Heimlich’s Moment Of Doubt

It has only just come to my attention that Henry Heimlich, inventor of the Heimlich Manoeuvre, passed away in December 2016. I wrote a poem earlier in 2016 inspired by the deliciously ironic story that Heimlich had been called upon to perform his own manouevre at the age of 96 in a nursing home. The story, like the doctor himself, caused controversy, with some reports suggesting it was the latest in a lifetime of publicity stunts. But I guess we all need some poetic licence to practise. I myself situated the nursing home in Texas because I needed the rhyme. The idea that the tale might have been a tall one only adds to the idea of the poem. I thought it was the story of the year, and found myself wondering just how the doctor might have lived his life in the shadow of his creation…


She’s choking.
They’re not joking,
Not playing some mischievous game with the
Illustrious name of their regular Senior Living dinner guest.
Me. The Great Heimlich. Inventor of the Heimlich Manoeuvre.
A life-saver 50,000 times over,
But theoretical, not practical,
The inventor, not the dispenser,
Not a physician, but a fading magician
As likely to raise a body from a sarcophagus
As to squeeze a plugged piece of burger from an old lady’s oesophagus,
Past my sell-by date, past my Sunday best.

She’s really not faking,
And they’re all taking
The opportunity to look at me and pointedly
Ask two questions with their vicious eyes:
First, would it not be a delicious irony
If the Great Heimlich, he who lives so vicariously
Dining out on all those lives he saved by proxy
Turned out to be some poxy stuffed dinner shirt,
Who doesn’t like to press his fingers into the dirty mouth,
Who’s gone south and is all washed up among the dishes?
Perhaps those are their secret wishes.
Second: ‘What if she dies?’

She’s turning green,
Imagine how they’ll preen
As they reveal the esteemed Heimlich to have been a dick, a poser,
A trick recyclist of the blocked Hoover,
A damned fraud, a fake, a flake,
A dinner party bore on the take…
Wait! Er, I see I’m pushing back my plate,
With a lump in my throat, on the edge of a knife,
Multi-tasking, considering they’re asking me to save a life
While simultaneously wrestling
With one of history’s most ironic questions:
Can I remember my own manoeuvre?

‘There he is,’ they used to laugh,
‘The Late Heimlich,
Always last at the table,
Unable to rush a mouthful,
Morbidly mindful
Of the gobstopping sprout,
The doubtfully filleted trout,
The fish bones, wish bones,
Lying in wait on the plateful of choking hazards:
A minefield of sharp shards and
A ticking time bombe in every dessert bowl.
A nibbler, a fiddler,
A plodder, a prodder at the fatted beast
A spectator at the always potentially fatal feast,
Cogitating on and on the instructions he suggested
Every restaurateur and bon viveur ordered up and digested,
Touching his fidgeting tongue from filling to filling
Unfulfilled, unfilled, unwilling
To swallow anything whole.
How they all snicker at this pernickety bone-picker.
Taking a salivating age to pick and chew
Every mouthful, every morsel, every word.
It’s true, I’ve lived in mortal
Fear of choking on a bony shard,
Of being hoisted from the table by my own petard,
The biter bit, succumbing to a coughing fit,
Bear-hugged by some untrained thug,
Breaking glibly a spare rib,
Fate double-crossing me,
As he doubles the Great Heimlich over,
Performing, badly, my Manoeuvre!
Suffering the ultimate indignity as he
Takes my name in vein, just imagine the shame:
Held up to the public gaze like a paradigm not to follow,
Too much for any man to swallow,
An eye-popping final indignation
That leaves me red-faced as it consumes my reputation.
Taken by gastronomic surprise,
To an ignominious, spluttering demise,
My unjust desserts rendering
My life’s last course absurd.

My mind’s not playing tricks
At the age of 96,
Struggling with senility, fading virility and a choking emergency,
This could be not just some delicious irony but my crowning glory,
My piece de resistance!
My final slap on the back!
If only I could stop thinking and remember how to act…
And now, it seems, I’m on my feet,
Riding into battle to greet tonight’s errant piece of meat,
Hugging an old lady from behind in a care home in Texas,
My fingers bunch and flex as they punch her in the solar plexus,
Reinventing the greatest invention since the surgeon’s knife,
My breathless kiss of life,
I’m doing it, I’m mastering my own Manoeuvre,
And as quickly as it started, it’s over,
Miss Patty Ris, 87, is granted a deferral
On her stairlift to heaven,
And I’m taking my bow and my seat once more
To pick painstakingly at my meat just as before,
Dining out on another life saved by the Great Hiemlich’s eponymous act,
With a reputation unblocked, unblemished, replenished:
Deliciously, ironically intact.

Copyright © 2016 Jason Hook



Bridges Not Walls

On this foreboding day in history, I was heartened by the #bridgesnotwalls campaign that was making itself seen and heard along London’s bridges and across the Twitterscape. Inspired to share in the collective expressions of freedom and inclusion, I immediately wondered what bridges had been built by book illustrators. That is, after all, what this occasional blog is supposed to be about.peter-jacksonThe first bridge that I stumbled across (as it were), which got my juices running, was not from a children’s book but from a remarkable series of London artworks by the wonderful Peter Jackson. Ironically, I found it on the Internet, when all along it was staring me in the face: I have it hanging on my wall. Peter’s extraordinary reconstruction shows London Bridge c.1600, with the ferociously flowing Thames whipping boats towards its pontoons, and the many grandiose Elizabethan buildings piled precariously upon its back. Take your pick from any number of metaphors for our modern world right there. With Peter, you know that what you are seeing is historically correct. He was not only a wonderful illustrator but one of the great historians and collectors of London ephemera. He scoured the city’s markets and second-hand shops to gather up over 25,000 prints. Between 1949 and 1980, Peter drew historical cartoon strips of London for the London Evening News, and he built up an unrivalled knowledge of the city’s history, beautifully conveyed through his work in a number of authoritative and evocative books.

Peter was a friend of my father’s, and his London Bridge led me across to another bridge very close to home. What better than a dragon’s tail for making a bridge when you’re on a dragon hunt and can’t see for looking, as illustrated by Richard Hook in our children’s book Where’s the Dragon? It’s funny how when you start looking, you can find bridges right beneath your nose, within your own four walls.


6a019103c45ca1970c01b7c7de029e970b-500wiThat dragon-tail bridge carried me back in time to my childhood, as I started thinking about my favourite bridge from a children’s story. Surely, it must be the bridge in the Three Billy-Goats Gruff, with a hungry troll lurking beneath its humped back in wait for delicious goat flesh. The story originates in a Norwegian folk-tale, and has a classic narrative structure of three heroes moving from danger to safety by outwitting a threatening presence. In case you’ve forgotten it, the smallest and medium billy-goats succeed in crossing the bridge by each promising the troll a larger prize coming along behind, with the sumptuous finale of the third and biggest goat being of sufficient size and sharpness of horns to give the troll its just desserts. It’s an idea to make any writer or artist salivate, and I’d offer a bridge to any illustrator who would like to join me in a retelling.

I am instantly transported to my childhood when I see the splendidly realistic cover of the Ladybird version of the story, where both bridge and troll lurk unseen. I also discovered a beautiful early illustration from A Selection From The Norse Tales For The Use Of Children (Edinbugh, 1862) in Barbara Hawes’ excellent British Library blog, which gives a fascinating summary of the history of the tale and how it crossed over into our language.

billygoatsOn a day such as this day, when #bridgesnotwalls lifted me up, it seems appropriate to celebrate three satiric heroes crossing safely over a bridge beneath which a troll will always lurk in the darkness.

Do you have any bridges from children’s literature that you’d like to share with me?

A Dragon in the Library

On a Bonfire Day when we remember, remember to protest the plot against our precious libraries – a plot that seeks to put a match to the idea that ideas, imagination and inspiration may be freely available to all, rich or poor – it is a good time to write of books and the sparks and fireworks that can fly from their pages.


Where’s the Dragon?

There is a magic in books, as all readers know. Every book holds within it the power to breathe life into characters, creatures and entire worlds. These things begin in the imagination of the writer. They start with the spark of an idea, that magical, mutable thing that comes from nothing, from nowhere, from something, somewhere. That spark lights the furnace in which the idea might, if you are lucky, survive the heat long enough to be forged into a story.

Ah, but that story is, when left in the darkness, a lifeless creation. It requires a lightning bolt to animate it. And that lightning bolt is cast not by the writer but by the reader. It is the reader who discovers the story in a book and grants it life. The more readers who read it, the brighter the story burns. The more readers who return to it, the higher its fireworks fly. Most magical of all, the story starts to take on a life, or lives, of its own. It is told and interpreted. It is given as a gift. It is borrowed from a library. It starts to cast sparks of its own.

This is a magical process indeed with a children’s story, which finds its light from a bedside lamp and its life from the regular breaths of a bedtime reader. I once wrote of a fire-breathing dragon, so big that the closer people got to him the harder they found him to see. That was the spark, and it began to breathe fire through the alchemy of my artist father, Richard Hook, in the book Where’s the Dragon? That was back in 2003. To our delight, the dragon was summoned in sufficient bedtime stories for him to grow old. He hides away for a while, and then emerges in the most surprising of places. Today, when I give talks at schools, it is the old dragon that children always seem to know about. It is the story of the dragon so large that he can’t be seen that they still want to hear. He lives on, both as a glowing memory of my father, and as a story that is still being told. He is almost old enough for a grown-up child to hand him down to the next generation, and what finer fate could there be for a dragon, for a story, than that.

If the spark of one idea, one story, one book, survives to cast its own sparks through the readers who breathe life into it, just imagine how many sparks and fireworks fly from a library. A library is a crucible filled with a thousand hot metals, each one of which might turn to gold in a child’s imagination. It is an infinite free firework display, where any firework is possible. It is a fire-breathing dragon, which appears different to every child who discovers it, and which every child should be free to discover for themselves. Otherwise, we might just as well tell our children to stop believing in dragons.


Sky Guys

“The albatross can glide across,
The ocean waves for weeks.
And when, at last, he meets his mate,
They dance and rub their beaks.”


The Sky Guys title was launched at the foot of Brighton’s suitably skyscraping i360 last week, just before the plastic pod launches its own maiden flights up the pole. Our host was the creator and illustrator of the series, Madeleine Rogers, and the venue the Cadeau emporium of delights in the shiny new arches.SkyGuysCaseWrap.indd

It was a joyful evening of bubbles and laughter accompanied by the raucous screeches of the gulls wheeling overhead. Well, I guess they just wanted to read all about the extraordinary flight that the albatross makes just so that he can dance and rub beaks with his mate.

The sixth title in the Mibo series of entertaining and educational nature titles, featuring verses packed with fascinating facts, gorgeous illustrations and SkyGuys_Pages.inddpress-out paper creatures, The Sky Guys is published by Button Books and is suitable for little readers of 5 and up.


I saw Prince play at the Hop Farm in July 2011. Apparently he insisted on a stretch limousine to carry him 100 metres from his purple-bedecked dressing room to the stage, but that’s part of what we loved about him. He did his own sound check, slowly conjuring up a sound infinitely better than before. The moment it was perfect, he cried: ‘Hit it!’ And he did. Like nobody else.

He sang like Little Richard.

He danced like James Brown.

And he played guitar like Jimi Hendrix.

I’ll never forget him lying on the piano patting the Afro of one of the most beautiful musicians I’ve ever seen.

Good night sweet Prince, and flights of angels sing…


Walter Crane: A Spark Of Inspiration


When Walter met Wendy, Elle Decoration, December 2015.

Every story requires a spark of inspiration before it can burst into life. In the case of Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat – the children’s picture book I published with V&A Publishing in 2015 – that spark flew from the work of Arts and Crafts polymath Walter Crane. I had seen his wonderful wallpaper designs in the V&A collection, and – knowing Crane to be one of the most popular and influential 19th-century illustrators of fairy tale and fable – was taken with the idea of telling a modern children’s tale in which Crane’s characters and designs step out of their wallpapers into the real world. It was not by accident that I gave Wendy’s grandfather the name Walter.

At Christmas, this connection was highlighted in a splendid article about Walter Crane in the December edition of Elle Decoration. Alongside the wallpaper designs that appear in Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat, the article celebrates the work of an artist who was a contemporary of William Morris and shared his belief that exceptional art should be found in the homes of rich and poor alike.

“A gloriously whimsical tale that promises to introduce a new generation to Crane’s sumptuous designs.”

Crane was born in Liverpool in 1845. The son of a portrait painter, he was apprenticed as a wood engraver. This afforded him the opportunity to study closely the work of many artists, including Sir John Tenniel who famously illustrated Alice in Wonderland (first published in 1865).


The Alphabet Of Old Friends (1874), a Walter Crane toy book.

Throughout his twenties, Crane worked with the printer Edmund Evans developing and improving the standard of ‘toy books’. These were mass market children’s books featuring alphabets, nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Crane’s revolutionary work laid the foundations for many aspects of modern picture books that we take for granted. He believed that good illustration and design could help children to read from an early age, and that every feature of the book should engage the reader’s interest: from the cover and endpapers through to the integration between illustration and typography. Crane’s illustrations featured ‘bright, frank colours’, and he understood that children would respond to decorative, symbolic art. He also employed comic visual devices: in The Baby’s Opera (1877), for example, three mice lead the reader through the book with their mischievous antics.

There is a delightful step from Crane’s picture books into the nurseries in which they were read. The square format for his youngest readers, which is still used for alphabet books today, was based on tiles used to decorate nurseries. The nursery rhyme characters of his toy books found their way into his nursery wallpapers, including the ‘Nursery Rhymes’ design from which the feline fiddle player steps in Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat. Crane’s wallpapers were popular at home and abroad, and it is amusing to imagine Mark Twain being inspired by the ‘Miss Mouse At Home’ design he used to decorate his own children’s nursery.

As noted in the back of Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat, an article of 1884 said of Crane’s nursery wallpapers: ‘With the aid of a little intelligent and sympathetic talk, nursery walls, covered with these designs, might be made to live within the lives of children.’

Walter Crane became an examiner at the South Kensington Museum, which in turn became known as the Victoria & Albert Museum. Seeing the printed books of Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat decorating – wallpaper fashion – the shelves of the V&A shop alongside gifts based on Crane’s own designs, it feels like the book now has a life of its own. It would be lovely to think that it might return a favour: by breathing new life into the wallpaper designs of the artist who fired that first spark, as they step into the picture book framework he helped to construct, so that they might once again ‘live within the lives of children’.


War and Peace: A Fairy Tale

tolstoy fablesI was struck, last night, by the way in which the BBC’s magnificent production of War and Peace drifted in Episode 4 into what felt suddenly like a fairy tale. The previous week, Natasha Rostova had gone like Cinderella to the ball and fallen in love with her Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (resplendent in tight-fitting uniform and gold braid, in contrast to the tragic observer Pierre Bezukhov whose outfits always appear two sizes too big) in a suitably enchanted dance sequence.

Now, Andrei seeks the permission of his increasingly eccentric father, Prince Nikolai, to propose marriage to the Cinderella-like Natasha (who possesses the secret of happiness) and rescue her family from impending poverty. If that doesn’t all sound like the stuff of fairy tale, lo and behold, old Nikolai agrees to the match only on condition that the prince is banished from the kingdom for a year to test his love. A year and a day might have underlined the point, but the step into Faerie Land conjured thoughts of Celtic mortals lured away by the little people for a year and a day, and of Sir Gawain’s anxious year spent awaiting the avowed return blow after his beheading of the Green Knight.

All filmed against the fairy tale backdrops of Latvia and Lithuania, there is a distinct change in atmosphere at this point. Natasha is whisked away on a sled to the countryside where she seems bewitched by folk music into dancing a dance she doesn’t know. Returning to Moscow, she is seduced at the opera by the deliciously evil Helene Kuragina and her incestuous and lupine brother Anatole. Her happiness vanishes and she seems possessed by the predatory and already married rake, her childlike nature disappearing as if with a curse as she is pursued through a wardrobe of coats.

Perhaps reducing a vast novel to a television series inevitably involves a simplification toward types and motifs, and it is no less affecting for that, but Tolstoy was himself no stranger to folklore. He wrote stories for peasant children to study at the schools he founded on his estate, which can be found in Fables and Fairy Tales, and he made it clear the value he placed on such tales:

‘The artist of the future will understand that to compose a fairy tale; a little song which will touch; a lullaby or a riddle which will entertain; a jest which will amuse or draw a sketch such as will delight dozens of generations or millions of children and adults, is incomparably more important and more fruitful than to compose a novel, or a symphony, or paint a picture of the kind which diverts some members of the wealthy classes for a short time and is then for ever forgotten. The region of this art of the simplest feelings accessible to all is enormous, and it is as yet almost untouched.”

—Leo Tolstoy, What is Art? (1897)