Saturday, September 15, 2007

Belloc, the game show

People who are in the habit of finding clear moral purpose in children's literature have a bit of a problem, since the way the authors have of working morals into children's literature is often so bizarre. Take The Chronicles of Narnia, which is apparently Christian propaganda. C S Lewis gets to his Christian message by the bizarrely roundabout fashion of taking a bunch of children, putting them in a different dimension, getting them to have a tea party with a bunch of beavers, and meeting a talking lion. Christ, the Holy Ghost, or God, are never actually directly mentioned.

It's much the same with Hillaire Belloc's hilarious 'Cautionary Verses', a set of poems that he wrote at various stages of his life that dispatch children to various deaths on spurious reasons. You could interpret some of them as being simple attempts to frighten kids into obeying their parents, if the morals themselves were not so bizarre: "The moral is (it is indeed!)/ You mustn't monkey with the creed." Or, even more hilariously, "Always keep a hold on nurse/For fear of finding something worse." (This last one being a conclusion to a poem about 'Jim, who ran away from his nurse, and was eaten by a lion.' That's probably the funniest cautionary verse Belloc ever wrote, and I won't say anything more about it than that the lion's name is 'Ponto', and you should read it straight away.)

Anyway, I've been reading Belloc for about two years now - I picked up a copy at a market in Federation Square one autumn and opened it up straight away. Other people have said to me from time to time that I have a good memory for poetry; I don't know if it's true - some lines do stick in my mind, but I think this happens to everybody. But those poems were instantly memorisable - utterly simple, astonishingly catchy, and very funny; so much so that I read them again and again.

If I was in a game show like The Einstein Factor or something like that and had to pick a special area of interest, I'd totally bomb if it was in subjects I've studied, like modern music or romantic poetry or something like that. But if my subject area was in the rather specific genre of 'Hillaire Belloc's children's poetry', I'd go brilliantly!

COMPERE: John Vavassour de Quentin Jones - what was he fond of?

TIM: Throwing stones.

COMPERE: Correct. A fault that everyone abhors in little girls is - what?

TIM: Slamming doors!

COMPERE: Correct. And who was given to this furious sport?

TIM: Her name: Rebecca Offendort.

COMPERE: She was a wealthy merchant's daughter. Where did she live?

TIM: In Palace Green, Bayswater.

COMPERE: Correct. What made one gasp and stretch one's eyes?

TIM: Matilda's dreadful lies.

COMPERE: Correct. And what happened when her Aunt attempted to believe Matilda?

TIM: The very effort nearly killed her!

COMPERE: Correct. To slap the meanest and the least of creatures is a sin. But what is worse?

TIM: How much more bad to beat a beast with prickles on its skin!

COMPERE: Correct. Belloc proposed that members of the upper-class liked a certain sound. What was this?

TIM: "Like many of the upper class/He liked the sound of breaking glass."

COMPERE: Correct. What should no-one ever, ever doubt?

TIM: What nobody is sure about.

COMPERE: Correct! Answer this question to win this round, Tim! What is the moral?

TIM: It is indeed!

COMPERE: I'm sorry, we'll need more detail on that.

(Sweats a little, mops his brow with a handkerchief, pulls at his collar) Er... er... (Suddenly remembers) You mustn't monkey with the creed!


So, if you learn anything from poetry, learn this much: don't get eaten by lions, don't tell lies or your house will burn down, don't slap a porcupine or your hands will bleed, don't throw stones or your uncle will disinherit you from your will, and certainly never, ever monkey with the creed. The end.

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