I was seven.
Do you identify with the hero?
I hope it doesn't sound pretentious to see Doctor Dolittle as a childhood forerunner of my adult hero, Charles Darwin. Compare his passionate love of natural history, the long voyages in Beagle-sized vessels encountering strange and exotic creatures, the notebooks filled with curious observations laced with ideas for future books; the gentle, courteous modesty.
Why did it strike you so much?
It is surely thanks to Dr Dolittle that I still bridle whenever I read (as I do almost daily) someone scorning concern for animal suffering, on the grounds that humans automatically and self-evidently take precedence. Dr Dolittle cared about human suffering too. This book begins when the Doctor finds Zuzana, whose husband has been sold into slavery, shedding tears into the canoe which she is hopelessly paddling after the wicked Jimmy Bones's ship. As with Darwin, the contemplation of slavery transforms Dr Dolittle's normal gentleness to passionate anger, and he resolves to rescue Zuzana's husband. It makes a rattling adventure story and displays the distinctive convention of all the Dolittle plots. The tricks and strategems, the getting out of scrapes, the happy endings, all turn upon a single suspension of disbelief. Dr Dolittle talks to animals, and all the world's animals will do anything for him. Jimmy Bones is finally downed by a broadside from a man-o'-war, but the cannon is aimed not by human eyes, which aren't keen enough to hit a mainmast at that range, but by Speedy the Swallow. And when offered a knighthood, the Doctor characteristically prefers a pound of good tea. What a role model!
Have you re-read it?
Many times. All the Dolittle books are good, but this is the best.
Does it feel the same as when you first read it?
Under his top hat, the Doctor is younger than he used to be. I still admire the imaginative wit with which the science fiction-like "convention" is repeatedly applied. The Post Office plot turns upon bird migration. Small birds carry single letters, larger birds heft parcels, all working not for wages but for love of the Doctor. The Emir of Ellebubu, who tries to starve the Doctor into asking the cormorants to hunt pearls for him, is worsted by a conveyor belt of small creatures ferrying food, and even crumbs of shaving soap, into the dungeon.
Would you recommend it?
Emphatically yes, not least because it is banned by sanctimonious librarians as "racist". Well, yes, it was written in the 1920s, and we've thankfully moved on since then. It's also sexist: Amazon invaders are predictably routed by an army of mice. What Dr Dolittle is not is speciesist, and that is a rare virtue today.
Richard Dawkins's latest book is Unweaving the Rainbow (Allen Lane pounds 20)