Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Dogfish It Was That Died

After a week of unremittingly grim, depressing weather, I didn't expect to be spending today lying on a beach with my coat off, staring at a dead dogfish. It's the little surprises that keep me going.

I was already planning to visit the Ladybird exhibition at the De La Warr Pavillion in Bexhill, but the Mediterranean weather was an added bonus. Standing underneath this cupola, it felt as if I was in Greece.

A 180° turn would have quickly ruined that illusion.

The exhibition was packed and instead of the usual quiet reverence, the rooms buzzed with the enthusiasm of grown-up children, recognising a once-loved but long forgotten image:

Seeing the original illustrations only increased my admiration for the artists. Even something as simple as milk being poured into a glass became a thing of beauty.

For several decades, the Ladybird illustrators were overlooked in favour of their more quirky contemporaries. But although realism of Ladybird may have been less interesting artistically, children preferred it. We didn't want sketchy drawings that alluded to the real thing; we wanted the thing itself.

As an adult, I might prefer Miroslav Šašek's London to the Ladybird one, but the child in me loves the clear, unambiguous world of the latter:

The world of Ladybird is an impossibly idyllic one. Daddy goes off to work at the office, the children walk to school, while Mummy enjoys a leisurely morning in town, chatting to the local shopkeepers.

Daddy is not having an affair and Mummy is not on valium.

Oddly enough, my early childhood was remarkably similar. The shopkeepers all knew me by name and train drivers smiled and waved when I stood by the railwayline. Terrible things may have been happening in the world at large, but not in Teddington.

Was it all the illusion of a small child? Was the real world more like this:

"Now bugger off and stop asking daft questions."

I'm not sure, but I think that Ladybird books reinforced the partial illusion that our parents tried to create when we were little: the world is a kind and safe place. Revisiting that vision can be a bittersweet experience, highlighting the disparity between our infantile hopes and the reality that awaits us.

The Ladybird world is a Platonic paradise, free of class conflict, religious antagonism or political strife. There are no terrorists, paedophiles or murderers. The occasional burgular appears, but is quickly apprehended by the local bobby on the beat. Order is restored.

What, if anything, will inspire the same nostalgia in the middle-aged of the 2040s? My older son is already nostalgic about computer games of ten years ago, so perhaps it will be dominated by obsolete technology and the characters of Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft.

A friend told me that last week, the long-forgotten fax machine in her office suddenly sprang into life, after years of silence. As the ancient thermal paper slowly and noisily emerged from the rollers, my friend realised that none of her 20-something colleagues knew what a fax was.

In the corner of the office, a man in his 40s was quietly laughing to himself.

After the exhibition, we walked over to the beach and enjoyed the novelty of sunbathing in mid-February, wriggling until the pebbles reached a comfortably orthopaedic configuration. It was some time before we noticed a dead dogfish lying next to us, camouflaged against the stones.

It was as perfect as a Ladybird illustration.


Kid said...

Poor dogfish. I hope the sea reclaimed it. The Ladybird books presented a picture of the world that I recognise; it really seemed to be like that to me when I was growing up in the '60s. It's the kind of world I wished I lived in today. Maybe its the kind of world we should all aspire to - then, perhaps, it may become a reality.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

Evidence now shows that in the 50s, 60s and 70s our world was full of predatory paedophiles, and children had fewer rights and less respect.

Steerforth said...

Kid - Perhaps the Isle of Wight should be designated a Ladybird conservation zone, in which supermarkets are banned, boys have to wear short trousers and men have to wear hats. I'd move there like a shot.

Steerforth said...

Lucy - Sadly true. Like many children, I got to see the more sinister side of the "friendly uncle". I think he went to prison in the end.

joan.kyler said...

Perhaps we could found Ladybird Land. I'd move there in a heartbeat.

Lucille said...

If there had been a sequel to The Truman Show, do you think Truman would have wanted to move back into his version of Ladybird Land? I often wonder how he coped when he broke out of the bubble.

Steerforth said...

Joan - If only. Perhaps it would be a bit Stepford-like and maybe it would all end in tears, but it would be fun trying. I think some of us are already trying to do it when we choose local shops rather than supermarkets, or a walk in the countryside rather than a theme park, so there would be plenty of volunteers.

Lucille - I suppose he'd feel the same ambivalence that many of us have about our own childhoods - a yearning for the world we thought we lived in, combined with the knowledge that it wasn't what we thought it was, if that makes any sense. As for Truman, I wonder how he dealt with his anger about being lied to? It could be a grim sequel.

Little Nell said...

Wonderful books; my own children loved them and they were also a great classroom resource. It must be nearly time for ‘What to Look For in Spring’. I seem to remember the illustrations of the Horse Chestnut tree with its ’candles’ was outstanding. That book and its companion volumes for the Seasons, really made children look at the world around them.

Steerforth said...

Nell - I have that book on standby, ready for the first cuckoo in spring, although the seasons are all over the place these days. My younger son loves the countryside, so I'm planning plenty of days out, armed with an OS map and a Ladybird guide.

Canadian Chickadee said...

A great metaphor for life. Just when you begin to relax and enjoy yourself, you find yourself staring at a dead dogfish, or the cosmic equivlent. C'est la vie!