At’sawaytodoit! Mr. Punch by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

Two more things I love about the seaside: Weird attractions and twice hourly puppet shows starting at a quarter past and a quarter to the hour. Neil Gaiman delivers both of these in the Comical Tragedy, or Tragical Comedy of Mr. Punch.

The story takes place in, what Morrissey would describe as the seaside town ‘they forgot to close down.’ It’s late summer and a young boy has been shipped off to stay with his grandparents while his mother is in the final stages of pregnancy. We first meet him early one morning on the beach. As his grandfather fruitlessly fishes in the sea, the boy wanders off alone.

‘The pre-dawn world lacked colour: there was grey in abundance and a strange strained blue. But there was one patch of colour on the beach and it was that I walked towards.’

Everything is cast in dusky shades apart from the puppet theatre that first pops up on the beach. The striped vertical tent is home to ‘a nasty little red man, with his squeaking voice and his banging stick.’ So the boy enters the world of Mr. Punch, who pops up with a ‘Hip Pip Poy’ his eyes ringed red, like the blood of the baby he has just thrown onto the stones.

Having not seen a Punch and Judy show since I was a child I was struck by the sheer levels of horror it packs in to its brief running time. If you’ve forgotten, here’s a brief précis: Mr. Punch, a vicious wife beater callously murders his child, attempts to hide it from his wife, who finds out anyway and is also brutally killed. The best efforts of the police, the undead, a crocodile and a judge can’t stop Mr. Punch, even the devil himself can’t claim this little demon.

It’s billed as a comedy, with its funny voices, sausages and slapstick, but Mr. Punch will be most children’s introduction to the many bad things that exist out there. And its utterly unforgiving in this respect, atrocity is piled on atrocity. Funny then that I mainly remembered it as an extension of the antics of Sooty and Sweep. I was always a little disppointed that the yellow bear wasn’t a bit more forceful with his wand , particularly when the annoying Panda came round to spoil their fun.

Gaiman plays on these sorts of fractured childhood memories here. The Punch and Judy show is the one reliable memory the narrator has of his time at the seaside. Throughout we hear him hopelessly trying to piece together the events of that summer and the terrible thing that happened at the amusement arcade.

‘It was a half-empty maze of old slot machines, of shops and booths. There was a mirror maze: an elderly woman in a headscarf who sat beneath a sign with a human palm on it drank tea from a thermos flask: a small menagerie of huge, wicked-looking parrots, angry reds and vivid blues that squawked in high, unintelligible voices; and at the top of the building,on a rock in the middle of a very small artificial lake there was a mermaid.’

Exactly my type of place then, particularly when the Punch and Judy man brings his booth inside. Like all those who play Mr. Punch he is known as ‘Professor’, just one of the many little bits of paraphernalia that have been added to the show since it came over from Italy 350 years ago. To the boy he is a figure straight out of time, eternally roaming the country with the cast of the show in tow.

Everything I like about the British seaside is tied up in Punch and Judy; a deeply old fashioned entertainment that has changed only very subtly to remain intelligible to its ever replenshing audience. Mr. Punch is the spirit of the seaside, the anarchic essence of the holiday bacchanalia made available to the very youngest. ‘The greatest, oldest, wisest play there is: the comical tragedy, the tragical comedy of Mister Punch.’ At’swaytodoit.

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