It’s the Pink Panther, the rinky-dink Panther,
and it’s as plain as your nose,
that he’s the one and only truly original
Panther Pink from head to toes.
I can give you those lyrics so easily, straight from memory: the words aren’t even buried treasure, so close are they to the surface. Oh yes, I’ve got those Rinkydink-Batfink-Top-Cat-Tip-Top-Hit-Me-With-Your-Rhythm-Stick blues. Some days, it happens: an old beating-on-a-trashcan sound gets up some speed. ‘Starts again always in Henry’s ears/the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.’ Yes. It’s something to do with that compulsion John Berryman describes in Dream Song 29. Somewhere, in a mysterious corner of the cerebellum, two or more sounds connect like a little circuit and you are thrown backwards into a cartoon moment, a movie, a catchy number-one from Top of the Pops: cartoons such as The Pink Panther, Top Cat, or Batfink; that Ian Dury tune that your parents recorded onto the very first tape you had and played to death, the one containing an unholy amalgam of The Beatles, ‘Chanson D’Amour,’ Showaddywaddy and Boney M. But plenty of people reach for this kind of nostalgia. TV is full of this po-mo recent-past binge-thinking, and full of people moaning about how boring it is to focus on all this easily available Pot-Noodle memory. I quite agree.
The Pink Panther is hardly Rilke’s Panther in the Jardin des Plantes. Top Cat’s adventures don’t travel the same magical distance as Fred Astaire’s footsteps in Top Hat. Top Cat and The Pink Panther please like sweeties please, like lemon sherbets: a sweet quick fizz. Who can remember their plotlines? How did Hugo A Go Go try to trap Batfink and Karate in ‘The Short-Circuit Case’ ? Why didn’t Top Cat and Officer Dibbles try to make a go of it? We don’t much care. The reason these little toons had bite wasn’t their story, it was their sound.
Soundbites, as politicians know, work because their sounds bite. A little phrase locks its jaws into a lobe of the brain and a permanent link is forged. So, although the plot of Batfink is lost, the sounds of the names are not. Pun-punchdrunk genius went into those Batfink character names: Hugo A Go Go, Judy Jitsu, Goldyunlocks, Brother Goose. An assonating, alliterating badass thought of catchphrases like ‘My wings are like a shield of steel’ and ‘my supersonic sonar radar will save me.’ Never mind the story; have the pleasure of tasting tongue-twisters like that week on week and the kids will be hooked. But why?
It’s a deep-brainer. We learn language by making neural connections, and as researchers such as Hulme and Snowling have found, if ‘children lack “phonological awareness” […] they are destined to find learning to read and write difficult.’ (1) In other words, if they cannot hear rhymes and alliteration, and therefore cannot link or group the sounds of speech, they are likely to be poor readers and writers: reading and writing build upon ‘the child’s intuitive knowledge of the structure of speech.’ (2) This phonological awareness develops before we begin to read and write, so if such connections are not made, literacy is impaired. And if literacy is impaired, memory is impaired: memories are words that name images, smells, tastes, sounds and textures. From my experience as a teacher, a child with poor literacy has no memory. She cannot say what she remembers, because words strung into syntax are what call up the world, and her grasp of syntax is like a torn fishing net. She will not be able to describe her first memory. She will not be able to tell you about her house, her family, her dreams. She has no dreams–because she has no words.
Now I know how memory is stifled at birth (it happens when a child isn’t spoken to and listened to, from the beginning) I know how precious the tongue-twisters are. Penelope Pitstop, Dastardly and Mutley and Hong Kong Phooey are little giggles, chimes that set off bigger, greater poems later. But they only delight me today because of early conversations I had with my parents, at a time when I couldn’t yet reply but nonetheless heard the pretty chime of things that set the darkness echoing.
1) from David Wood, How Children Think and Learn, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 215
2) Wood, 215.
Batfink usually has some alliterative delights, puns and rhymes, and this is no exception: Hugo A Go Go is the ‘copycat bat’ and poor Karate, thrown off a cliff, moves the voiceover narrator to comment: ‘It looks like Karate’s courageous career is kaputt.’ Karate also dusts down City Hall for the copycat bat’s ‘wingerprints.’ Bliss, even if the 4 minutes of cartoon does feel rather laboured.