My Own Private Ardagh-o

I took a guinea pig to the vets this morning. Before I tell you what the receptionist said to me when I walked in, I’m going to point out that the guinea pig in question was named by my daughter when she was five. It might also help to picture the receptionist as an extremely efficient, quite scary, very loud, immaculately turned out, rather posh middle-aged woman who looked like she holidayed in John Lewis.

Right, so, there I am struggling to get in the door carrying a cardboard box that’s lurching wildly from side to side when I hear: “Pebbles Starling?” I had an instant need to laugh out loud.  Which I know is quite childish, but I find the application of human surname to animal alias, really, really funny. I don’t know why. I just do.

With a deep breath to suppress the laughter, I introduced my human self to the receptionist and Pebbles and I sat down.  Ten seconds later, an old couple walked in with a very slow and obviously elderly Beagle.  Before they’d had a chance to shut the door behind them, the receptionist looked up and said: “Strident Turner?”  Strident Turner! The temptation to introduce the animals: “Strident, have you met Pebbles? Pebbles, this is Strident. Strident Turner.” What. A. Fantastic. Name. Outstrips Pebbles Starling any day. At this point though, you might have guessed that I was finding it more and more difficult not to laugh – I had to flare my nostrils in a pathetic attempt at giggle-stifling.

After a few minutes (during which time I contemplated a world where ‘Strident Turner’ sounds normal and anthropomorphism obviously rocks), the vet appeared from a side door with a harassed looking woman, a small child and a large rabbit. Addressing the receptionist, she said: “Custard Tushingham’s going to need another appointment in two weeks.”

Oh for goodness sake. Custard Tushingham?  Perhaps you had to be there to really get how funny this was. Pebbles, Strident and Custard. Like Gwyneth Paltrow’s next three offspring.  Why do I find this so funny?

Anyway, much later, with my mirth under control and a newly medicated guinea pig happily munching grass, I realised that the vets’ trip reminded me of the kid’s author, Philip Ardagh. Ardagh (also known as Beardy) writes a series of very funny children’s books called Grubtown Tales. After Michael Rosen, Philip Ardagh is a bit of a god in my house. If you haven’t got kids, you might not have heard of him. But if you have got kids, still haven’t heard of him and you (like me) find ‘Custard Tushingham’ mildly hilarious, then I thoroughly recommend a quick trip to Amazon. Grubtown Tales are a series of connected stories written (I’m sure) to amuse the adult reader / narrator as much as the child. These bizarre tales are set in Ardagh’s imaginary home town of Grubtown (“The last time any map-makers were sent anywhere near the place, they were found a week later wearing nothing but pages from a telephone directory and calling for their mothers.”). The books are full of great characters with absurd Strident Turner type names. My favourite is Mustard Tripwire – a police officer who works for Kumquat ‘Grabby’ Hanson, the kleptomaniac chief of police.  Then there’s Tawdry Hipbone – the local movie star, Mango Claptrap – a little boy, Acrid Scorn who dumps hazardous waste everywhere, Condo Blotch – head of her own keep-fit empire and Free Kick – leader of the escaped lab rats. There are many, many others – brilliantly devised characters who never fail to get us guffawing.

So here’s to Ardagh and a mind capable of coming up with a copper called Mustard Tripwire and to veterinary receptionists everywhere who can say ‘Strident Turner’ without laughing. Long may they continue to make me giggle!