Family favourites

12th July 1996 at 01:00
Mennyms Alive, By Sylvia Waugh, Julia MacRae Pounds 9.99, Bagthorpes Besieged, By Helen Cresswell, Faber Pounds 10.99

Peter Hollindale witnesses the last gasp of the Mennyms -- and renews his acquaintance with the irrepressible Bagthorpes.

Mennyms Alive is the fifth and final story of the Mennyms, who have joined BB's Little Grey Men and Mary Norton's Borrowers among the classic fictions about small, endangered groups of beings, human and yet not human,living secretive and perilous existences in the nooks and crannies of the world.

Whether or not the "men" in "Mennyms" is a deliberate hint, Sylvia Waugh's original creations share with their predecessors an almost allegorical quality of implicit meaning for the lives of human beings.

The Mennyms are a family of life-sized rag dolls. Forty-six years ago, after the death of their maker, Kate Penshaw, they inherited her spirit and came to life. They also obtained insecure legal title to her house and possessions at 5 Brocklehurst Grove. For almost half a century they have lived a scary, enterprising life in hiding.

In the fourth book all but one of the Mennyms "died", when Kate's spirit was withdrawn. With lifelessness came dispossession. They lost their property while in limbo, and were given shelter as a set of treasured curiosities by Daisy Maughan, who housed them in an empty flat above her antique shop.

Mennyms Alive is the story of their resurrection - and their continuing search for a dependable sanctuary. Daisy's flat is the last of their precarious, temporary habitations. As their story closes they have bought a permanent safe dwelling, an abandoned manse at the edge of a cemetery - an appropriate last refuge for the Mennyms, whose creator has deserted them.

This book is really a coda to the series, and the plot is slight. The dolls are never in much danger this time. The natives in the human world are friendly, and the alarms not very serious. But plot has never been the most important thing in these five books.

As they adapt resourcefully to new situations - doing their accounts, and knitting, and jogging, and writing scholarly articles, and watching TV - the Mennyms earn a living and fashion a life.

Home and family are the stuff of endless comedy, but also the one sure defence against the cold. Outside the embattled domestic centre, the world is always strange and full of risk, as if not only Mennyms but human beings were not quite made for it.

The happy ending is conditional, and not unmixed with sadness, but its curious blend of farce and sorrow and mystery makes a fitting close to this remarkable tragi-comedy for children.

The nine Bagthorpe books present a very different family saga. The Bagthorpes, who have become a comic institution, are intellectuals in their crackpot way. Arts, letters and public affairs preoccupy the eccentric and selfish grown-ups, and ingenious lunacy comes naturally to them.

The children, except for sane, commonsensical Jack, are even worse. Rivalry, jealousy and competing interests ensure that the family is in non-stop farcical disarray.

It is a mistake to regard the Bagthorpe books as novels. They have more in common with soap opera or situation comedies. Like an episode of Neighbours or Coronation Street, Bagthorpes Besieged assumes much prior knowledge of the characters, and gives limited help to new readers. Like an episode of a soap, it ends inconclusively, with an unresolved crisis to set up Episode 10.

The ideal young reader of the Bagthorpes is one who is streetwise and sophisticated in approach to the media, but still able to relish comic-strip jokes. (Time adds extra piquancy to some of these. Mrs Fosdyke the cook complains about cows, "You wouldn't believe what you can catch eating them. Brussels something.") The wit is unsparing of ignorance. When the dreadful four-year-old Daisy leaves two decomposing goldfish lying on a plate, we are told that the scene appeared "like a Salvador Dali still life". But Daisy's knockabout exploits involve locking her elders and (sometimes) betters up in sheds, chanting "Lock him up and frow away the key!", like a soulmate of Michael Howard.

For readers who enjoy both kinds of fun - and a great many do - the Bagthorpes still have plenty to offer. But the freshness of the early books has faded, and the comedy shows signs of strain. Even the best soap can run for too long.

Mennyms Alive is published on August 1.

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