Sunday, 21 April 2013

Top Shelf Books #1 - The Church Mice by Graham Oakley

The first books to make it to my Top Shelf, where only the really good books go, are:


The Church Mice Books by Graham Oakley.

‘In a busy little town, not very far away, there is a church and in the church there lived a mouse whose name was Arthur.’
~ The Church Mouse by Graham Oakley.

Although The On-Going Quest to find out who are my favourite authors is on-going, I think it’s pretty safe to say that Graham Oakley easily makes The List.  (Click here to visit his site.)

He is by far my favourite author/illustrator for his masterful wit and artistry.

The Church Mice books are large picture books with incredibly intricately detailed drawings.  They follow the adventures of Arthur and Humphrey, leaders of the church mice, and the long suffering cat Sampson who has vowed not to eat them.

‘Sampson, the church cat, had listened to so many sermons about the meek being blessed and everybody really being brothers that he had grown quite frighteningly meek and treated Arthur just like a brother.’
~ The Church Mouse by Graham Oakley.

There are twelve Church Mice books altogether.  I have read six so far.

As a child, I read The Church Mouse (in which a lonely Arthur invites all the other mice in Wortlethorpe to live with him), 
‘A vote was taken on what kinds of cheese the parson should buy, and the result was: one hundred for Cheddar, ninety-nine for Cheshire, seventy for Wensleydale, fifty for Caerphilly, forty-two for something with holes in it that no one could pronounce, thirty for walnut whirls but that was discounted because the voters were under age, and one for Afghanistan goatsmilk cheese.  That was ignored because it was only the schoolmouse trying to be clever.’
~ The Church Mouse written and illustrated by Graham Oakley, 1972

The Church Mice At Bay (in which the new curate threatens the peaceful lives of the mice),
‘Humphrey said it was a pity he had never studied hypnotism because then he would have put the cats to sleep, and Arthur replied sarcastically that it was a pity he had never studied magic because then he could have made the cats disappear.  As it was, they would just have to stoop to trickery.’
~ The Church Mice At Bay written and illustrated by Graham Oakley, 1978

The Church Mice At Christmas (in which the mice try to raise money for a Christmas party),
‘The journey back to the vestry was dreadful.  Everyone was gloomy because of the failure of the expedition, and it didn’t help matters to have to listen to Humphrey explaining his new theory about how Christmas Day should change places with August Bank Holiday so that people wouldn’t have to tramp through the snow to do their Christmas shopping.’
~ The Church Mice At Christmas written and illustrated by Graham Oakley, 1980

and as a slightly older child, The Church Mice And The Ring (in which the mice try to find a home for a stray dog). 
‘All he needed was a dozen or so brave volunteers prepared to risk life and limb in a bold raid on a jeweller’s shop.
For once, all the mice went quiet.  So Sampson stepped in and said that anybody whose name began with an A or a B or a C could consider themselves volunteers and if they wanted to argue they knew where they could find him.
So late that night Arthur, Humphrey, Sampson and a sulky band of Anns, Alberts, Brendas, Brians, Clares, Cuthberts, etc., made their way through the deserted streets to the jeweller’s shop.’
~ The Church Mice And The Ring written and illustrated by Graham Oakley, 1992

As an adult, I have read The Church Cat Abroad (in which Sampson, Arthur and Humphrey attempt to become film stars and get stranded on a tropical island)
‘they explored the island in the hope of finding something useful.  And they did: a pile of cheese and sardine sandwiches and a short-sighted old gentleman.  They left the bread because it’s not nice to be greedy, and anyway they only liked bread if it had peanut butter on it.’
~ The Church Cat Abroad written and illustrated by Graham Oakley, 1973

and The Church Mice In Action (in which Sampson is forced to compete in cat shows). 

‘The mayor presented the prizes and he had intended to make another speech but he didn’t because the only words that came into his head were things like “devilish fiends”, “furies from Hell” and “ravaging beasts” and he didn’t really think that would make him very popular with cat-loving voters.’
~ The Church Mice In Action written and illustrated by Graham Oakley, 1982
(EDIT: I have now also found The Church Mice And The Moon and been presented with The Church Mice Adrift, The Church Mice Spread Their Wings and The Diary Of A Church Mouse!  See here and here and here.)

I will always be fonder of the ones I grew up with, but I shall continue to seek out the rest of the series because they are fantastic.

I do believe these could be The Greatest Children’s Books ever written.  Not that they are just for children.  There’s plenty there for adults.  These are sophisticatedly silly works, that I loved then and love now.

The Humour is deliciously dry, a mixture of satire, slapstick, understatement, irony and juxtaposition.  As well as expanding on the text (which often uses understatement to make the joke), the pictures often contradict what the text has just told us or vice versa (creating a sort of ironic juxtaposition), so there’s a lot to be gained from both the illustration and the writing.  It really makes The Whole Experience incredibly rewarding and devilishly funny.  This is what I mean by sophisticated.  When I was a kid, the humour of these books was so much smarter than anything else I was reading, even when the humour was about something very silly, and these mice are very silly.

And I really do love The Drawings (click here to see some).  I’ve never found anything as good.  I’ve never been overly fond of illustration in books, as a child it so often seemed to be gilding the lily, but Oakley’s pictures really enhance the stories in ways I’ve never seen before and they’re extremely humorous.  But they’re beautiful just to stand back from too.  You could have these things framed and decorate your walls with them.  The style is fairly realistic, the mice pleasingly anthropomorphised so that you still believe they are real mice even though they walk on two feet and have human mannerisms.  And each picture is so intricately, carefully detailed that I spent hours lost in them as a child.  You can look as these pictures and keep discovering something new.  They encourage you to come back.  There are background jokes to discover and one of my favourite things, all the mice look the same but when they gather in a group they’re all doing something different.  It’s huge fun to pore over these ‘crowd’ scenes.  I particularly love the baby mice who are often tantruming or happily throwing themselves into dangerous situations, chased by horrified parents.  You really get the impression that despite the mice looking identical and mostly not being named, that they each have individual thoughts and feelings and are experiencing different things.  Oakley’s pictures are works of art and they are funny.  I can’t imagine The Childhood without them. 

As I’ve expressed in a previous post, these books where influential to me, not only by developing my sense of wit at a very young age (not to mention the presence of a cat who sees mice as brothers rather than food informing my own attitude towards animals), but by showing me that every character, no matter how insignificant, has their own life.  These books changed my perception of story telling because it eradicates the idea of a black and white universe.  Every character does things for a reason. 

Also, the universe of the books is just pleasing.  The setting has a charm that is quaintly familiar and comforting, while the satire is always there, such as despite the people of Wortlethorpe’s pride in the church, the leaking vestry roof never gets fixed because people just don’t care if it doesn’t inconvenience them, or the dramatic hyperbole in the newspapers and all the litter that is thrown over the wall at night (perhaps including a newspaper celebrating the end of the litter problem).

‘It was a nice day, so Humphrey was taking the opportunity to point out to everybody the hole in the ozone layer.  But since holes in nothingness aren’t all that interesting to look at, when Sampson hove into view most of the mice rushed off and shouted rude remarks at him just to liven things up a bit.’
~ The Church Mice And The Ring by Graham Oakley.

Even the title page and the ‘The End’ page have little illustrations of the mice playing about, so pretty much every page from cover to cover of these books is something to get excited about.

I’m not great at explaining why I like something or why something is good, but Graham Oakley’s Church Mice books are just wonderful in so many ways and on so many levels.  These books are a lifelong reward, if you can find them.

I currently own:
The Church Mouse
The Church Cat Abroad
The Church Mice And The Moon
The Church Mice Spread Their Wings
The Church Mice Adrift
The Church Mice At Bay
The Church Mice At Christmas
The Church Mice In Action
The Diary Of A Church Mouse
The Church Mice And The Ring

I still need to get:
Humphrey Hits The Jackpot
The Church Mice Take A Break 

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