On Edward Lear's Nonsense Omnibus

...from the Independent's Book of a Lifetime 


My copy of Edward Lear's Nonsense Omnibus shows why bookbinding is not a task for the young. The spine has been reattached upside-down. There are no cover boards, but sticky-backed plastic has been applied at a jaunty angle to the title page, preserving crumbs and ink-splotches, my name written in a child's wobbly joined-up, and a sum in blue pencil, confidently underlined: 191-150=15.'s

Not much has changed. I still simultaneously fetishise and desecrate my favourite books; I remain incapable of writing legibly, doing a sum, leaving paper undoodled, remembering to use a plate. And I remember Lear's long nonsense poems, his pen-and-ink illustrations, the silliness of his alphabets, better than almost anything else I have read.

I was introduced to them by my beloved father, a fantastically brainy and hard-working man with a very silly sense of humour. He read to me Molesworth and "Hiawatha", still recites bits of Ancient Greek and Douglas Adams at embarrassing moments, and my love of books, my enthusiasms and tendency to giggle are all his fault. I don't know how he came to these poems, but reading aloud was genius; it's what Lear is for.

Re-reading, I don't even recognise some of the more self-consciously ridiculous work. My father may have tried them, but they didn't stick. And neither of us had much patience with the limericks; their cop-out last lines were more irritating than amusing, and I hadn't heard of half the locations: Nepaul; Kamschatka; Mold. Chertsey! But the equally repetitive Nonsense Alphabets made us helpless with laughter: "A was once an Apple-pie/Pidy/Widy/Tidy/Pidy/Nice-insidy/Apple pie." Why? Was it the fun of predicting the (terrible) rhyme? The silliness? "The Akond of Swat" is even more satisfying; it is impossible not to try to guess the rhymes, and Lear has put them in capitals, to encourage shouting. Lear is perhaps at his most brilliant in this poem, with its mad specificity: "At night if he suddenly screams and wakes/ Do they bring him only a few small cakes/ or a LOT?"

I realise now that I don't know this book at all; it's just that the protagonists of a tiny number of poems are embedded in my faulty memory: the Jumblies' terrifying sea-voyage, the lonely Quangle-Wangle. And the Owl and the Pussy-cat, whose story I know by heart. At nursery school, I appeared in an adaptation of this poem as the Turkey, in fluffy orange jacket. I recite it to anyone who will let me; it is much abused, too familiar, but a part of me.

Charlotte Mendelson's new novel, 'Almost English' (Mantle), has been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize