Customer Review

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Every bit as good, 50 years on, 20 Jan 2013
This review is from: The Fair to Middling (Puffin Books PS175) (Paperback)
I remember loving this book as a child - perhaps the first book I ever loved, as opposed to merely enjoyed. A child no more, I've obviously been talking about it for a long time and this Christmas my lovely daughter, who also loves books and therefore understands, found me a copy: and not just the 1973 edition, with its garish cartoon cover whereon a fox with a hat on blows a trumpet, but the earlier edition I owned 50 years ago. On this cover, its keynote watchfulness and separation, Emma turns her back on the fair - flat and unreal in the distance - and gazes into the pond to see her auburn hair for the first time.

Another reviewer has summarised the plot and placed the book within a genre and a literary context, so I won't do that. I'll just tell you that "The Fair to Middling" has not lost its appeal, and so must surely qualify as a neglected classic. Indeed, an adult perspective gives details that passed me by as a child: the gentle allusion to the benefactor who was uhhappy at an all-boys school because he liked the company of girls, and who never married; the evil tempter who mentions a "terrible fall" from which he has never recovered. The children still live on the page, a rare quality which for me even C S Lewis hasn't managed, and the author loves - and lives in - every one of his flawed creations. And I can see why I loved them too, and one of several reasons why the book entered my heart was that I was a fat and ugly child, probably lonely, and beginning the longing quest for transformation that has been my inner life ever since.

At its heart the book seems to be about acceptance, and puts forth a very English stoicism alongside the very English wit and the gentle, we might even say anti-capitalist, liberalism. It is these qualities that seem to be lost to us, alongside the sixpences, barley-water and occasional "gor blimey guv" dialogue. This is where the sharp nostalgic pleasure of the book comes in: here and in the richness of the language (did I really read this, on my own, at the age of eight?)

Raymond Briggs was a name that meant nothing to me 50 years ago, and probably didn't mean a lot to many other people either: he was still in his twenties, and some of his figures are slightly awkward in their poses. But his illustrations are part of the joy: not confining himself to key points in the action, he uses graphics to make real the archaisms that help to render the book timeless, the Edwardian styling of pill-box labels and advertising posters. And did he love the book too? Did he remember its solitary, yearning characters when he created "The Snowman"? And was it those naive and trusting children, grown older, who became Jim and Hilda in "Where the Wind Blows"? I'd like to think so.

I've used words like "love" and "heart" quite a bit in this review. I don't generally do that.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 12 May 2013 01:05:57 BDT
Lovely review. I read this too when I was very young, though not as young as you were. I couldn't even remember what it was about; I just had a lingering feeling, images floating at the back of my mind. I may well buy it and reread it.

Posted on 22 Jun 2014 16:24:10 BDT
Last edited by the author on 22 Jun 2014 16:29:14 BDT
This is a very thoughtful review. Says all that needs to be said.

re. the anti-capitalist streak of the writer's liberalism, there is a prophetic scorn here directed at the consumerism which was just emerging - you can sense the writer's post-Suez resentment at having to depend on the United States as an ally, especially as he is equally satirical and mocking towards the Soviet way.

In reply to an earlier post on 23 Jun 2014 01:56:38 BDT
Last edited by the author on 23 Jun 2014 01:57:04 BDT
L. Camidge says:
Thanks for your positive comment. You're right about the anti-consumerism and also what I'd now call "anti-objectivisation": the rather bitter scorn of Emma's friend and her interest in hair-styling, set against Emma's forthright dismissal of a kewpie doll (Americana - you're right!) and cheap sweets. I'm not sure it was purely prophetic though - isn't it the same point as Caliban's "let it alone, thou fool, it is but trash"?

I'm interested in your comment about the attitude to the "Soviet way" - I'm sure you're right, but the only example I can think of in the book is Wally's theft of the banknote, initially rationalised in terms that early 20th-century theorists would have recognised as "appropriation".

Thank you for prompting me to get the book down off the shelf again: a lovely end to a perfect midsummer evening.
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