There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favourite book – Marcel Proust
I read an article a while back in The Huffington Post entitled ‘8 Famous Authors on the First Book They Ever Loved’ and I hadn’t read any of them. Of course I feel like I’ve read Alice in Wonderland but somehow I never got round to it. I’ve written before about how my parents weren’t great readers—and by ‘not great’ I mean ‘didn’t read’—and it’s always puzzled me—I know it puzzled the hell out of them—how I ended up such a lover of books. My dad had books—and by ‘books’ I mean ‘reference books’—but that was about it. Even the Bible he regarded as a reference book, a thing to be studied as opposed to read for pleasure.
I wonder what would’ve happened if Yehudi Menuhin had been handed a banjo when he was a kid rather than a violin and Julian Bream had been sent for trombone lessons. I suppose there’s a universe out there where that happened. I mean is there such a thing as the violin gene? I’m being facetious, well half-facetious. My brother doesn’t read. He used to be quite proud of the fact too. Never got that. I mean I really never got that. I read somewhere—here actually—that x number of Americans had read a book last year. A book. Singular. As if that was a good thing. Seriously. Okay it’s better that no books but seriously. ONE BOOK! And, of course, some—between 8 and 23 percent depending on whose poll you believe—hadn’t even read one book. (At the time of writing this I was halfway through my one hundred-and-second book of 2014.) I wouldn’t call myself a natural though. I couldn’t sit and read all day long. I’d say an hour—two, tops—is my limit and even then I rarely sit still. I’ll get up and fix something to drink, go to the loo, check my computer, find something to nibble on, clean my glasses. I have to work at reading.
When I think about specific books oddly enough there aren’t actually that many I can say, hand on heart, that I love; that I’d rush to save if the flat was on fire. Now music’s another thing completely. When my wife and I were getting to know each other we tried listing our various Top Tens and when it came to my Top Ten Albums I gave up at around fifty. Couldn’t do it. Still can’t do it. But books… There aren’t a huge number of books I’ve read more than once, that I’d want to read more than once. It’s actually a measure I use in my head: Is this a book that you’d a) want to read a second time and b) might get something more out of a second time? But can you imagine only been permitted to listen to Dark Side of the Moon once?
(If you need to take a 43 minute Pink Floyd break just now I fully understand.)
Here’s one book I’ve read many times: Enid Blyton’s Brer Rabbit Book. Christ knows how many times I’ve read that book and it wasn’t just because I only had the one book before some smart aleck (yes, that’s the correct spelling) suggests that. I know Blyton comes in for a fair amount of stick these days—especially following the BBC film Enid which did not portray her in the most favourable of lights (although Gyles Brandreth’s interview with her daughters is illuminating)—but I knew nothing of that and even now I don’t consider it a big issue; there’re plenty of unlikeable writers out there—V.S. Naipaul, Philip Larkin, T.S. Eliot, JL’s uncle—but the work stands on its own. And, of course, she was simply retelling these tales. My two favourites—can’t really say which was my mostest favouritest—were ‘The Wonderful Tar-Baby’ and ‘Mister Lion’s Soup’ which is one of the few stories not to feature Brer Rabbit at all. The latter, very briefly, goes as follows:
Mister Lion says, "I cannot eat my soup." Brer Coon tries to convince him to eat his soup. Brer Hedgehog, Possum and Hare also try to persuade him. However Mister Lion still insists he cannot eat his soup. They try again to convince him but he keeps on saying he cannot eat his soup. Finally he admits, "I want to eat my soup but I can't. I HAVEN'T GOT A SPOON!" Everyone rushes off to get him a spoon but by this time his soup’s gone cold and it’s all his own fault.
We sometimes become carried away with notions of worthiness in children's books, and get all snobby about literary merit. We shouldn't let ourselves forget, however, that anyone who writes books that children love to read, is doing something very right. Reading continues to be one of my greatest pleasures, and it all started with Enid.
Is Enid Blyton the best writer in the world? Absolutely not. Has she been an inspiration to me? She jolly well has.
Here I guess I’m supposed to say that it was reading Enid Blyton that inspired me to be a writer but that’s simply not the case; I had no aspirations to be a writer as a kid. I read Blyton’s three Brer Rabbit books—several times—enjoyed the hell out of ’em every time and that was it, moved onto The Secret Seven; never read The Famous Five.
When my daughter was born I made sure she had a set of all of the Brer Rabbit books printed by Dean & Son. And very grateful she was for them too.
Of course the Brer Rabbit stories go back donkeys' years. He can be traced right back to trickster figures of African folklore. They weren’t written down, however, until the 19th century. According to Wikipedia:
The stories of Br'er Rabbit were written down by Robert Roosevelt, an uncle of US President Theodore Roosevelt. Theodore Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography about his aunt from the State of Georgia, that "She knew all the 'Br'er Rabbit' stories, and I was brought up on them. One of my uncles, Robert Roosevelt, was much struck with them, and took them down from her dictation, publishing them in Harper's, where they fell flat. This was a good many years before a genius arose who, in 'Uncle Remus', made the stories immortal."
(See Further Reading however.)
Incidentally, I’ve never seen Song of the South, Disney’s live-action/animated musical film. I’ve seen the same ol’ clip (the Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah song) many times over the years but Disney’s version of Br'er Rabbit just didn’t gel with the image of him I held in my head. Never much cared for Roger Rabbit either. Bugs was okay. And Thumper. Gotta love Thumper.
Let me leave you with the 1940 version of ‘The Wonderful Tar-Baby’. (The 1963 version is the one I know but the differences are minimal.)
THE WONDERFUL TAR-BABY
BRER FOX couldn't seem to catch Brer Rabbit and make a dinner of him, no matter how he tried. So one day he sat himself down and had a very hard think.
He scratched himself behind his left ear; and he couldn't think of anything. He scratched himself behind his right ear, and still he couldn't think of anything. But when he scratched both ears at once he thought of a mighty fine idea indeed. He chuckled very loudly, and went off to get some tar. He mixed it up with turpentine and stirred it into a sort of thick paste. Then he worked it about and worked it about until he had made a thing with arms, legs and head that he called a Tar-Baby.
He put some grass on its head for hair, and stuck an old hat on top. Then he sat back on his hind legs and laughed when he thought of what Brer Rabbit would do when he saw the Tar-Baby.
He took it and sat it down in the middle of the road. Then he went and lay in some bushes to wait for old Brer Rabbit to come along.
By and by along came Brer Rabbit, lippitty-clippitty, humming a little song as jolly as a jay-bird. Brer Fox didn't make a movement. He just lay low and grinned to himself.
When Brer Rabbit saw the Tar-Baby he was most surprised. He stopped: short and stared at him. The Tar-Baby sat still and stared back, and didn't make a sound.
"Good morning to you!" said Brer Rabbit. "Seems I haven't met you before."
The Tar-Baby didn't say a word.
"GOOD MORNING!" said Brer Rabbit in a louder tone. "Nice weather to-day, isn't it?"
The Tar-Baby said nothing, and Brer Fox lay low.
"Is anything the matter with you?" asked Brer Rabbit. "If you're a bit deaf I can shout in your ear."
Still the Tar-Baby said nothing, and Brer Fox chuckled inside himself.
"Look here," said Brer Rabbit fiercely, "if you don't answer, I'll call you stuck-up! I always box the ears of stuck-up people, so just you answer me!"
The Tar-Baby stared and said nothing. Brer Fox lay low.
"I'll soon teach you how to speak to polite folk like me!" shouted Brer Rabbit, dancing round the Tar-Baby. "If you don't take off that old hat of yours and say 'How do you do?' like a gentleman, I'll hit you."
The Tar-Baby didn't take his hat off and he didn't say a word.
Brer Rabbit didn't wait any longer; he raised his hand and hit the Tar-Baby on the head. Blip!
That's just where he made his mistake. His fist stuck in the tar, and he couldn't pull it out. The Tar-Baby still said nothing, and Brer Fox almost killed him-self with laughing.
"Let me go!" yelled Brer Rabbit in a terrible rage. "If you don't let go my hand, I'll hit you with the other, and that will teach you to be polite!"
He banged the Tar-Baby with his other hand as hard as ever he could, and that stuck too! Brer Rabbit couldn't pull it out anyhow.
The Tar-Baby said never a word, and Brer Fox lay as low as anything.
"Let me loose or I'll kick you all to bits!" shouted Brer Rabbit. But the Tar-Baby held on tight and kept as still as still.
So Brer Rabbit kicked as hard as he could with one leg, and then with the other, and got them both stuck in the Tar-Baby. He couldn't move an inch, not an inch.
"You let me go!" said Brer Rabbit. "If you don't I'll butt you in with my head, and a mighty hard head it is, I can tell you! Do you want to be butted into next week, because if you don't, you just let me go!"
The Tar-Baby held on and said nothing. Brer Fox still lay low.
Then Brer Rabbit butted with his head, and that got stuck too. So he couldn't move his head, or his arms or his legs. He was in a very pretty pickle, and didn't he hope old Brer Fox wouldn't come along at that moment!
Well, of course, that's just what Brer Fox did do! He wasn't going to lie low any more with a nice dinner waiting for him like that.
So out he sauntered from the bushes looking just as innocent as a day-old lamb.
"Good morning, Brer Rabbit," he said, pretending to be most surprised. "Have you been talking to that stuck-up Tar-Baby? He's made you sort of stuck-up too, hasn't he?"
Then Brer Fox rolled over on the ground and laughed and laughed till he hadn't got a laugh left in him. Brer Rabbit didn't say anything at all. He was just thinking very hard.
"Now, Brer Rabbit,”' said Brer Fox, when he had stopped rolling on the ground, "won't you come home to dinner with me? I've got some calamus root that you'll simply love, so don't make excuses not to come!"
Now if I can just interrupt her for a second. In Joel Chandler Harris’s version of the story—Harris being the “genius” Roosevelt was referring to earlier—he has the character of Uncle Remus take a long pause and the kid he’s telling the story to finally asks if the fox ate the rabbit. This is all he says, "Dat's all de fur de tale goes," replied the old man. "He mout, an den agin he moutent. Some say Judge B'ar come 'long en loosed 'im—some say he didn't. I hear Miss Sally callin'. You better run 'long."
Unusual for a kid’s story to be left open-ended like that. Quite brave actually.
Then Brer Fox rolled on the ground again and laughed some more. He felt mighty good about his dinner, for he'd had his eye on Brer Rabbit for a long time.
"Well, well," said 'Brer Fox at last, wiping His eyes. "I think you're caught this time, Brer Rabbit. Maybe you're not, but I somehow think you are! You've been playing tricks on me for a long time, but they've come to an end now. You've been rushing round thinking you're the most important person anywhere, and you're always going where you're not wanted!"
Brer Rabbit said nothing. He just stuck there and thought hard.
"Look at this Tar-Baby," said Brer Fox. "There he sat as peaceful as anybody, and you come up and worry him to death with your talking. And who stuck you up there where you are? Nobody in the world! You just went and jumped on that Tar-Baby for nothing! Well, well! There you are and there you can stay till I fix up a wood-pile and light it. Because I'm going to COOK you today—yes, COOK you, Brer Rabbit,” said Brer Fox.
Then Brer Rabbit talked back in a humble voice." Cook me if you like," he said. "Roast me as much as you please, Brer Fox—but don't—please don't, throw me into that prickly bramble-bush over there! I don't care what else you do with me, if only you won't do that!"
"Let me see," said Brer Fox; "there's not much dry wood about here. I think — yes, I really think, I'll drown you, Brer Rabbit."
"Do," said Brer Rabbit. "You just drown me as deep as ever you please, Brer Fox—but, oh! don't throw me into that prickly bramble-bush! "
"I think perhaps I won't drown you after all," said Brer Fox;" it would be too much bother to carry a scarecrow like you all the way to the pond. Maybe I'll hang you."
"Yes, you hang me," said Brer Rabbit. "I don't care a bit about hanging—but don't—don't throw me into that prickly bramble-patch!"
"I haven't got a rope," said Brer Fox, "so I don't think I'll hang you. I'll skin you all alive oh!"
"Yes, that's fine," said Brer Rabbit. "You just skin me alive, Brer Fox, and pull my ears and chop off my legs— but, whatever you do, don't—don't throw me into that prickly bramble-bush!"
"It's too much bother to skin you alive," said Brer Fox, "so I think I'll shoot you dead."
"Yes, do shoot me, Brer Fox," said Brer Rabbit. "I've always thought I'd like to be shot, if I had to die—but, oh don't, don't, DON'T throw me into that prickly bramble-bush!"
Well, Brer Fox wanted to hurt Brer Rabbit just as much as ever he could, so he decided he would throw him into the prickly bramble-bush, and see what dreadful thing would happen to Brer Rabbit. So he took hold of Brer Rabbit by his trousers and pulled him away from the Tar-Baby. Then he slung him quickly into the prickly bramble-bush.
Blip! blap! Brer Rabbit went rolling head over heels in the bush, making a tremendous flurry and flutter, while Brer Fox hung round to see what would happen to him.
When everything was still he ran up to see where Brer Rabbit was. But he wasn't there at all!
Then he heard someone calling out along way behind him, and when he looked round he saw Brer Rabbit sitting on a log up the hill, combing the tar out of his hair with a wood chip.
Brer Fox couldn't believe his eyes, then all of a sudden he saw he had been tricked. Brer Rabbit called out as cheeky as ever: "Hi, Brer Fox, hi! I was brought up in a bramble-bush, I was—yes, born and brought up in a bramble-bush!"
Then off he skipped as lively as a chicken on hot coals, while old Brer Fox went home with never a word.
If you really want to see what Disney did with this you can but I couldn’t stand to watch the whole clip so you’re on your own.
Oh and the whole drama Enid is up on YouTube in nine parts if you’re interested. Here’s the link to Part I
Although Joel Chandler Harris collected materials for his famous series of books featuring the character Brer Rabbit in the 1870s, the Brer Rabbit cycle had been recorded earlier among the Cherokees; The "tar baby" story was printed in an 1845 edition of the Cherokee Advocate the same year Joel Chandler Harris was born.
In the Cherokee tale about the briar patch, "the fox and the wolf throw the trickster rabbit into a thicket from which the rabbit quickly escapes There was a "melding of the Cherokee rabbit-trickster ...into the culture of African slaves. "In fact, most of the Brer Rabbit stories originated in Cherokee myths."