Tuesday, 15 September 2009


No. 2

Benign bulls, deafening ducks

James Watson blogs a literary prize with a difference

One of the most picturesque towns in North Germany, a half an hour’s train ride from Hamburg, Buxtehude has for over 40 years awarded an annual prize for books written for Young Adults. It was originated by a local bookseller who was inspired by a peace-not-war tale, The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf.

This was published in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, often described as a brutal rehearsal for the 2nd World War. Big and strong though he is, Ferdinand lacks the natural ferocity of contenders in the bullring. In fact he is happy to sit in the shade of his favourite cork tree and smell the flowers – until, one day he does not look where he is sitting and plonks himself on a bumble bee.

El Torro Ferocio
And wow, does that sting hurt! Suddenly Ferdinand is puffing and snorting and pawing the ground, so impressing his owner that in no time at all he is promoted as El Torro Ferocio, Ferdinand the Fierce. Everyone, from the banderillos and the picardores not to mention the matador himself are afraid of him.

But will Ferdinand fight? Alas, no, for as soon as he sees flowers in the lovely ladies’ hair, he just sits down quietly and smells. He wouldn’t fight and be fierce no matter what they did: ‘So they had to take Ferdinand home. And for all I know he is still sitting there, under his favourite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly. He is very happy’.

A bull statue
The book is beautifully illustrated byRobert Lawson and slim as it is, it speaks volumes on the priorities of life. Ferdinand became the cast iron statue which each winner of the Buxtehuder Bulle Award receives, along with a victory garland and a generous monetary prize.

The best thing about the Buxtehuder Bulle is that authors are invited to the town, feted, encouraged to give talks, interviewed on radio and TV; in short, made a real fuss of. In my case, because Talking in Whispers* was set in Chile, the evening had a Latin American theme, with the Simon Bolivar Duo providing the entertainment.

German only
Sadly, the Buxtehuder award is less well-known than other literary prizes. It’s not because it’s less generous and it deserves more attention if only because half of jury is made up of young adults. No, I think it is simply because not a word of information is published in English.
On a few occasions I’ve argued in letters to the Burgomaster for dual language publicity, especially as the list of prize-winners includes British and American writers; at present, to no avail.

Ducks in the night
Buxtehude is made up of canals, ponds and triangular houses. The canals criss-cross the town centre which is fairly quiet during the day, but at night - beware of the ducks. Around two in the morning, the ducks seem to assemble for parties or political barnstorms. Either way, in the small hours they are loud enough to wake the dead.

Swans to the rescue
Shortly after I’d returned home from Buxtehude I saw a picture in the paper of a motor launch carrying a dozen or more swans, and heading for Hamburg. The caption explained that the swans were being taken to warm winter quarters. It’s a custom in the landes region that continues despite global warming.
I was looking to express my thanks for the warm welcome I’d received in Buxtehude: the noisy ducks and the silent swans suddenly connected and a story was about to be hatched.

Silencing the quacks
The Burgomaster cannot sleep for the ducks; neither can the rest of the population: how about, in dead of night, sweeping up the ducks, shipping them out, replacing them with swans –and for once getting a decent night’s sleep?
The result was The Noisy Ducks of Buxtehude (Entenlarm in Buxtehude), a dual-language story for young readers. This was taken on by a local publishing company, Verlag an der Este, translated into German by Heike Brandt and brilliantly illustrated by Bjorn Holm. it's in its second edition.

Ducks’ hotel
Of course in the story the Burgomaster’s cunning plan goes awry. Yes, everybody in the town gets a good night’s sleep, but they are all still in the land of nod when a distinguished visitor arrives – and nobody is awake to greet her. In hot water, the Burgomaster realises the ducks are the town’s vital alarm clocks. He makes amends by building them their own Ducks’ Hotel.

Life imitating…
On my second visit to Buxtehude I was strolling through the town with my wife Kitty only to stop, amazed, for there, in the centre of a large ornamental pond, was a brand new Duck House.
I like to think that the town’s real burgomaster and corporation had been reading The Noisy Ducks, and decided to do the decent thing; perhaps even eliciting a quack of thanks.

* For further details on TALKING IN WHISPERS (available in CollinsEducational Cascades), see the author's website: Watsonworks.co.uk.

1 comment:

  1. Delightful account. I lived in Germany as a girl and have ever forgotten the swans. I've read several of your posts and bookmarked your blog as one I'll enjoy reading. And thank you so much for becoming a follower-especially when I wasn't posting for a bit. I appreciate every new reader.