Wednesday, February 04, 2015

The Lost Idyll of Ladybird

One of my earliest memories is of sitting on my mother's lap, looking through the 'Ladybird Book of Nursery Rhymes'. The insistent rhythms of the verses made a lasting impression:

"Fiddle-de-dee, fiddle-de-dee, the fly shall marry the bumblebee..."

But most of all, I loved the illustrations: 

Perhaps the illustrator of the Dan Dare science fiction comic-strip wasn't the natural candidate for a collection of nursery rhymes, but Frank Hampson turned out to be an inspired choice. His pictures are some of the most evocative in children's literature.

In his illustrations,  Hampson created an idyllic, pre-industrial England of villages and market towns, without a single Satanic mill in sight.

The fashions and buildings were (like many of the rhymes) mostly 18th century, but sometimes a steam engine, Victorian top hat or Tudor ruff would add a note of temporal discombobulation.

I often wonder whether these illustrations inspired my later life. I do seem to have ended up living somewhere that's remarkably similar to this illustration for 'Hot Cross Buns'. Is that Lewes Castle in the background?

Of course in the real world, the hot cross bun man would have been driven out of business by Caffè Nero and I'd have to resort to a pain au raisin, served by some over-familiar barista.

Many of the verses are of unknown provenance, but the occasional obsolete rhyme points to their antiquity. For example, in 'Tweedledee and Tweedledum', barrel rhymes with quarrel.

 And in 'Goosey Goosey Gander', wander rhymes with gander:

This was one of my favourite illustrations, from an age in which Gloucester was synonymous with Doctor Foster rather than Fred West. A contemporary version would probably end with Doctor Foster suing Gloucester City Council or, at the very least, phoning the Potholes Hotline.

I also loved this idyllic, Devon-like scene of rolling hills, unpolluted rivers and falling children.

The rhyme, which appears in the second volume, has the benefit of a little-known additional verse to 'Jack and Jill', in which "Dame Dob...patched his nob." A line that would have caused no end of sniggering when I was at school.

Some of the nursey rhymes have a rather melancholy tone. When Old Mother Hubbard discovers that her cupboard is bare, there is no hint of any possibility of redemption. Something that my three-year-old self found quite hard to take.

I preferred the world evoked in 'Tom, He Was a Piper's Son', with its blue sea, brightly-coloured clothes and the prospect of sailing off to exotic lands. Sadly, if you search for it on YouTube, there's a strong possibility that you'll stumble across this very disturbing Japanese manga version. I had to exorcise myself afterwards by listening to the Carpenters.

My least favourite illustration was the slightly harrowing image of a little boy waiting to be beaten in 'I do not like thee, Doctor Fell'.

The Wikipedia entry for Doctor Fell, which is said to date from 1680 (the rhyme, not the Wikipedia entry), is a fascinating read. I had no idea that Fell was a real person, or that Hannibal Lecter used the name as a pseudonym.

Today, boys aren't encouraged to hang around harbours and chat to sailors, but in this counting rhyme we're presented with a far more innocent world. I seem to remember my son being given a tape of children's songs, which included "One, two, three four five. Once I caught a fish alive..."

It met with a mysterious accident. My son didn't complain.

This illustration for 'Jack Be Nimble' is pretty straightforward, but some of Frank Hampson's pictures make me wonder what he put in his pipe. This bizarre vision of 'The Man in the Moon' is wonderfully bonkers:

'The Old Woman in the Basket' is also rather odd, with its depiction of a blue space. Intriguingly, the Ladybird book has a version that uses "quoth" instead of "said" - a word which has been out of use for at least 250 years:

How do you draw blind mice? Hampson's solution is rather novel. However, the prize for the most eccentric illustration is the one for 'This Little Piggy':

Quite why Frank Hampson suddenly went all 1960s, with a moped and television, I don't know. The perspective is also rather odd.

Proust had his madeleines. I have my Ladybird books of nursery rhymes. Just one look at any of the illustrations is a bittersweet experience, recalling a happy time in my childhood, but also reminding me that I don't live in a carefree world of endless summers and tricorn hats.

I don't think I've ever quite recovered from the disappointment.


Toffeeapple said...

Hello, a new reader here, hoping to make your acquaintance. I have no idea how I came to be here.

I must have had a deprived childhood because I never owned a Ladybird book but my daughter certainly did; I have never seen one with such bright colours and the impression of movement as yours, something to treasure I feel.

Stephen Mitchelmore said...

I wrote about memories of Ladybird books too, except I had forgotten them until going into a children's bookshop in Lewes (the one at the end of Cliffe High St):

I'm little more pretentious. Be warned.

Anonymous said...

I remember reading these nursery rhymes to my children. Ladybird books were so beautifully illustrated and I still have a few of them.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

Lovely! We didn't have this one. The wonky perspective is so that you can get everything in. I love the pigs with their modernist coffee table! Man was a genius.

Steerforth said...

Toffeapple - You've had a deprived childhood, but it's never too late to enjoy a Ladybird book. Even if you didn't read them as a child, they evoke a world that many of us experienced.

Stephen - Yes, yours is more LRB to my Daily Mail. It raises some interesting questions and I've tried unsuccessful to revisit the powerful feelings I experienced when reading (or being read) The Elves and the Shoemaker.

Kay - Reading them again to my sons was one of the happiest experiences I've had as a father.

Lucy - Dan Dare was before my time, but I've been looking at Hampson's Eagle illustrations and they're quite magical. I can see why he was given the Ladybird job.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Love the Dr. Foster rhyme. My sister-in-law up in Vancouver used to live a couple of blocks from a street named Gloucester. We used to sing "Dr. Foster went to Gloucester in a shower of rain, he stepped in a puddle right up to his muddle and never went there again!" as we got closer to her house. Even after all this years, the rhyme sticks with me, and makes me smile.

Steerforth said...

Carol - I love Doctor Foster, but as you can see in the picture, he didn't step right up to his muddle. It's definitely middle.

It doesn't rhyme, but it must have done once.

Clive said...

'Middle' rhymes with 'Piddle', the river running South through Dorset and into Poole Harbour at Wareham. Its not far away from the village of Shitterton, the name of which incomers keep trying to change.

Steerforth said...

Clive - Is Tolpuddle really Tolpiddle then?

Attila said...

I had a childhood slightly less deprived than some; I had Ladybird books (at school) but not this one. Fascinating!

Lucille said...

Will you be able to go to the Ladybird by Design exhibition at the De La Warr Pavilion?

Steerforth said...

Attila - They're only a few pence on Amazon or Ebay - I'd recommend buying one.

Lucille - I'm planning to go next week, before the madness of half term.

Canadian Chickadee said...

RE: Middle/muddle
I know, Steerforth, but my daughter always said muddle because otherwise it didn't rhyme, so muddle it became. Though I'm sure you're right and the proper word is middle.
Still a great set of illustrations though.

Steerforth said...

We'll probably find out that 'muddle' is a 17th century word for waist.

Anna said...

Lucille asks about visiting the Ladybird Books exhibition at the De la Warr... Do go, Steerforth; I went on Sunday and I think there must be every book they ever published, on display, plus original artwork etc. It really is wonderful... There were multi-generational families; grown up sons saying 'Oh look! I had this one' and 'Look, kids - The Fireman!'
And the coffee is very good....

Katharine A said...

Childhood innocence remembered. Even I at a young age, reading Goosey Goosey Gander, knew that fall over the balcony would end in disaster. Seeing your picture brought back memories. Are you going to move onto Ladybird fairy tales? I so wanted to sleep on as many matresses that the princess (& the pea) slept on. Nearly to the ceiling. Made do with 1970s bunkbeds instead. Great post.

Steerforth said...

Anna - I'm planning on going in a few days. I'm really glad that it's such a success with the public.

I shall be bringing my younger son, as he loves Ladybird too and unlike some exhibitions I've been too, I can feel certain that he won't be confronted with any images that I'd rather not explain.

Katharine - My favourite Ladybird fairytale was The Elves and the Shoemaker - some of the others, like Rapunzel and Snow White and Rose Red used to frighten me!

As a father I used to read them to my sons at bedtime, so they've also had a Ladybird childhood. If I had a pound for every time I've read the Three Billys Goats Gruff aloud, I'd be a wealthy man.

Helen Brocklebank said...

I had this book! Blimey, i'd forgotten all about it, but the illustrations brought it all back to me.

Lucille said...

I'm hoping to go on Saturday. The natural history ones were my favourites and of course Shopping with Mother.

sustainablemum said...

We had this book too, what a trip down memory lane! Its a shame I am so far from Bexhill (over 350 miles) that exhibition sounds wonderful, I wonder if it will move anywhere else once it has finished there?

Steerforth said...

Helen - It's an odd feeling seeing a Ladybird illustration for the first time in many years. I can't look at a picture of Rumplestiltskin without revisiting my childhood fears.

Lucille - Shopping with Mother seems impossibly idyllic, but that was the world I inhabited until Tesco opened a branch in Teddington.

Sustainablemum - I'm sure that it will head up your way. It's such an easy way for galleries to boost visitor numbers, why wouldn't they seize the opportunity?