by Beatrix Potter
F. Warne & Co., 1903, 59pp
Review by Paul Fenton
When people think of Beatrix Potter they tend to visualise, I suspect, the quaint watercolours of little fluffy cute Peter Rabbit frolicking around the woods and getting into all manner of tame mischief. Or maybe they mistakenly think of the Bunnykins range of Wedgewood ceramics.
I experience a sharp and dramatic drop in serotonin when I think of Beatrix Potter.
Someone, I don’t know who (but when I find out, they are getting such a rubbish Christmas present from me this year), bought my daughter, Kid A, the complete works of Beatrix Potter. If you only look at the artwork you’d be likely to award it five stars on Amazon, but have you ever tried reading one of them? Can you recall any of the stories? Some might remember the story of Peter Rabbit, in many cases because they’ve seen the animated version, but what about Two Bad Mice? The Tailor of Gloucester? Squirrel Nutkin?
You’ll be forgiven if you can’t recall these stories, and pitied if you can.
I used to harbour a vague malaise towards Dr Seuss. I’d come home from a loooong day at work where conversations consisted of bespoke nonsense and empty-calorie cliché, whereupon I’d be handed a pyjama-clad toddler and a book selection. If I caught a glimpse of green eggs and/or ham, or a large red-and-white striped hat, I’d feel my tongue immediately begin to thicken in my mouth. After trading nonsense terms all day concerning showstoppers and red flags and blue skies and straw-men, I’d be forced to juggle bricks in blocks and ticks and tocks and nicks and nocks and cocks in socks and chicks with rocks and tongues did lock sir! I’d had enough … or so I thought. Gradually the rhymes became familiar and I could trot them out as effortlessly as a six-beer wee.
Unimpressed by my oral dexterity, Kid A grew bored and demanded change. Enter the Matrix. I mean, the Beatrix.
If you’re familiar with the average children’s picture book produced today, you’ll likely understand that story comes first, pictures come second. With the Beatrix books, I strongly suspect Beatrix created a folio of watercolours and then simply tried to kludge them into stories on the fly. Okay, Peter Rabbit might have had some redeeming qualities story-wise, but my on-the-record gripe is with The Tailor of Gloucester, so I’ll focus on that.
Here are the opening lines:
In the time of swords and periwigs and full-skirted coats with flowered lappets – when gentlemen wore ruffles, and gold-laced waistcoats of paduasoy and taffeta – there lived a tailor in Gloucester.
I know, I know: this was written, like, a thousand years ago. But were children of that time so prattish as to know a periwig from a flowered lappet? And paduasoy? What the hell is paduasoy? It sounds like a bad joke about a George Lucas movie. And so begins the seemingly endless ordeal of me trying to read this story to Kid A, the last of the day’s caffeine having long since dwindled from my bloodstream and my ability to comprehend surreal Victorian narrative at its lowest ebb.
The rest of the story goes like this: Poor old Tailor has to create a waistcoat for the Mayor of Gloucester’s wedding, but he is out of twist! (References to twist are many, and if you didn’t piece together exactly what twist is at the start of the story, you might find your mind wandering some strange back roads). He sends Simpkin out to buy him some more twist, and a few other odds and ends. Simpkin is the Tailor’s cat, which provides the first clue as to why the Tailor is so poor. Also, he makes mouse-sized outfits with any material off-cuts. Why not? If you’re going to send your cat on shopping trips, you might as well dress his food for him. Tailor moans some more about his twist shortage. My eyes take on a glazed appearance, like I’m watching television in a parallel dimension, or sleeping with my eyes open. Mice come out to assess the twist dilemma. Simpkin returns with the groceries but has forgotten the bloody twist, and is heavily distracted by his genetic imperative to go medieval on many a mouse-arse.
Blah blah mice, blah blah Simpkin, Mayor of Gloucester, no more twist … and so on, until Simpkin pulls through with the twist, the mice make the Mayor’s waistcoat with the natural advantage of microscopic attention to detail, and the Tailor grows rich and famous in recognition of this fine work.
So, to recap: ordinary old Tailor, possibly delusional, exploits the talents of a minority workforce, rewards them with token compensation, and holds them in check using extreme stand-over tactics. Kid A didn’t pick up on those themes the first time I read Gloucester, but after I explained it to her the fourth or fifth time, I think it started to sink in. She moved all her toy cats to the bottom of her deepest toy basket.
Can someone not update these stories? And by update I mean rewrite. And by rewrite I mean throw away everything but the pictures and start again. Perhaps create one single mega-story. A Beatrix Matrix? A Potterverse? How about a posthumous collaboration with Dr Seuss?
No twist sir?
Why pissed sir?
I think I get the gist of that,
And the problem clearly is your cat.
For though he’s dressed up to the nines,
To secure the twist you need, you’ll find,
He’ll also need a special hat …