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My godparents, Joan and James Lindsay, lived in the County of Sutherland, the most northerly part of Scotland (save for the Orkney and Shetland Islands), in a little village on the North Sea named Golspie (pop. 1350 today). Every Christmas they would send me books of some sort, all highly anticipated and happily received. For a period of time they sent me the Rupert the Bear annual. For those North American readers unfamiliar with the series, the cartoons ran in the British Daily Express newspapers from the 1920’s on. A Christmas annual started in 1936. I assume it’s still ongoing; I purchased several for my son when he was the same age, although I’m not sure he received as much delight in them as I did.
Rupert and his key pals – an elephant (Edward), a rabbit (Reggie), a mouse (Willie), a pig (Podgy), a badger (Bill), a goat (Billy) to name but a few of the central characters – live in the idyllic village of Nutwood. They embark on a series of adventures, both ordinary and fantastical, each ending happily. They dress very properly, like English schoolboys of the day (probably even better); they interact with engaging humans (some grumpy) and lesser creatures (e.g. squirrels, birds, a hedgehog, a sea-lion, a penguin) who do not dress up.
They travel to places familiar and not: the seaside for holidays, Santa’s mountaintop home, offshore islands, but most of the time they explore the environs of their pastoral neighborhood. They celebrate Christmas, they encounter dragons and imps, are dutiful offspring (Rupert always; the others most of the time) of caring parents, helpful and good-hearted.
The series was (still is?) beautifully illustrated, doubtless giving me an idealized sense of what England was (at least to someone living in the Canadian prairies or far north). A few of the characters they run into would appear politically incorrect in this day and age (I can’t speak for the current run). That doesn’t take away from the series’ charm, pleasure and entertainment value. The fact that the comics have been running almost 100 years and also made into a TV series must say something.
I relate all this because these annuals were probably the genesis for my decision to write a story through animals rather than humans. It seemed natural to me to see creatures acting in ways that make sense to us, with human emotion, manner and ambition.
Belonging to (and working my way up through) cubs and scouts and becoming familiar with all the characters that made up Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book also gave me a taste for animals with human characteristics. And who can forget The Wind in the Willows?
Much later on in my reading life I came across George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a book that also had a great deal of influence, not just on my identification with how animals can portray mankind and all its fortunes (for good and bad), but also on my own political views.
Finally, let me not ignore the wonderful world of Walt Disney. What child was not glued to the Sunday night TV time slot (was it not 6:00 pm?) hoping for the world of animation to be chosen that week? There are too many characters (Mickey Mouse and his friends, Winnie the Pooh, etc. etc.) – so many of which have become part of the world’s common legacy – to name here in this brief blog. Let me just conclude by saying that I see nothing odd in exploring a world where animals exist as humans and, through them, we can understand our own world and behaviour.