Low life

Jeremy Clarke: If you haven’t read We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, you haven’t lived

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

Christmas shopping in Waterstones, I came across a memory card game called We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. I snatched it up and almost ran with it to the till, where I paid the woman with the smug attitude of a connoisseur. If I’d had a cavalry moustache, I’d have twirled the ends. I’d intended wrapping it up and putting it in my grandson Oscar’s stocking, but the wait would have been unbearable. So when I got home, solemn with excitement, I simply handed it to him, and we cleared the decks immediately to play, with Grandad still buttoned into his overcoat.

Do you know the book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt? No? You haven’t lived. The grandson and me, we read a lot. We are working our way through the entire literary canon for the under-fours: Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy; Katie Morag Delivers the Mail; Ruby Flew Too!; On the Way Home; Owl Babies; The Gruffalo; The Day Louis Got Eaten.  And of all of them, our all-time favourite is We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.

A young family — Mum, Dad, the kids, the collie — leave home and go on a bear hunt. ‘We’re going on a bear hunt,’ they sing, in case they forget. ‘We’re going to catch a big one. It’s a beautiful day! We’re not scared!’ Along the way they meet obstacles: tall grass (‘Swishy swashy!’), a chest-deep river (Splash splosh!), a muddy estuary (Squelch squerch!), a dark forest (Stumble trip!). Finally they arrive at the entrance to a bear cave. Suddenly no longer quite as blasé as they were before about hunting bears, they tiptoe into the cave, where, at the far end, they encounter an enormous bear just woken up. ‘It’s a bear!’ yells the panic-stricken family.

It’s a terrifying moment. In fact, the encounter with the bear in his cave is so hair-raising that we can’t bring ourselves to actually look at it. The bear’s surprised, angry face is just too awful. We manage to read on only by carefully turning over two pages at once. The horror continues, increases even, but never again, fortunately, does the angry bear loom so frighteningly large on the page.

The family run for their lives. The furious bear chases them back across flowing river and estuary mud, through tall grass and dark forest. The bear is gaining on them with every turn of the page. The family reach their front door in the nick of time, slamming it in the bear’s face, which is visible through the square glass panes. It takes the children’s combined strength to prevent the bear from breaking the door in. Finally, the family race upstairs and they all dive under a big pink duvet. Huddled in terror beneath this duvet, they promise each other they will never go on a bear hunt again; the sport is a lot more dangerous than they’d bargained for, presumably.

And that’s the end. We always sit there for a few seconds, Oscar and I, absolutely stunned. One of these days, clearly, the bear is going to outstrip the family before they get home and the ensuing carnage will be terrible. We speculate on it. Would the bear eat the entire family or just wantonly kill them? He’d scoff the lot, we think. And would the bear eat the dog too or keep it as a pet? We think eat it as well.

The memory card game based on the book has 54 cards with scenes and characters from the picture book. You lay the cards face-down on your kitchen table and turn up two at a time, remembering which ones were where, endeavouring to make pairs. There are four ‘bear’ cards, but we make sure we leave those in the box. We don’t like to see angry bears, even on memory cards. While we play, I put on carefully chosen background music: Vaughan Williams, perhaps, or The Regimental Band of the Coldstream Guards. We play for hours and hours.

When Oscar wins a pair, which he does about four times as often as his forgetful old Grandad, Oscar does this exultant and rather insane war dance around the table, taunting me. I sit there and take it, loving him. We’re friends, he and I. At night, when we’ve washed our face, he carefully lays his face flannel on mine, symbolising that we are ‘best friends’, he says. When he grows up, he says, he wants to be a man like me, with glasses. His Mummy and Daddy parted recently, and last week Mummy accidentally swallowed too many headache tablets and had to go to the hospital in an ambulance. He must be glad of a best friend and an exhilarating game of cards at times like these. But no one’s been eaten by a bear yet. So all things considered, we’re quite lucky really.

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  • Alison

    This column is one of the main reasons I subscribe. Always interesting, poignant and unsentimental. One of the best writers around today.

  • godot

    As Alison notes, LowLife is one of the main reasons to go to The Spectator website. Merry Christmas Jeremy.

  • binnsmeister

    A great piece to brighten a dull December day.

  • he wants to be a man like me, with glasses.

    Hilarious. Let’s see when he’s 16 whether he also wants the bald spot!

    Edit: The last bit, I was unprepared for. Crikey.

  • Guy Pascoe

    Funny as ever, and very moving – poor Oscar is lucky (at least) to have a doting

    On a more trivial note, the book is a firm favourite in our house too but (a) is it the Mum or oldest sister? differs from picture to picture. and (b) are we supposed
    to feel sorry for the bear? He looks sad on his way home, but is that
    because he just wanted to play or because he thought he was in for a big