Books: Another classic from author of 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'
Children's books: Mister Cleghorn's Seal, Judith Kerr, HarperCollins, hdbk, 96 pages, €19.50
Can there be a parent in Ireland who has not read Judith Kerr's 1968 book The Tiger Who Came to Tea to their offspring? The story about a tall tiger who inveigles himself into having afternoon tea at the home of a little girl called Sophie has been a bestseller for years.
The tiger is voracious, but not for human flesh (although that threat is felt). Wreaking slow havoc in the house, he smilingly eats their fridge bare and even drinks the taps dry. The story is pure carnival: unbidden, this wild thing upheaves the polite order of a bourgeois household.
Now in her nineties, almost 50 years later, Kerr has written and illustrated another story of the wild upturning the domestic. Mister Cleghorn's Seal is the blissful tale of a bachelor who goes home with a harbour seal pup whose mother has been shot. His brother is about to shoot the orphaned pup, which they find starving on a rock, when Mr Cleghorn hears himself saying "something totally absurd". What he says is: "No, don't, William. I'll take it."
And he does: back in a tin bath on the train to the city, then on a luggage trolley at midnight to his apartment, where the janitor has a strict policy against pets of any sort, let alone harbour seals. He sneaks his damp new baby up the stairs to his bathroom, where he sets the seal in the bath and collapses exhausted on the lavatory seat. Now what?
Mister Cleghorn's Seal is far wordier than the spiky captions of The Tiger Who Came to Tea. On most pages, there is more type than drawing, and the vocabulary is much more ambitious. In borrowing a baby's bottle to feed his seal, Mr Cleghorn is "undeterred" by the human infant's screams; the seal then gives a "tremendous" sneeze that sprays his cod-liver-oil-and-milk mixture everywhere; indeed, the entire plot is driven by the oft-raised problem of "weaning".
The cadence, too, aims at more rambling comic effects than the chantable phrases of her books for the very young.
When the nearby zoo is too understaffed to be trusted with the seal, Mr Cleghorn tells his new ally, the lady from the apartment beneath, that he could just keep it. "You mean in your flat?" "It's got a balcony,'" said Mr Cleghorn, quite belligerently. "And I could let him have turns in the bath."
A forest of subtle particles brings out the social comedy: Mr Cleghorn says "rather grandly" to his new friend that the janitor need never find out about his seal; then, losing confidence, he stumbles "a little". When he invites her to help him buy plants to hide the seal on his balcony, "she went a little pink and said, 'Of course.'" "Little" might well be the book's mot juste, uniting the seal's vulnerable charm with all this human bother over a nascent romance.
The pup's rescue turns out to be the making of Mr Cleghorn. A lot is done in a "little".