Benjamin Lee The Frog Report Puffin Books 1978 (1974)
Jonathan Jessingford is the least regarded in his family: the youngest, and short-sighted to boot, he is either tolerated or patronised by his older siblings — sister Jenny and brother Daniel — by his parents Frank and Ada and by his teachers, especially Mr Grindley. But the last shall be first, as the saying goes; and Jonathan proves his mettle when called upon.
This is the early 70s when anxiety about external threats were ever in the air — Cold War spies, terrorists — but also where dull old Dullington Bay on England’s South Coast is the last place you’d expect trouble. Mr and Mrs Jessingford have gone up to London to see a play, leaving the three children alone at home on a dark and windy night to manage by themselves. As we all know and expect, this is a recipe for disaster. A night-time walk and crumbling cliffs are just the beginning, an illegal immigrant coming ashore just the thing to incite the action proper. What is family friend and GP Dr Bill Lancaster doing on a windswept beach? What’s Commander Tagg’s game? Who is Professor Jan Stepanov? And what is Jonathan’s crucial role in all of this?
Author Benjamin Lee was a London GP, and you have to wonder how much of him was in the fictional Dr Lancaster of his one and only children’s novel. And a curious mix of adventure and metafiction it is too. Jonathan’s uncle Leopold offers him advice about how to write up his account of what has happened: (1) forget about what one’s supposed to write, (2) keep sentences short, (3) include brief descriptions of people. In amongst the advice is Jonathan’s first hand account of his adventure as the typical innocent abroad: misunderstandings, belittlings and offstage happenings.
There is sly humour: Jonathan is puzzled about his uncle’s references to thumbnail sketch and footnote and appendix, confusing them with body parts; adults seem to be forever talking at cross purposes; the grown-up world at large is a mysterious and terrifying place from a child’s perspective. Typical of Lee’s love of ambiguity and misdirection is the novel’s title: what has a tale of people smuggling got to do with a school homework task? And what is the answer to the question “Do frogs smell?”
It is strange how matters of espionage, people-smuggling and asylum-seeking continue now to preoccupy the people of Middle England, some forty years on from the first appearance of this slight but entertaining tale. But while some of it feels contemporary the splendid pen and ink line drawings by Graham Humphreys — so reminiscent of Victor Ambrus — that decorate its pages anchor it firmly in its period, for when was the last time you saw a schoolboy in short grey trousers?