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Tits, bums and other stories

Features | December 2015


‘Shag the Pony’ would cause too much hilarity today for a children’s book title while mentions of wee, poo, farts and willies abound. What’s going on? asks Nicholas Tucker

Teaching English during the 1960s in a tough London comprehensive, I was searching the stock cupboard one lunch hour for something to read to my first-year class that afternoon. One book I looked at involved birds, but someone had been there before me: every mention of the blue tit, a leading character, had been amended in ink to ‘bluebird’. I took the point. My class would have pounced on any mention of ‘tit’ like tigers on a wounded prey. Today, there are still a few works, such as Christopher Perrins’ authoritative study British Tits, that proudly stand out as if refusing to be cowed by mocking laughter. But apart from the odd children’s picture book recounting the adventures of the marginally more acceptable Tom or bearded tit, this little bird has long disappeared from respectable books’ titles.

Other children’s books whose titles could subsequently have seemed questionable include C Bernard Rutley’s Shag the Caribou (1943), part of a wildlife series, and Peter Crabbe’s Shag the Pony (1952), published by the Catholic Truth Society. The Girl Guide’s 1961 guide to different knots, Whippings & Lashings; Knots for Everyone still appears in print but with the subtitle now reversed to the less alarming Knots for Everybody: With Whippings and Lashings.

As times changed, only a few brave titles continued to cling on to the once innocent meaning of the word ‘pussy’, with the American author Ira Alterman leading this diminishing band with two picture books, So, You’ve Got a Fat Pussy! (1981) and Games You Can Play with Your Pussy (1982). Charles A Pemberton’s illustrated My Big Book of Pretty Pussies (1965) is another example. ‘Pussy’ acquired its extra anatomical meaning around 1879. Always more current in America, it is surprising to see publishers over there still assuming widespread audience innocence with titles like these over a hundred years later. The same might be said for Macmillan’s decision to re-issue Richmal Crompton’s 1924 classic William the Fourth as late as 2005, with a Miss Cliff in one story still telling the famous eleven-year-old anti-hero that ‘You must call and see my pussy again, little boy.’

The most fertile ground for textual double entendres in children’s literature has always been the school story, once so popular between the wars but now shadows of their former selves. Sharp-eyed critics on the look-out for their literary gaffes during that time were in short supply. One notable exception was Arthur Marshall, a schoolmaster turned gifted humorist and popular broadcaster. Starting out with short sketches on the BBC involving imitations of schoolmistresses and their pupils, he went on for many years to write a racy survey of current girls’ school stories for the Christmas edition of the New Statesman, some of which were later anthologised in collections of comic writing.

The writer Elsie Oxenham was one of his particular favourites, capable of coming up with a character like Lavinia Page, in Schoolgirl Jen at the Abbey (1950). On page 18 she is heard complaining about her current treatment at school. ‘ “Miss Jaikes, she calls me Vinny. The boys call me Lav. I hates it.” And Lavinia flushed resentfully.’ He also enjoyed Dorita Fairlie Bruce’s 1937 story Dimsie Intervenes, with the girls’ headmistress at one point roundly declaring, ‘My dear, I am never off duty except when I’m in bed – and not always then.’ Were these minor literary transgressions always accidental? Could there sometimes have been darker, unconscious forces at work, pushing the pen or the typewriter along ways authors at least on the surface had no wish to go? We shall never know.

My 1960 comprehensive school pupils, already with their own ribald vocabulary, were quick to seize on anything that hinted at the otherwise unacceptable. Since then, children have been increasingly showered by obscenities either on television comedy shows or else at home. In print they are no longer sheltered from the ‘bad language’ that finally broke through with the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Instead, their reading matter is steadily returning to the earthy humour found in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, the first ever British children’s book. Published in 1744, this included the following rhyme, dropped from all future anthologies:

‘Piss a bed Piss a bed, Barley Butt

Your bum is so heavy

You can’t get up.’

Today, even picture books rival each other in trying to get laughs from previously taboo subjects like poo, wee, farts, belches, bogeys, bums and willies. The children’s author Josephine Pullein-Thompson in Fair Girls and Grey Horses (1996), a joint autobiography written with her sisters, recalls writing her first novel while still a pre-war child. In all innocence she called her hero Edwin Pisspot, a name she had previously made sure was absent from her local telephone directory and which could not therefore, she hoped, lay her open to a libel suit. Her parents gently suggested another name might be more appropriate. A character called Edwin Pisspot would now pass without notice in a new book for children.

Inadvertent double entendres and the laughter they caused once spotted could only flourish when verbal taboos were more numerous and therefore more at risk of being unintentionally flouted, either via the odd literary accident or else simply through changes of meaning brought on by the passage of time. But perhaps artificial double entendres are now the future, given today’s greater tolerance of what goes into print for any age. Do You Want to Play with My Balls? (2015), an American publication written by the Cifaldi brothers, deliberately uses its ambiguous title for comic effect. Intended for adults but written as if for children, every page is packed with contrived double entendres. Some think it funny; others find it repellent and have objected to its presence in bookshops. I wonder how it would fare over here?


This story was from December 2015 issue. Subscribe Now