The Chinese curse of May You Live in Interesting Times well and truly struck this week, didn’t it? I have tried to keep away from news media, I really have. But the appalling tragicomedy that is our current government just wouldn’t leave me alone. And then I re-encountered Rupert Bear.
I was really grateful to my friend and fellow writer Lesley Cookman for spending a happy few hours in the Rupert Bear Centenary Exhibition at the Beaney (House of Art and Knowledge) in Canterbury. She came back and told our Zoom Circle all about it.
I can’t tell you how much it has cheered me up.
The Gestation of Rupert
Actually Rupert is 102 this year. But the Beaney is celebrating its 10th birthday and they thought they would kill two birds with one stone and catch up on the centenary they missed thanks to Covid 19 and lockdown. (More of that Interesting Times Curse, there, of course.)
Rupert Bear was a cartoon strip in the Daily Express, initially an inspiration of the Proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook, who had been eyeing up the competition, whose cartoon anthropomorphic animals were proving popular.
The Daily Mail had Teddy Tail from 1915 and the Mirror set up a rival series in 1919.
Indeed, the Daily Mirror’s Pip, Squeak and Wilfrid became ubiquitous, such that they inspired nicknames for three medals awarded after the First World War. The 1914 or 1914-15 Star was Pip (a dog, the father figure); the British War Medal was Squeak (a penguin, the mother figure); and the British Victory medal was Wilfrid (a toddler-aged rabbit). In the Mirror the animals were all abandoned and had ended up in a house on the edge of London, with human guardians called Uncle Dick and Angeline, a housemaid.
My mother used to refer to a family we knew – eccentric and entertaining but, in practical terms, utterly hopeless – as Pip, Squeak and Wilfrid. It took me years to understand why.
Rupert Born in Canterbury
According to h2g2 (The HItchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Earth edition), Beaverbrook asked the Editor, RD Blumenfeld to come up with an idea, who delegated the problem to his news editor Canterbury-resident Herbert Tortel. He, in turn, volunteered his wife Mary, a trained (at the Sidney Cooper School of Art in Canterbury where she won a scholarship) and published illustrator.
She agreed and produced the pictures and the stories, the first of which was published on 8 November, 1920 as The Adventures of a Little Lost Bear.
It was effectively a serial. Two drawings appeared each day, captioned with rhyming couplets to tell the story and the promise of the next instalment. (Those rhyming couplets are intrinsic to Rupert’s charm, of which more later.)
Rupert Moves Artists
Mary continued to submit these stories until 1935, when her eyesight began to fail. Rupert and his many friends then moved to the care of Fred Bestall, an illustrator for Punch and other magazines. Initially he was worried to discover that he would be expected to create the narrative as well as the illustration. But he proved to be excellent at it (possibly the aficionado’s favourite) and eventually Rupert took over Bestall’s entire professional life. His first story was Rupert, Algy [a pug] and the Smugglers on 28 June 1935. He continued to produce them for thirty years.
Bestall sounds an absolute sweetheart. He didn’t sign his Rupert pictures for 12 years out of respect for Mary! The Express produced a lovely profile of him, including some enchanting memories from his goddaughter, to honour Rupert’s Centenary in 2020. She says he took the job very seriously, because he knew he was influencing young minds.
His brief, taking over from Mary, was “No evil characters, fairies or magic.” Mary’s stories had certainly darkened after her husband died in 1931, but she’d always had a tendency to whisk her characters back home by magic at the end of a story. Bestall changed the tone gradually, bringing his sense of humour and also his interest in science into the mix.
He lived with his mother and disabled sister and never married. But when a (not very tactful) reporter asked him if he regretted not having children, he said, “Not really. I feel as if I’ve had thousands of them.”
Rupert Bear’s Friends in Nutwood
Now this is the bit I really love. There is an official Rupert Bear Society. They call themselves the Followers of Rupert Bear and their website has a terribly helpful list of Rupert’s friends in Nutwood and elsewhere.
I remembered Bill Badger; also lovely, reliable Edward Trunk and the naughty Fox twins. But I’d forgotten Algy Pug and a load of others. Going through that list was like meeting the very best of old friends unexpectedly. Like a hug from the past.
Rupert Bear’s Friends in other places
And he has friends in the real world too; friends like Lesley Cookman who still gets a Rupert Annual every Christmas, and King Charles III. On Fred Bestall’s 93rd birthday, just before he died, he got a tele message from the then Prince of Wales. “I have heard that you were sadly unable to receive your MBE from the Queen recently. I wanted to send you my congratulations on your award and to wish you a very happy birthday with many happy returns. As a child I well remember your marvellous illustrations of Rupert Bear.”
Then there are the friends who contributed to a truly miraculous radio programme on Rupert by broadcaster Mark Radcliffe – who breaks into some very respectable rhyming couples at appropriate moments, to get into the swing of the Rupert story. Oh, I love the BBC when it goes all specs-four-eyes about an enthusiasm. It’s got Terry Jones being surreal and Terence Stamp sending gentle chills up my spine, being mystical about Rupert taking you to the “verge of perfection” in Nutwood, just a gauze curtain away.
There’s even Julia Eccleshare, expert on children’s books, who notes that these stories are grounded in reality, yet at the same time have a sort of otherness. She thinks it might come from the pictures, and she may well be right.
And then, of course, there’s Rupert’s other friend, Sir Paul McCartney, who celebrated Rupert’s centenary by remastering the Frog Song. I think he’s really got to the heart of that Rupert Bear magic: friendship, playing the game, closeness, kindness.
Lovely stuff. Better than whitewashing. Or listening to footling politicians.