Tuesday, 30 November 2004

Shock-headed Peter

Our Victorian forebears would have been completely mystified about the proposal to make it illegal for us to smack our children, for what was inflicted on theirs makes smacking seem like a caress. I don’t mean just being sent up chimneys or down mines – that was only for the children of the poor – but also the punishments that middle- or upper-class children might suffer when they stepped out of line.

The only interesting relic I have of my childhood is a battered copy of an English translation of Struwwelpeter, with the wildly inaccurate subtitle Pretty Stories and Funny Pictures.

It tells of appalling things that happened to naughty or merely foolish children: Frederick, who was cruel to animals, was savaged by his own dog; Harriet played with matches and burned to death; Augustus wouldn’t eat his soup and died slowly of starvation, while Robert went out with a red umbrella on a windy day and was never seen again. Most frightening of all, when Conrad’s Mamma was out and he sucked his thumb, the “great, long, red-legg’d scissor-man” came crashing through the door and snipped it off, then did the same to the other one. I must have been given this book when I was about six, and it says much for the happy security of my childhood that although I was a nervous and timid little boy I don’t think I was at all terrified by the truly dreadful pictures.

One of the stories strikes me today as being very salutary: three little racists torment a “woolly-headed black-a-moor”, singing “Oh! Blacky, you’re as black as ink” and so on. A neighbourhood giant called Agrippa remonstrates with them but they take no notice, so he “foams with rage” and dunks them in his “mighty inkstand”.

“The black-a-moor enjoys the fun” and a final picture shows him marching perkily along while the three boys march behind him:
Quite black all over, eyes and nose,
And legs, and arms, and heads, and toes,
And trowsers, pinafores and toys,
The silly little inky boys.

So perhaps the bloodthirsty Dr Hoffman's heart was really in the right place, though many doctoral theses have been written about his castration complex and the phallic symbolism of his themes.

I shall write in a later post about a version called Struwwelhitler.

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