Thursday, April 16, 2009

Sir Clement Freud

I never met Sir Clement Freud, who died yesterday (here's the Telegraph obituary) but his daughter Emma is a friend of mine, and she put us in touch in email. And I mention this because, while his obituaries talk about his political career, or his broadcasting career, and his time as a gourmet, none of them talk about his short-lived but wonderful career as a children's author.

Clement Freud wrote Grimble. The story of a boy of "about ten" whose parents go off to Peru and leave him notes. He cooks a lot in it.

As with several of my favourite books I encountered it first on the BBC series Jackanory, in which actors like Kenneth Williams or Martin Jarvis (who is going to be doing the upcoming HarperCollins Good Omens Audiobook) would simply read books on the TV, fifteen minutes of storytelling each day, while the cameras sat on them or panned across illustrations. Sir Clement read Grimble in that wonderful, slightly lugubrious, voice, deadpanning every joke, and it was wonderful.

Now, J. K. Rowling loves Grimble and said so, and so did I. And Grimble -- the tone of voice, the deadpan way he put the sentences together -- was a huge influence on Coraline, which was something I discovered when I read the book to Maddy.

I talked about it in this blog from May 2002, before Coraline was published --
So I went and prowled the bookshelves in the basement, looking for my old books from when I was a boy, feeling like something odd and funny and stylish.

I found my battered-but-beloved copy of Grimble and Grimble at Christmas, Clement Freud's marvellous story of a boy who is about ten (his parents are a bit vague) notes and telegrams and cookery, a book I've probably not read since I was thirteen, and read Maddy the first two chapters. She laughed a lot. I was surprised how much of the gentle deadpan of Grimble had crept into Coraline.

And it was one of those books just as good as you remember, from the first page on, in which we learn that Grimble did not have his birthday on a fixed day like other children: every now and then his father and mother would buy a cake, put some candles on top of it and say, 'Congratulations Grimble. Today you are about seven', or, "Yesterday you were about eight and a half but the cake shop was closed'. Of course there were disadvantages to having parents like that -- like being called Grimble which made everyone say 'What is your real name?' and he had to say 'My real name is Grimble.'

It's sadly out of print (although there are a few copies out there). I did a Google search to see if it was mentioned anywhere and discovered it was one of J.K. Rowling's favourite books, which left me very puzzled that someone hadn't recently brought it back into print with "GRIMBLE is one of funniest books I've ever read" J. K. Rowling author of HARRY POTTER on it and thus sell, I hope, many truckloads.

(When I first met Emma Freud, many years ago, in the Comic Relief offices, I said "Your Dad wrote Grimble!" and she glowed. She later married my friend Richard Curtis, who wrote Blackadder, and thus provides the illusion that this was somehow a thematically consistent journal entry.)

Some months later I spoke to Emma about it and blogged it in December 2002

Forgot to say that I told Emma Freud, when was in the UK, how much I loved her dad's book GRIMBLE (as mentioned earlier on this journal), and she told me there were about six Grimble stories in all, written to be read aloud on the UK children's TV show Jackanory, four that had never been collected and published at all. We chatted about the J.K. Rowling quote on Grimble, listing her three favourite children's books ("The third is Grimble, by Clement Freud. Grimble is one of funniest books I've ever read, and Grimble himself, who is a small boy, is a fabulous character. I'd love to see a Grimble film. As far as I know, these last two fine pieces of literature are out of print, so if any publishers ever read this, could you please dust them off and put them back in print so other people can read them?") I told Emma I'd add getting Grimble into print to my list of things That Need To Be Done.

So I resolved to bring Grimble back into print.

Emma put Sir Clement and me together, as I said, and we corresponded. I figured a J.K. Rowling quote would be enough to make it happen, but I was wrong - publishers just didn't want to bring Grimble back into print, or not the ones I spoke to.

Eventually I sort of cheated, and suggested it to the editors of a book called Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, and Some Other Things That Aren't as Scary, Maybe, Depending on How You Feel About Lost Lands, Stray Cellphones, Creatures from the Sky, Parents who Disappear in Peru, a Man Named Lars Farf, and One Other Story We Couldn't Quite Finish, So Maybe You Could Help Us Out and, with Sir Clement's permission, they reprinted it there. It was many people's favourite story.

More recently, Grimble at Christmas was republished by Jonathan Cape in the UK.

I never met him. I loved corresponding with him -- he was funny and dry, and he loved Coraline, although he didn't like the bit where she cried in the night in the empty bed. He thought that, as hero and a brave girl, she should not have cried. And I thought that she was a hero and a brave girl because she cried in the night and kept going anyway.

I'd always looked forward actually to meeting him. I'm sad it won't happen. But I thought I'd write this, just to remind people that Sir Clement Freud, journalist, chef, politician, broadcaster etc, also wrote Grimble. And that there are four unpublished stories still out there somewhere.

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