Under my byline

Car-acter act

Posted in Architecture/Design, Books by Rrishi on 27 December 2008

Noddy, Big-Ears and Mr PlodChildren’s authors, unlike writers of grown-up books, can work magic with automobiles

Automobiles and books are not natural partners. Try and recall books in which fossil-fuel driven vehicles played a significant role, and your list will assuredly be short. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and Ian Fleming’s Bond books (1950s and 1960s) will feature on it, and perhaps Robert M Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974). Off the top of my head, I couldn’t think of any others — not until I turned to children’s books.

And this ought to surprise, because a car (motorcycle, lorry) is absolutely loaded with symbolic value, of the sort that makes novels. Cars, as everybody knows, are about sex. They are about pistons and oil and lube; they are about speed and power and display; they are about independence and freedom and new horizons; they are about sensual curves and leather and brutal edges. They are about horses. What better raw material for grown-up fiction?

But no, there’s a problem. All those attributes are, essentially, human, and that’s why, in grown-up books, they are found where they belong: in humans. A novelist doesn’t need a car to do all this for him, he needs his characters to be driven by their own nature.

It’s different in a movie or TV, of course, where the words are a supporting act to the visuals. A director needs to people his screen with symbols to say the things his characters can’t, and he has to move them around. There are plenty of great car scenes in the movies. It’s even plainer in computer games, such as the awful Grand Theft Auto, where a car theft (or a mugging) is a unit of value and all the symbolic attributes are taken for granted. No thinking involved.

So to the true refuge of cars in books: children’s fiction. Don’t be fooled by the apparently bright and safe environment of books for young children. The books are full of childish formulations of adult problems, including the need to be taken seriously, to fit in a group, to be free of supervision and exert control over one’s life, to be honest or pay for one’s misdeeds, to exercise authority over one’s peers and allocate reward and punishment, to recognise the subjectivity of others and peep outside a self-centred world. The difference is that in children’s books, not all human attributes and dilemmas have to belong to humans.

Now look back to the dates in the first paragraph: the 1950s through 1970s were the period when the middle class first went mobile. They were the years of the postwar boom which helped create our modern consumer economy. A car was still a coveted thing, and there was rarely more than one car per family, if that. Not suffering from surfeit, cars retained some of their magic.

Urban culture and human aspirations changed almost overnight in the West, and more gradually in India (until recently), as a result of the car. With all this emotional freight and the inevitable fetishisation, naturally books like those of Kerouac, Fleming and Pirsig were inspired to put the automobile to various uses.

Also from the first half of the last century, and stretching into the 1970s, is the design tradition that gave us the classic image of the car. It’s not the sleek and anonymous automobile of today that is archetypal but the allegedly aerodynamic, “teardrop”-shaped car, with such organic touches as haunch-like wheel arches, long snouts and headlamps like eyeglasses. It is easy to turn that kind of car into a character. It seems alive and even self-willed (certainly it can be unpredictable), not utterly inorganic and dependent on petrol and a driver.

Those curves are what young children dig. For one, their toys are usually made of wood or plastic, materials that can easily be given grippable curves. For another, they like pictures, and old-fashioned cars fit right into children’s picture books and illustrated stories.

One of my favourite examples is Noddy, probably Enid Blyton’s single most famous character. Blyton wrote 24 little Noddy books between 1949 and 1963, of which the first few were illustrated by the fantastic (and fantastically named) Dutch artist Eelco Marinus ten Harmsen van der Beek, who signed himself “Beek”.

Noddy is a wooden nodding-head toy, made by a wood-carver, who escapes and moves to Toyland, a place peopled entirely by toys. He makes friends, like the brownie Big-Ears and his neighbours the Tubby Bears, and gets a job at Mr Golly’s garage. When the goblins come and steal Mr Golly’s cars one night, with Big-Ears’ help Noddy finds the cars hidden in the woods and returns to Toy Village to tell the policeman Mr Plod. But the villagers think he’s the thief, and lock him in jail.

Of course, the truth comes out, the stolen cars are recovered, and to reward Noddy and assuage their guilt, the village throws him a party and Mr Golly gives Noddy a little car of his own (“little car” is what it is always called). So Noddy becomes a taxi driver in book two, and thus follow the adventures and Blytonian hidden moral lessons of the rest of the series.

It must be said, though, that Noddy doesn’t seem to be a very careful driver: he knocks over toy boys and toy trees, his fares lose hats and handbags when he speeds, and some are ejected onto the road when he brakes too hard. Basically, he’s a boy with a car. The stories aren’t kid-safe and sanitised like current books for young children. What’s not to love?

By book seven the rounded and colourful little car has developed a personality of its own, going “parp-parp” and driving faster or slower according to its mood. At the seaside, in the same volume, the car saves Miss Whiskers, the toy cat, and her party when their rowboat capsizes. The little car feels ill after its salt-water sojourn, but coming home at last to Toy Village perks it up and cures it. And so on.

Noddy is a huge hit. The series has sold in the tens of millions worldwide and inspired dozens of spin-offs. In India, Euro Books owns the rights, and they say they print 3,000-5,000 copies of each of the 24 books every six months — 1.5-2.5 lakh (150-250,000) copies annually. That is spectacular. And Noddy isn’t Noddy without his little car.

The Mouse and the Motorcycle (this illustration not by Zelinsky, though)And Ralph Mouse would have been just a house mouse, if he didn’t have his motorcycle. In The Mouse and the Motorcycle (1965) and two more books, American children’s writer Beverly Cleary (author of the Ramona books) created Ralph, a mouse from an isolated rural hotel who is given a toy motorcycle by a visiting boy, and drives off into adventure. The motorcycle is made to run by the simple expedient of making the following sound: “Pb-pb-b-b-b”.

In the first adventure, Ralph rides through the hotel late at night to find the boy an aspirin tablet. In the next book, Runaway Ralph (1970), he drives to summer camp, and in the third, Ralph S Mouse (1982), he goes to primary school — familiar childhood environments of the era in which these books were written.

The motorcycle isn’t a sapient character, but it represents the things Ralph, and many a child, yearns for — adventure, speed, freedom, a space of one’s own, imaginary things coming true, and so on, but also safe returns home. Drawn by Paul O Zelinsky, Ralph is un-cartoonish and looks exactly like a real mouse, and the motorcycle is a tough, grown-up, rounded old model.

Beverly Cleary (c) beverlycleary.comWithout car or bike, neither Noddy nor Ralph would exist. Their identities are bound up with their vehicles in a way that those of adult fictional characters could never be, and the relationships are not a bad representation of the all-or-nothing friendships schoolchildren can have — even their passionate commitment to particular toys. What would be symbolically rather heavy-handed in an adult book, therefore, is accomplished with great ease in a book for children.

Automobiles make a handy tool in children’s fiction to contrast human and material, old and new, home and abroad, safety and adventure, being carefree and being responsible. The message? One can be a child but make wise choices; with freedom comes responsibility; and the most profound: despite technology, we remain human. Now try thinking of a contemporary product with which a writer could work the same magic.

(Hmm, I should have also mentioned Che’s Motorcycle Diaries.)

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One Response

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  1. mia said, on 24 October 2010 at 1:32 am

    thankyou for bezzus and romona


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