Monthly Archives: April 2012

Violence and small racoons

BENJAMIN AND TULIP, by Rosemary Wells, my edition – which belonged, perhaps worryingly but not at all surprisingly for anyone who knew her, to my mother – 1973

Bookcase 5, shelf 3, book 23

This rather appropriately battered little children’s book is profoundly shocking. It should not be allowed.

(Er, maybe I should point out that I am being ironic here. I love this book, and am so glad the dice picked it for me. But Benjamin and Tulip is startling, particularly if you’ve been fed a diet of sanitised children’s books.)

For  book of – oh – about 200 words, it’s pretty comprehensive. It covers:

  • violence (and that’s violence which could just possibly have sexual overtones),
  • inappropriate – to some – role reversal,
  • adults who cannot be trusted to protect you,
  • adults who cannot even be trusted to believe you when you’re a victim of violence.

See? Shocking.

So ready yourselves.

Benjamin and Tulip are small – well, I’m not quite sure, but I think they’re racoons. Tulip, according to Benjamin’s Aunt Fern, is ‘that sweet little girl’:

Benjamin knows differently. Every time he passes her home, she threatens to beat him up.

‘This is my brand new suit,’ said Benjamin.
‘I’m going to mess it up!’ said Tulip.

And she did. 

Poor Benjamin. His sister Natalie knows exactly what’s going on: ‘Looks like he’s been in a fight with Tulip again, and it looks like he got the worst of it.’ His aunt, however, persists in her belief that Tulip is a sweet little girl and sends him to the store for more watermelon (Tulip smashed the one he’d been sent to get earlier).

‘This time,’ said Aunt Fern, ‘come back with the watermelon and without bothering that sweet little Tulip, or you can forget about dinner tonight.’

He has to go right past Tulip’s house – again.

Time for a little preventative action this time, and Benjamin zooms straight up a tree when he sees Tulip, who threatens him  – ‘You’re cruising for a bruising’ – from below. Resignation has set in; he’s prepared to wait up his tree all night if he has to.

But Tulip climbs up, and wordlessly edges along the branch to where a nervous Benjamin is perched, still holding his watermelon. Then the branch suddenly bends, then it snaps and they both plummet down, followed by the watermelon.

However, Benjamin lands on Tulip, and the watermelon lands on Benjamin’s head, and suddenly something snaps in Benjamin too:

‘There!’

Of course there’s only one thing to do with a smashed watermelon and that’s eat it (oh, and spit the pips at each other – more undesirable behaviour being encouraged by Rosemary Wells).

And eat it in a new spirit of mutual respect:

This book still cracks me up.

It’s a splendid combination of the rather laconic writing (‘Where is the watermelon?’ asked Aunt Fern. ‘Back a ways,’ said Benjamin) and the wonderfully expressive illustrations. Tulip radiates malevolent glee; the expression on Benjamin’s face as he waits for her to reach him on the end of the branch says more about his state of mind than all the words in the world.

I’ve always liked Rosemary Wells’ work, but Benjamin and Tulip is in a slightly different league – some of her books are a little, well, anodyne. Not this one. Track it down and let yourself be shocked…

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A vanished world

A PHOTOGRAPHER IN OLD PEKING by Hedda Morrison, published in 1985

Bookcase 9, shelf 3, book 9.

It’s very strange. This ‘reading what the dice select’ exercise has thrown up some oddities, and in this case it’s given me a book I cannot recollect buying. I can’t remember it at all, though I have a vague recollection of finding some books on China in a second-hand bookshop when I was on holiday once. I wonder if this was one of them? It’s been driving me mad. After ages in the book trade, I do not forget books.

Er – except I evidently do.

The next thing that baffled me about it was why I’d not shelved it with my photography books. And then I opened it, and I knew why (so I’d evidently looked at it at some time to make the assessment). There’s a fine line between a photograph which is simply a document and one which has artistic ambitions, and sometimes time alone is enough to cause an overlap. Sometimes it isn’t – and there’s nothing wrong with documenting what you see, of course.

For me, Hedda Morrison’s photographs fall onto the documentary side. What is most interesting about them is the time and place, not the composition, lighting, thought processes. But that was probably inevitable, given the circumstances in which she worked…

Hedda Morrison went to Peking in 1933. A German national, she ‘was anxious to work overseas as I had no sympathy for the Germany of the time’, and answered an ad asking for someone to take charge of a German-owned photographic studio in China.

Her family saw her off in 1933 a little apprehensively – really, Hedda? – and gave her protective gifts: an umbrella and a pistol. The way you do. Her contract was for five years; she stayed on, finally leaving in 1946 when she got married. (I know all this because A Photographer in Old Peking isn’t just a collection of photographs; there is plenty of background text to set both the shots and the photographer in context.)

Most of the time she used Rolleiflex twin-lens relax cameras, which were ‘perfect’, she says – but the same could not be said of the flash available, of course. It could be dangerous, and on one occasion she did manage to set herself alight, so there are not many shots of interiors. As a result she had to either work outside or ask people to keep as still as possible. This is part of the reason why so many of the photographs look rather carefully posed: they were. 

But they are often fascinating, too. The cut-out maker, surrounded by his delicate stencils (‘in a multitude of patterns, for home and window decorations’) is one example, and there are many others. The text is a mixture of informative – and occasionally slightly didactic – and atmospheric. Morrison manages to conjure up the atmosphere of pre-War Peking – streets sounding with the noises of hawkers’ clappers; funerals and weddings; lofts of pigeons; crickets in cages, night-watchmen patrolling the streets. And very, very, very different streets (not many camel trains). She isn’t romantic about it, however.

They seem to belong to an unchanging China – a complete illusion – though one, of course, which was about to undergo the most massive change which no-one could fail to notice. When Hedda Morrison went back (which she did in 1948 and then, later, in 1979 and 1982), she was stunned by the extent of the changes, even though many significant ones had already begun while she was already there.

Despite appearances, her China was not an imperial one; the Forbidden City was already largely open to the public. But the later developments were massive, and it’s one thing knowing about them in theory, but it’s another being confronted with the reality. And for a photographer, the most significant one must have been the pollution, as she laments: ‘the brilliant light of north China has lost its shine to a layer of smog.’ But ‘change had to come and I have no doubt that the people today are infinitely better off and live under a much fairer system’. Check out the photograph below, and the size of the woman’s feet, for instance… hmm.