I sit with my two-month old son on my lap, surrounded by the detritus of parenthood – burp cloths, bottles encrusted with the grainy residue of infant formula, drool-glistening pacifiers, neglected toys – and try to dredge a diversion from my battered and sleep-deprived brain. Most days something rises to the surface. A silly rhyme, a Stewie-inspired internal monologue, a popular rock song with the lyrics changed to include the infant triumvirate of milk, pee and poop. But today, nothing comes. I’m an empty vessel, a vacant-eyed zombie casualty of the babyocalypse.
Then the trickle starts, slowly, phrase by phrase, an echoing refrain from the distant reaches of my back brain:
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live…
Edward Lear’s nonsense poem ‘The Jumblies’ was one of the staples of my childhood, its six stanzas just short enough to hold my micro-sized attention. The frequent repetition worked in its favor too, and, as I grew older, the nonsensical fantasies that children devour like unattended candy. I recall the illustrations to this day, the dome-headed Jumblies packed together like diminutive scholars riding the high tide of my imagination. Its unbridled flights of fancy may go some way towards explaining my teenage fascination with fantasy and science fiction. At the very least, they fed my burgeoning appetite for all things ridiculous and surreal.
If you’re not familiar with Lear’s poem, I suggest you get your hands on a copy (you can read it online here). The Jumblies are presumably no bigger than the top joint of your thumb, as they pack together into a sieve – that most unsuitable of seafaring vessels – and head out across the sea in search of… nothing. We never learn the motivation for our thimble-sized heroes. They simply launch their leaky boat onto the water one day for no reason other than the undeniable desire to sail away in a sieve. Some may say that’s reason enough.
Naturally they almost die when their makeshift boat starts to leak, but with the help of a pinky paper – whatever that may be – and a crockery jar they stave off disaster, spinning round and round in the dark on a voyage that even now fills me with infantile terror. It sounds like one of those white-water rafting experiences that’s advertised with grinning tourists gurning for the camera, mere seconds before they drop over a precipice to a watery grave. Maybe that would be the Jumblies’ idea of a good time (round in our sieve we spin!), but it certainly isn’t mine.
Against all odds the Jumblies somehow survive this prototypical adrenaline ride, and they end up on the ‘Western sea’. Their excitement upon arriving at this new horizon is best summarized by Lear’s catalog of their ill-advised purchases: an owl, a cart, some rice, a cranberry tart, some bees, a pig, some jackdaws, a monkey, a blue cheese, and forty bottles of ‘Ring-Bo-Ree’. I’m assuming this last item is an extremely potent alcoholic beverage – that may at least explain their bizarre spending spree, and the fledgling menagerie that joins them in their sieve.
What has stayed with me longest, however, is the refrain at the end of each stanza, and it’s this that inveigles back into my brain as I slump beneath the wailing form of eight-week old Jacob. Before I can register what’s happening my mouth starts flapping, and Lear’s words echo from some forgotten point in my past:
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.
I can’t help wondering whether our heroes’ hands were blue before they began their seafaring adventure in an item of leaky kitchenware, but the effect is instantaneous. Jacob slumps into a confused silence, his clenched hands slackening at his sides. I’m pretty sure I lost him at ‘Far and few’, but Lear’s words clearly work some kind of spell. They probably make as much sense to him as they do to anybody.
With an apology to literary purists everywhere, I must confess that my next move was to jump straight onto my iPad and search for a Lear fan site. It took less than a minute to uncover the poem in its entirety. Whatever you think of electronic media and the future of the printed word, the internet certainly has one advantage over paper-and-ink books – you don’t have to wait weeks to get your hands on a copy. Even Jonathan Franzen must appreciate the benefits of instant gratification when it comes to calming a squalling infant.
Reading one-handed is a bonus too. As Jacob continues to stare trance-like at my lips I read him the nonsense poem from start to finish, and I look on with unbridled awe as his eyelids gradually droop and close. Lear’s lyrical cadence and frequent repetitions act like a pre-pharmaceutical Infant Tylenol. Before I can quite believe what’s happening he’s slack-jawed and snoring in my lap, and I can finally slump into a relaxed stupor of my own.
What’s even more surprising is the discovery that I’d completely forgotten about the poem’s last verse, a final act that makes more sense now that it’s projected thirty years into the future. The Jumblies don’t simply vanish off to the Western sea – they also return, twenty years later, much to the surprise and consternation of those who watched them leave. And as they tell tall tales of their adventures (and presumably show off their flashy purchases of rice and livestock) everyone else starts to wish that they too had mustered the courage to take to sea in a leaky vessel.
And every one said, “If we only live,
We too will go to sea in a Sieve –
To the hills of the Chankly Bore!”
The pioneering message isn’t subtle, but before I drift off to the dream shores of the Chankly Bore myself I can’t help wondering how much it has influenced my own adult life. I’ve traveled the globe, worked in four different countries, gawped at the wonders of the world from Ayer’s Rock to La Sagrada Familia. Sometimes the trips were intricately-planned projects, but more often than not I trusted my future to some pinky paper and a crockery jar.
Then I see Jacob snoring contentedly in my lap, and I realize that my wife and I have yet again embarked on a life-changing adventure. And when we return to our previous lives, in twenty years or more, we too will amaze our friends with tales of the Western sea, and Ring-Bo-Ree, and going to sea in a sieve.