Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Land of Green Ginger

The Tale of the Land of Green Ginger, now in danger of becoming a forgotten classic of children's literature, was first published in 1937. It's better known today (although it's not well known at all) by the shorter title carried by later editions: The Land of Green Ginger. The author was Noel Langley, born in South Africa on Christmas Day in 1911. 

It's a marvellous adventure story set in China long, long ago (although the title comes from - seriously - a street name in prosaic Kingston-upon-Hull, a street that contains - seriously again- what is widely believed to be the world's smallest window. Do look it up - it's really small.) Anyway, the main character in Langley's book is Abu Ali, the son of Aladdin (as in the pantomime, and there are appearances by the Widow Twankey and Abanazer) and the Land of Green Ginger itself turns out to be an enchanted floating kitchen-garden. There's never a dull moment and a big laugh on every page.

In 1966 Langley revised and expanded the original novel, packing it full of new jokes and wonderfully strange characters (including Nosi Parka and a lisping poet whose name escapes me). This was the edition I read as a child, and loved, not least for the marvellous pictures by Edward Ardizzone (surely the very greatest of illustrators - who else comes close?) I recall Kenneth Williams giving a virtuoso reading on the BBC Jackanory programme in the early 1970s. I'd love to see, or at least hear, that performance again. 

Above all, Langley's language was a source of constant unalloyed pleasure, free (more or less) of pantomime orientalism (unlike Ernest Brahma's once hugely-popular Kai Lung stories). I recall my delight at the tusked Djinn (Abdul), a cloud of black smoke with green eyes and a 'tall turreted turquoise turban' and his glum admission "I have a son myself, in a quiet sort of way, but all he says in Boomalakka Wee."

So. I bought a copy of The Land of Green Ginger the other day to read to an eight-year-old, and started leafing through it in search of old pleasures. But something was wrong. This version of the book was certainly not the one I remembered so vividly from more than forty years ago - that was the 1966 edition published (I've just checked) by Puffin. The volume put out by the current publishers (let them remain nameless) was, closer inspection revealed, first issued in 1975 (the author died in 1980). Let an astute and disgruntled Amazon reviewer called Pumpkin explain:

     In 1975 it was republished in a drastically abridged form -- seventy pages shorter -- with most of the 
     jokes removed, along with several characters, such as Nosi Parka the egghead. While there's still 
     something of the original in the 1975 edition, it's a depressing book if you love the original -- pages 
     of fun and froth are replaced with a dry summary of the plot. Omar Khayyam no longer lisps or 
     makes up poetry. Even the songs are gone

The publishers really should take a look at the Amazon feedback from punters who, like me, are annoyed by the current edition. It isn't wholly bad because Langley is more talented than his bowdlerisers, but it certainly is a depressing book if, as Pumpkin says, you happen to know and love the original. It's a dull-witted dilution of Langley's work and, since there's no indication on the cover that this is a clumsily edited and heavily-cut edition, borders on the fraudulent, like publishing The Wind in the Willows without Mr Toad. Who on earth sanctioned this? Why isn't the original in print? What (if anything) was so objectionable about the original and, if it was indeed so objectionable, why reprint the book at all? I'm all for censorship (if you see what I mean) but not for such lumpen treatment of an original, and such lazy compromise. 

Langley, I learn, was the original screenwriter of the MGM film version of The Wizard of Oz, and it was his brilliant idea to cast the same actors who played the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion as hick farmhands back in Kansas - the three hayseeds we see in the monochrome opening and closing sequences that bookend Dorothy Gale's odyssey. Suppose somebody at MGM today decided that The Wizard of Oz no longer conforms to current perspectives on (say) spinsters and munchkins and witches and flying monkeys? Would the film be circulated with clumsy cuts, much-loved scenes replaced  with inferior inserts of stock material or outtakes? Would they (as the current publishers appear to have done with their edition of The Land of Green Ginger) cut the songs? 

There's plenty of speculation about the reasons for this weird and clumsy re-edit on line. I'll see whether I can track down a copy of the 1966 edition and report back. If the original turns out, despite my fond recollection, to be strikingly objectionable I shall of course apologise to the publishers, and most sincerely, with head bowed. If not my wrath shall be terrible, quite terrible, although all I shall say is Boomalakka Wee.

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