TITS, BUMS AND OTHER STORIES
‘Shag the Pony’ would cause too much hilarity today for a children’s book title while mentions of wee, poo, farts and willies abound. What’s going on? asks NICHOLAS TUCKER
The new language in children's books
TEACHING English during the 1960s in a tough London comprehensive, I was searching the stock cupboard one lunch hour for something to read to my first-year class that afternoon. One book I looked at involved birds, but someone had been there before me: every mention of the blue tit, a leading character, had been amended in ink to ‘bluebird’. I took the point. My class would have pounced on any mention of ‘tit’ like tigers on a wounded prey. Today, there are still a few works, such as Christopher Perrins’ authoritative study British Tits, that proudly stand out as if refusing to be cowed by mocking laughter. But apart from the odd children’s picture book recounting the adventures of the marginally more acceptable Tom or bearded tit, this little bird has long disappeared from respectable books’ titles.
Other children’s books whose titles could subsequently have seemed questionable include C Bernard Rutley’s Shag the Caribou (1943), part of a wildlife series, and Peter Crabbe’s Shag the Pony (1952), published by the Catholic Truth Society. The Girl Guide’s 1961 guide to different knots, Whippings & Lashings; Knots for Everyone still appears in print but with the subtitle now reversed to the less alarming Knots for Everybody: With Whippings and Lashings.
As times changed, only a few brave titles continued to cling on to the once innocent meaning of the word ‘pussy’, with the American author Ira Alterman leading this diminishing band with two picture books, So, You’ve Got a Fat Pussy! (1981) and Games You Can Play with Your Pussy (1982). Charles A Pemberton’s illustrated My Big Book of Pretty Pussies (1965) is another example. ‘Pussy’ acquired its extra anatomical meaning around 1879. Always more current in America, it is surprising to see publishers over there still assuming widespread audience innocence with titles like these over a hundred years later. The same might be said for Macmillan’s decision to re-issue Richmal Crompton’s 1924 classic William the Fourth as late as 2005, with a Miss Cliff in one story still telling the famous eleven-year-old anti-hero that ‘You must call and see my pussy again, little boy.’
The most fertile ground for textual double entendres in children’s literature has always been the school story, once so popular between the wars but now shadows of their former selves. Sharpeyed critics on the look-out for their literary gaffes during that time were in short supply. One notable exception was Arthur Marshall, a schoolmaster turned gifted humorist and popular broadcaster. Starting out with short sketches on the BBC involving imitations of schoolmistresses and their pupils, he went on for many years to write a racy survey of current girls’ school stories for the Christmas edition of the New Statesman, some of which were later anthologised in collections of comic writing.
The writer Elsie Oxenham was one of his particular favourites, capable of coming up with a character like Lavinia