Belloc is brought back to life in a modern setting
Although most households probably own a dog-eared childhood copy of Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Verses (1907), it is not safe to assume that today's Michael Rosen readers will automatically relate to Belloc's world of afternoon tea and governesses. The South Bank's idea of introducing children to Belloc via some modern cautionary tales was a good one, particularly since the poems were read by contemporary poets to reinforce the concept of poetry as a living art form.
In a session lasting about one hour, poets Ian McMillan and Sophie Hannah interspersed some of the best-known Belloc verses - "Rebecca", "Mathilda", "Algernon" and "Henry King" - with their own poems. McMillan's "The Garage Door" and "Billy Jones and his nasty Mother" have the appropriate mix of macabre humour and a sophisticated message that was lost on the young children, but the choruses and raps (as in "Elderly Relatives" and "Natasha Green") for audience participation helped keep their attention. Sophie Hannah's tale of "Peter and Paul", sensibly broken into four sections, has a special message for any teacher whose life has been plagued by the antics of twins whom no one can tell apart.
Music, sometimes scored, sometimes improvised, by a small ensemble that included percussion, harp, cello and muted trombone, added atmosphere and visual interest, which was also provided by a backdrop featuring some of Nicolas Bentley's illustrations. These are probably as important to a reading of Belloc's verses as the way in which the poems are delivered, and at times I felt that McMillan's reading could have taken more account of the fact that many children would not be familiar with the poems and find them hard to understand.
However, as a family occasion which emphasised the fun to be gained from reciting poetry this event worked remarkably well.
For more details, write to Children's Events, Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 8XX, or telephone 0171 960 4242. Future family events include "Telling Tales - Animal Tales from around the World" (October 27, 2pm, Chelsfield Room) and a musicdance event (The Gogmagogs, November 1, 2pm, Purcell Room)