Brian Sewell does some donkey work: how Britain’s best-known art critic put his ass on the line

Ysenda Maxtone Graham reviews The White Umbrella, a charming tale of a man who adopts a mistreated donkey

4 April 2015

9:00 AM

4 April 2015

9:00 AM

The White Umbrella Brian Sewell

Quartet, pp.184, £9.99, ISBN: 9780704373846

I suppose all children’s authors write the stories they would have liked to read as children. But in the case of this novella about a sensitive man called Mr B who rescues a donkey in Peshawar, names her Pavlova after the ballerina, and brings her overland all the way back home to Wimbledon to meet his dogs named after women painters of the 20th century, this feeling that the target reader is the childhood author himself is overwhelming. You learn more about the young, sweet, aesthetically precocious Brian Sewell while reading it than you do even about Persian carpets and the dusty towns on the old Silk Route.

This is the old Brian Sewell telling a story to the young Brian Sewell. Both are soppy about four-footed animals, so the bringing-a-donkey-home storyline is ideal. The old Brian takes on (for the purpose of his foray into children’s-story writing) an avuncular but still fastidious and occasionally waspish Sewell-ish voice. It’s always ‘an hotel’ or ‘an heroic Persian warrior’. Mr B disdains ‘the shrieking mishmash of Persian traditional and contemporary western music’ on van radios, and Sewell can’t resist going into Courtauld-inspired raptures: ‘It is through such a mountainscape that young Albrecht Dürer must have walked for weeks on his way south to Venice to study with Giovanni Bellini.’ And, a bit later, ‘Did Alexander the Great, he wondered, sit in this very garden, under its lofty trees, listening to love songs sung by another such dark-eyed poet?’

Whenever most of us try writing children’s stories, our publishers firmly remind us, ‘There’s a huge difference, you know, between what you think children ought to want to read and what they actually do want to read.’ In this book, Sewell has been allowed to get away with writing a book children ought to want to read. Lucky him. Let’s hope there are some children in piped pyjamas who will love this. It’s highly improving and laced with didacticism. ‘Had this van carried soldiers to the front in the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913?’

The story does tug the reader along, with its pull towards Wimbledon and an adorable small donkey at its heart. At home there is a ‘Mrs B’ waiting, but the poor woman doesn’t get mentioned until ten pages after Mr B arrives back in SW19. The dogs (Carrington, Kahlo and Kollwitz) take precedence. I think perhaps Sewell should have done without Mrs B as a character.

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