Tales of the animal kingdom

16th May 1997 at 01:00
Lady Muck. By William Mayne. Illustrated by Jonathan Heale. Heinemann Pounds 9.99

Robi Dobi. By Madhur Jaffrey. Illustrated by Amanda Hall. Pavilion, Pounds 12.99

The way of the birds. By Meme McDonald. Illustrated by Shane Nagle. Allen and Unwin Pounds 9.99

John Mole discovers enchanting worlds of playful pigs, a kindly Indian elephant and a resurrected curlew

There's a delightful anecdote from Angela Huth in a recent biography of that consummately eccentric actor Ralph Richardson. He and John Gielgud were walking in Gielgud's garden with the Queen Mother, who, admiring a pair of tortoises, wondered how they communicated with each other."Oh Ma'am, would you like me to try to find out?" offered Sir Ralph, who promptly leant over the wire and made as if to listen to their conversation.

Gallant, endearing, mischievous, resolutely old-fashioned, this could almost have given rise to the kind of children's story that William Mayne has come up with in Lady Muck. Here, though, it's a pig and his wife whose language we discover and whose quaint idiom characterises the book: "Oink ... go snuffly and diggy fat sweet rooties. That will happy me, Boark, my Boarky dear, from grunt to squeal."

To begin with, it all seems too close to Stanley Unwinism for comfort, and good merely for a few giggles, but it soon becomes apparent that what Mayne is after in this little tale is nothing less than a sustained piece of Richardsonian playfulness, full of whimsical mannerism, which demands to be read aloud with a roguish twinkle in the eye.

The story concerns the pigs' journey to market where they hope to sell truffles for "goldy round money". But, of course, they've eaten all but one of them by the time they get there and instead of returning home in state ("If you ride up in your wiggy wit your whippy I shall wave trotter like queenly"), they can only afford "a wheel(y)barro" which collapses en route. The style is a kind of pastiche mix of Restoration comedy and Joycean wordplay - decidedly odd. Its young readership (or audience) will probably respond to its curious charm, though some, I suspect, will find the artifice too insistently contrived.

Jonathan Heale's pictures are a delight, particularly the full-page woodcuts with their watercolour wash, which, in keeping with the book's air of antiquity, are so strongly reminiscent of William Nicholson's classic turn-of-the century illustrations that they might almost be intended as a homage. Several of the market scenes would look good, framed, on the walls of the children's room in a rural heritage pub.

Introducing the imaginative and fast-moving adventures of a kindly Indian elephant, Robi Dobi, newly-named by the author but based on an affectionately remembered character from stories her father told, Madhur Jaffrey explains how "the particular art of storytelling in my family mixes ancient tradition with the very modern and personal. The language used is completely contemporary, full of onomatopoeic sounds."

The ease and fluency of her narration couldn't be more different from William Mayne's self-conscious artistry. It combines all the familiar properties of folk tale, including some splendid villains to bring out the best in the eponymous hero and his animal friends, with up-to-the-minute details which seem to fit entirely naturally. Slimy Kimey, the snake-witch, uses a can of permanent orange spray-paint to ensure that she is able to spot mice wherever they go and then grab them to take home and fatten up for her mouse pie, while the door of the cage in which King Sourpuss keeps the parrot Princess Tara, his kidnapped bride-to-be, is "on system". Not in the least anachronistic, these technological touches only serve to make the world in which we also meet the timeless Kamala-Saurus, the great painter in the sky who fills the dawn with great patches of purple and red, all the more vivid and convincing.

Amanda Hall's appropriately rainbow illustrations combine tapestry-style design with evident relish for characterisation. Robi Dobi himself is a tower of genial strength.

The Way of the Birds, inspired by a peripatetic and multimedia Australian educational project designed to tell the story of the eastern curlew, is the work of the project's artistic director, Meme McDonald. Written throughout in the second person ("In a breathless moment before the dawn you were born ..."), it explores the passionate, dreamworld identification of a young girl with a dead curlew, which she brings to life again in her imagination before ceremoniously burying it. Rhapsodic, awed, informative and globally aware, it amounts to a considerable tour de force, despite the occasional embarrassingly overwritten passage.

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