Something feels different about some stories made for children. Not all of them. Just some. Take The Cat In The Hat or The Tiger Who Came To Tea. It’s not easy to find stories for adults with a similar blueprint. In these children’s stories, a visitor arrives in a child’s house and makes merry mischief. The child has heaps of fun. Then, after a surprising climax, the visitor leaves. The child’s world returns to normality and safety.
For more details on the blueprint of a children’s carnivalesque plot, see here.
Today I’d like to talk about a different take on the carnivalesque tale. In this plot, visitors arrive in the house… and don’t leave. Instead of having fun with these visitors, the audience stand-in character (the person who properly inhabits the house) tries all sorts of tricks to get rid of the uninvited guests. Their methods are often slapstick and always fun to watch, for the audience.
A REAL LIFE CARNIVALESQUE INTRUDER PLOT
Why am I thinking about this? Because of the antivax protests, believe it or not. This week, in New Zealand, and all around the world, protesters descended upon capital cities. Some protestors are demanding an end to ‘mandates’. Others have come with QAnon conspiracy theories (which can be traced right back to Satanic Panic of the 1970s and 80s). Others have their own wacky agenda. Some are simply there for the street carnival.
Protesters in New Zealand decided to camp on the grass outside The Beehive (named for its shape). New Zealand police are reluctant to fine protestors for illegal camping and parking, explaining that there are significant logistical difficulties with fining crowds of this size. Not being an expert in crowd control himself, New Zealand’s Speaker of the House decided to try and rid Wellington of New Zealand’s nuttiest protesters.
First he tried flooding them. The protestors simply dug trenches in the turf. Not only are the protesters still there; now the turf is in a real mess.
So he next tried blasting a selection of unpopular music. Reports of the exact playlist vary (I’ve heard different reports depending on whether I’m looking at New Zealand or Australian news.) The playlist was possibly as follows:
- “The Macarena” (the crowd started dancing)
- “The Heart Shall Go On” (Shitty Flute version, off-key and played on a child’s recorder)
- Barry Manilow
- James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful”
But protesters responded by using their own speakers to drown out the Speaker’s speakers, putting a drone in the air, singing Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It, and blasting a loud truck horn.The New Zealand Herald
As I write, this is an evolving situation. The protesters haven’t budged. But as someone who grew up in New Zealand myself, this news item reminds me of a well-known children’s story about slugs.
Any child of 1980s New Zealand will likely remember a radio show which played on either Saturday or Sunday mornings (I can’t remember). The entire show was for children and its timing allowed parents to lie a little longer in bed, since everyone knows young kids are very irritating: They get up as soon as they wake up.
The hosts of this children’s show were an actual police office called Constable Keith (channelled into community outreach) and his talking dog, Sniff. Constable Keith also appeared regularly on TV. Then we could see that Sniff was a puppet Alsatian. It took me much longer to work out that Constable Keith was also doing the raspy voice of Sniff, and longer again to realise that Constable Keith probably didn’t bother taking his puppet into the radio studio with him every weekend. He was probably just doing the voices, without manipulating the puppet, which none of us could see.
Radio New Zealand has always been a bit strapped for cash, which probably explains why Constable Keith hosted an entire radio show all on his own, in two different voices, and also why the same two radio plays on repeat every single weekend.
The first was Badjelly the Witch by Spike Milligan. The other was about slugs. I have no idea what it’s called. It may be called “Slugs”.
As an adult, I remembered one thing about it: The creepy laughing of the slugs as they chewed through ‘lettuces, nice juicy lettuces’.
It has taken me a very long time to locate the radio play. I tried a few times over the years, and have finally found it remixed. It now appears on the Internet as an electronica song called “Slug Dub” by The Orb. In this you’ll hear the laughing of the slugs, which The Orb has made even creepier by adding a reverb effect.
Revisiting the story now, this children’s story really feels like some 1970s psychedelic vision. Makes sense The Orb decided to do something freaky with it: The band has a cult following among clubbers as they come down from their highs. I can see that.
The story is replete with the typical gender bullshit my generation grew up with: The mother with the ridiculously high pitched voice who makes a plan but when that doesn’t work she starts crying. Of course I didn’t notice that at the time — weak female characters were the norm. Eventually a femme-coded Mariah arrives but who is she? Is she the one playing the music? I do not know who ‘Brush’ is meant to be, and can’t even deduce whether this Brush character is the result of an auto translation from English to French and back to English again.
The story is… bizarre.
The following information helps us to make more sense of the plot: Young boys regularly played with peashooters for a while. This was especially popular in the 1970s. The world peashooting competition has been held since 1971. When the slugs in this story ‘eat up all the peas’ then go back to eating the lettuces, we can deduce the little boy was trying to shoot the slugs with dried peas. In this radio play, the boy playing with the peashooter is voiced by an adult man. Which is weird.
Anyway, here it is.
TRANSCRIPT OF THE SLUG STORY
Thomas: Aww… slugs again!
Samuel the Narrator: Yes, there were the slugs. Babies, mothers, and grandmothers, besides enormous great fat slugs, all eating away at the juicy leaves.
Mother: Oh Thomas, let’s set some traps–some slug traps–and catch them all.
Samuel the Narrator: Did those slugs walk into the traps? No, not one. They just laughed their slimy laugh…
Slugs: [slimy laugh]
Samuel the Narrator: …and went on eating the juicy lettuces.
Mother: Oh dear me, what shall we do? There’ll be no lettuce left when little Tim comes home.
Thomas: I know! I’ve got a good idea. I’ll shoot those varmints!
Thomas: I will! I’ll shoot them!
Samuel the Narrator: Thomas crept very carefully up the lettuce patch and fired his little gun. [POP! POP!] But did the slugs mind?
Slugs: [slimy laugh]
Samuel the Narrator: No, not they. They laughed more than ever in their slimy way.
Slugs: [slimy laugh]
Samuel the Narrator: And they et up all the peas, and then they turned about and went on eating the lettuces.
Mother: Thomas, how are you getting on? We shan’t have any lettuce when little Tim comes home.
Samuel the Narrator: They hopped sadly down along the passage into the kitchen of their house… and then Mariah had arrived. [ZAP!]
Samuel the Narrator: The greedy slugs raised their heads to listen. They waved their bodies joyously, and laughed their slimy laugh.
Slugs: [slimy laugh] Hear the sweet music at our feast. Hear the sweet music while we eat.
Samuel the Narrator: And then they laughed again happily in their slimy way…
Slugs: [slimy laugh]
Samuel the Narrator: … and went on eating lettuces.
Slugs: [slimy laugh]
Mother: There won’t be even a nibble of lettuce when our little Tim comes home! [Sniffles]
Samuel the Narrator: Suddenly, a voice called out, and out rushed Tim, hopping and skipping and turning somersaults as he came towards his father and mother.
Tim: Hello, hello! I brought a friend! Oh… what’s the matter?
Samuel the Narrator: The slugs are eating all the lettuce, Tim.
Tim: Oh hey there, Samuel! My friend Brush has just been wondering if you’ll have meat for supper. Why is it we only had letters, didn’t I, Brush?
Brush: Ask Tim! I, uh, think I can help you… if you allow me, sir. Just watch me! [Starts whistling]
Samuel the Narrator: He gobbled up the slugs faster than you could count–baby slugs, mother slugs, grandmother and great-grandmother slugs–before they had time to take to their slimy heels. Mariah and Thomas stood and watched in wonder at his huge appetite.
Thomas: Ho-ho-ho-hooo! Come and have supper with us whenever you like, Mr. Brush.
Tim: Oh, he will. Mr Brush!
Thomas: Yes! Get in.
A CARNIVALESQUE PLOT FOR AN ADULT AUDIENCE
I didn’t think a carnivalesque plot such as this could be made for an adult audience. But then I saw The House. The middle story in that compilation is the perfect example of a carnivalesque plot in which visitors outstay their welcome.
Note that the unwelcome visitors in these stories are your typical unwanted creatures who tend to infest houses: rats, cockroaches, slugs.
Any delineation between ‘stories for adults’ and ‘stories for children’ is very difficult to draw. In short, I don’t think there is a difference, except stories for adults rely on more audience awareness about how the world works.