Sunday, 25 March 2012


Probably the greatest stage direction of all time is this, from Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale:

[Exit, pursued by a bear]

That genius Mr Shakespeare (apologies if you are one of those people who believes Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare, but was in fact Rhys Ifans) and his thespy mates were among the first to realise the comedy potential of bears. Although this is a killer bear who eats a man, performed on stage with a man in a bear costume it would have been a crowd-pleasing comedy moment to break up the ‘story’ and the ‘language’ n' all that. 

Reading two frightfully witty books containing BEARS got me thinking about BEARS. (I’m not very imaginative), so here are some thoughts on bears, and also reviews of:

A Boy and a Bear in a Boat
Dave Shelton
David Ficking Books


The Hermit and the Bear
John Yeoman
Illustrated by Quentin Blake
Published by Andre Deutsch in 1986, now out of print.

So previously in bear-history, before they started chasing clowns, bears were bigger and awesomer. Grand High Dude of the Greek Gods, Zeus was once getting it on with Callisto, a young 'nymph'. So his wife, Hera, turned her into a bear. Which would be a great thing to be able to do if you were annoyed at someone. 

Callisto the bear went gallumphing round the Ancient Greek forest (probably giggling - she was still a nymph at heart) and bumped into her son, Arcas, who tried to shoot her with an arrow. Zeus thought the best thing to do would be to turn them both into constellations - Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (the Great Bear and the Smaller Bear). 

Does anyone else think he could have just turned her back into a woman?? 

But still, bear = big and awesome. In Scandinavian myths bears also had a big and awesome reputation. Scary Viking fighters called Berserkers wore bear skins when they went around going berserk (which is where we get the phrase from). And this all leads to the biggest, awesomest bear of all - Iorek Byrnison from HIS DARK MATERIALS.

But the the bears in these two books, while awesome, are not Ioreks. Since the invention of the teddy bear, (which was sometime in the 50s I believe – they had silly haircuts and took girls out ‘jiving’) bears have had a more cuddly reputation. The classic children’s bears – Pooh, Paddington, Baloo - are loveable, gentle and a bit slow-witted. (Baloo might be Mowgli's teacher, but he does sleep a lot). 

There is of course Rupert, who is more quick-witted and wears clothes*, but he always struck me as more of an odd-looking, furry child than a bear.

Bears are now our friends. Our clumsy, overgrown friends that don't always get the joke but laugh anyway. Well, maybe not Rupert - I don't trust Rupert with his beady eyes and fancy scarf. I am reviewing two books that celebrate this friendship between humans and bears. First we shall climb aboard the Harriet!

[* A word on clothed bears. Paddington wears a hat and a duffle coat, of course, but I always assumed this is just to deal with the change in temperature when he moves here from Peru. And I am pretty sure that Winnie the Pooh was naked until Disney gave him a red t-shirt. Perhaps they felt that an unclothed Pooh would be indecent. Although I am not sure why they thought having him naked from the waist down was better. I remain quite sure that Rupert is unusual as a bear who dresses himself, but feel free to prove me wrong.]

A BOY AND A BEAR IN A BOAT by Dave Shelton

This is a joy and a delight of a book and is completelyandutterly different to anything I've read before. Starting with the cover. The cover is a page from a map (but a map showing just the sea) and has a coffee ring and a tiny insect on it. It is genius. It is also our first glimpse into the mind of the Bear. 

The Boy climbs aboard the Bear's boat (The Harriet) to sail somewhere. We don't know where, we don't know why. When the Bear shows the Boy his map, which just has the sea (and a coffee ring) on it, we start to wonder if the Bear knows either... But the journey involves fishing (with mixed success), pirating, playing i-spy and lots of tea.

Dave Shelton is the author of the DFC Library comic GOOD DOG, BAD DOG, where he showed a talent for comic timing - guiding you through the panels to the punchline picture. In this book the text leads you there, with hilarious illustrations popping up at just the right moments.

He also has a knack for describing awkward pauses and tiny moments that sum up the relationship between the well-meaning but hapless and ever so slightly delusional Bear and the increasingly peeved Boy. Their hilarious friendship, like in all good comedies, is also downright lovely. And a scene involving the Bear's captain's hat will have you grinning like a moron for days.  

THE HERMIT AND THE BEAR by John Yeoman, illustrated by Quentin Blake

This gem and treat was recommended to me by a friend who remembered getting it on audiobook from the library when we were little. It is the story of a bear who can't seem to get it right (like last week when he tried to help the rabbits by blocking up all those pesky holes in their field with stones, and the rabbits just got really annoyed).

Then he sees a sign outside the Hermit's house. The Bear can't read (but he's a lovely singer, although most of the songs consist of the word 'fmoo') and so the Hermit tells him that the sign is an advert - the Hermit is looking for a pupil to educate.

What follows is the Bear's education. The Hermit's curriculum is made up of tasks such as housework, sports, fishing, DIY, sailing and playing cards. None of these are easy - especially when no one tells him that putting water on the heat for tea means putting it in a kettle first or that when decorating a cave you should only wallpaper the walls, rather than rocks and furniture as well. But he does learn that if you say 'SNAP' enough times, your opponent will probably give up playing and let you win. 

This book chronicles another hilarious and touching bear/person friendship. The more quietly  irate the Hermit becomes, the more you realise he is probably quite enjoying the company. Quentin Blake's illustrations, of course, bring out the moments of comedy delightfully.

There we have it. I hope you have enjoyed my thoughts on bears. I must leave you now, I have a bowl of just-right porridge to eat. Oh, wait. There's a knock at the door. 

Oh - that's weird. It's some sort of furry child in a scarf. With angry beady eyes. Very angry. I think he's about to go bers-- ARGHHHHHHH!

[Exit, pursued by Rupert Bear]

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