Saturday, 2 February 2013

White is wronged

The recent transition from snow to heavy rain has precipitated memories of a book I enjoyed many years ago which remains scandalously out of print.  T.H. White's scabrously satirical The Elephant and the Kangaroo, first published in 1947, reprises the Noah story, replacing the Biblical patriarch with a rural Irish couple with whom  a certain Mr. White is lodging.  What begins as an apparently straightforward critique, delivered through the English lodger, of a particular brand of Irish Catholicism which is fuelled by fear, ignorance and an aversion to independent thought, is deliciously complicated when, not only does the Archangel Michael descend through the chimney to announce the second deluge, but it proves to be Mr. White himself who is the most inspired by and able to respond to the practical and technical challenges of constructing the new ark.  The book was banned shortly after publication because of the volleys of offence it was perceived to be firing in the general direction of the Irish, religion and the church, which to say the least was an insufficiently nuanced response.  The Elephant and the Kangaroo is vintage White, with all his hallmark wit, humour, erudition and vibrant compassion for the human spirit.  How is it, asks your blogger, in tones of near-hysterical incredulity, that literate and intelligent editors in publishing houses can still be churning out books about vapid celebrities, alleged musicians and even golf, while allowing this and other books by such a superb and important English writer to remain unenshrined in print.  

(Sounds of slightly apologetic dismounting from soapbox).

I am particularly fond, by the way, of the genre (which may need naming - can there be a competition - with rosettes?) which reworks or recontextualises Biblical stories.  The Flood was of course used by Jeanette Winterson in Boating for Beginners, and there have been numerous other examples, many featuring the life and death of Jesus, my favourite being Jim Crace's Quarantine.  In general, there should be more rosettes.

While we wait for a flurry of embarrassed publishers to rush out handsome new editions of this book, let us consider a reading list for the wetter weather:

Shower Man in Havana

The Woman in Mac

Water Drips Down

Anything by H.G. Wellies
(e.g. The History of Mr. Brolly)

or Samuel Bucket

The Drenched Lieutenant's Woman.


And don't even get me started on the perniciousness of umbrellas.

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