Ever since I read Cornelius Medvei’s captivating tale of a chess-playing beast of burden Caroline, I’ve had a bit of a soft spot for books featuring a human/donkey friendship. This is quite a precise genre, I hear you say, but along comes The White Umbrella by Brian Sewell, and it fits my demands perfectly.
Mr B, “a wiry little man of fifty with white hair”, is a historian filming in Pakistan when, in the middle of rush-hour traffic in Peshawar, he leaps from the film crew’s Land Rover to rescue a young donkey struggling with a heavy load on her back in the street. Making the immediate decision to free her from bondage, he abandons his colleagues, arguing that he’ll walk home with his new pet – whom he names Pavlova after the famous ballerina with equally long legs – all the way to London.
So begins a trip that takes him into Persia, across Turkey, through Greece, then Serbia, before they reach the more familiar roads of Germany, France, and finally England. In the end though, there’s not much walking since a series of kindly souls offer them lifts in their vans and trucks, or book them on trains. Most notably, the final leg of their journey is spent travelling in style after a friendly Scottish bibliopole driving a Rolls-Royce with a boot full of valuable manuscripts picks them up somewhere in the Balkans.
This delightful little novella, the characters of which are comically brought to life by Sally Ann Lasson’s sweet and simple black-and white-illustrations, is being sold as a children’s book. This, of course, is somewhat new territory for one of the country’s most famous and controversial art critics, but the now 83-year-old apparently wanted to write something that would make children think about the world around them.
As much as I admire Sewell’s ambition, not to mention the fact that I was rather charmed by the story myself, I can’t help but wonder how many contemporary kids the book will appeal to given it deals with a particular type of Englishman (one who never swears but still uses “old-fashioned schoolboy slang” when excited; and carries an umbrella, but “no ordinary umbrella”, one from London’s James Smith & Sons), and a particular type of British identity (that of a world where diplomats in Istanbul feast on the contents of hampers from Fortnum & Mason, and ambassadors and their wives are named Horatio and Laetitia), which many people would argue is at best, out of reach of most, and at worst, outdated and twee.
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