‘Out and About’ or ‘I do hate mud’

Out and About’ by Shirley Hughes tells the story of a child’s year, narrated in verse, but dominated by those distinctive Shirley Hughes illustrations that, if you grew up with them, are likely to be entwined with your idea of childhood, whether because that was your childhood, or it very much was not.

The little is girl is drawn with pencil stroke detail, chubby cheeked, determined, just the right side of messy. She’s appealing; she may or may not grow up pretty, it’s too soon to tell. The thought hasn’t crossed her mind.

The book does childhood though, through and through, if childhood is a place dominated by everyday occurrences, where the sensation of striding out in new boots is as strange and all-encompassing and familiar as the sensation of the weather changing and the light coming and going, and being warm inside watching the rain run down the windows because there is nothing else to do.

It also does the old story of the seasons and the static flow of time, from new shoots to the feel of long grass overhead in high summer, pumpkins ripening and leaves yellowing in expectation of Christmas and new shoots once again. This is any and every year, until childhood ends and time is interrupted.

I’m not sure if this is tedium or perfection.

It was published in 1988, but change a few details (the cars, the buggies, something in the hairstyles half concealed beneath the tousled lines) and it encompasses decades. This is a world in which children play outside, visit the shops and the market, watch the rain rather than the television. It’s a very particular vision, even for 1988, in which televisions and telephones featured — as they do in other Shirley Hughes books, in which they are accorded their everyday, bricks and mortar of a child’s world status.

It’s a particular vision, I think, of how we think childhood ought to be. Each page is how I want the day to be, once it has ended.

I wish I liked mud the way the child narrator does. The illustrations show the children happily engaged, poking a stick in a puddle, mud creeping up from their boots to their faces. The mother carries the toddler away, mud from his boots smearing her back. He looks back happily over her shoulder; we don’t see her face. She looks weary. I wonder if she likes mud.

This week spring arrived, and with it the clamouring for the park. To get to point in the story where we are outside, stamping in the mud, seeing the universe in a leaf, I plead, I negotiate, I beg and I threaten.

Coat or no coat, boots or shoes? Do all those cuddly toys want to come? Is it is really sensible decant half the toy-box into your rucksack? It weighs half as much as you. If you don’t know what toys you’ve put in, how are do you know they are all your favourites?

Time circles. We reach the park.

My children seek out the drifts of leaves at the edges. I wonder if there is glass underneath, or worse. The seasons move but there’s always glass. Red berries, funghi ringing the trees. Wilder play areas, interspersed with yew and other toxins. Geese that circle, turn hostile, rusting fences, sunburn, lumbering home with half a house’s paraphernalia under a creaky buggy, a muddy monkey.

Home safely with a treasury of moulding leaves and lichen coated twigs we review the day. Looking through the pictures at bedtime it seems close enough. Like the mother in the story, I kept my face averted; my feelings about mud stayed out of the narrative. The day is safely done and we have been out and about.

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