Charlie Brooker, father of a two year old boy, writes about the godless world of Mr Men, the creepy world of Snow White and why his son is a moron.
I moved house recently and was once again stunned by how much dead media I’m lugging around. First it was vinyl. Then CDs. Now the DVD collection has joined the VHS collection in my personal poorly curated Museum of Obsolete Clutter.
I can chart my history with each format. The surviving remnants of my VHS era, for instance, commence with an off-air recording of series one of The Young Ones transferred from Betamax in my teens, and conclude with a review copy of an Apprentice episode dating from about seven years ago. The DVD wing comprises box sets, rushes, rough cuts, and a Christmas edition of The Black and White Minstrel Show I had to watch for a TV programme I was doing. Beyond that point I don’t really own anything. It’s all in the cloud these days.
Same with books. My bookshelves chiefly function as a snapshot of what I was reading prior to the invention of the Kindle. The only physical, actual, by-God-it-exists books I buy these days are children’s books. In fact the only books I read these days are children’s books.
Each night I read stories to a two-year-old to distract him from reality, which being two, he hasn’t learned to despise yet. He earnestly believes everything is brilliant. Yesterday he discovered the timeless magic of throwing a fork under the sofa again and again and again. He laughs at the sight of a squirrel. Sometimes he spins on the spot and throws his arms out, shrieking with boundless delight for no reason. What a moron.
He wants to cling to every crumb of conscious existence, so it’s tough to convince him to let go long enough to fall asleep. Bedtime stories ease the transition.
We began with the classics. Goldilocks and the Three Bears is simple enough to recount from memory in the dark. Simple and boring. I regularly drifted off while reciting it aloud, and sometimes added new bits in a dreamlike daze. I once caught myself saying baby bear’s head had fallen off because his nose was made of hair. It was hard to steer the narrative back on course after that.
I tried reading fairy tales off an iPhone, but that didn’t work. For starters, it’s impossible to hold an iPhone in the same hectare as a toddler without prompting an instant, bitter struggle for possession that makes the battle for Ukraine look dignified. Besides, fairy stories exist in a peculiar medieval realm. Reading about tunics and spindles off a glimmering smartphone screen just feels wrong. You need a hand-me-down Ladybird book to really do them justice. A book filled with creepy paintings to match the creepy text. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the handsome prince falls in love with a corpse in a glass box. It’s right there in black and white. No trigger warnings or anything.
Still, fairy tales were just a gateway drug to a wider world of kiddywink fiction. Quickly we moved from Peepo! to Goodnight Moon to The Gruffalo and beyond. Brilliant though The Very Hungry Caterpillar is, it’s only about 20 words long. You could tweet the whole thing while falling downstairs. And the storyline is full of holes.
Out of selfish nostalgia I bought a complete box set of Mr Men stories, which turned out to be the most satisfying purchase I’ve made in about a decade. The stories themselves aren’t especially remarkable. They follow a fairly rigid template. In each story Mr Titular wakes up, has breakfast (usually eggs, consumed in a manner that vividly illustrates his character), goes for a walk, encounters a worm or a wizard or a shopkeeper, learns a harsh moral lesson and then crawls home, a changed man, hopelessly broken by experience.
The Mr Men inhabit a godless universe. They chiefly fall into two camps – those with character defects (eg Mr Greedy) and those with afflictions (eg Mr Skinny). They all suffer in some way, except those too mad (Mr Silly) or too stupid (Mr Dizzy) to comprehend what suffering is.
There is justice in their realm, but it’s applied inconsistently at best. Mr Nosey, for instance, has all his inquisitiveness literally beaten out of him when the townsfolk conspire against him. He hears an interesting noise behind a fence and pokes his nose round it, only to be smashed in the face by a man with hammer – who laughs about it afterwards. But Mr Nosey’s only crime was excessive curiosity, whereas Mr Tickle – a 1970s children’s entertainer with wandering hands who runs around town touching strangers inappropriately from dawn till dusk – goes unpunished.
Most of those with afflictions are bluntly informed that their conditions are untreatable. Messrs Bump, Bounce, Forgetful, Quiet, Small and Tall, for instance, simply have to lump it. Mr Sneeze is cured, but only after a wizard turns his wintry homeland into a suntrap, in an early example of man-made climate change.
It’s a brutal existence, albeit a cheerfully rendered one. And in revisiting the books I was surprised to discover that despite forgetting most of the storylines, the visuals felt so familiar, they can’t have ever left my mind. When I was young, I wanted to be a cartoonist. As a teenager, I even managed to make a career of it for a few years. Back then I figured I’d formed this ambition thanks to the comics I’d read when I was about 12. No, looking back at some of my ham-fisted drawings of the time, I realise the Mr Men must have kicked the yearning off years before that. I was unconsciously sampling and regurgitating whole sections of Roger Hargreaves’ visual repertoire. The way Roger Hargreaves drew a shoe is still the way a shoe looks when I picture it. Same with a house. Or a hat. Or a butcher. Or a wizard. Or a cloud.
And when I thought about that, a sad thought occurred to me: that these children’s books may well be the only physical books my son will ever own. Because when he gets past about six, all his books will be in the cloud, surely. Not on a shelf. Not in a library. In a cloud. A cloud I can only picture in the shape of Mr Daydream.
Not that my son cares. Like I said, he’s still astounded by squirrels and forks. Monumental idiot.