Around thirty years ago, Hairy Maclary scampered straight into my heart, where he has resided ever since. As one of my own childhood favourites, this was one of the very first books I bought for my daughter, when she was still watermelon-sized and bobbing around on the other side of my uterus. I had fond visions of us reading it together and chortling at the hilarious antics of the titular Hairy Maclary. Reader, it was not to be. Instead this book served as a salutary warning from the Parenting Gods – expect ye nothing.
For the uninitiated, Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy by Lynley Dodd, first published 1983, is a children’s classic with the eponymous Hairy Maclary as protagonist. He’s a scruffy wee dog who resembles a Scottish Terrier, although Wikipedia insists he’s “of mixed pedigree.” Also from Wikipedia, “His arch-enemy is the tomcat Scarface Claw.” The solemnity of that sentence gives just a hint of the epic battle between good and evil contained within the scant few pages of this board book.
Such was the appeal of the charming rhyming language and beautiful illustrations to both myself and my partner, that from our earliest readings we entered into it with great gusto. We began the nightly renditions of this tale just weeks into our daughter’s life, emoting each line with great vigour, smugly convinced we were excelling at parenting our precious babe.
And yet as time went by, a creeping suspicion presented itself separately to us both. By five months, it was an incontrovertible truth: our little baby had developed a deep, all-abiding, hysterical terror of the villainous Scarface Claw. The book wisely leaves much of his apparent reign of terror to the imagination, merely hinting darkly that he is “the toughest tom in town”. We do however get an entire page given over to a close-up of his ferociously bared teeth within a gaping maw framed by devilishly quivering whiskers, his amber eyes narrowed above. The text here is sparse but each word, nay, each character, is significant. I quote, ‘“EEEEEOWWWFFTZ!” said Scarface Claw.’ (That Z is surely a stroke of genius.) The ways in which you can pronounce this are of course only limited by your own enthusiasm.
Usually keen to turn the pages, our daughter would brace herself visibly when this book appeared in front of her, shrinking back against our knees. Before the dreaded cat was even mentioned in the text, she would begin to whimper plaintively in anticipation. At the first appearance of his barbarous grin, this would become a full-throttled, anguished cry. As she gained the ability to actually move under her own volition, she would clamber backwards, clawing wildly in her efforts to escape the horrifying tome. Desperately, we tried transmuting the terrifying cat’s yowl to a gentle purr. It was to no avail. The damage had been done.
There is no happy ending to this tale of woe. A full seven months later the fear persists. We’ve given up forcing this delightful children’s story on her now, but from time to time she will actually bring it to us herself, in what I can only presume is either a sadistic fascination or a valiant endeavour to live up to the exacting expectations of her cruel parents. It still ends in the most heart-wrenching of sobs.
It’s undeniable; we have already damaged our child. Don’t let this put you off the book though – the illustrations are lovely, as is the use of language. It’s a classic for a good reason. Just don’t use it as a release for your frustrated amateur dramatic ambitions, as we did. I’ve learned my lesson – there’s no place for rose-tinted expectations in parenting. Expect only disaster and tears, and then you’ll never be disappointed.