Over on the excellent Fora, the Political Umpire is currently finding himself fully occupied with this year's edition of Wisden, the cricket almanac so beloved of enthusiasts for the great game, as engrossing as an evenly balanced test match. The pleasure is not quite what it was though, as the publishers and the new editor conspire to improve on perfection; there's an urge to 'innovate', a hint of 'dumbing down', probably an unspoken agenda dictated by a fear that otherwise they will miss out on those whose only idea of cricket is a 20/20 match (and that's not cricket at all). So little by little they chip away at a venerable institution until it's venerable no more, and not too far beyond that it ceases to be an institution. They've shown signs over the last several years now that the distinctive yellow dust-jacket is past it's sell-by date (it's already badly disfigured) and sooner or later no doubt it will be given 'out', replaced by a glossy photograph of a well-proportioned young man waving a cricket bat in the air whilst wearing a luridly coloured shell suit.
My own particular pleasure is Rupert; it's appearance as Christmas approaches (so slightly earlier each time I fear) is one of the markers of my year. As soon as I see it on sale I have to buy it, create enough time and space to read it undisturbed end to end and fully absorb it. It takes me back to my childhood, where it would be in my Christmas stocking each year, and reading it on the top of my bed marked the beginning of that particular day. I no longer celebrate Christmas (certainly not to the point of giving myself a stocking!) but Rupert acts as a reassuring reminder that not everything in the world has changed. Indeed Rupert actually seems locked in some curious time warp in the early 1950s where children respected their parents, dressed sensibly, went to bed on time, and had few toys, but happily played outside with their friends without moaning about being 'bored'. If I had come to Rupert as an adult I would have been amused by the surreal element to it all, not so much the stories as the curious mingling of humans and animals, with the humans not nonplussed in the slightest by the fact that their doctor is a lion or that the policeman is a dog, they scarcely seem to notice. But I didn't discover Rupert as an adult, and I read Rupert now exactly as I did when I was young, no more noticing the absurdities than the characters do.
Unfortunately Rupert finds himself suffering the same fate as Wisden, indeed he has been suffering somewhat longer. The Daily Express inevitably found themselves in a difficult position when the elderly Alfred Bestall called it a day early in the 1970s (going off in something of a huff because Max Aitken had changed his artwork for the cover) but they weathered that storm and eventually found an artist who was comfortable with Rupert and his traditions. But by 1980 the desire to tinker had become overwhelming and they marked their first revamp with a change in the size of the book; swamped with complaints the Daily Express took the opportunity to blame the EU, who were supposedly insisting on standard metric book sizes. There was a distinct shift in the appearance of the cover, with simpler, bolder pictures in softer colours. The balance between story and activity within shifted, origami was nowhere to be found, and it simply didn't offer the pure unalloyed pleasure of old. Why, Mr Bear has abandoned his pipe and his predilection for plus-fours; is nothing sacred? There have been further changes in book size since then, but the Express have long since ceased to apologise, let alone blame Europe. There's part of me that dreads the book's arrival now, since each initial browse starts with a nervous check to see what remaining essential element had been lost, with the ensuing inevitable annoyance as my fears are confirmed once again.
You might say that Rupert is intended for children rather than adults wishing to return to their own childhood, and you'd be right. But the Express has taken to publishing a facsimile of a Bestall era Rupert each year, aimed entirely at adult collectors. The children I give Rupert to each Christmas get both, and they consistently prefer the earlier volume. So Rupert has changed, but not for the better.