Happy Birthday to a remarkable bear of uncertain age]

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The Independent Online
Someone told me the other day that we are coming up to Rupert Bear's anniversary, but he had fled before I could ask him which particular anniversary it was that the little Nutwood bear was about to celebrate. Was it his birth in 1893? Unlikely. In 1943? Feasible, though 1943 was not a good year for a comic strip bear to be born.

Unfortunately, I do not have at my side one of those journalists' crib sheets that tell you which old year will provide the next easy article, so I shall have to celebrate Rupert Bear's birthday without knowing which it is.

Well, I am happy to. Rupert is a remarkable bear in many ways - at least six ways, any one of which might make an interesting university thesis, if there is such a thing, and I offer them all to people who are short of subjects for theses.

1. Rupert Bear is the only bear currently featured on a British postage stamp wearing a yellow pair of trousers, a red jersey and a black and yellow scarf.

2. Rupert Bear has no friends who are also bears. In fact, apart from his mother and father, and possibly the occasional visiting relative, I don't think there are any other bears in the Rupert Bear stories. The other characters are all different animals such as pigs (Podgy), elephants (Edward), badgers (Bill) and what seems to be a Pekinese (Algy). None of these animals, it should be noted, tends to coexist in nature.

Nutwood is probably the best integrated neighbourhood in the whole of fiction (outside Noah's Ark), and certainly better than any in real life. This means, I imagine, that the child reader can identify with any character, whatever its racial or ethnic origin.

3. Despite the preponderance of animals in Rupert Bear, all behaving more like humans than animals, there are also a few humans - and the humans always seem out of place. Either they are genuine oddities, such as the Chinese magicians and their offspring who always turn up when things are getting boring, or they are perfectly ordinary shopkeepers who only seem odd because they are not animals, like all the other people. If you know what I mean.

4. Rupert Bear's narrative technique breaks totally new ground in modern literature. The story is carried forward simultaneously in four different ways. It is told in pictures. It is told in plain prose narrative. ('Oh, dear,' said Rupert, 'I think it is going to rain.') It is told, at the top, in headlines ('The Sky Darkens'). And it is told in verse as well] ('Rupert warns his little chums, 'Look - a nasty storm cloud comes]' ')

If anyone can show me another modern masterpiece that tells its story in four parallel strands, I shall be agreeably shattered. Like many other modern classics that are said to be influential, such as Joyce's or Proust's work, Rupert Bear has blazed trails that others have failed or feared to follow.

5. Rupert Bear invented rap. Those rattling verses seem indistinguishable in style, though perhaps not content, from modern rap.

6. The Rupert Bear stories are also notable for being among the select band of works that are far, far more famous than their creators. But I do know that Rupert Bear was created by and drawn by Alfred Bestall until his death. I know this, not just because his name is on the books but because I remember Terry Jones going to see the great man in his retirement. (I also remember Terry returning, fuming with rage at what he considered the slave-like contract that Bestall had worked under all the years he was with the Daily Express.)

Anyway, Happy Birthday, Rupert. However old you are. Which, I suppose, is the other odd thing about Rupert Bear: never changes age at all, despite all those birthday parties he keeps having.

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