THE CHURCH MICE AT CHRISTMAS, by Graham Oakley, published in 1980
Bookcase 5, shelf 3, book 7
Well, that’s the risk you take when you let the dice choose your books; you get a Christmas book in January. Next December I’ll probably end up with something on tropical gardening or making ice creams.
But this is a joy, whatever the time of year. And I’m not one of those people who thinks that children’s books are only for children; far from it (yes, I spent time working in general bookshops, but I’ve always loved kids’ books). A good book is a good book, and a good illustrated children’s book will entertain adults every bit as much as it will entertain children. And Graham Oakley’s wonderful books are certainly entertaining. They are also beautiful.
So what of the tale (or perhaps that should be tail)?
Well, the basic premise of the whole series of Church Mice books is that Sampson, as a church cat, has taken a vow not to harm the mice who also live in his church. Instead of chasing them, he is constantly involved in their exploits and misadventures, which is not surprising since the ringleaders of the mice are Arthur and Humphrey who can be relied on to cause chaos. Sampson is very, very patient – and in this book they decide to raffle him to raise some money for a Christmas party (they are at pains to explain to him that he can run away after he’s been raffled). He is won, however, by a most unpleasant couple who come back to the church to seek him out after he vanishes.
I love the illustrations – the detail, the elegance, the wit. Many have jokes for the grown-ups in them (a carrier bag is captioned ‘H M Binge and Son Ltd, wines and spirits’; a chainsaw in a Christmassy shop window has a caption above it reading ‘now in beautiful Christmas colours’ and the nearby record shop urges passers-by to ‘spend Christmas with the Garotters’). And I think you can tell that Graham Oakley spent a lot of the 1950s and 60s working in the theatre and later the BBC as a set designer – but that’s not to deny the wit of the text as well. The Church Mice books are great fun for adults to read aloud to children, too.
Ahem – back to the plot…
The couple decline the handle-less dustpan they are offered as an alternative to Sampson, and take their money back. So the mice have to find other methods of fundraising, and settle on carol singing. Their attempts are defeated by noise, then by being spotted, then being chased and having to run for it. The mice are despondent, but Arthur and Humphrey decide to salvage something and set out, dressed up, to retrieve all the choirboys’ left-overs (mostly sweets) and bring them back as surprise presents. They retrieve some:
and on the way back they spot the real Father Christmas climbing out of a window. They know he’s the real thing because he’s wearing the kit and has a big bag marked ‘presents’. Admittedly, it also has ‘swag’ written on it, but that’s been crossed out. They pester him with their over-excited Christmas requests – and then a policeman appears and catches the burglar (not Father Christmas, sigh) by the boot as he climbs a wall. The mice, of course, still think he’s The Man and call after the retreating FC that they will see him at 9 p.m.
They return to the vestry, but when there’s no sign of FC by 9.15 things start to deteriorate, and
‘When the clock struck half-past nine, Arthur and Humphrey began to fear for their safety. Humphrey started to stammer that Father Christmas was probably having trouble with his reindeer or something, but the mice were in no mood for excuses.’
In the meanwhile, the police sergeant resolves to do his rounds in the burglar’s festive costume. A reward has been delivered to the police station and the sergeant decides to deliver it, which he does, and the mice think- you guessed it. Better late than never.
Graham Oakley’s books are wonderful, and yet he has lamented that he finds it difficult to get published now. It’s such a shame, and yet I’m not surprised. There’s no snot or poo, the colours are subtle and the detail meticulous, the text would stretch younger readers. They’re just not fashionable. Take the average selection of children’s books in the average local bookshop or quickly browse bestsellers online, and there’s a depressing sameness to many of them. Not to these, thank heavens.
Go Sampson! Go Arthur! Go Humphrey! Go Graham Oakley!
(Do check out Graham Oakley’s website – lovely illustrations, as you’d expect: grahamoakley.co.uk)