Tigers – coming to tea and turning to butter

There I was at one of my jobs, subediting for a paper – pushing stories into boxes and making them look accurate and pretty.

It’s a lovely thing to do, a bit like being paid for doing a crossword, that has a pleasant side effect of keeping you quite up-to-date on the news, or at least some of it.
And then I came across a story about which books elderly Scots remembered more fondly than others (Hey, I didn’t promise cutting edge).

One of their favourites was Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman.

And then suddenly – whooosh – there I was back on the kitchen floor of my childhood, all red-painted concrete and warm Aga front.

I had the book, I knew it. My colleagues were entirely underwhelmed and somewhat skeptical that LBS got the tigers to run round a tree until they turned in to butter. They didn’t say it but you could see them thinking ‘yeah, right, how’re you gonna get butter out of tigers?’.

So I googled and I found the whole text of the book with the illustrations from the edition I had. You can see it’s a tale of cunning and the triumph of good over evil. Not in the slightest bit racist really. The boy in the story is little, called Sambo and he’s black. And, er, that’s it. More of a lesson about taking responsibility for your new clothes.

I’m much more bothered by another childhood favourite, The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr.

If you aren’t familiar with the work – a tiger rings the bell and comes to tea and eats all the food in the house, including all the water in the tap. The sated tiger walzes off leaving the mother and child unharmed but hungry.

Instead of ringing the police, a national newspaper or the RSPCA, what do they do? They dither in a feckless manner until daddy comes home “he’ll know what to do”, and he whisks them off to the local cafe for a slap up supper, which he pays for. Wait til he gets back to the office and tells the chaps how come his supper wasn’t waiting for him. Later mummy buys tiger food at the supermarket on the off chance…

The messages there about gender roles, ambition and financial independence are shocking. It’s a much better candidate for the banning brigade.

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  1. says

    Nice one! And I agree with you wholeheartedly. I got sick of reading all these stories to my niece about the Princess's ultimate goal being to meet a Prince, or likewise. I used to make up a different ending with her about the Princess going off to 'see the world' or 'helping all the poor people in the kingdom' and being equally as happy, if not moreso.

    Milt's Muttie x

  2. Anonymous says

    And when I ran a bookshop, a customer told me I wasn't allowed to stock it – it had been banned, she said. Not true – it had been reported that some libraries had decided to remove it from their shelves, lest it upset some sensitive soul, but not banned. Made me more determined to keep it, together with the original Noddy, and his mates Big Ears and Golly!!!!They are all classics of their kind, and of their particular time. In fact probably an excuse for a little social history lesson, comparing then and now? Mxx

  3. says

    Milt, Boys books all seem to be about being grotty and girls are about bagging a chap. It's depressing.

    M, I think some of the modern books are better candidates for banning My Little Vacuous Princess or Nasty Boy And His Violent Ambition or somesuch.

    S, unless it's the letters page!

  4. Debbie says

    I can come up with some other decidedly unlovely subbing tasks which beat even the letters page – but would probably get sacked if I named names!
    Bizarrely, just after I read this I walked past the little toy shop next to M&S on Great George Street and they had The Tiger Who Came To Tea in the window. Not one I'm familiar with from my childhood. But sounds like a distinctly dodgy message.

  5. says

    Just came over from the Scottish round up – you lured me in with LBS… Although incidentally have you seen the “new” version? Tigers relocated to a more correct geographical location – India. All a bit odd for those of us brought up on the original. They call it “The boy and the tigers” and Sambo's been renamed Rajani.

    Must disagree with you though(topically because it was requested as a bedtime story tonight) about the Tiger who came to Tea. We love it in this house, although I too rankle slightly at the suggestion that Mummy couldn't have come up with the genius suggestion of going to a cafe without help from the man in her life.

    That said, two men of my acquaintance read it for the first time and independently decided it was an allegory of Mummy having an affair, so maybe Mummy's got more spine than you might first think…

  6. says

    Hi PlanB, Thanks for coming. Actually I think – because I Googled at work – the original was set in India (Madras, I beleve) as the author was brought up there.
    Rajani is definately not an improvement!
    I do like the idea of the subtext. The tiger who came while Daddy was out and consumed everything, pushed off and left Daddy having to make an effort to get his supper. Although I'm not sure how the tub of tiger food fits in!

  7. says

    I totally agree about the Tiger who Came to Tea – I mean wouldn't the mummy have some idea how to cope with post tiger lack of food? Or at least not let the tiger eat and drink everything?

    We've just got Toddlergirl the Paperbag Princess – the princess does the rescuing and then decides not to marry the prince. For some reason my mother in law doesn't like it

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