The Billy Goats Gruff

A ‘Verse a Day’ fairy tale told in who knows how many parts…

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In a valley of green, back in Fairy Tale days,
Gangs of billy goats fought over which land to graze,
There were billy goats tough, there were billy goats rough,
But no goats were as bad as the Billy Goats Gruff.

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These three billy goat brothers ate thistles and thorns,
And they butted their rivals with curly, sharp horns,
Growing fat in a field by a fast waterfall,
Where the thistles were thickest and richest of all…

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But one dark autumn evening, the Gruffs felt a chill,
Looking over the valley from high on their hill.
“All our kingdom’s grown muddy!” one growled with a shiver.
“The grass looks much greener beyond the Great River.”

 

Text Copyright © Jason Hook 2019 
Illustration Copyright © Christa Hook 2019

 

 

 

Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat: the show

IMG_0862When Grandpa Walter opened the door,
he was wearing a green suit that looked
just like his garden. ‘Welcome to my world
of wonderful wallpapers!’ said Walter.
‘I wonder which room will be your favourite…’

When I wrote Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat for V&A Publishing a few years ago, my idea was that a picture book about a magical house in which the wallpapers come alive might in turn bring fresh life to the wallpapers in the V&A collection by inviting young visitors to the museum to look at the patterns and pictures not just with their eyes but with their imaginations. Grandpa Walter was named after Walter Crane, whose wallpaper designs form the backdrops in the book, and the artist Ilaria Demonti breathed life into the characters of Walter, his sleepless grand-daughter Wendy, and the fiddle-playing Wallpaper Cat with her fabulous illustrations.

We published the book, we celebrated, and that might well have been that. But if cats have nine lives, then it seems wallpaper cats have at least two. Last week, I had the thrill of watching Lisa O’Hanlon and Dan Willis perform Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat at the V&A theatre to row upon row of young, wide-eyed, shrieking spectators. Now the wallpapers, and the book itself, really did come to life. Butterflies flitted over Walter’s wallpaper garden; rose petals tumbled from the sky; sea-shells carried the sound of the ocean to a hundred eager ears; a giant orange was bounced from hand to hand; and, wonder of wonderful wonders, children gasped at nothing more, nothing less, than projections of Victorian wallpapers as Wendy dashed from room to room.

When the electric-blue Wallpaper Cat leapt from the walls to play enchanted fiddle music, not just Wendy but all the children in the audience ran through the midnight garden and danced. And so the Wallpaper Cat lives on, summoned from the wall to play for any child struggling to get to sleep.

Many thanks to Lisa and Dan for their wonderful work, to Ilaria, and to everyone at the V&A including Astrid, Harriet and Tom.

“Wendy looked up at the roses on the walls.
When she reached up to touch them,
a red petal fluttered down.”

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“And when at last she caught up with the cat,
he played his fiddle and they danced together
the whole night long.”

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Copyright © Jason Hook 2019

Blood Moon

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The moon is rising full and round, a deep red-setter red,
The brighter that it shines, the more these voices fill my head.
I want to run and chase a ball, to boldly sniff your arse,
To urinate on lamp-posts and to defecate on grass.
I’ve torn off all my clothes but still I just can’t seem to sleep,
I long to ride into the countryside and worry sheep.
I ate a poodle late last night, my bark’s less than my bite,
Lock up your doors, chain up my paws, the Blood Moon’s up tonight.

The moon is rising full and round, with bloody lipstick lips,
I want to go out riding in my bicycle eclipse.
The beast in me is breaking free, the bat came out of hell,
I want to dress in leather and throw pussy down the well.
My booty call’s a duty call, do not pick up the phone,
I’m sniffing round a graveyard trying to find this dog a bone.
Lycanthropy, misanthropy, Lon Chaney’s out of sight,
Bring out your dead, and turn your head, the Blood Moon’s up tonight.

The moon is rising full and round, a scary clown’s balloon,
It lures me to the sewers of my friends’ impending doom.
I thought I was a vegan, but there must be some mistake,
I’m raving at this craving for a rare and bloody steak.
My claws are out, I’ve grown a snout, I want to see you bleed,
I’ve drunk a trunk of claret and I’ve turned all Ollie Reed.
Foie-gras and steak tartare, please pass the claret to the right,
The menu’s fresh with human flesh, the Blood Moon’s up tonight.

The moon is rising full and round, a bloodspot, bloodshot eye,
I feel a strange compulsion to start howling at the sky.
A glass of water terrifies, I’ll take a Bloody Mary,
I’ve always been hirsute but now I’m Wolverinely hairy.
My fingernails need filing and I’ve started having fits,
I’m running out of razors and my toothbrush is in bits.
This lunacy is killing me, my shirt is much too tight,
Let’s fire that silver bullet, there’s a Blood Moon up tonight.

 

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—Copyright © Jason Hook 2018

 

 

The Butterfly’s Ball

It was a weekend of butterflies. Taking part in the Big Butterfly Count (just two large whites and two meadow browns in Brighton’s parched Queens Park), brilliantly promoted by Sir David Attenborough, was both a joyful nudge to take fifteen minutes to stop and stare at nature, and a more salutary reminder that the wonders of our planet are fast disappearing before our eyes.

I remember the abundance of dazzling peacocks and red admirals we used to see as children in our back garden, along with the flocks of sparrows, swarms of bees, and bristling, bustling evening hedgehogs. Just imagine our countryside without such wonders. Just imagine if that is the shameful legacy of our generation. Perhaps if enough of us imagine that reality, and recognise its prevention as the cause of our age, we will find a way to step back from the sickening precipice of everyday extinctions.

By coincidence, a friend reminded me of the old poem The Butterfly’s Ball, which illuminated my childhood in rainbow colours as bright as the butterflies themselves. Very likely that is where the seeds of my Dream Weaver poem were first sown. Perhaps it’s time for another version (one by Alan Aldridge and William Plomer won the Whitbread in 1973) to mark the ticking of the clock and raise the hope that some Watchman is waiting for us. Such rhymes are vital in capturing the imagination of the next generation, which is why it is so uplifting to see the wonderful The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris enjoying such success. I hope these original verses by William Roscoe might offer an alternative way to celebrate the importance of the Big Butterfly Count, and present a different sort of invitation to a Butterfly’s Ball that is fast approaching midnight…

“Come take up your Hats, and away let us hasteillo5-f
To the Butterfly’s Ball, and the Grasshopper’s Feast.
The Trumpeter, Gad-fly, has summon’d the Crew,
And the Revels are now only waiting for you.

So said little Robert, and pacing along,

His merry Companions came forth in a Throng.
And on the smooth Grass, by the side of a Wood,
Beneath a broad Oak that for Ages had stood,
Saw the Children of Earth, and the Tenants of Air,
For an Evening’s Amusement together repair.

And there came the Beetle, so blind and so black,
Who carried the Emmet, his Friend, on his Back.
And there was the Gnat and the Dragon-fly too,
With all their Relations, Green, Orange, and Blue.

And there came the Moth, with his Plumage of Down,
And the Hornet in Jacket of Yellow and Brown;
Who with him the Wasp, his Companion, did bring,
But they promis’d, that Evening, to lay by their Sting.

And the sly little Dormouse crept out of his Hole,
And brought to the Feast his blind Brother, the Mole.illo3-f
And the Snail, with his Horns peeping out of his Shell,
Came from a great Distance, the Length of an Ell.

A Mushroom their Table, and on it was laid
A Water-dock Leaf, which a Table-cloth made.
The Viands were various, to each of their Taste,
And the Bee brought her Honey to crown the Repast.

Then close on his Haunches, so solemn and wise,
The Frog from a Corner, look’d up to the Skies.
And the Squirrel well pleas’d such Diversions to see,

Mounted high over Head, and look’d down from a Tree.

Then out came the Spider, with Finger so fine,
To shew his Dexterity on the tight Line.
From one Branch to another, his Cobwebs he slung,
Then quick as an Arrow he darted along,
But just in the Middle,—Oh! shocking to tell,

From his Rope, in an Instant, poor Harlequin fell.
Yet he touch’d not the Ground, but with Talons outspread,
Hung suspended in Air, at the End of a Thread.

Then the Grasshopper came with a Jerk and a Spring,
Very long was his Leg, though but short was his Wing;
He took but three Leaps, and was soon out of Sight,
Then chirp’d his own Praises the rest of the Night.illo5-f

With Step so majestic the Snail did advance,

And promis’d the Gazers a Minuet to dance.
But they all laugh’d so loud that he pull’d in his Head,
And went in his own little Chamber to Bed.
Then, as Evening gave Way to the Shadows of Night,
Their Watchman, the Glow-worm, came out with a Light.

Then Home let us hasten, while yet we can see,
For no Watchman is waiting for you and for me,
So said little Robert, and pacing along,
His merry Companions returned in a Throng.”

—Based on the text from the Project Gutenberg Ebook

 

Sweet and toffee, trough and snout…

You never forget the moment you first hear a witch sing a Cursery Rhyme. Not in a letter or from faraway. But up close. In the flesh. So you can smell her liquorice breath as she weaves her spell and tells you all the things she’s going to do to you, and all smuggled into your ears disguised in the old rags of a familiar verse…

“Beneath the causeway, they glimpsed again those strange orphan shadows that had chased them from the awfulage and which had played hide-and-seek among snow and pine trees during their carriage ride. Dark and plump as carp, they drifted now beneath the surface of the blood-red River Mold, diving or drowning among the weed, it was hard to tell which. And as those shadows swam by, Isabella began to sing. Her voice sounded both like the high note of a violin and the low rasp of the bow being scraped across it, and the burbling, bubbling voices of children rose from those diving, drowning shadows to join in the chorus. At the same moment, the handle of the music box around Molly’s neck began to turn, as it played along to the tune of Isabella’s song…

‘Two blind mice! Two blind mice!baba1ef7747dbede4146594decc5d391--arthur-rackham-halloween-decorations
See how they run! See how they run!
Cut out their hearts with a carving knife,
To see all the wishes they wish for life.
Hang up their hats on a thorny tree,
To let all the thoughts in their heads go free.
Cut off their tails for the cooking pot,
Tie them all up in a witch’s knot.

Sweet and toffee, trough and snout,
See a tooth and pull it out.
Conker, marble, snout and trough,
See a finger, chop it off!

Feed them cheese to make them dream,
Catch their nightmares when they scream.
Tease their ribs with prods and tickles,
Turn their giggles into pickles.
Call them names to make them cry,
Prick the teardrops from their eye.
Made from nephews, brewed from nieces,
Auntie’s little bits and pieces.

Sweet and toffee, trough and snout,
See a tooth and pull it out.
Conker, marble, snout and trough,
See a finger, chop it off!

Boil it in a jammy jar…
Melt it to a sticky tar…
Mix it to an oily ointment…
By a witch’s royal appointment!
Wear it where the wish-bones chime,
Cast it to a Cursery Rhyme.
Spell it right, her name’s a portal:
Isabella, Izzy Mawtle!
Two blind mice! Two blind…

…NICE!’ Isabella whooped.”

 

From Isabella Mawtle’s Immortal Vanishing Cream, © Copyright Jason Hook 2018
Illustration by Arthur Rackham

 

1914 & Other Poems

Old books make perfect time capsules. The turning of their pages can transport you back to the moment they were written, printed, bought or given.

In a charity shop this week, I happened upon an edition of 1914 & Other Poems by Rupert Brooke. The book looks plain enough, its dark board cover blank but for a sepia label on the spine displaying title, author and publisher, Sidgwick & Jackson. It contains an ethereal portrait of its writer, and was printed in June 1915. The date carries you back to a world still in the first convulsions of the First World War – amid which, life carried on, and someone stepped into an English bookshop and made a purchase: an old pencil note on the title page records the sale: ‘2/6 nett, 15.6.15’.

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Two months previously, on 11 March 1915, the Times Literary Supplement had published two of Brooke’s five war sonnets, ‘IV: The Dead’ and ‘V: The Soldier’. Written late in 1914, the sonnets capture the tragic idealism and patriotism of a nation yet to confront the full horrors of the conflict. On Easter Sunday 1915, ‘The Soldier’ was the reading at St Paul’s Cathedral, resonating with the poet’s most famous line: ‘If I should die, think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England.’

Three weeks later, on 23 April 1915, Rupert Brooke, at the age of 27, was dead. Sailing for Gallipoli with the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, he suffered blood poisoning from an insect bite, and was buried in an olive grove on the Greek island of Skyros. The poet was mourned throughout England and 1914 & Other Poems was published the following month. My copy was the second of eleven impressions made that year alone.

The book holds an additional secret. Whoever bought it that June day was buying it as a gift, and the half-title page bears a small inscription: ‘F.M.T from EEP, June 1915, p.24’. I step into the time machine and, as another hand once did a century before, turn to the instructed page. I find the most beautiful verse, the perfect poem to offer as a certain kind of gift: ‘The Great Lover’.

Immediately, I long to know the identities behind the inscription. Was EEP a soldier himself, presenting his lover a book before he went away to fight. Did he nurse the same noble ideals as the poet? Was his life cut as tragically short? Or was he, instead, F.M.T., carrying his lover’s gift in an army coat pocket as he stood knee-deep in mud in the trenches and thought of home?

I would love to think those initials could somehow be decoded, what time travel that would be! In the meantime, we are left with the poem, printed two months after the ‘drowsy Death’ of its poet, and kept safe in the small, plain, dark-boarded covers that have travelled who knows where. Somehow, it has survived its journey, and now passes on the words that were once a lover’s dedication. They are, heartbreakingly, a love song to such simple pleasures as it is easy to imagine a homesick soldier reciting in a foreign field: a celebration of life at a time of dying. And I feel humbled a century later to hold them in my hands. Something remains. He loved.

THE GREAT LOVER
by Rupert Brooke

I have been so great a lover: filled my days
So proudly with the splendour of Love’s praise,
The pain, the calm, and the astonishment,
Desire illimitable, and still content,
And all dear names men use, to cheat despair,
For the perplexed and viewless streams that bear
Our hearts at random down the dark of life.
Now, ere the unthinking silence on that strife
Steals down, I would cheat drowsy Death so far,
My night shall be remembered for a star
That outshone all the suns of all men’s days.
Shall I not crown them with immortal praise
Whom I have loved, who have given me, dared with me
High secrets, and in darkness knelt to see
The inenarrable godhead of delight?
Love is a flame;—we have beaconed the world’s night.
A city:—and we have built it, these and I.
An emperor:—we have taught the world to die.
So, for their sakes I loved, ere I go hence,
And the high cause of Love’s magnificence,
And to keep loyalties young, I’ll write those names
Golden for ever, eagles, crying flames,
And set them as a banner, that men may know,
To dare the generations, burn, and blow
Out on the wind of Time, shining and streaming….
These I have loved:
White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,
Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;
Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust
Of friendly bread; and many-tasting food;
Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood;
And radiant raindrops couching in cool flowers;
And flowers themselves, that sway through sunny hours,
Dreaming of moths that drink them under the moon;
Then, the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon
Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss
Of blankets; grainy wood; live hair that is
Shining and free; blue-massing clouds; the keen
Unpassioned beauty of a great machine;
The benison of hot water; furs to touch;
The good smell of old clothes; and other such—
The comfortable smell of friendly fingers,
Hair’s fragrance, and the musty reek that lingers
About dead leaves and last year’s ferns….
Dear names,
And thousand others throng to me! Royal flames;
Sweet water’s dimpling laugh from tap or spring;
Holes in the ground; and voices that do sing:
Voices in laughter, too; and body’s pain,
Soon turned to peace; and the deep-panting train;
Firm sands; the little dulling edge of foam
That browns and dwindles as the wave goes home;
And washen stones, gay for an hour; the cold
Graveness of iron; moist black earthen mould;
Sleep; and high places; footprints in the dew;
And oaks; and brown horse-chestnuts, glossy-new;
And new-peeled sticks; and shining pools on grass;—
All these have been my loves. And these shall pass.
Whatever passes not, in the great hour,
Nor all my passion, all my prayers, have power
To hold them with me through the gate of Death.
They’ll play deserter, turn with the traitor breath,
Break the high bond we made, and sell Love’s trust
And sacramented covenant to the dust.
—Oh, never a doubt but, somewhere, I shall wake,
And give what’s left of love again, and make
New friends, now strangers….
But the best I’ve known,
Stays here, and changes, breaks, grows old, is blown
About the winds of the world, and fades from brains
Of living men, and dies.
Nothing remains.

O dear my loves, O faithless, once again
This one last gift I give: that after men
Shall know, and later lovers, far-removed
Praise you, “All these were lovely”; say, “He loved.”

Copyright © Jason Hook 2018