Sheltering from an enemy bombardment in Flanders, Lieutenant Hugh Lofting found himself with an extra problem to add to the hell of being a British soldier in the trenches in World War I.
A letter had arrived from his wife, Flora Small. Their children, Colin, aged five, and Elizabeth, four, were desperate to be told what it was like for their Daddy in the front line. Please tell them.
What could he say? He knew the truth was out of the question. The horrors of barbed wire and decomposing bodies, of shelling, bullets and slaughter were too awful to inflict on young minds.
The enduring Dr Dolittle lives on, long in the tooth now after 100 years but, along with Dab-Dab the duck, Gub-Gub the baby pig, Chee-Chee the chimp and all the other chatty animals that Lofting gave voice to, still a treat for a whole new generation to enjoy
And even if he’d tried to tell the truth to those back home, it’s doubtful that any description of the terrible reality would get past the military censors.
But feeling the need to reassure his son and daughter, he took a piece of paper and wrote the first lines of a story for them.
‘Once upon a time,’ he began, ‘there was a doctor and his name was Dolittle…’
There and then one of the classic children’s stories of all time was conceived — as a conscious, creative antidote to all the blood-soaked, mind-shattering brutality of war.
The inhumanity Lofting saw around him was bad enough, but what further disturbed him was the suffering of the thousands of horses and mules, innocent animals caught up in the fighting.
Lofting’s own life could not be described as ‘gentle’ or ‘kindly’. Rather, much of it was marred by unhappiness. He grew up in middle-class Maidenhead, Berkshire, the youngest of six children of an English mother and a stern Irishman with a drink problem
What was possibly going through their minds amid the insanity?
So in one letter after another to his children, he told the story of a very gentle medical man living in the quiet English countryside, who didn’t care much for people but who loved and valued animals and had the magical gift of being to talk to them and, through listening to them, heal them when they were sick.
He called him Dolittle, which was Lofting’s pet name for his son, who was a little on the lazy side.
They were happy-go-lucky adventures, full of imagination, cheerful optimism, and joy in the wonders of the natural world.
Lofting, a skilled draughtsman, illustrated them with his own black-and-white charcoal drawings, the jovial doctor resplendent in morning coat, wing collar and top hat.
The war over, the reassuring fantasy world he created while keeping his head down in the trenches became a book.
First published in 1920, a century ago, it has been a favourite ever since (apart from a brief hiccough that we will come to later).
By popular request, the initial volume turned into a whole series, which in turn inspired a plethora of films, notably with Rex Harrison as the doctor back in 1967 and more recently with comedian Eddie Murphy in the title role.
Next month a lavish new version is to open in cinemas up and down the country, an action-packed 21st-century take on the old story of how, when the young Queen Victoria falls gravely ill, a young doctor travels to a fantastical island in the hope of locating a cure .
Robert Downey Jr plays the swashbuckling Dolittle, backed by stars such as Tom Holland and Emma Thompson voicing the likes of Jip the dog and Polynesia, the stroppy, raucous parrot with a penchant for uttering ‘the most dreadful seafaring swearwords you ever heard’.
So, aged 100, Dolittle lives on into a new age, his appeal undiminished.
Young readers and audiences happily suspend their disbelief to be drawn in by that seductive notion of being able to talk to animals and share their undoubted wisdom and essential goodness.
And drawn in too by the soft nature of the doctor himself and his realisation — radical at the time when Lofting created him but very current today — that we humans share the planet with other species and have a responsibility to them. It is Polynesia who sets the tone.
‘People think they’re wonderful,’ she squawks dismissively from her perch, ‘but they make me sick, talking about dumb animals. Why, I knew a macaw who could talk Greek and say good morning in seven different ways.’
Dolittle listens — which, as every child instinctively knows, adults rarely do — and that way begins to learn the language of animals, crossing the divide into their world. Effortlessly he has taken generations of young readers with him.
His fans come from all sorts of different backgrounds. In working-class Leeds, a six-year-old butcher’s son called Alan Bennett (who grew up to become one of the nation’s best-loved playwrights and diarists) raced through the Dolittle books one after another in the library, vaguely aware, as he recalls, that a doctor who could talk to animals was fiction but believing that Puddleby-on-the Marsh, where Dolittle lived, was real.
And any lingering suspicions that racism was deeply embedded in the Dolittle stories must surely have disappeared when black actor Eddie Murphy took the title part in the 1998 film
Novelist Sebastian Faulks, growing up in leafy Berkshire two decades later, was similarly won over, considering them the best books he read as a child, ‘funny, touching, exciting and well-written’. As a grown-up he read them to his own children and found them ‘utterly modern and enlightened’.
Enlightenment dawned too on Dame Jane Goodall, the world’s leading expert on chimpanzees.
She admits that, as an eight-year-old reading about the doctor’s adventures in Africa — where he takes his veterinary skills to fight an epidemic killing off monkeys — she was inspired to go to the African forests herself and save the animals.
Dolittle was also a literary hero to a young Richard Dawkins. Now one of the most famous scientists of modern times, he found him to be ‘a gentle, kindly naturalist who could talk to non-human animals and commanded god-like powers through their devotion to him’.
However, Lofting’s own life could not be described as ‘gentle’ or ‘kindly’. Rather, much of it was marred by unhappiness.
He grew up in middle-class Maidenhead, Berkshire, the youngest of six children of an English mother and a stern Irishman with a drink problem.
There he had pets, including four white mice. But at the age of eight, he was packed off to a Jesuit boarding school 150 miles from home.
He was 18 when, with a wanderlust’s yearning for adventure, he left not only school but England as well.
A scholarship to study civil engineering at the then up-and-coming Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the U.S. was his route out — a rare achievement.
Once qualified, he headed off to build railways in Canada, Africa and Cuba for four years until, bored by engineering, the clearly multi-talented Lofting decided on a radical change of career.
He made his way to New York, determined to make a living as a writer on magazines.
There he met and married an American debutante by the name of Flora Small. A daughter was born, followed by a son.
When war broke out in Europe in 1914, he could have stayed out of it, and did for a while, safely working for the British Ministry of Information in the U.S.
But, as the fighting intensified, he felt unable to ignore the call of duty. In 1916, he returned to the UK and joined up.
All too soon he was in Belgium enduring the misery of the front line with his regiment, the Irish Guards, and sending home to his children those letters conjuring up Dolittle’s funny little world of peace and harmony.
Before dispatching them, he would try out drafts of his stories on his own troops, reading them out by candlelight during the dark nights.
These battle-hardened soldiers listened, hushed and entranced, to Dolittle’s adventures, for a brief moment taken away from the death and destruction all around.
In those trenches, Lofting survived longer than most young subalterns, despite his habit of sleeping out in the open rather than underground in a fetid bunker.
Eventually his good fortune ran out. A piece of shrapnel pierced his thigh and he was invalided out just as the war ended.
Back home with his family, his wife Flora recognised that the Dolittle stories could be a goldmine and she badgered him into compiling them as a book.
Two years later The Story Of Dr Dolittle was published. The dedication read ‘to all children, children in years and children in heart’. It was an instant success.
Dolittle lived on, in the books and the young readers who continued to lap them up. Until, that is, the 1970s, when suddenly they became forbidden fruit
A fellow writer, the novelist Sir Hugh Walpole, hailed Dr Dolittle as a work of genius and ‘the first real children’s classic since Alice In Wonderland’ decades earlier.
Lofting had hit the jackpot. Lucrative commissions rolled in for more Dolittle stories — he wrote 12 in all. He had found the success in life he always craved.
But beneath the surface, he was a troubled man. The war had left its indelible mark on him, as it did on so many of his generation. It would not let him go.
All the horrors he had experienced ate away at his soul. He despaired of humanity. He sank into depression and pessimism. He drank to forget, but couldn’t.
The alcohol took over, turning this once mild-mannered man into a cantankerous and even violent one on occasions.
There was no respite for him as his woes piled up. In 1927, Flora died, after battling mental illness, and Lofting was widowed. Not longer afterwards, he met vivacious Katherine Harrower-Peters and they married after a whirlwind romance.
Two weeks later, she, too, was dead, from pneumonia caught on their honeymoon.
He lapsed deeper into depression, becoming bullying and ever more difficult — the complete antithesis of the gentle Dolittle.
He also tired of the doctor he’d created and disliked being categorised as a children’s author. He wanted to move on to writing books with a more adult theme, but his army of readers simply wanted more of the same.
Things did get better for him. He fell in love again, with Josephine, a nurse who at 24 was half his age.
They married in 1935 and a baby boy was born the following year and for a while he was at his happiest, turning out three more Dolittle books.
But then war broke out again in Europe in 1939. He was mortified that all the sacrifices of 1914-18 in the so-called ‘war to end all wars’ had been in vain.
The drinking intensified, irreparably damaging his liver. He died in 1947, aged 61.
But Dolittle lived on, in the books and the young readers who continued to lap them up. Until, that is, the 1970s, when suddenly they became forbidden fruit.
Lofting, a product of Victorian imperialism, had written his stories in an age when racist stereotypes and the notion of white supremacy were taken for granted.
In Dolittle’s forays to Africa, his attitude to the black inhabitants he met was kindly but condescending and disrespectful, to say the least.
He used some language that was commonplace in his era but would be rightly deemed unacceptable decades later.
The N-word in particular jarred, and in 1968 — more than 20 years after his death — he was publicly attacked for it.
In New York, a librarian by the name of Isabelle Suhl denounced Lofting as a white chauvinist and racist and described his creation, Dolittle as ‘the personification of the Great White Father nobly bearing the white man’s burden’.
His books disappeared from library shelves in America. There were no more reprints. Dolittle was effectively banned.
It was more than a decade before he was rehabilitated. The text was amended to avoid offence, the ‘blind spots of Lofting’s own era’ (to quote one critic) were expunged, and the books once again published in America.
Lofting’s son Christopher approved of the changes, declaring that his father ‘would have been appalled at the suggestion that any part of his work could give offence and would have been the first to have made the changes himself.
‘The message he conveyed throughout his work was one of respect for life and the rights of all who share the common destiny of our world.’
And any lingering suspicions that racism was deeply embedded in the Dolittle stories must surely have disappeared when black actor Eddie Murphy took the title part in the 1998 film.
In terms of plot, Murphy’s version bore little resemblance to Lofting’s, apart from the doctor’s ability to talk to animals.
Judging by the trailer, the new film for 2020 sticks much more closely to the original, with travels, adventures and talking animals in abundance.
The enduring Dr Dolittle lives on, long in the tooth now after 100 years but, along with Dab-Dab the duck, Gub-Gub the baby pig, Chee-Chee the chimp and all the other chatty animals that Lofting gave voice to, still a treat for a whole new generation to enjoy.