Thursday, 15 March 2018

"The Price of Shrimps" -- and some cautionary tales for adults

This poem by Paul Dehn was tucked in my old student commonplace book:

" All my life long Since I was thirteen,
Loved by St Francis Is what I would have been.

The fish still scatter, The pony shies,
The snake bites And the bird flies.

Yet here is one who is What I would have been
All my life long;  And he is thirteen."
Circus Hand  

It was possibly taken from one of those idealistic children's annuals of the 40s and 50s.  You would never imagine (apart from its neatness of structure), that it came from the man who wrote apocalyptic poems like these in the 1960s:

From Quake, Quake, Quake*, poems by Paul Dehn, illustrations by Edmund Gorey

Journalist and film critic,  Paul Dehn is probably better known as the script writer for films such as Goldfinger, The Spy who came in from the Cold,  and the many Planet of the Apes sequels.

Born in Manchester in 1912, he was writing as a film reviewer in the late 1930s, and then served in Intelligence in World War II.  He was very affected by the Cold War and the nuclear threat of the 1960s, and published his parodies of classic English poems, memorably illustrated by Edmund Gorey, in Quake Quake Quake, A Leaden [not "Golden"] Treasury of English Verse in 1961.

A parody of "Oh western wind", an anonymous love poem from the 16th century

A parody from Tennyson's poem in "The Princess, III."
*(Quake, quake, quake is also a parody of Tennyson -- "Break, break, break)

The Cold War was a very real threat, and influenced writers, artists and film-makers.  I recall seeing Peter Watkins' The War Game in the 1960s. Creating a documentary-style imagined account of Britain, invaded after a nuclear attack from the Communist East, he mixed news clips with searing acted scenes all in black and white. The film was planned to be shown on BBC TV in 1965, but was cancelled as too "horrifying" to broadcast.  It was later shown by the British Film Institute and at other carefully scheduled screenings; it was a chilling experience. (see

From Paul Dehn's A Soviet Child's Garden of Verses, illustrated by Edmund Gorey

His sister, Olive Dehn (later Markham) was also an anarchist poet and feminist writer.
As a nineteen-year old she was escorted  from Nazi Germany in 1933 for writing a satirical poem about Hitler, and in later life she was again expelled from the Soviet Union for human rights campaigning.
Her stories for children reflect these concerns.  Come In (1946) is a realistic picture of family life in the 1940s, where the housewife has no freedom from domestic chores. Like her brother's poem Circus Hand, her stories (with a twist) feature in children's annuals.  In The Price of Shrimps, eighteenth century satirists Joseph Addison, Richard Steele and Jonathan Swift combine to rescue the heroine (and the secret shrimp recipe) from a life of drudgery with the wicked witch - by inveigling the witch to read Gulliver's Travels.  But there is a consequence for the fishing port of Parkgate on the Dee: the witch conjures up a furious storm in retaliation and all the Dee estuary is silted up.

Olive Dehn's stories featured alongside those of Enid Blyton and Eleanor Farjeon in the 1940s and 50s.  Odhams Annual 1948

For Paul Dehn, see also sports  (Poems © estate of the writer)
For Olive Dehn, see

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