Early on in her picture book career, Helen Oxenbury teamed up with the dour Scots poet, musician and humourist Ivor Cutler. Perhaps best known today as the bus conductor in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, Cutler had carved out a unique position for himself in the 1960s as a cult entertainer for the Goons generation.
Cutler was a long term friend of Oxenbury and her husband John Burningham, who he’d taught at the progressive school Summerhill. He asked Oxenbury to illustrate his first three children’s books, typically off the wall tales which she tackled with characterful wistfulness.
Their final collaboration, The Animal House (1976) comes with a jacket blurb that is unusually instructive about their approach: ‘The meticulously rendered detail of the full watercolour drawings provides a striking contrast to the zany text.’ Oxenbury handles with skill Cutler’s up close, personal humour and also produces beautiful sweeping landscapes redolent of her work on We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.
The story begins after the storm has passed, with a boy sitting up in bed looking around at the plot where his home used to be.
Both artist and writer have an eye for the sort of mundane details that help to make the absurd situation almost believable. So the family sit in the open air, wrapped in blankets, getting on with their breakfast while Mr Diamond readies himself for a day at work as if nothing especially remarkable has happened.
At the zoo where he works, Dennis Diamond discusses his situation with his understanding boss, Mr Softwater, who hatches a brilliant plan to deal with his employees housing crisis: Build a house out of zoo animals.
At knocking off time Dennis leads a selection of creatures through the streets of the town. Oversized mammals provide the walls, snakes make a roof and a cloud of eagles, keys, condors, emus and a vulture create a warm, watertight roof.
But the animals are equally dedicated to their work at the zoo, and come morning the Diamonds find themselves once again without shelter. So Dennis Diamond finds his way to the seaside and discovers the location of the missing house, ‘Floating on the sea, bumping gently against the rocks.’
The new situation suits the family perfectly, with Mr Diamond enjoying the rocking motion, young Simon happy with the view of fish through his bedroom floor and mum operating the water filter.
The verdict of Mr Diamond’s brilliant boss on their new situation is quietly profound, like a Chinese proverb: ‘The wind blew you into happiness.’
More from Cutler and Oxenbury: