'Can you lend me five shillings to pay for this unicorn, Mr Kandinsky?' Joe said.
'For a unicorn,' said Mr Kandinsky, reaching for the box he kept his change in, 'five shillings is tukke cheap.'
Later Mr Kandinksy made a careful examination.
'Clearly,' he said, 'this unicorn is without doubt a unicorn, Joe; unmistakably...it only has one small horn budding on its head.'
So little Joe, is the lone child with the huge imagination and this is one of countless magical moments in A Kid for Two Farthings by Wolf Mankowitz, the latest addition to the Bloomsbury Classics range.
Joe's father is absent in Africa so, whilst his mother Rebecca works at a milliners, five year old Joe is cared for by the tailor Mr Kandinsky and his able assistant Shmule, the prize wrestler in training for the big fight with Python Macklin.
Mr Kandinsky weaves magical tales for Joe and unicorns predominate. This is the world of the street markets where you can buy anything, kittens, herrings, hokeypokey ices, puppies, sarsparilla and local specialities like jellied eels, cockles and whelks.
So when Joe, a desperate little nurturer whose day old chicks die with great regularity, comes home from the market one day with a 'unicorn' of his own, actually a little baby goat with a single horn, Mr Kandinsky keeps the magic going.
No more plot details, that's enough to set the scene on this little bubble of childhood magic determinedly floating in a world of post-war hardship and change. There is little money, employment is becoming scarcer and poverty beckons, but the adults who surround Joe spare him any of this. He is allowed to be a child, to be independent and escape on vast flights of fancy and imagination, to play and to wonder and Wolf Mankowitz allows us to see the world around him through Joe's eyes.
I couldn't have been more delighted when this arrived in the post box last week and opened it in an instant.
A Kid for Two Farthings, a book that feels like an intrinsic part of a 1950's childhood because I remember reading it and the fact it was first published in 1953, the same year as Bookhound and I were 'published' makes it extra special.
Somehow film tie-in editions seemed far more acceptable then, how could you fault this 1955 cover?
Bookhound remembers the film in minute detail.
He comes from a large East End family who lived in Bethnal Green, and though he didn't do much treading of cobbles or have to cope with the outside privy, because new town life beckoned soon after he was born, he would have been born within the sound of Bow Bells...if they hadn't been lost in the Blitz. When I asked him what he remembered about the film it was a myriad of lovely memories of David Kossoff's moving and emotional performance, unicorns, the incredible Diana Fluck (who by this time had sensibly changed her name to Dors) and a very sad ending.
Now of course we've had to order the DVD.
I read on enthralled and had a wonderful nostalgic wallow, not only for a childhood book but also for the East End of London where I lived and worked for a year (at the London Hospital, Whitechapel) in 1975, and where I met Bookhound of course. I lived there little knowing that the area was on the cusp of great sociological change, it was then still a world predominantly populated and worked by the Jewish and long-established East End families and the Kray twins were still a regular topic of conversation. We used to go for a drink in Ronnie and Reggie's local, the Blind Beggar just because we could; the talk was still of the Mad Axeman escaping from Dartmoor with Kray assistance and speculation still rife about whether his demise had been under the concrete pillars of a motorway.
A Kid for Two Farthings is a beautiful read with a wonderful ending; sad but hope-filled as the adults around Joe prepare him for life by allowing him the freedom to be a child, softening the blows but still helping him to cope with loss. Nurturing his independence at a time when children seemed to be safely cared for by everyone around them in a known community as Joe is happily able to wander off on his own. I love the moment when he comes home with the 'unicorn' and no one bats an eyelid...my mum might not have been so pleased.
Mr Kandinksy is a bygone treasure who would now need an enhanced CRB check and have to be registered as a childminder with regular Ofsted inspections. No criticism of those processes because I understand were we are with all that in 2009, and nor am I naive enough to believe every five-year old was as safe as Joe wandering around the streets of the East End, but nevertheless these were those carefree innocent days when those worries didn't prevail. As a reminder of the book's immediate post-war setting there are hugely poignant and understated moments, easily overlooked, when we know how acutely the recent holocaust dwells in Mr Kandinsky's memory,
'Sadly beating his fist on the bench Mr Kandinsky sang:
Then came the Holy One, blessed be He,
The angel of death to destroy utterly...
Shmule's low voice joined Mr Kandinsky's cracked one in the chorus. Together they finished the song.
'One kid, one kid, which my father bought for two farthings.'
What a perfect and wonderfully atmospheric read this has been, entirely suitable for capable child readers and published in larger print accordingly, how lovely to see it back in print, nice one Bloomsbury.
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