Trickster Tales. The Pied Piper of Hamelin, by Russell Brand, illustrated by Chris Riddell; book review


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The Independent Culture

Have you ever wanted to move your seat in the bus or train away from pre-adolescent schoolchildren nearby, still firmly stuck at the anal stage of their psychosexual development and too loudly amusing themselves with some very low conversation?

If so, then this execrable, not to say excremental book is also best avoided. A torrent of lavatory and gross-out jokes may just pass on a boozy night at a comedy club. On the page, they are simply embarrassing. Were it not for his celebrity, this book in manuscript would surely have been returned to its author by any publisher along perhaps with some kindly advice for seeking out an anger-management course. But Brand’s take on The Pied Piper of Hamelin is the first of a series of riffs on traditional fairy and folk tales. If they are all as bad as this one, British children’s books will have hit a new low.

It’s not just the language that is so wearingly offensive. Robert Browning in his great poem detested the Mayor of Hamelin and his corrupt council but deeply sympathised with the parents who had lost their children. But Brand, rather worryingly for a self-styled revolutionary in search of followers, seems entirely taken up by hatred, loathing everyone save for crippled and bullied young Sam and his worthy mother. The rats are just as repulsive. This means that the Pied Piper finally comes over as a basically cleansing figure doing a good job by getting rid of both vermin and all the equally unpleasant children. This process is described in an uneven, continually look-at-me writing style veering from the infantile to phrases such as an ‘anarcho-egalitarian rat-collective polygamy.’ A glossary at the back defines ‘shallow’ and ‘wretches’ but has nothing to say about this. And after so much random negativity the endorsement in the last few pages of the values of ‘truth, love and honour’ rings hollow indeed.

The one redeeming feature is Chris Riddell’s artwork. Every page is crowded with brightly coloured, immaculately illustrated characters who, however dysfunctional, are still recognisably human in contrast to the vicious caricatures described in the text.  Twice winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal for the best illustrated children’s book of the year, this artist and political cartoonist is one of the finest draughtsmen working today. A four page spread half-way through allows him the space to create what amounts to a virtual river of thrusting, glazed-eyed rats all on their way to oblivion in the River Weser. The Piper they are following is portrayed as initially attractive but progressively more menacing.  One theory has it that this mythological figure refers back to a Nicholas of Cologne who in 1212 lured away young people to take part in an ultimately disastrous Children’s Crusade. It remains to be seen whether Brand and his books, present and future, prove anything like as mysteriously appealing to modern young readers.