A thorough and thoughtful analysis of Ginger Meggs in the new exhibition at the Museum of Sydney, by Head Arts Writer for The Australian, Christopher Allen. Thanks for taking the time to write it, and thank you for visiting the exhibition! Glad you enjoyed it.
This story originally appeared in The Australian on 22nd August 2015, by Christopher Allen. Click the image below to read the original online.
The Museum of Sydney had an interesting exhibition of children’s toys — titledToys Through Time — that was in its last week when I visited the Ginger Meggs show, so I will not discuss it at length. They did, however, make an interesting pair, since both raised questions about childhood, growing up and what constitutes the difference between the mind of the child and that of the adult.
The most striking thing about the toy exhibition was to be reminded of the way such objects — particularly toy soldiers and dolls of various kinds — can be invested with human qualities by a child’s imagination. They are not only alive, animated with feelings, powers and vulnerabilities, but readily become the alter ego that allows us, as children, to rehearse countless imaginary scenarios either in solitude or in play with another child.
Eventually we grow out of, or lose, that ability to animate the inanimate, and all that remains is the pathos of old and neglected dolls and teddy bears. Ideally, we progress from this first primitive stage of the imagination to a more sophisticated capacity to respond to literature, art and music. For many people, though, childhood seems to be the only episode of imagination and spontaneity in what becomes a relentlessly stolid life of constraint, materialism and a self-interest that does not stretch much beyond immediate family.
It is no doubt for this reason that people tend to look back on their childhood with such nostalgia, to overestimate its freedom and to forget its difficulties. Children have anxieties and torments that evaporate with the childish imagination, but they live naturally in the moment and are almost all capable of being charming and interesting; a child cannot really be an egoist, a bore, or a fool, because they are constantly changing in relation to their environment, although moments of cruelty or meanness may give clues to their eventual adult natures.
Childish behaviour in adults is disturbing, and in extreme cases a sign of mental disturbance, but one can see how men and women tend to regress under certain circumstances, especially when they are in sexually segregated social environments such as bachelor parties before marriage. It is no coincidence that men and women are rarely called boys and girls except in such segregated situations.
In any case, these are clearly the sort of factors that explain the success of a comic strip such as Ginger Meggs, whose main characters are small children of indeterminate age — perhaps 10 or 11 — but whose readership probably included more adults than children. It was prime minister John Curtin who, in 1942, described Ginger Meggs as “Australia’s Peter Pan.”
Ginger Meggs is now almost a century old and has been drawn by a succession of artists. He was created by Jimmy Bancks in 1921 as one of several characters in a strip called Us Fellers. Gradually Meggs acquired his name, his characteristic features, his quirky personality and his cast of fellow characters. He became hugely successful and eventually dominated the lift-out comic section of a weekend paper.
Ginger is conceived as something like the childish form of the Aussie everyman. He seems to be of a working-class or lower-middle-class background: his thin, bony father wears a kind of suit, though of an eccentric design that makes one think of a circus ringmaster fallen on hard times; and his mother, of rotund form, is always dressed in a polka-dot dress and usually seems to be washing the dishes.
The age of the parents is a puzzle if we think about it logically: although Ginger cannot be more than 10 or so, and his mother and father should therefore be in their early 30s, they in fact both look and behave like grandparents and it is hard to imagine them in any romantic relationship as recently as a decade earlier. They have settled into the fussy, cranky, dishwashing and pipe-smoking range of behaviour that is a caricature of the elderly.
It is a pattern we see reflected in many British or Australian films and television programs of an earlier generation, in which women are prudish, frigid and would rather have a cup of tea, while the men are unromantic, inept and silently frustrated.
But ultimately this reflects a child’s view of the world, in which their parents, even if still objectively young, seem unimaginably removed from their own stage of life. In the same way, we sometimes meet an old schoolmaster again some years after we have left school, and are shocked to realise in retrospect that he was, at the time, no older than we are now. And the young parents who seem monolithically adult to their little children can look like callow youths to those a decade or two older than they are.
Young people in the flower of youth barely exist in the world of Ginger Meggs and the whole range of erotic experience has been excised, especially, if paradoxically, from the lives of parents. Since Freud we have understood that sexuality does exist in some form in children before puberty, but it is largely unconscious, and especially in the period when Ginger Meggs was created, the subject was taboo. His world is thus largely divided into pre-sexual children and prematurely post-sexual adults.
Romance is alluded to, but only in the world of children, where it is a kind of social parody and a relationship extends only to going out to the pictures together. Again reflecting what a child sees, a relationship is all in what is displayed in public and has no hidden, private, nocturnal dimension. Having a girl among the main characters, though, makes for a more complex set of social relations than would be possible with a collection of little boys.
Minnie Peters, the little girl, serves not only to allude parodically to adult relations but also brings in questions of social status and wealth. She belongs to a more solidly middle-class family, and in one of the strips in the exhibition, Ginger runs into a very respectable old gentleman in his billycart. He turns out to be Minnie’s uncle, and Ginger has to flee from the afternoon tea at her place, to which he had been looking forward.
It is interesting to note in passing that although differences of class were felt in Australia a century ago and were signified by nuances of manners, level of education, style of household and social ceremonial, the general range of disparity in wealth was relatively small compared with today. Thus the lives and activities of the different classes were in many respects not as far apart as they have become.
In any case, the question of class and wealth is made more acute by the fact that Ginger has a rival for Minnie’s affections in Eddie Coogan, a boy who is likewise from a wealthier family and can therefore afford to take Minnie out and buy her ice creams. Ginger thus becomes the Aussie underdog, struggling with the disadvantage of modest social origins and coming out on top because of his character and resilience.
The darker side of childhood is also acknowledged in comic form in the presence of an older bully, Tiger Kelly, who endlessly picks on Ginger and beats him up. So Ginger is twice the underdog and he spends his time dodging various threats to his fundamental desire for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness on his own terms.
He would naturally prefer to go fishing rather than attend school, and today he would undoubtedly be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder or placed somewhere on the autistic spectrum — such is the narrow world of conformity that we have created, in which anyone eccentric or quirky must be found to have a condition, preferably one treatable with drugs. But Ginger is essentially a good-natured larrikin who is never malicious and generally tries to do the right thing.
In one story, for example, he and a friend are sent to collect some ducks from a farmer. Ginger insists on taking a different way home because he wants to get an ice cream on the way. Unfortunately the billycart with the ducks in a crate takes off down the hill, the crate breaks apart and the ducks escape. The boys run around the neighbouring gardens trying to find them again. When they get back, the punchline is that his father exclaims he had ordered only six ducks and the kind farmer has given him eight for the same price!
Ginger is resourceful and curious, but his father tends to be rather incompetent and lacking in authority. In another story, Ginger is reading a trashy western of which his mother disapproves, and she asks the father to make him stop. Mr Meggs duly confiscates the book, but then glances at it and is hooked. He reads half the story until Mrs Meggs appears, takes the book and burns it. The strip ends with Mr Meggs sheepishly asking Ginger how the book ends and his son enthusiastically recounting its denouement.
Ginger does not always triumph, as we see in a strip translated into French for the French Canadian press — with the characteristic hand-drawn lettering of the speech bubbles disconcertingly replaced with typescript. Here Ginger reluctantly allows another little boy to go fishing with him. He becomes increasingly annoyed by the boy’s incompetence and finally sends him away, blaming him for their failure to catch anything. Naturally, in the final scene the little boy comes back with two large fish while Ginger has still caught nothing.
All in all, the appeal of these stories seems to lie in a widespread sense that the child is more innocent, spontaneous and ultimately alive than the adult: the grown-ups all seem to have ossified into various caricatural forms, narrow-minded, authoritarian, always busy with largely futile occupations — people who have had the spontaneity of childhood crushed out of them and who are now bent on oppressing and regimenting their own children in the same way.
The story, the character and the themes have proved extraordinarily durable, and have been recreated by a succession of artists since Bancks’s death from a heart attack in 1952.
There are examples of all their work in the exhibition, as well as a wide range of Meggs memorabilia, but nothing is more touching than the last story that Bancks worked on, in which Ginger is approached by a little boy who seems to be asking him to have the minister pray for a sick child. Ginger — who sings in the choir — goes to see the minister. Only in the last frame is the unexpected truth revealed — or it would be, except that the figures have only been sketched in pencil and not yet inked in, and the voice balloon remains tantalisingly empty.
Ginger Meggs: Australia’s Favourite Boy
Museum of Sydney, until November 8.