Sunday, 24 March 2013

East meets West: Rupert and the Spring Adventure

Way back in 1994, M--- and I had an evening meal at the Wenlock Edge Inn in Shropshire (see Apart from giving us a very decent meal on a dark and frosty night, this pub was memorable because the son of the then owner was keen on Chinese Astrology. It emerged that M--- and I were extremely compatable, she being a Wood Monkey (a clever and adaptable character-type in Chinese Astrology) and I was a Water Dragon (a glittering sky-dwelling showoff type, but lucky, and the Most Likely to Succeed).

For many years it did seem that in our cases Chinese Astrology did not lie, and that our character-matching was spot on. And I still think, whether it's nonsense or not, that Chinese Astrology described our characters perfectly. Up to a point, anyway. M--- was clever; she did adapt to many changes in her circumstances; but she couldn't adapt to the one I presented her with in 2008.

As for myself, I was always a showoff if I felt confident enough, which wasn't often. I was, and remain, lucky beyond reason: whatever happens, there always seems to be a silver lining, some kind of happiness or pleasure or consolation to be pulled from the wreck. Have I been successful? Hard to say. By some measures yes, certainly. Let me put it this way: whatever I looked into properly, and planned out carefully, without compromises, and without deviating from my own best judgement, has turned out fine for me. To be sure, some of my life has been influenced by circumstances beyond my complete control, and that part hasn't turned out so well. But it is the nature of Dragons to fly above setbacks, and keep glittering. So I don't care much about failing sometimes. Life goes on. Best to live it with a cheerful face and no regrets.

A pet dragon features in the fourth of the Rupert stories in my 1958 annual. Its full of oriental stuff, a most exotic piece, and must have been a delightful project for the artist Alfred Bestall.

The opening double-pager shows an Imp of Spring looking into a hole in a tree-trunk, while a Pekinese called Pong-Ping watches. With him is his pet dragon, a chain around its neck, and the dragon is breathing out fire and smoke, as of course they do.

Well, Rupert is out for a country walk on a lovely day in April, and sees a lot of scorched grass and bushes. One of his pals appears, a country mouse, and Rupert calls to him: 'Hi, Rastus! What are these black patches?' Hmmm. The only other Rastus I ever heard of was the hero of some dire schoolboy jokes about a dashing young man, straight out of Gone With The Wind, who has a permanent humungous stiffy. Unfortunately a Rastus joke has now come to mind. Part of my 'male baggage'. Do you really want to hear it? Oh, all right. On your head be it.

Marie-Lou is in her boudoir, making herself pretty for a big night out with her beau, Rastus.

Suddenly the door creaks open a little, and ten inches of erect penis poke through the gap. It's Rastus. He says: 'Marie-Lou, are you ready?' But she says: 'Lawdy no, Rastus. I ain't ready.'

Ten minutes pass. Another twelve inches of erect penis are pushed into the room. Rastus says: 'Marie-Lou, are you ready now?' And she says: 'NO Rastus, I ain't ready yet. I need more time.' 

Half an hour goes by, and a further nine inches of throbbing erect penis are pushed into the room. Rastus says, excitedly: 'Marie-Lou, are you ready NOW?'  And she replies: 'I'm a-ready, Rastus!' To which he replies: 'Marie-Lou! I'm coming up the stairs!''

Yes, well. I did try to head you off. It's so puerile, and any modern person reading that might well cringe at the historic stereotyping. And justly so. But it was what kids joked about in 1960, if we are being truthful and honest; and this joke clearly left an impression on my own puerile and male-tainted mind. At least it's the only one that I've been able to remember.

Thank goodness that 'trannies' were not a concept in 1960: presumably there would have been sniggery schoolboy jokes about them, just the same.

Back to Rupert. His mouse friend can't explain the burnt grass and bushes, but he has already run into Pong-Ping, who is uncharacteristically put out by something. Rupert goes to see him. Yes, his pet dragon, made frisky by the arrival of Spring, has burnt a hole through his garden hedge and escaped. He brightens up when Rupert shows him the scorched verdure that he has seen: the dragon can be tracked, then! He asks Rupert to find him:

Rupert soon succeeds. But the playful dragon is not going to be caught so easily:

Hasn't Mr Bestall made the dragon look lively and distinctive! Rupert can't get his hand on the chain, and the dragon bounds off. A little while later, Rupert finds a young farmer watching smoke issuing from the roots of a tree. And this, dear reader, is what a stylish (but puzzled) young farmer was supposed to look like in 1958. Bow tie, tweed jacket, jodhpurs, riding boots, cane and all. Absolutely dressed for the country. He's very eligible, isn't he?

Here I'll show an example of the proper reading text that appears beneath the picture frames:

The annual was not just for children who couldn't read well, and had to rely on pictures and simple two-line rhymes. There was proper reading matter, that needed a decent vocabulary and a good knowledge of punctuation. And in the text, children were encouraged to be sceptical of myths, because the farmer gravely says, 'There are no such things as dragons', and, 'But hold on a minute, what's all this nonsense about dragons?', suggesting to the thinking child that the world might not actually contain Father Christmas either. But Rupert knows it isn't nonsense, and races back to Pong-Ping for advice. On the way, he encounters a charming little Imp of Spring - and I don't need to tell you who they are, and what they get up to, now do I? - who tells him that the dragon is burning the roots of all the trees with its fiery breath, and they, the Imps, can't do their work of making things grow.

So nothing less than the successful establishment of Spring in England has been thrust upon the little bear's shoulders! Back at Pong-Ping's home, the Pekinese decides to try catching the errant dragon with some of his favourite food. Notice the contemporary 1958 kitchen furniture and decor. Students of mid twentieth century social tends and consumer taste can learn much from studying Rupert annuals:

Back with the Imp, Rupert is shown a secret stone that tilts to reveal an underground passageway, lined with the roots of the trees above. Clutching that bag of tasty dragon food, Ruperts descends and looks for the creature. He soon hears it coming. Dropping a little food on the ground, he calls to the dragon, who scuttles over to gobble it up with relish. It's then easy to grab the chain, because the hungry dragon lets him. Then they rush home to Pong-Ping, the Imps watching from the boughs:

I really think that Mr Bestall is fantastic at drawing believable characters, scampering movement, and realistic foliage. Notice how, in the last pair of pictures, the bottom edge of the right-hand picture frame cuts off the dragon, who is merely implied by the taught chain: the focus is on the Imps draped on the tree, who are delicately drawn to suggest they are as light and fluttery as leaves.

Pong-Ping is very happy indeed to have his pet restored to him, and thanks Rupert, who then returns to tell the Imps that the crisis is over. But all he can find is the young farmer, who isn't best pleased. Everything green is now turning black! Whole swathes of grass, and hedges, and bushes and all the trees. There's more to do. He runs into another friend, the little Chinese girl Tigerlily:

Now this Tigerlily is really very cute, and I know for a fact that in an era that lacked porn magazines for ten year olds to study, she was the next best thing, and regarded as a hot chick. Nowadays all that has long evaporated, and one can appreciate her simply as an authentic oriental child in traditional costume, such as might have been seen anywhere in the 1950s English countryside. 'Oh,' she says to Rupert, 'It just as me t'ink. A dragon has done this. But it is you who do not understand. Dragon fire is not the same as other fire. Maybe it can be cured. Come, we will go and ask my daddy. He can do many clever t'ings.' Which is not like the locals spoke when I visited Hong Kong and Kowloon in 2007, nor did they look like her, but hey ho, perhaps they used to look and speak like that before Chairman Mao took over, and reformed this and that. Anyway, it's good to know that dragon fire is something special.

Her father, known as The Conjurer (although he's clearly a powerful white wizard), receives them sternly. 'O honourable papa,' says Tigerlily politely - what a thoroughly nice, respectful child she is; I modelled myself on her, by the way - 'we have found strange burnings of grass and trees. Behold here this blackened twig.'

'It's dragon's work,' The Conjurer soon declares, and he goes off to prepare a healing brew in a flask, to be sprayed on all the scorched plants. Tigerlily comes along to see the effect, but must keep out of sight in case the Imps won't show themselves to her. 'That spray velly good in China,' she says. And indeed when the Imps lead Rupert underground again, so that he can spray the tree roots, it endows an instant cure and fresh green shoots appear again. Rupert tells Tigerlily all that happened while with the Imps, who have gone, and returns the flask. Next he meets the young farmer, who is amazed at all the regeneration going on. And it really is amazing! The English trees have started to grow grapes and peaches! He presents Rupert with some of the fruit. 'Oo, thank you, how topping!' cries the little bear. Ah, such is the generosity of farmers.

Encountering Tigerlily once more (she's off to spray Pong-Ping's damaged hedge with more of her father's brew), he shows her the fruit.

She isn't surprised. 'Me tell you that spray very good in China and may be different here,' she declares, 'It is different and velly nice, yes?' 'I think it's wonderful,' cries Rupert, 'But I ought to have known that queer things always happen when a conjurer gets to work.' Indeed they do. Wise words, little bear.

(I should perhaps explain for a twenty-first century readership that the phrase 'queer things' means 'strange things', and is not a reference to gender variance. The English Language is as frisky and mutable as a Chinese Dragon)

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