At home in Hobbiton and Boy Land, Gavin Bishop

Gavin Bishop leafs through two boyhood favourites. 

The three of us are about the same age – my first picture book, my teddy bear and me.

The book lies, or should I say languishes, coddled in tissue and plastic to keep the silverfish off, in a drawer in my studio. Years ago, when I was a kid, it would have been slung under my bed with some dirty socks and a couple of comics, but now I spoil it. I treat it like a treasure. I take great care of it because after all it is about 60 years old and it’s only printed on newsprint. It has battered, rounded edges, and the look of a hoary old soldier. My teddy bear is the worse for wear as well. It has no fur and its eyes look in different directions.

And then there is me. As the years go by, the three of us are getting to look more and more alike.

I was given my picture book as a birthday present when I was four. Beneath the battle scars, the colours of the rainbow on the front cover are as bright as ever, and so is the title, Cole’s Funny Picture Book No 1 or Family Amuser and Instructor to Delight the Whole Family and Make Home Happier. 

Cole’s Funny Picture Book was first published in a limp-bound edition of 62 pages in Melbourne on Cup Day in 1879. It was an instant success. A hundred pounds was offered to anyone who could prove it was not the funniest picture book in the world. No one could. With each new edition it grew in size, as William Cole the “author” added to it. My copy is from the 68th edition and has 206 pages.

In essence, Cole’s Funny Picture Book is a scrapbook of stories, pictures, riddles and puzzles that were clipped by Cole, without concern for copyright or author’s permission, from books and Victorian periodicals such as Punch, and arranged into chapters called “lands”. There is “Boy Land”, “Girl Land”, “Dolly Land”, “Greediness Land”, “Laziness Land” and “Play Land”, to mention a few. There are some of William Cole’s own serious writings, such as “Australia the Best Country on Earth”, and a good deal of advertising for Cole’s Book Arcade that stood for many years in Burke Street in Melbourne.

But Cole’s Funny Picture Book is more than a scrapbook. It is a “big dipper” similar to the omnibus annuals for boys and girls published in Britain when I was at school. Like these books, Cole’s could be opened at any page to instantly entertain you with a story, a funny picture or some puzzles. When you turned a page, you were presented with something new.

When I was four, I had to ask my grandmother to read the stories to me. But on my own, I was able to spend hours poring over the pictures, many of which today would be regarded as cruel and unkind. But even as a small child I instinctively knew not to take “Cole’s Electro-Micro Scolding Machine for Scolding Naughty Girls” seriously. Nor did “Cole’s Patented Steam Driven Whipping Machine for Naughty Boys” give me nightmares. (I was too young to realise that this was William Cole’s way of lampooning the education system of the time. He had his own children taught by private tutors.)

And Cole’s Funny Picture Book was impossible to exhaust. My reading of it continued for years. It grew with me. Stories or items that didn’t initially appeal came into their own, as I got older. It was always kicking around somewhere in my bedroom, usually within reach for a quick dip.

About the time I hit adolescence, the famous English actor Sir Donald Wolfitt came to town. I didn’t hear his speeches from Shakespeare on stage, but I did see him about the same time in a Hammer Horror film, hamming it up as a scientist whose laboratory was filled with jars of living human parts. By day this scientist was an ordinary guy, but on nights when the moon was full, he became a werewolf. His monthly torment was to protect his loved ones from himself. He went to great lengths to chain himself to his bed or lock himself in the basement of his house. But it was to no avail. His supernatural strength as a monster enabled him to break his bonds and go on a killing rampage.

I can’t remember much more about the film except that Wolfitt’s character touched inside me a chord of deep fear that had been put there many years before by a similar creature called Beorn from one of my favourite books – The Hobbit. When I first read The Hobbit or There and Back Again by J R R Tolkien, Beorn’s brief but sinister appearance left an indelible feeling of dread with me that the Wolfitt werewolf brought to the surface again. Like the werewolf, Beorn had a split personality and went to considerable lengths to protect others from his dark side. Whereas the werewolf locked himself up, Beorn locked his guests up. The night Bilbo Baggins and his fellow travellers stayed with Beorn, he locked them in his lodge to keep them safe while he remained outside and changed into a gigantic bear. The idea that someone could present a benign and trustworthy exterior to hide a deadly and destructive other self is of course a literary concept that I was well familiar with through stories such as Little Red Riding Hood or The Wolf and the Three Little Pigs, but the werewolf and the bear cranked up my levels of discomfort by several notches to give me many restless and dream-filled nights.

I first came across a single chapter from The Hobbit called “Riddles in the Dark” in a New Zealand School Journal at primary school. After reading it, I rushed to the Invercargill Juvenile Library to borrow the whole book. I found it quite scary but I liked it so much that some years later, when I had a holiday job, I bought my own copy. That edition, which I still have, is illustrated by the author. Some of those pictures, to an overly imaginative young reader, were a great comfort when I first read The Hobbit. The frontispiece, which shows a tranquil view of “Hobbiton across The Water” reassured me that, no matter how life-threatening Bilbo Baggins’ adventures became, there was a place he could return to where nothing sinister or duplicitous existed, and that all would be well in the end. Bilbo’s hobbit hole in Hobbiton housed no sinister secrets in the way that Beorn’s lofty lodge did. It was a safe place to return to. A sanctuary.

Just as Tolkien’s painting of Hobbiton provided security for an anxious reader, Cole’s Funny Picture Book provided companionship throughout my entire childhood. It addressed some serious issues, but, overall, it lived up to its name as a funny picture book; a perfect friend for a child, like an ever-present playmate, always ready with a good yarn or a funny joke to share. And because The Hobbit was the earliest of my countless excursions into fantasy, it has a special place in the well of memories I constantly dip into when looking for inspiration for a story or a picture of my own.

 

Gavin Bishop writes and illustrates children’s picture books.

 

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