H. E. Todd’s ‘Bobby Brewster:’ Harry Potter, Sr.?

I’m often asked what I would ask Ms. Rowling if I ever met here. Today I think I would ask if H. E. Todd had visited her primary school and read a ‘Bobby Brewster’ story to her.

I learned in September that there was a very popular UK children’s book series published in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s about a boy named Bobby Brewster in which everyday objects talked to the main character much as, say, mirrors and portraits talk in the Wizarding World. One of the short story collections in this series, Bobby Brewster, Detective, has a title in it, ‘Follow that Spider,’ which reminded me of Hagrid’s clue for Chamber of Secrets‘ two boy detectives, spoken as he is hauled off to Azkaban, about following spiders. I ordered the out-of-print title from a UK bookseller.

The author, H. E. Todd, and Bobby Brewster are not in Phil Nel’s book on Harry Potter and children’s literature and Library Lisa at Accio Quotes assures me it isn’t in Rowling interview canon. Reading this remarkable set of recollections of the influence this inspiring author and story-teller had via his visiting schools and reading his stories to children made me wonder if the young Miss Rowling didn’t have such an experience.

Here is the complete ‘Follow That Spider’ experience — well, sans illustrations — for your perusal and reflection. Is there a pre-Potter echo here in more than the hero’s alliterative name with re-doubled consonants?

‘Follow That Spider’ by H. E. Todd

It’s a jolly good thing for the Hendersons that they live next door to Detective Bobby Brewster. if they didn’t their house would soon be nearly empty because since the cheese and pickles affair they’ve had some more robberies. They have, really. And, what’s more, they were some of the most extraordinary robberies that can ever have happened, as I am sure you will agree when you have read this story.

A few weeks ago Bobby Brewster went to the Hendersons’ for tea, and when it was over Mr. Henderson said –

‘Now Bobby, I must introduce you to our spider.’

‘Your spider?’ asked Bobby Brewster.

‘Yes,’ said Mr. Henderson. ‘We have a spider that spends most of its time inside the lock of our back door. Let’s go and see if it’s there now.’

They did, and it was. Mr. Henderson turned the handle of the door and the spider came scuttling out of the keyhole. An ugly-looking creature it was, too, with lots of hairy legs and two bulging eyes. Bobby Brewster thought to himself that if it had lived in his back door lock, he would have kept quiet about it and not introduced it to visitors.

Well, after that he thought no more about it for a week or two, until one morning he met Constable Wilkins out on his beat.

‘Ah, I’m glad I met you, Detective Brewster,’ said Constable Wilkins.’I want you to keep your eyes open. Your neighbours, the Hendersons, are in trouble again. They’ve reported to me that things are disappearing from their house.’

‘What sort of things?’ asked Bobby Bfrester.

‘Oh, small things like silver salt-cellars and spoons and watches and pieces of cheese,’ said Constable Wilkins.

‘Pieces of cheese, did you say?’ asked Bobby Brewster in surprise.

‘Yes,’ said Constable Wilkins. ‘They seem to be very unlucky with cheese in that house. And there’s another funny thing. Every night they lock all their doors carefully, but every morning they find their back door open.’

‘You’re sure it’s the back door?’ asked Bobby brewster.

‘Positive,’ said Constable Wilkins. ‘They showed it to me first thing this morning. Why do you ask?’

‘Because a spider lives in the lock of the Hendersons’ back door,’ said Bobby. ‘They introduced me to it when I went to tea the other day.’

‘Did they indeed,’ said Constable Wilkins. ‘But I don’t see what that has to do with it. What use could a silver salt-cellar possibly be to a spider?’

‘None at all,’ said Bobby Brewster. ‘But you never know. anyway, I’ll keep my eyes open as you said.’

So he did, but saw nothing for several days until, one Saturday morning, a very funny thing happened. Bobby had taken a message from his mother to Mrs. Henderson, when he noticed a spider scuttling away from their back door. He watched it carefully. The spider scuttled through a hole in the fence and down the bank on the other side. Lying on the ground was a man trying to hide. Bobby crouched down behind the fence, and saw the spider crawl right up to the man. Then the man leant over and, believe it or not, started whispering to the spider. He did, realy. It was too far away to hear much, but Bobby heard one whispered word quite distinctly –

Tonight.

Then the man glanced round to make sure nobody was looking (I wonder what he would have done if he had seen Bobby?), and the spider scuttled quickly back to the Hendersons’ house.

Well, thought Bobby to himself, I suppose I’d better report this as soon as I can.

Constable Wilkins was out on his beat again and Bobby soon found him.

‘I know it sounds silly,’ said Bobby, ‘but I think that spider has got something to do with the robberies at the Hendersons’. I followed it today and it went to see a very suspicious-looking man.’

‘What happened then?’ asked Constable Wilkins

‘The man started talking to it,’ said Bobby.

‘I beg your pardon?’ asked Constable Wilkins.

‘I said the man started talking to it,’ said Bobby. ‘He did, really. I couldn’t hear most of what he said, but I did hear one word. It was “Tonight”.’

‘Did you indeed?’ said Constable Wilkins. ‘Well, that settles it. It’s probably a waste of time, but I’ll hide in the Hendersons’ back garden tonight and see what happens.’

So he did – and it wasn’t a waste of time at all. At about one o’clock in the morning, when all was quiet, a suspicious-looking man crept silently up to the Hendersons’ back door. He switched on a torch and Constable Wilkins saw the spider crawl out of the keyhole. There were whispered words.

‘It’s open,’ someone said. Then, in spite of the fact that the Hendersons had been heard to lock their back door before going to bed, the man turned the handle and walked in.

Frisky Henderson didn’t even have the sense to bark. He came running up to the man with his tail wagging, and licked his hand as if to say ‘I’m so glad you’ve come. Do come in and help yourself.’ Which is exactly what the man did, while the spider kept watch at the back door.

After that things moved quickly. Luckily Constable Wilkins had arranged for another policeman to be hiding with him in the back garden. They crept towards the door and in a very short time the man came back carrying a sack over his shoulder. He stooped to whisper to the spider, and, like a flash, the other policeman pounced on the thief, and Constable Wilkins covered the spider with a box.

So they were both caught red-handed, and as the man’s sack was full of silver candlesticks, fish-knives and forks, and pieces of cheese, there was complete proof of their guilt.

Well, as you can imagine, the affair caused quite a stir. The case was heard at the local sessions before Mr. Justice Jackson. Mr. Justice Jackson is an elderly judge with a twinkle in his eye, who looks like a good-natured tortoise with spectacles.

The court rose respectfully when the judge entered and he looked around and said, ‘Mr. Clerk, I understood there were two accused in this case. Thomas Blenkinsopp and Samuel Spider. I can only see one in the dock. Where’s the other?’

‘In that box on the dock rail, m’lud,’ said the clerk of the court.

‘I beg your pardon?’ asked Mr. Justice Jackson.

‘I said in that box, m’lud,’ said the clerk of the court. ‘Thomas Blenkinsopp is the accused you can see, and if you’ll peep through the holes in the box, you’ll also see Samuel Spider.’

The box was handed to the judge.

‘Bless my soul,’ he said. ‘Samuel really is a spider. And do the accused plead guilty or not guilty/”

‘Guilty,’ said Thomas Blenkinsopp.

‘Guilty,’ said a voice from inside the box, and the judge said ‘Bless my soul’ again.

All the evidence was quite clear, although some of it was very surprising. Detective Bobby Brewster and Constable Wilkins were both complimented on their smart detection work, and the jury only took two minutes to find the accused ‘Guilty’.

‘Before passing sentence,’ said the judge, ‘I wish to satisfy myself about one thing. Who was the ringleader in these robberies? Thomas Blenkinshopp, I wish to know how on earth you first got into conversation with the – er – spider.’

‘I didn’t, your Honour,’ said the accused. ‘He got into covnersation with me.’

‘I see,’ said the judge. ‘How did this happen?’

‘I was asleep in the grass at the bottom of the bank one morning when a voice whispered in my ear the word “Cheese”.’

‘Cheese, did you say?’ asked Mr. Justice Jackson.

‘Yes, your Honour,’ said Thomas Blenkinsopp. ‘I woke up and there was the spider.’

‘What were your reactions?
asked the judge. ‘I was very surprised to hear a spider whispering,’ said Thomas Blenkinsopp.

‘I’m sure you were,’ said the judge, ‘Especially a word like cheese. And what else did he say?’

‘I can’t remember his actual words,’ said Blenkinsopp, ‘but what it boiled down to was that the spider promised to open the Hendersons’ door for me to go and steal their silver on condition that I stole their cheese for him to eat.’

‘Couldn’t he have stolen the cheese for himself?’ asked Mr. Justice Jackson.

‘No, your Honour,’ said Blenkinsopp. ‘They keep it under cover on a cheese dish.’

‘I see,’ said the judge. ‘Well, it seems to me that you’ve been sadly led astray, and so I propose to deal lightly with you. Thomas Blenkinsopp, you will be bound over to be of good behaviour, but I warn you, you must not get into coversation with spiders, do you hear?

‘Yes, your Honour,’ said Blenkinsopp, looking very relieved. ‘I promise that if I ever so much as see a spider, I’ll run away.’

‘Very good,’ said Mr. Justice Jackson. Then he turned to the box on the dock rail.

‘Samuel Spider,’ he said severely, ‘you are the really guilty one in this case. You’ve used your undoubted talents in a criminal manner, and you must pay for it. I can’t send you to prison because you’d only crawl out again. But you must be confined in some way I order you to remain inside that box in the custody of Constable Wilkins until such a time as he’s satisfied that you’re a reformed character. Constable Wilkins, do you know what spiders eat?

‘Never having kept one as a pet, I can’t say I do, your Honour,’ said Constable Wilkins, scratching his head.

‘Cheese,’ said a voice from inside the box.

‘There’s your answer,’ said Mr. Justice Jackson. ‘Since this passion for cheese has been his undoing, you’ll feed Samuel Spider on nothing but cheese until he’s so sick of it he promises to be good.’

‘Very well, your Honour,’ said Constable Wilkins, and the court adjourned.

Well – the story ends quite happily after all. Thomas Blenkinsopp has found a job as a night-watchman and is a useful member of society. As for Samuel Spider, he soon got on so well with Constable Wilkins that he has been let out of his box and now lives in the front door lock at the police station. Indeed, he is almost a member of the force, because they find him very useful in cases where doors need to be unlocked because the keys have been lost.

I told you at the beginning of this story that it was about one of the most extraordinary robberies that have ever happened. I was right wasn’t I?

Comments

  1. New link to Bobby Brewster – http://gruts.com/2002/12/20021217b/

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