RogerBW's Blog

My Friend Mr Leakey, J B S Haldane 08 June 2015

1937 children's fantasy. Six stories of wonder, three of them dealing with the modern magician Mr Leakey.

Nesbit got there earlier, but it was still unusual to posit a magician, and indeed fantastical creatures, in the modern world rather than in some remote fantasyland. Haldane writes like the most interesting sort of grown-up, who always has strange and fascinating things to tell, whether it's about the man who piloted his troopship up the river Tigris in the War, or why you shouldn't conjure fish to eat (you can never be sure it's fresh), or who is the patron saint of plumbers.

Mr Leakey is a magician who lives in a first-floor flat near the Haymarket, and inside the door is wonder: tapestries that develop the story depicted on them while one isn't looking, light-giving plants, and a pet dragon called Pompey who grills the turbot. Not to mention the octopus, Oliver:

"When he was a man he had his legs cut off by a railway train. I couldn't stick them on again because my magic doesn't work against machinery. Poor Oliver was bleeding to death, so I thought the only way to save his life was to turn him into some animal with no legs. Then he wouldn't have any legs to have been cut off.

"I turned him into a snail, and took him home in my pocket. But whenever I tried to turn him back into something more interesting, like a dog, it had no hind legs. But an octopus has really got no legs. Those eight tentacles grow out of its head. So when I turned him into an octopus, he was all right.

"And he had been a waiter when he was a man, so he soon learnt his job. I think he's much better than a maid because he can lift the plates from above, and doesn't stand behind one and breathe down one's neck."

It's that sort of logic which I love about this book. Jinns don't get on with radio waves, which is why they don't come near Europe. Bad ones can be put off by reciting the last two chapters of the Koran, but if one doesn't know that then the names and dates of the Kings and Queens of England will do. Christening a volcano doesn't stop it erupting, but it does make it useless for doing magic.

The first three stories (in most editions; in the original they were in a different order) have the narrator recounting a dinner with Mr Leakey, a day spent with him as he fixes a variety of minor problems and then flies round the world to see friends, and a fancy-dress party that he throws (with a variety of guests, children and grown-ups). The next two contain no magic: Rats tells of how the cunning and vicious rats of the London Docks were killed with iron filings, and The Snake with the Golden Teeth recounts the follies of a very rich man. The book ends in most editions with My Magic Collar Stud, describing a magical shop and the narrator's adventures with a collar-stud bought there.

Yes, it was published in 1937, which means Mr Leakey is allowed to be sure he's right about things rather than agonising over it all. And it's quite short, even with the illustrations. But it is a lovely and charming book, one of my favourites as a small child and one which I'm glad to find I still love now.

Still, I hope you think my friend Mr. Leakey is a nice man. Because I do.

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  1. Posted by John Dallman at 12:58pm on 08 June 2015

    I have never read this. But my parents had a recording - on open-reel tape, probably off-air - and would play it to me when I was ill. It was wonderful, and I'm glad my memories of it seem to be correct.

  2. Posted by Chris at 01:18pm on 08 June 2015

    This is one of the few children's books Roger and I had in common when we met, though he'd grown up with the Quentin Blake illustrations and I had a very thin original Puffin illustrated by someone else who name I can't remember. I reluctantly have to admit that the QB ones are probably better illustrations, but I still like the ones I grew up with.

    We keep a copy for lending out to people who have not encountered it. Sometimes we even ask whether they want to read it...

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