On ‘The Rupert Man’

My poem, ‘The Rupert Man’ is featured today over at Bad Lilies, here. I’m very grateful to Kathryn Gray and Andrew Nielson for publishing it, not least because it’s one of those poems which has been through hundreds of versions, some of which were rejected by other editors, before it reached this final state. I usually prefer to let the poem speak for itself, but I hope this note might provide some additional interest, especially for anyone who, like I did, read the Rupert annuals as a child and/or watched the TV adaptation in the early 1970s.

In 1935, Alfred, known as ‘Fred’, Bestall (1892–1986) became the second illustrator, after its creator, Mary Tourtel, and then writer also, of the Rupert Bear strip in the Daily Express. He ended that involvement in 1965, but continued illustrating the Rupert annuals until he retired for good in 1973. The visit of the Oz trio – presumably Richard Neville, Felix Dennis and Jim Anderson – to his house in Cranes Park, Surbiton, is mentioned in a 2003 biography of Bestall by his niece, Caroline Bott. The ‘Schoolkids’ issue of Oz featured a priapic version of Rupert and resulted in a landmark 1971 obscenity trial, and acquittal on appeal, of its three editors.

The poem’s trigger was my daily walk past Bestall’s house on my way to work in Kingston, at a time, 2014 to 2018, when I lived opposite Surbiton Hill Methodist Church, which Bestall attended for many years; and the happy fact that, among the sub-collection of books which my dad accumulated by and about great children’s books illustrators – Potter, Rackham, Shepard, etc. – there were two copies of Bott’s biography. Bott’s brief reference to the Oz trio’s visit piqued my interest as one of those apparent culture clashes where, conversely, commonality thrived.

As you can see, Bestall’s house has a blue plaque, the sight of which never failed to cheer me up as I went past.

The issue of notes is a thorny one. I recently read a poetry collection containing lots of end-notes which were often more interesting than the actual poems. (I realise that is subjective and what the poet chooses to include and what to omit from the poem is up to them.) Other poems seemed all but nonsensical without the notes; a feeling familiar to me from being in galleries looking at pieces of art whose labels were essential to be able to grasp the significance of the images / constructions. Equally, I’ve read poetry collections where the poems have been crying out for end-notes, as though not to include them constitutes a deliberate withholding of requisite information. Yes, we all have access to search engines and reference books, but it is arguably an act of generosity to the reader to provide notes where they are needed. So why did I not include a footnote when I submitted this poem to Bad Lilies? I hear you ask. As I implied, I find notes to be essential only when they either explain an obscure fact or technical term or if they add information which supplements, rather than explains, the ‘meaning’ of the poem. In this instance, I did think about having an extra stanza or two to cover the ‘Schoolkids’ issue of Oz and the trial, but on reflection, rather than opening it out to a wider picture, I wanted the focus to be on Bestall, on his actual and created worlds, and on his interaction with three young people whose perspectives would, on the face of it, have been very different to his.

4 thoughts on “On ‘The Rupert Man’

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