Books

Titty Mouse and Tatty Mouse

Mavis Guzelian was born in Allepo in Syria in 1920 and went on a sailing holiday with her family in the Lake District in 1928. Arthur Ransome, also sailing on Lake Coniston that summer, based his young character Titty Walker on her in his classic novel Swallows and Amazons (1930). She later trained at art school with Henry Moore, worked for a news agency in Jerusalem during the second war, and was an artist afterwards in Bradford, West Yorkshire. In life (according to her sister) she exhibited a fierce intelligence. In the book Ransome portrays her as the most imaginative of the children; she prospects for water with a dowsing twig, attempts sorcery with a wax image of an oppressive Great Aunt, dreams of being marooned on an island and is the able seaman of the yacht.

Mavis’s favourite English fairy tale was Titty Mouse and Tatty Mouse from the 1890 English Fairy Tales collected by the Australian folklorist Joseph Jacobs. She was therefore known in the family by the nickname ‘Titty’. The BBC broadcasts a filmed version of Swallows and Amazon next Wednesday, but in a puerile act of corporate clean-up the producers have changed the character’s name to ‘Tatty’. What a depressingly prim display of prudery. The ugly term ‘titties’, a frat-boy American slang deployed for spring break-type frolics, was invented years after Ransome wrote. This sort of hysteria should be faced down not pandered to.

In the fairy tale Titty mouse and Tatty mouse eat from an ear of corn and Titty is scalded to death in a boiling pot, Tatty cries, a walnut tree sheds its leaves and a little bird moults its feathers, a thatcher jumps from his ladder deliberately to break his neck and the great walnut tree falls down with a crash onto a house that crushes Tatty to death beneath the ruins.

Those old fairy tales knew that children were not to be fobbed off with impoverished language.

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