Saturday, 2 March 2013

Rupert and the New Bonnet

It must by now be plain that I'm running through the stories in my 1958 Rupert Bear annual for reasons far beyond personal self-indulgence and nostalgia. These stories are an index to the social attitudes of only two generations back: what parents would have thought right for their children to know and do. And how different things are now.

There's comfort in that, of course: it shows that the world does change, mostly for the better; and that those who feel ill-served by society as it is now should take heart: because nothing stands still, and different times will come.

Oppressors and bigots and know-alls are all human, and they must grow old and die. Similarly, all pompous and ignorant people (and the awful rules they make) will inevitably pass into oblivion. It would be very nice if these people all realised their errors before they completely lost their dignity and credibility - before they got set up as exhibits in Madame Tussaud's, or in the Museum of Idiocy and Daftness. But it's human nature to defend the indefensible, and fight silly rearguard actions against enlightenment and social progress; and so of course they won't ever admit that there are better, fairer ways to decide what shall be allowed in the Brave New World we live in.

I actually studied Aldous Huxley's Brave New World as part of my A-level English course at school. For those who don't know, this famous early-1930s novel is meant to be a disturbing take on a utopian future world in which good health, material wellbeing, and drug-induced happiness is the norm - at the expense of individuality, non-conformity, free-thinking, and the untidy messiness of a natural existence. It's a homogenous, stifling, frantically energetic world of standard, manufactured delights - and standard, manufactured people: test-tube babies who never know their parents, or what parents are. A world in which Shakespeare and all other culture, all unnecessary knowledge in fact, is suppressed, just in case a challenging idea gets about and upsets the status quo. Only a very few are privileged to know what must be kept from the rest. It made me reflect on which was worse: the brutal brainwashing mindlessness of George Orwell's 1984, or the clean and vacuous brainwashing mindlessness of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Each was equally horrible.

Rupert and his world are not horrible. But they still seem a long way from the modern world.

So, into the story. As before, there is a two-page opening spread, showing a wood made murky with a strange pall of smoke, and a silhouette of Bill the Badger (Rupert's best chum) wandering lost. At the bottom left is Bingo the Brainy Pup, carrying an armful of rockets. Guy Fawkes Night is near: in fact the story is mostly about young persons casually messing about with explosives. On a tree stump, a basket with a fat rocket tied to the handle. You can almost guess the rest!

The first picture frame shows Rupert looking through his collection of fireworks. The youngster has been putting together a personal hoard of explosive bits and pieces. Busy Mummy calls him and sends him on an errand into town, to collect a hat she has ordered. (An easter bonnet in November? And why isn't Rupert at school anyway? Oh well). She gives him half a crown for the bus fare and anything else he might need to spend:

Half a crown! Once again, for those who don't know, half a crown (i.e. 2/6, 'two and six') was a large silver coin in the old pre-1971 money. It was worth a fair amount. As late as 1968, when it was withdrawn and the new 10p coin came in (equivalent to the old florin, the two shilling piece), the Church of England was lamenting that their weekly income from collections at the end of each Sunday service would be slashed by a fifth, because people would now chip in only two shillings, and not two and a half shillings. That missing sixpence made a serious difference. And sixpence would be about the amount that Rupert might expect to pay as a 'child' getting into town and back. No wonder he was eager to go - Mummy would probably let him keep the rest. Just so you know, sixpence was my own weekly pocket money until 1963, when it doubled to a shilling - the modern 5p. Sixpence was also the standard little gift that visiting aunts and uncles would give me. (I know for certain that everyone secretly wanted to know all this)

Well, off he goes, and spies his best pal Bill the Badger in the road ahead. Bill seems preoccupied. He's on the trail of a mystery:

One mystery is why Bill is wearing the school uniform of an Eton scholar in 1958, but we'll gloss over that. What we can't ignore - and will get out of the way now, then say goodbye to it - is the unfortunate fact that the friendship of Rupert and Bill has given rise to a good deal of very puerile sniggering from generations of silly schoolboys who can't overlook the way 'chum' rhymes with 'bum' (meaning 'bottom' or 'butt' if you're American), or the way 'Badger' rhymes with 'tadger' (meaning 'penis'). And other examples of poetry, featuring lines such as 'Rupert was a little bare' or 'Badger saw a bare behind' and (I do profoundly apologise for this) the possibilities of rhyming 'Tiger Lily' (a female friend of Rupert's) with 'willy'. Honestly, what little boys will say. Let's be adult and superior, and move on. 

Soon after, Bingo crosses the road carrying a large sack and other stuff, all with a furtive air. He hurries off without saying much to Rupert. What's going on?

These diversions almost make Rupert miss his bus, but he catches it by running, and is well-looked after by the grown-ups also travelling into town:

Do you remember when buses looked like that? It's so nice to see how Rupert is treated on the bus. Remember that he's really a 'child', and the adults are much older, very kindly, take an interest in him, and will make sure he gets off at the right stop. I'd like to think that it would happen like this today. But (a) there probably wouldn't be a bus service worthy of the name between Nutwood, where Rupert lives, and the big town; and (b) any adult would hesitate to show concern towards a child travelling alone, in case an accusation of paedophilia were made. Sigh. In some ways we live in dark times, and perhaps I should not have been quite so hubristic in my opening paragraphs.

Anyway, Rupert collects the bonnet, cross-dresses by trying it on, gets off at the wrong bus stop by mistake, and, misdirected by the two mischievous young foxes Freddy and Ferdy, finds himself lost in a murky wood. Luckily, he runs into Bill Badger, still trying to get to the bottom of the mystery (oh sorry). All kinds of strange and spectacular fireworks go off at intervals. Then they stumble upon an old building. Inside is Bingo. He explains that he's been secretly experimenting with new kinds of firework. 'I suppose it's your inventions that are making this smelly fog,' says the little bear. 'You're a bit of a noodle to keep on making these things. It's a pity you're so brainy. Don't you remember what a row you got into the last time you experimented with fireworks?' (Well, that's rich, considering the adventures Rupert himself gets up to)

Children, this is an Important Message! Don't make your own fireworks! (But it's all right to call someone a noodle)

Bingo pleads with Rupert not to give him away to the Firework Police. Rupert says he won't (although a Boy Scout or Girl Guide would have to, of course) and (as a blatant bribe) Bingo gives him an especially large rocket to take away as a gift, tying it securely to the basket that contains the bonnet. Bill gets some giant sparklers to keep his snout shut. Well, it's now clear what will happen - and it does.

Bill has two fireworks in his hand,
He says, 'Look, aren't these sparklers grand!'

Getting out a match (what, children with boxes of matches?), they light up.

So he and Rupert light the pair,
Excitedly they watch them flare.

Then back they fall, for something roars 
And right up to the sky it soars.

Poor Rupert can't believe his eyes.
'My basket's disappeared!' he cries.

Well, of course this was always going to happen. Bingo confirms that the rocket could have taken the basket a long way. The three are now Very Glum and Very Worried. Let's hurry on to the end. Rupert creeps home, fearing the wrath of his Mummy for sending her new bonnet into orbit. But all is well! He finds her trying it on, very pleased indeed. Only, why did Rupert leave it in the front garden with a dirty old rocket tied to the basket...? But she doesn't wait for an answer. Immensely relieved, Rupert tells Bill, and they go off to find Bingo, who meanwhile confesses to a puzzled Mrs Bear that her bonnet must be a charred wreck in a treetop somewhere. Rupert, now home again, explains all, rather like Monsieur Poirot does at the end of an Agatha Christie whodunnit. Mrs Bear 'stares in astonishment' but would you believe it, all is mirth at the end. I doubt that Mr Bear even gets to hear about it.

But that's how it was in 1958. Kids got up to all kinds of scrapes. And fireworks didn't blow your fingers off or blind you then. Presumably.

Oh, I nearly forgot. The next page in the annual described a fun toy that any 1958 child could make from one of his or her used boxes of matches. At this remove, I can't recall whether the Swan Vesta boxes or the England's Glory boxes were best to use. Here it is, anyway:

It's a clever linking device between the fireworks story and the next one, which features Rupert's sled or sleigh (and is my favourite). There is no need to write 'Rosebud' on the blue bit of the toy.


  1. I can't believe you think the world is getting better for the most part Lucy. I think it is getting worse and it will get worse yet still as time goes by. I don't know by what yardstick you are taking measurements but it sure isn't the same as the one I am using.

    Shirley Anne x

  2. England's Glory! Swan Vestas are the flatter packet


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