Some of us here at TheCultDen are ridiculously old, some like Katie Young are mere babies, but even they remember some incredible old children’s shows. Ladies and Gents, a Moomin fan…
As a child of the 80s, I feel it’s safe to say that there are few things as evocative to my generation as the theme tune of a well-loved kids’ TV show. It’s a source of both misplaced pride and great concern to me that vast portions of my brain which could be used for remembering birthdays, pin numbers and passwords are taken up by the opening vocal lyrics for Count Duckula, Trapdoor, Button Moon and The Mysterious Cities of Gold.
I was on holiday last week with an old friend of mine, a generally quiet and non-demonstrative man. A few of us were sitting around, poolside, and playing a sort of Name That Tune game to amuse ourselves after a few cervezas, when this guy heard the opening strains of the intro to M.A.S.K. and burst into a word-perfect rendition of the entire title song like a man possessed.
Perhaps more than anything else, music has the ability to transport us back to a very specific period in our lives and to conjure up long-forgotten emotions associated with that time. Generally, these are feelings of unbridled joy: memories of long summer afternoons and carefree Saturday mornings when life was simple and unburdened by the responsibilities of adulthood.
But there are notable exceptions.
I remember sleepless nights and cringing every time I heard a music box after witnessing the abject horror of wanton toy arson in Tottie: The Story of a Doll’s House and crying to a baleful woodwind melody when Alfie Atkins got punched on the nose by bullies. The oddly psychedelic scat theme for Mr. Rossi Looks for Happiness still (ironically) fills me with melancholic dread, and the singing mice in Bagpuss used to freak me out big time. If you don’t understand why, close your eyes and imagine them coming towards you brandishing tiny hammers as they squeak ‘we will fix it!’ over and over. See? The stuff of nightmares.
But the tune that summons the most complex and bittersweet memories of all has to be the haunting flute and synth composition that introduces Se-ma-for’s stop-motion animated series The Moomins, produced between 1977 and 1982. For me it is the definitive small screen interpretation of Tove Jansson’s stories.
As a child, I was both entranced and terrified by the fuzzy felt happenings in Moomin Valley. To my recollection, it always seemed to be night, always dark, and always cold. The wind howled constantly. The woods were full of wolves, invisible whispering creatures traceable only by footprints in the snow, a hobgoblin (with a pet panther), an ice maiden who could kill with a single glance, and a great, lumbering, hairy beast called The Groke who caused the very ground beneath her to freeze and wither. These were stories for short, gloomy, winter days. They were from another time and another place, a land of harsh living where a lack of warmth and daylight hours meant simple pleasures such as a pancake smothered in jam or a cup of hot tea were to be treasured, and the veil between reality and the world of shadows and imaginary creatures was thin. A place where people huddled around fires for hours, drank, and told fantastical tales with relish.
Although the landscape was densely populated with all manner of creatures, the show retained a feel of insularity. Moomin Valley functioned as a liminal a space, entirely separate from anywhere else, and many of the characters seemed to exist in a state of loneliness or isolation. The Moomin family hibernated through most of the winter, and many of the narrative threads focused on absence and the idea of what happens to those left behind. And while many of their adventures actually took place in the sunshine of spring and summer (contrary to my recollections), the overriding sense was one of desolation.
This is hardly surprising when you consider how much of her own life and experience Jansson lovingly bestowed on her little pagan beasts. Her depression at the outbreak of war and her anxiety for her brother who was away fighting are reflected in the disaster-themed The Moomins and the Great Flood and Comet in Moominland, stories that simultaneously instil a sense of impending doom in the reader and take a philosophical look at catastrophe and death. It’s widely held that Thingumy and Bob, with their suitcase containing a much-coveted magic ruby, symbolise Tove’s secret and doomed affair with the married Vivicka Bandler, and that Too-Ticky is in fact Tuulikki Pietila, Jansson’s life-long partner. Tove and ‘Tooti’ spent almost thirty summers together on a little island in the middle of the sea, until Jansson’s age and her growing fear of the ocean meant they could no longer make their annual retreat.
There is a mix of cynicism, common sense and joy that pervades Jansson’s work and offers the audience both a reality check and a warm hug. It is also the reason the TV series elicited such mixed emotions from children, and continues to do so from the adults they became.
I have a much younger brother. One day, when he was about three years old, I found him watching Edward Scissorhands, in floods of tears. I asked him why he was crying and he sobbed, ‘I don’t know!’ He couldn’t articulate why the image of Edward all alone at the end of the movie was so sad, but he instinctively knew it was. I think my younger self felt much the same way about The Moomins and all it stood for. I didn’t understand that The Groke was simply looking for acceptance like a shaggy Frankenstein’s monster, but I knew what I felt for her – what I now recognise as a combination of fear and pity – was confusing. I had no idea I was being faced with my own mortality each time I sat down to watch, but I felt in my marrow that I was seeing something important.
For some (my own partner included), the undercurrent of threat and melancholia in the show scarred them so badly, they still shudder each time they hear that reedy music and bury their face in a cushion.
But for children like me who were drawn to the dark tones, the magical sight of Moomin Valley in midwinter, as it lay under a blanket of snow, and the wind whistled though the trees stayed with me into adulthood. Whilst the death of the rebellious little squirrel at the hands of The Lady of the Cold was terribly upsetting to me (and still is), there was something wonderfully direct and uplifting about the way the show dealt with it. Little My tells Moomintroll not to mind, for they can still give the squirrel a beautiful funeral, and his body is carried off by the snow horse to some kind of afterlife. The squirrel will become the earth from which trees will spring up and provide a home for a new generation of squirrels.
While The Moomins has roots in Nordic lore and contains elements of mysticism, it is also a celebration of earthly things: seasons, lifecycles, the beauty, brutality and indifference of nature, and the inevitability of endings and new beginnings. Just as Tove had to forfeit her beloved island when her age meant she could no longer brave the turbulent sea, so the Moomin family had to leave their beloved home in the valley and embark on a new journey. But while The Moomins never sugarcoated the bleaker aspects of life, it also celebrated revelling in the sheer fact of being. It applauded the unconventional, the improper and the sensual. As the somewhat hedonistic Moominpapa puts it:
“Just think, never to be glad or disappointed. Never to like anyone and get cross at him and forgive him. Never to sleep or feel cold, never to make a mistake and have a stomach-ache and be cured from it, never to have a birthday party, drink beer, and have a bad conscience… How terrible.”
The Moomins didn’t preach or moralise. It taught us that our existence is complex and fleeting, and that to live fully is to appreciate every facet and shade of it. To be truly happy, one must also taste pain and grief. That a life lived joyously, thankfully, honestly and with love is always worthwhile. That if you look closely, every ending is merely the start of something new.
And that is a comforting thought.