uncertainty: 'I wonder if the Twins are happy without me?'

Or when self esteem is more buoyant : 'I am an unusual first class bear with a white rosette and a gold medal with a picture of myself on it.'

"Gracious! that's the cock waking me up, it must be another day," and Mary pattered over to the window and had a look. Yes it was. How lovely! Mary liked new days. You never could tell what might happen on a new day; so many things could and especially when the day was Mary's..."

Irene Williamson's Mary
Janina Ede's version
Pictogram fun

I'm sad these books are out of print- but not surprised. I must confess I haven't shared the three I do have with my children yet. They're VERY un-politically correct; casually racist in places and full of fur, pipes, smacking and inappropriate care of entrusted wild beasts besides! Having said that, a sensitive re-write/edit would seem possible and would be so worthwhile. PUBLISHERS TAKE NOTE. They're just cracking good stories and it's a shame to lose them. More buns please.

With many thanks to Clara Vulliamy, Jane Porter and Girls Heart Books amongst others for enjoyable MP fandom on Twitter this week.


  1. Oh, am transported back to smallness by those pictograms. Thank you so much for the trip down memory lane!

  2. Well thank you for coming on the journey. Have a mer-in-goo before you go.