Matthew Parris

I became a Conservative thanks to a little winged rabbit called Pookie

Reading my favourite picture book 60 years later, I understand why the story thrilled my infant soul

2 April 2016

9:00 AM

2 April 2016

9:00 AM

His father’s dental cast, writes Graham Greene near the beginning of The Power and the Glory ‘had been [Trench’s] favourite toy: they tried to tempt him with Meccano, but fate had struck’. Trench is a dentist, trapped by his chosen profession in a godforsaken Central American hellhole. Greene ponders the way, when we are very young, that chance events, objects or people may become father to the man. ‘We should be thankful we cannot see the horrors and degradations lying around our childhood, in cupboards and bookshelves, everywhere.’

Too true. Pookie made me a Tory.

My new copy of Pookie Puts the World Right has arrived. I’d lost the old one, but tracked down another on the internet. Though more than 60 years old, it’s in fine condition, only 24 pages, but big and bold and colourful, with lots of striking pictures. The Pookie series, by Ivy L. Wallace, was published by Collins at the end of the 1940s, and popular with children from about four to eight years old. I was perhaps five when I read Pookie Puts the World Right. It fast became my favourite book.

Only on rereading, though, do I see its influence. I had remembered the wonderful pictures, but now I see that, insinuated into the colour sketches and the plot itself, was a moral (almost ideological) framework to which my tiny being must have thrilled. The moral chimed with an infant soul.

Older readers may remember this series. Younger readers should know that Pookie was a small winged rabbit with blue trousers, rescued in distress by a loving, poor but honest girl called Belinda, who lived alone in the wood, made Pookie a padded bed in a sort of shoebox, and helped him grow wings. The pair became the greatest friends.

One late autumn day, Winter — drawn as a scary giant with icicle fingers — arrives. There’s a great storm. Trees blow down. Burrows flood. All the animals in the wood (Pookie’s friends) are devastated; homes destroyed, food stores ruined, wings and paws wounded. Pookie and Belinda take in the casualties, warm them by the fire and feed and tend to them. But Pookie (with whom I identified) strides out into the storm in a rage and, shaking his little paw at Winter, tells him to stop being so cruel, go back to the North Pole and never return.

And to Pookie’s shock, Winter withdraws. Pookie is briefly feted. Autumn is followed by spring. Then all nature is thrown into confusion. Flowers have no time to prepare to flower again; dead leaves and branches have not been cleared, nor animals refreshed by hibernation. Now all the woodland folk protest, and Pookie becomes a figure of hate.

So, in the biggest adventure of his life, Pookie flies all the way to the North Pole, nearly perishing in the attempt. He confronts Winter a second time (this full-page picture was so frightening I kept it under my pillow to sneak glances in the night). Pookie confesses he had been wrong, apologises, and begs Winter to return. The little rabbit now realises that the seasons have a purpose, that lazy or foolish animals with ill-sited burrows or nests have to be shown their folly, and every creature given an incentive to work hard, prepare and store.

Admiring Pookie’s courage, Winter relents, agrees to return, and wafts the exhausted bunny home on a storm cloud.

At once I see why my small being resonated to this story. It gave me a parable for what I must already have wanted to believe. I read and read that book, and never forgot it.

Five years later I pulled George Orwell’s Animal Farm from a bookshelf and, -believing it to be a simple tale about animals, read it — all of it — in a day, with no notion that it was an allegory. Orwell’s beautiful, clear English prose drew me in.

And I knew from the start that the animals’ revolution could never work out, that their takeover of the farm must fail. I quickly sensed that good intentions would not be enough, and felt a sneaking regard for the pigs for getting a grip on the situation: at least they made the farm work. I remember wondering whether a system could be devised to give the less intelligent animals a better life, while still rewarding the pigs for their organisational abilities.

All this I recall quite clearly from a misty day in the Vumba mountains in Southern Rhodesia, nearly 60 years ago. I had no idea Snowball was Trotsky or Napoleon Stalin. I did not know that animalism was an allegory for socialism. But I knew that ‘Four legs good, two legs bad’ was a mindless chant; and the moment the slogan ‘All animals are equal’ appeared, I thought ‘yeah, right’. Orwell’s parable was deep: it pointed to problems with socialism in principle, not just to problems with some of its practitioners. I’m not sure he understood that.

At ten, I did. I grasped the true moral of this book better than its author, who was presumably making a somewhat tedious, factional point about rival versions of socialism. At a certain, deep level, and without entirely knowing what socialism was, my ten-year-old self saw here a demonstration of why all socialism was doomed.

Now you may suggest (and when discussing this with me, the editor of this magazine did suggest) that my analysis may mistake cause for effect. Did Pookie make me a Tory — or was it being already a proto-Tory tot that made Pookie’s story powerful to me? Maybe both; but surely children’s stories can reinforce, can channel a developing mind?

Be that as it may, I shall on finishing this column turn one last time to that thrilling picture of Winter with icicle fingers and icicle nose, and know, as I knew then, that austerity can be a redeeming force. I must lend the book to George Osborne to put under his pillow.

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Show comments
  • Frank

    Gosh, what a clever lad you were. The nation is so grateful to you for allowing us this insight into your early motivation. The only slight flaw in this little parade of early wisdom, is that you are not really a Conservative. Did Mandy never reach out to you so that you could join New Labour?

    • davidshort10

      By his own admission, he was not even a member of the Tory party when he was a Conservative MP…..

    • Sean L

      That’s one thing he’s got in common with Mandelson, that he’s not a conservative…

  • irina palm

    No rallying calls as they appear to be much-needed/de rigueur over at Lidl’s fun facts piece?

  • MacGuffin

    Jesus Christ I really do think we are witnessing a mental breakdown.

    • jennybloggs

      Well quite. It does cause the mind to boggle. The narcissism is off the wall. So kind of him to put George Orwell right. Didn’t he already have a mental breakdown in Clacton where he met some ordinary people?

  • James Chilton

    I don’t like the word “Pookie”. I’ve even got reservations about “Snowball”.

  • MikePage

    Best one of the day so far.

  • Michael H Kenyon

    There is a thin line between whimsy and infantile. This is the wrong side of that distinction. Is Parris turning into the metrosexual Wallace Arnold?

    • Sipu

      Metrosexual, by definition implies heterosexual orientation. So the answer to your question is a very firm, No.

  • Andrew Cole

    Just checking this is the Spectator. Can someone confirm?

    • Sean L

      Yeah I wonder that when faced yet again with the utter vacuity of a Matthew Parris column, especially when you think of some past contributors. And then you get Hugo Rifkind…. Easily the weakest two columnists in my time as a reader, and that’s since ’82.

  • Sean L

    The usual inanity. I don’t mind what people are if they have something to say that’s worth hearing: you haven’t. What I can confirm though is that whatever you are, it’s not Tory. For one thing, being a Tory isn’t adherence to an economic or moral theory. Enoch Powell used to promote liberal economic policies, yet in the ’74 General Election he campaigned for Labour, because first and foremost being Tory is a question of allegiance. And as Powell said at the time: “There are many good Tories on the Labour benches.” I was reminded of this when I heard an excellent quote from Harold Wilson the other day. Asked in an interview long after he’d retired what he *really* believed, he said: “Oh, Queen and country – the rest is just politics.” That’s Tory mate. I’ll give you another defining principle from Burke, often called the father of modern conservatism, not to be confused with the party of that name, not at the moment anyway, and that’s his definition of society as a partnership between the generations: the dead, the living, and the yet to be born. In other words we, the living, are mere custodians of what we’ve inherited from our forbears, and that entails a duty to keep the ship of state on course for the sake of those yet to come, and not to jeopardise it on the basis of social experiments that fit the fashion of the moment. In short the interests of society, the national interest, is not to be sacrificed to the whims of individuals or factions. And that definitely disqualifies you.

  • thomas_paine2

    The Tory Party might well irrecoverably divide following the referendum result, Dave will need a substantial majority in favour of staying in the EU or the fallout will be more than he is capable of handling ; I am still not optimistic that the British voters have the courage to vote to LEAVE the EU.

    • LG

      It would certainly take courage. It would certainly be brave. Like clambering out of the trench to run straight towards the enemy’s machine guns.

      it would also be very, very stupid.

      • thomas_paine2

        Staying in the EU means one doesn’t mind their country run by goodness knows who in a foreign city, namely Bruxelles.

      • terence patrick hewett

        My grandfather won the MM by doing exactly that: and no it isn’t the slighest bit like voting for leave.

  • pobinr

    He’s just another pro EU wet blanket liberal who knows not the value of democracy

  • Johnny Foreigner ✓VER.Angry

    I’m offended, I need a safe space. Matthew Parris a Tory? Pleeeeeease! Liberal Progressive moaning minnie and detached from real people’s thinking. I always imagine him running to the toilet, to wash his hands, having had to touch a member of the disgusting public.

  • outlawState

    Just because you’re a gay atheist like Matthew Parris does not mean that you’re intelligent.

    Just because he has the acumen to inquire whether there is anybody of intellectual stature left in (our) English church, or the Roman church, to frame an argument against Christianity’s slide into just going with the flow of social and cultural change, does not make him intelligent.

    Even a person of limited education knows that anyone who departs from scripture, departs from Christ and departs from Christianity. Our churches are full of wolves in sheep’s clothing. Matthew Parris should know that those of us who are intelligent, know that him and his ilk, many of whom are members of churches, only exist to drag society down into atheist communist dictatorship.

    Yet in doing that they expose the light of true Christians that might otherwise be swallowed up by the hypocrisy of meaningless political obsequiousness to this or that party where unbelief is hidden under the hypocritical forms of ritual worship, party allegiance, and empty mouthings that “we live in a Christian country.”

  • Miss Floribunda Rose

    The book which turned me into a Conservative, five years ago, was one of the Janet and John series (the Blue one). Subsequently, The Famous Five and What Katy Did had a profound influence on my thinking and utterly thrilled my adult soul.

  • Lady Magdalene

    Great. Perhaps you could now explain why you turned into a Liberal.

  • Miss Floribunda Rose


  • Frankfurt 13

    You’re a Tory?

  • pobjoy

    my infant soul

    Sold to the devil, for a journalist’s wage.

  • mctruck

    “Atlas Shrugged” didn’t make me anything, but it did show me that I was far from the only person, less still the first, to think as I did.
    I still find it amusing that Rand fled Russia, went to the USA, and wrote a quintessentially Russian novel. Guess you can take the girl out of Russia…

    • thomas_paine2

      But you can’t take Russia out of the girl?

  • thomas_paine2

    The Tory Party could be heading for oblivion over EU membership cheerfully led by the man by they enthusiastically elected as leader more than ten years ago. Labour is in no better shape, it will end up arguing over where the dividing line is between Socialism and the free market.

  • antoncheckout

    “Pookie made me a Tory”
    Well, if Pookie could make you a few more Tories, they might start to win an election with a decent majority – but they’d need to dump Cameron, the Wets and the Europhiles first.

  • edithgrove

    “I grasped the true moral of this book better than its author”

    Not a fraction as bright as Orwell but smugger x 1000.

  • grutchyngfysch

    Sadly copies of Pookie no-platformed by the Big University and Pookie on trial for hate crimes are virtually impossible to find these days, but they certainly did a good job of showing what would happen to people who showed Pookie’s courage and wit.

  • Sid Falco

    Christopher Hitchens already covered why the likes of the odious Parris became a Tory:

    “I know why people are Tories, but it isn’t interesting and it doesn’t take 45 minutes to say.”

  • Alex Williamson


  • James McClellan

    Golly, so much commentarial negativity over a charming and beautifully-written article. I definitely wasn’t a Tory at the infant Parris’s age, but Uncle Cleans Up was certainly sowing the seeds of doubt in regard to my parents’ politics. My dear late Mother LOVED Beaver Hateman, which I found bewildering. Mr Midshipman Easy, by Captain Marriot, was another milestone. I may have had to read that one secretly, I don’t recall precisely. And, of course, Narnia.

  • jane58

    ‘At ten, I did. I grasped the true moral of this book better than its author’ Ye gods, what distorted self perception this man has. Arrogant to the point of ridiculous