Monday, July 03, 2006


I bought this book when I was 13 years old and was outraged that it cost FOUR SHILLINGS! True that is the equivalent of just 20 pence, today, but at the time (1962) Puffin paperbacks only ever cost two shillings - or, at most, two-shillings-and-six-pence!

I didn't regret the outlay for long: these two enchanting fantasies simultaneously introduced me to the extraordinary imaginations of author James Thurber and illustrator, Ronald Searle.

The 13 Clocks is, on the face of it, standard fairy-tale fare: wicked-hearted dukes, beautiful princesses, daring suitors, strange beings and, naturally, magic! But, thanks to Thurber's unique squint on life it contains curiously unexpected twists and turns and unforgettable characterisations, such as that of the Duke of Coffin Castle (within whose gloomy abode were 13 clocks that wouldn't go):

"He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales... One eye wore a velvet patch; the other glittered through a monocle, which made half his body seem closer to you that the other half."

The Wonderful O is fable as only Thurber knew how to tell a fable - and, therefore, should be read as he wrote it and not spoiled by a description! This story lingered long in my memory and affection and, many years later, when I had just started writing for the BBC, The Wonderful O became the first piece of writing that I dramatised for radio!

The illustrations which were newly commissioned for this edition (and probably explained the inflated price-tag) are classic examples of Searle's ‘sixties style: the good people look as if they were drawn from life, the villains like caricatures of theatrical celebrities caught strutting their stuff on the boards of the Old Vic or some other London theatre.

The line is always assured, however, itchily-scratchy, and the use of the black-and-white medium is clearly that of an artist who was - and indeed still is - a true successor to Gilray, Cruickshank & Co.

Shortly after buying this book, I discovered How To Be Topp, the glorious misadventures of schoolboy, Nigel Molesworth, created by former-teacher Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle and set in the classrooms, corridors and dormitories of St Custards, an anarchic educational establishment that was probably situated not a million miles from Searle's infamous girl's school, St Trinian's.

Anyone interested this artist’s diverse legacy of illustration, should visit Matt Jones’ excellent blog, Ronald Searle Tribute.

When Puffin published The 13 Clocks and the Wonderful O, the series’ editor, Kaye Webb (who, at that time, was Searle’s wife) wrote: “We are proud to have this book in our Puffin series; we are pleased Ronald Searle has illustrated them for us; and we are sure all readers of all ages will enjoy them.”

Sadly, today, the volume is out of print, but seek it out second-hand: it might cost more than 4/- but it will be worth every penny of whatever you pay.

I still go back and re-read the book, forty-four years after I first bought it--- In fact, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll do that right now!


Diva of Deception said...

I remember The Wonderful O and I had How to be Topp - I loved them both; thank you for the memory.

I'll have to blog about my collection of Streatfeilds...

Anonymous said...

Surely it couldn'y have been one of the thirteen clocks that Walter Mitty heard from time to time. Ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.
You stirred yet more once-forgotten memories, Brian. I loved Thurber and couldn't get enough during my teens (of Thurber)
Thank you

Anonymous said...

I read these when I was about 10, and I forgot the stories. Only the strangeness stayed with me. I just googled the names and arrived here. I will go and search my mother's spare rooms and shelves for that old copy!

Brian Sibley said...

Hope you find your copy and enjoy reading it again... :-)

Tony said...

The Thirteen Clocks is one of the most humourous fairy tales I have ever read. Thurber at his exuberant best - and he was supposed to be writing something else!

My favourite short piece of Thurber, though, has to be "No Place Like Home", which is a surrealist and comic narrative based on "Collins' Pocket Interpreters: France"!

Brian Sibley said...

Tony - I still re-read 13C&TWO and will always be grateful that they led me to Thurber's adult writing. Will have to go and seek out 'No Place Like Home' now! :)

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