When it was all right for children to be eaten by lions

lion

We’ve been reading stories, my brothers and my sister and I, to each other and to mum as we sit in vigil by her bed.  Stories from our childhood, and some of them probably from hers.

We’ve read Kipling, A.A. Milne, Ogden Nash, Robert Louis Stevenson, and even some nondescript short fiction picked up second or third hand at a hospital stall on the way in.  Mum may hear some, or none, of it.  We read on anyway.

One of the favourites is a gory set of poems by Hilaire Belloc  called “Cautionary Tales for Children”.  Belloc wrote this book in 1907, a time in Edwardian England when it was apparently permissible for bad children to meet grisly deaths for the edification of other children.

I was given my copy of the book when I was seven, by a bolshie aunt, and I have always had a macabre fascination for the stories.  I’m not sure why, but mum always abetted me in this outré attraction. I know one of the long poems by heart, and slabs of the others.

Kids die at an alarming rate in these poems, including:

  • “Jim, who ran away from his Nurse and was eaten by a Lion”
  • “Henry King, who chewed bits of String and was early cut off, in Dreadful Agonies”
  • “Matilda, who told Lies and was Burned to Death”
  • “Rebecca, who slammed Doors for Fun and Perished Miserably”
  • “George, who played with a Dangerous Toy and suffered a Catastrophe of considerable Dimensions” (and in which eight people were killed)

Such stories are no doubt highly incorrect in these days when you can’t even smack your own children, let alone other people’s – today’s little kids could be rightly traumatised by gruesome events like those Belloc relates.

But gruesome or not, we are just hanging on to something familiar at a difficult and emotional corner we are about to turn.  At one stage while we read, we grin with a fleeting, hard-come-by joy when Matilda is in deep shit, trying to get the crowd’s attention while she burns, and when we say:

“Every time she shouted “Fire!”
They only answered …”

mum reaches out from her semi-coma and croaks:

“Little Liar!”

The things we clutch in times of turmoil.

And then mum slips away while my sister and I sit there with her, and it is peaceful and smooth, and in the end so much nicer than being eaten by a lion.

david white

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  1. It sounded like the perfect thing to do. Your familiar voices and these verses from long ago must have comforted your mum as she slipped away. All the best in this difficult time.

    • Sarah Jaques
    • December 13th, 2012

    So touching Dave. Thank you.
    Sent with tears and a smile. xx

    • Jo
    • December 12th, 2012

    Oh, this is lovely. Thanks for sharing it – I hope you’re all doing OK.

    • Peter White
    • December 12th, 2012

    After the Tuesday night recitation, I went home and ordered a copy of Cautionary Tales off E-Bay

    • Mr John Smartt
    • December 12th, 2012

    Sorry to hear you are going through this difficult time; thank you for sharing the post in the middle of it.

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