As my parents retreat ever deeper into old age, I find myself recalling moments of my early childhood with intense sweetness and urgency. My father was unable to relate easily to small children, but he loved both literature and art, and the one book he would read with me was ‘Johnny Crow’s Garden’ – by Leonard Leslie Brooke, first published in 1903 by Frederick Warne & Co (also the publishers of Beatrix Potter). I say read, but in fact he found reading aloud embarrassing, so I’d perch on his knee as he pointed to the various animals. ‘There’s a crow,’ he’d say. ‘A crow with a spade, digging. There’s a lion with a tie on.’ And because time with him was so rare, I remember vividly these evenings. I know it was my mother who read the whole book to me, and I was lost in a world of bizarre animals and birds, several of them semi-clothed, and a bear who had nothing to wear. Half a century later I still remember the stork who ‘gave a philosophic talk, until the hippopotami said “ask no further what am I” and the elephant said something quite irrelevant.’
Last week I bought ‘Johnny Crow’s Garden’ for my little cousin, who shows all the signs of being as literary as the best in our family. Despite it being a black and white reprint, I read it again with delight, the language and rhymes soaring off the page, and the exquisite illustrations creating a world of eccentricity, beauty, and disorder, presided over by the kindly and organised crow, who finally sits them all down for dinner in a row.
Most underrated of birds – the crow – if not the most handsome, certainly the most intelligent, creative and resourceful. It’s great to find him the hero of this wonderful children’s book, as well as further stories – ‘Johnny Crow’s Party’ and ‘Johnny Crow’s New Garden’ – books I’ve yet to discover. I hope my cousin enjoys him as much as I did. Long live Johnny Crow!
Tricia Durdey dances, writes, and teaches Pilates.