Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a small black and white dog called Molly (she's a mutt, but mainly Jack Russell). I got her as a puppy, not long after my sister died; at the time, it seemed as if we were taking on a dog because our two sons desperately wanted one, but in retrospect, I can see that the decision was partly motivated by my unconscious desire for the reassurance of childhood. When my sister and I were very young, we had a Jack Russell called Simon, but there was also another dog in my life -- she was in a book, but nevertheless seemed entirely alive to me, and if I'm honest, she still does. Which is doubtless why I treasure that battered copy of my favourite childhood picture book, ‘Cannonball Simp’ by John Burningham, with my name scrawled in a five-year-old’s pink-ink handwriting on the title page.
This is the tale of a fat little dog, with only a stump for a tale. “Her owner had found homes for her brothers and sisters but could not persuade anybody to take Simp.” So she is driven to a rubbish dump outside the town, and abandoned there without a backward glance. The rats tell her to leave, she is chased away by cats, and when she tries to make friends with people on their way to work, ‘nobody seemed to care about her’. Eventually, Simp is thrown into the back of a van by the dog-catcher, but she manages to escape before being locked up in kennels, and runs away as fast as she can from the heartless inhabitants of the town. At last, she finds a safe haven with a kindly clown at the circus, who lets her into his caravan, feeds her, and allows her to sleep on his bed.
But this sanctuary is revealed to be less secure than it first seemed: the clown is anxious that he is about to lose his job because the circus manager is bored by his act, and the audiences have lost interest. Fortunately, he is saved from being fired by the firing of a cannon – or, more precisely, by Simp’s decision to climb into the cannon and be fired out of it, straight through the clown’s paper hoop, and into the hearts of the audience. Thereafter the clown and his dog prosper at the circus, as the celebrated act of Cannonball Simp.
As a small child, I loved this book like no other, and re-reading it now, it seems to me to be just as powerful, though its message is perhaps darker than one might expect. People can be cruel, and even if you think you have escaped from abandonment, circumstances may still prove to be harsh. Thus it is that we squeeze ourselves into dark and dangerous places, performing improbable tricks in valiant attempts to please a crowd or earn a living. You will doubtless have noticed that I am identifying myself here with a small dog; but then isn’t that often the case? In a dog’s eyes, we see a reflection of our own…