Wednesday 29 May 2019

I dream of Alice

My first copy of Alice in Wonderland was a paperback that you got by collecting cereal tokens – Sugar Puffs, I think. I got it from my brother for my birthday, I’m not sure exactly when, but around eight I think. As I’m sure you know, on the very first page of the book, Alice remarks, “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations,” which was ironic, as this copy had no pictures. It also had teeny, tiny writing, so small that I might have set it aside and never read it, but for a couple of things. Firstly, this was a gift from my big brother. Now it’s entirely possible that he had nothing whatever to do with cutting out the cereal tokens or taping the coins to cover the post and packing to the card form. It’s possible he didn’t choose this book for me out of the selection available. But it didn’t matter to me. I adored my brother and if he gave me a book, I was going to give it a go, no matter how boring it looked.

The second thing that hooked me was the mouse’s tail. I must have flicked through the pages, hoping for pictures, and my eye was caught by this:

Obviously, I had to find out what that was all about.

Did I already know these characters? I’m not sure. In those days if you hadn’t seen a Disney cartoon at the cinema the only way to come across it was in the short extracts they showed in ‘Disney Time’ that aired on Bank Holidays and in Disney books. All I know is that I fell completely in love with Alice and with all the cross creatures she came across in Wonderland. The Duchess was my favourite. I loved the way when she met Alice at the croquet match, she greeted her like a long lost friend, and leaned her chin uncomfortably on Alice’s shoulder as they walked.

I read Alice in Wonderland over and over, but that only took me to the middle of the book. Beyond was Through the Looking Glass. I flicked through this.

I held ‘Jabberwocky’ up to the mirror to read it, I found the chapter where the queen turns into the kitten (remember, no pictures, so I was just struck by the idea of it being possible to write a chapter that contained just the fragment of a sentence).

But it took me a long, long time to read it. By the time I did I certainly must have seen the Disney version, because I found I was already familiar with characters who are in the Disney Alice in Wonderland but who are actually from Looking Glass rather than Wonderland. It didn’t take long for me to realise that I preferred Looking Glass to Wonderland. I love the chess game structure and the framing images of climbing into the mirror and picking up the kitten; I think the characters are stronger.

You could argue that both of these books consist of a series of barely connected scenes that add up to nothing in particular. That Alice does not grow or learn on her journeys. That ‘it was all a dream’ (twice!) is the worst kind of cop-out. But I think that here the dream is absolutely the point. To me, there is nothing more dreamlike than this accumulation of nonsensical scenes where characters warn and boss and confuse Alice just like the adults who control her everyday life. I came back to Alice over and over, I read about Lewis Carroll, I read other things he had written. For a long time, if asked my favourite book, my only doubt would be which of these two books to choose.

I don’t have the cereal packet Alice anymore. When I was sixteen I bought myself Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass in beautiful hardback editions with the original Tenniel illustrations. I think that must have been the moment I knew that I was never going to grow out of children’s books.

No comments:

Post a Comment

What do you think?