His father’s dental cast, writes Graham Greene near the beginning of The Power and the Glory ‘had been [Trench’s] favourite toy: they tried to tempt him with Meccano, but fate had struck’. Trench is a dentist, trapped by his chosen profession in a godforsaken Central American hellhole. Greene ponders the way, when we are very young, that chance events, objects or people may become father to the man. ‘We should be thankful we cannot see the horrors and degradations lying around our childhood, in cupboards and bookshelves, everywhere.’
Too true. Pookie made me a Tory.
My new copy of Pookie Puts the World Right has arrived. I’d lost the old one, but tracked down another on the internet. Though more than 60 years old, it’s in fine condition, only 24 pages, but big and bold and colourful, with lots of striking pictures. The Pookie series, by Ivy L. Wallace, was published by Collins at the end of the 1940s, and popular with children from about four to eight years old. I was perhaps five when I read Pookie Puts the World Right. It fast became my favourite book.
Only on rereading, though, do I see its influence. I had remembered the wonderful pictures, but now I see that, insinuated into the colour sketches and the plot itself, was a moral (almost ideological) framework to which my tiny being must have thrilled. The moral chimed with an infant soul.
Older readers may remember this series. Younger readers should know that Pookie was a small winged rabbit with blue trousers, rescued in distress by a loving, poor but honest girl called Belinda, who lived alone in the wood, made Pookie a padded bed in a sort of shoebox, and helped him grow wings. The pair became the greatest friends.
One late autumn day, Winter — drawn as a scary giant with icicle fingers — arrives. There’s a great storm. Trees blow down. Burrows flood. All the animals in the wood (Pookie’s friends) are devastated; homes destroyed, food stores ruined, wings and paws wounded. Pookie and Belinda take in the casualties, warm them by the fire and feed and tend to them. But Pookie (with whom I identified) strides out into the storm in a rage and, shaking his little paw at Winter, tells him to stop being so cruel, go back to the North Pole and never return.
And to Pookie’s shock, Winter withdraws. Pookie is briefly feted. Autumn is followed by spring. Then all nature is thrown into confusion. Flowers have no time to prepare to flower again; dead leaves and branches have not been cleared, nor animals refreshed by hibernation. Now all the woodland folk protest, and Pookie becomes a figure of hate.
So, in the biggest adventure of his life, Pookie flies all the way to the North Pole, nearly perishing in the attempt. He confronts Winter a second time (this full-page picture was so frightening I kept it under my pillow to sneak glances in the night). Pookie confesses he had been wrong, apologises, and begs Winter to return. The little rabbit now realises that the seasons have a purpose, that lazy or foolish animals with ill-sited burrows or nests have to be shown their folly, and every creature given an incentive to work hard, prepare and store.
Admiring Pookie’s courage, Winter relents, agrees to return, and wafts the exhausted bunny home on a storm cloud.
At once I see why my small being resonated to this story. It gave me a parable for what I must already have wanted to believe. I read and read that book, and never forgot it.
Five years later I pulled George Orwell’s Animal Farm from a bookshelf and, -believing it to be a simple tale about animals, read it — all of it — in a day, with no notion that it was an allegory. Orwell’s beautiful, clear English prose drew me in.
And I knew from the start that the animals’ revolution could never work out, that their takeover of the farm must fail. I quickly sensed that good intentions would not be enough, and felt a sneaking regard for the pigs for getting a grip on the situation: at least they made the farm work. I remember wondering whether a system could be devised to give the less intelligent animals a better life, while still rewarding the pigs for their organisational abilities.
All this I recall quite clearly from a misty day in the Vumba mountains in Southern Rhodesia, nearly 60 years ago. I had no idea Snowball was Trotsky or Napoleon Stalin. I did not know that animalism was an allegory for socialism. But I knew that ‘Four legs good, two legs bad’ was a mindless chant; and the moment the slogan ‘All animals are equal’ appeared, I thought ‘yeah, right’. Orwell’s parable was deep: it pointed to problems with socialism in principle, not just to problems with some of its practitioners. I’m not sure he understood that.
At ten, I did. I grasped the true moral of this book better than its author, who was presumably making a somewhat tedious, factional point about rival versions of socialism. At a certain, deep level, and without entirely knowing what socialism was, my ten-year-old self saw here a demonstration of why all socialism was doomed.
Now you may suggest (and when discussing this with me, the editor of this magazine did suggest) that my analysis may mistake cause for effect. Did Pookie make me a Tory — or was it being already a proto-Tory tot that made Pookie’s story powerful to me? Maybe both; but surely children’s stories can reinforce, can channel a developing mind?
Be that as it may, I shall on finishing this column turn one last time to that thrilling picture of Winter with icicle fingers and icicle nose, and know, as I knew then, that austerity can be a redeeming force. I must lend the book to George Osborne to put under his pillow.