Inspiring Young Readers
Alfred Bestall : Rupert Bear 1935 - 1965
Whenever I see a Rupert Bear drawing it immediately conjours my childhood Christmas mornings when comic book annuals were one of my staples - to be read with gluttinous amounts of cheap selection box chocolate. I say 'read' but in truth one of the pleasures of the Rupert Annual was that it could be almost entirely read by simply looking at the gloriously coloured and detailed drawings as they progressed frame by frame. The only real reading commitment that was required was the rhyming couplet under each picture - the block of text aimed at better readers was set off at the bottom of the page and could be conveniently ignored.
Alfred Bestall who took over the Rupert comic strip in The Daily Express in 1935 inherited the bear from Mary Tourtel and really was the person responsible for creating the Rupert we immediately think of today. He created an odd world where anthropomorphic middle class animal-children from cosy nuclear families had adventures in Nutwood - a place that seemed to also be a place of magic and magical creatures, wizards, foreigners of various types and animated toys. All seemingly perfectly normal on the surface but extraordinarily surreal just under the skin when you made the mistake of taking time to think about what was really going on here.
I actually found Rupert himself quite hard to warm to - his face was always seemingly immobile and expressionless - but I just loved all his 'chums'. Algy Pug, Podgy Pig, Bill Badger and the supreme and wonderful Edward Trunk. How I would have loved to be a member of this little gang! Their adventures always seemed to be taking place in a perfect England countryside where even the worst events were not really too threatening and there was always a cream tea to go home to once the day was done.
However, it has to be said that there was, in retrospect and from an adult perspective, some worms in Bestall's buds. As with Enid Blyton there is a level of casual racism that is genuinely horrifying. I particularly dislike the use of the 'Golly' characters - terrible caricatures of black minstral figures that are part of that cohort of animated toys I refered to before. As with so much children's literature of that time, lazy stereotypes are scattered through the comic strips - which might have been a reflection of the audience that read The Daily Express. My family didn't and so the only time I encountered Rupert was in the Christmas annuals and for me, of course, as a child of 8 or 9 the magic of the season completely disguised any of these issues.
What can't be denied is Bestall's illustrative and artistic prowess and his drawings have become iconic of a rapidly disappearing childhood. I don't really know whether Rupert is still popular with younger children and I would hope that if he is that there has been some judicious editing of the content for a more modern and enlightened audience. He will, however, always be as emblematic of Christmas for me as snowmen and robins.