Thursday, 18 December 2008

The truth can be hard to bear

Mr Gnome and wee Spencer Bear appear to be the best of chums. And yet, how tissue-thin is the demarcation between happiness and horror, trust and terror, delight and despair.

A recent radio discussion focused on childhood fears, particularly those triggered by films, books and music. No difficulty for me in recalling my nursery nightmare, stemming from a seemingly innocent song, a classic 'children's favourite' to boot.

If you go out in the woods today
You're sure of a big surprise.
If you go out in the woods today
You'd better go in disguise.

The woods? The forest? So far so mildly exciting. Something surprising and possibly dangerous (hence disguise) is going on down there. A situation the Famous Five would doubtless relish: 'I say, Julian, let's all cycle down to the woods - and in case we bump in to any ne'r do wells, I vote we should jolly well go in disguise. Hurrah!'

For every bear that ever there was
Will gather there for certain, because
Today's the day the teddy bears have their picnic.

OK. Not spies and jewel thieves. Phew. Just a bunch of bears. Not the big ones we saw at the zoo, but teddy bears. In fact, bears of the ilk of my very own Ted, currently spending yet another day guarding my pyjamas.

Picnic time for teddy bears,
The little teddy bears are having a lovely time today.
Watch them, catch them unawares,
And see them picnic on their holiday.
See them gaily dance about.
They love to play and shout.
And never have any cares.
At six o'clock their mummies and daddies
Will take them home to bed
Because they're tired little teddy bears.

The song puts its child listener squrely in the shoes of the disguised observer of this cheerful scene. The lyric seems to paint a charming picture of the bears' jamboree.

But once again, why must I be incognito? Why am I obliged to 'catch them unawares'? What would happen if the bears were to see me?

The second verse packs a lethal punch:

If you go out in the woods today,
You'd better not go alone.
It's lovely out in the woods today,
But safer to stay at home.
For every bear that ever there was
Will gather there for certain, because
Today's the day the teddy bears have their picnic

Gradually, so gradually, the truth seeped into my six-year-old consciousness.

If, against all advice, I were to stray into the woods on the day of the TBP, and the bears were to catch sight of me..... What would ensue?

An invitation to join in the fun?

Oh no. I would become the fun, the sport, the quarry.

Those bears would seize me, play with me certainly, but as a cat plays with a mouse. And the game would conclude with me being torn limb from limb prior to being served up as a bonne bouche to complete the picnic.

Having grasped the horrific import of the song's thinly concealed subtext, what was a boy to do next?

I ran to my room. There was my bed, my comic (Swift, actually) and, still on PJ duty, there was tranquil, dependable Ted.

I hugged him, pressing my face into the soft fur. But somehow, he didn't feel the same.

And I knew, with utter certainty, what was going on in that small fuzzy head:

'Little boy, face the truth. I'm not here because I love you. Love? Forget it. I'm here because I have to be. It's my job. That's all. And it's not one that I particularly enjoy. To be honest, the only time I feel genuinely happy is on the rare occasions I can let my fur down and have a picnic in the woods with my friends and relations. As far away from you, little Human, as possible. Got the message? Good. Now put me down.'

The seed of doubt was sown. Was the song telling the truth? I heard it on the radio. It must be. It was to be years before I could again feel secure with a bear.

As Noel Coward remarked: 'Strange how potent cheap music is.'


brett jordan said...

Who needs ultra-violent video games with a warped imagination like yours? :-)

Mr Gnome said...


It's ALL in the text.


Philippe de Paris said...

The truth is that it was the BEARS who were shy, nervous, insecure and Oh! so reticent. If only the six year old had realised that (and not so horribly misread his own bear) what mutual comfort and support could have been theirs! Tragic.

Mr Gnome said...

Monsieur de Philippe - bienvenue!

Mt Gnone is honoured!

Well, you may be correct. But why would the TBs allow such false propaganda to be circulated, if they really are so HB-friendly, deep down under the fur.

It's a puzzle. Perhaps I should have mentioned the clincher - those unutterably doomy descending chords at the start of the song, plus the teensiest hint of insinuation in the voice of Henry Hall.

Call the counsellors....