Ah, Mr Gumpy. Your outing presents to toddler fans the fragile joy of anticipation, the lesser pleasure of realisation, the likelihood that hopes and dreams will be trampled on by poorly behaved acquaintances, and the consolations of cake in good company.
The Mr Gumpy of the outing is a gentle and very English fellow, with a floppy hat and a faded old blazer especially for boating. A selection of animals join him for a jape on the river in his punt, culminating in the punt capsizing and everyone tipping in.
As the story opens, Mr Gumpy is situated in a landscape that is rosy and bucolic – ‘This is Mr Gumpy’ – all pastels and smiles with a rolling, well-kept lawn. Perhaps he is a country GP? A vicar?
Page two, however, and doubt creeps in. Round the back of the Gumpy mansion, where the garden ends in the river, all is murky and green. The house from the rear looks dilapidated and Gumpy is obviously lonely. Is he in fact a retired, under-occupied depressive creative type presiding over the collapse of some prestigious real estate? Does he have an up-to-date CRB? Where are the LIFEJACKETS?
Two children and a parade of beautifully drawn animals arrive one by one to solicit a ride. The rabbit is a definite rabbit, not a bunny: large, wild and powerful looking. The dog has wistful eyes and is thoughtful. The chickens have huge scratchy feet and introduce a note of yellowy sunshine.
All of the animals are given specific orders based on Mr Gumpy’s anticipation of how their naughtiness will manifest. Your toddler will love this catalogue of badness. Finger-shaking and exaggerated sternness are recommended to the narrator.
Poor Mr Gumpy: his depressing prognosis is right in every case, and the boat is overtaken by aggression and chaos. Everyone plummets into the river. Mr Gumpy’s hat is lost, exposing a sad little bald patch.
His grumpy world view has been vindicated, however, and he is clearly pleased by that. He is able to proceed home with all the children and animals for tea. Tea is completely lovely: a cake with strawberries, a bowl of cherries, an enormous blue floral teapot. Mr Gumpy has put on a pink blazer and presides over an enormous, happy table. As with the best children’s literature, gluttonous fantasies are thus furnished to the greedy toddler. And his greedy mother.
It is a beautiful book, with the element of darkness that the best literature has. Everyone appears out of nowhere and exudes loneliness, and everyone is comforted by being together, whilst struggling to get along, because all the characters (except possibly the chickens) are rugged individualists.
The message is: expect the worse, take comfort in food, prefer the company of animals and children to that of adults.