Dot writes: it’s possible this post could be entitled “In which Dot notices with great excitement something that everyone else has known for years”, rather like my Barack Obama/Bob the Builder post. My excuse is that I don’t remember having a copy of Peepo as a child and I don’t think I had read it before Ken borrowed it from the library the other week, even though I love Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Anyway, this is a book about looking. It starts with the beginning of a baby’s day: “Here’s a little baby/ One, two, three/ Stands in his cot/ What does he see?” The opposite page has a hole cut in it through which you can see a man’s head lying on a pillow. Turn the page and you see the whole picture (and sorry for the photo quality here, but in a way it’s a good thing because you really should go and get a real copy and have a careful look at it):
The text tells you what the baby sees, the reassuring sights of his parents’ room in the early morning: “He sees his father sleeping/ In the big brass bed/ And his mother too/ With a hairnet on her head.// He sees the shadows moving/ On the bedroom wall/ And the sun at the window/ And his teddy/ And his ball.” But of course you see more than that – it’s a wonderfully detailed picture: the cosy clutter of the room, clothes half hanging out of drawers, boots facing in opposite directions under the bed, a rubber duck, a plug-in electric heater. And also, hanging on the bed-post, this:
Which, I’m pretty sure, is a gas mask in a box. If you look at the following pages, there are some more little clues:
an air-raid warden
and a patriotic picture on the wall of a certain cigar-chomping scion of the house of Marlborough.
So, there’s rather a lot to notice in these pages beyond what the baby sees. The little cut-out hole in the page could be read as a metaphor for the innocent narrowness of the baby’s vision, his lack of awareness of all the dark and worrying possibilities evoked by the recurrent signs of war. And it’s also clear that the family aren’t well off: their house is tiny and crowded, they have an outside loo and bathe by the fire, and they’ve made space for the requisite wartime vegetable patch in their little urban yard. But I think the message of the book is optimistic, and that’s what makes it so touching. We are invited to look with the baby and see what is important to him; and he has everything he needs. He is plump and well-fed; he has a simple but enjoyable routine of meals, outings, play, bath and bed; he has things to play with; and he has his family around him, who love him and fuss over him. He is a thoroughly happy and contented baby.
An extra layer of poignancy is added in that Allan Ahlberg here is looking back to his own childhood (according to his Penguin author page, he has said that “I am the Peepo baby”; I’d already guessed, in fact). So as well as being about what adults and children see and what it takes to be happy, this is a book about memory and lovingly reclaiming the past. And, foolish creature that I am, it makes me a little tearful. But Hugh is getting me to read it rather often and I am toughening up.