One of my favourite books as a child was the first book I can remember reading. It was a Rupert Annual. I didn’t grow up in a house full of books, but I often got a book for my birthday, and one for Christmas. The Christmas book would always be an Annual. And the Rupert Bear Annuals were the ones I loved most. For those not familiar with Rupert, he is not one of your cuddly bears that you might snuggle up to on a cold night. Rupert is a serious bear, who has serious adventures.
The illustrations are in comic-strip style, except there are no speech bubbles. The text is written at two levels. There are rhyming couplets under each picture cell and then a longer prose version at the bottom of each page. But it’s the illustrations drawn by Alfred Bestall from 1935–1973 that I loved most.
There are hundreds of Rupert stories, but they are mostly set around Rupert’s home in the village of Nutwood.
Nutwood is not your average English village. It is populated by a strange collection of anthropomorphic animals such as Algy Pug, Podgy Pig, Willy Mouse and Edward Trunk (an elephant). There are humans living nearby as well, among them sailors, gypsies and a Girl Guides troop.
Rupert’s adventures involve anything from pirates and cannibals, to fairies and imps. But my favourite stories have always been those that included particular neighbours of Rupert’s. Just over the hill from the Bear family, in the middle of idyllic English countryside, there is a pagoda. This is the home of another of Rupert’s friends, a Chinese girl called Tiger Lily. Her father is a magician.
Distorted and inaccurate as it is, this was my first introduction to Chinese culture. I loved the detail of the Chinese clothing, the interior detail of the magician’s house.
I believe Rupert also introduced me to my first dragon. The bear has another Chinese friend, Pong-Ping the Pekinese dog. He wears a smart Mandarin jacket and shoes with spats. In one story Pong-Ping’s pet dragon is the cause of the adventure. The dragon is small, but has all the features of a Chinese dragon, though I recall it does breathe fire.
Later in life I tried to introduce my favourite books from childhood to my daughter, Lili, and my experience was similar to Barry’s. She rejected most of them, but not Rupert. She loved the stories as well. So the tattered Annuals became even more tattered, and I got to rediscover the stories by reading them to her, over and over again.