Ladybird books: Constructing the future past of modern Britain

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I used to visit a beloved university English professor  and his wife. He had won the Military Cross for hand to hand combat in the liberation of the Netherlands in 1945 but never talked about the terrible things he’d seen. After he died in 2003 I would meet his widow for lunch and once, when she asked for my news, I started talking with excitement about the flat my husband and I were buying in Berlin. I saw her face fall in horror.

“Have you ever been to Germany?” I asked, the truth dawning on me. “No. And I never would,” she said with determined distaste. I felt terrible. For failing to anticipate how someone of her generation might feel about that country 50 years on.

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While some people like my friend felt a line remained drawn that they could not cross, other made a different kind of choice. Ealing comedy producer Michael Balcon and the German-Jewish émigré director Wolf Rilla made the 1958 smash hit romantic comedy Bachelor of Hearts starring Hardy Kruger as a German exchange student learning the strange ways of Cambridge University and falling in love with Sylvia Syms. It was a kind of benign propaganda to make British people trust young Germans again. As Kruger’s own website acknowledges his international career was launched “when no one wanted to see an actor from a country that had brought death and ruins to the people of this world”.

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That idea of benign propaganda applies equally to what Ladybird Books were doing at exactly the same time. I’ve been thinking about the books a lot, digging out all my old copies of the Well-Loved tales and especially the People At Work series: The Nurse, In a Hotel, The Shipbuilders, In a Big Store – because I was recently hosting an event at Conway Hall with social historians and transport and architecture geeks (Helen Day, Tim Dunn, Concretopia author John Grindrod and a special guest appearance by We Go To The Gallery artist Miriam Elia) to muse on why we love these books so and what they reveal about their creators’ vision of postwar Britain.

Crucially I’ve realized they weren’t complacent nostalgia. They were a celebration of a new Britain built out of ashes. The executive behind the series Douglas Keen was, like many of his artists, a middle aged man from working class roots who’d served in the War (an RAF radar unit) and had a socialist vision of the future. One that celebrated social housing, new concrete shopping centres in the place of bombed out medieval cities and the expanded public sector of the NHS and other emergency services. As one of his daughters said at his funeral: “His socialist principles imbued him with a deep respect for the traditions of working-class occupations such as mining, and for public service occupations, eulogised in my own favourite series, “People At Work”.

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The white heat of technology was celebrated in books about The Hovercraft or The Computer. There was a photo-realist delight in putting real healthy contemporary children’s faces into retelling old fairy tales or Peter and Jane books celebrating the joys of ordinary life. It turns out that it’s not just our imagination that the skies always seemed to be blue in those books. The illustrators often waited for a fine day to take their guide photos and make their sketches. It’s an interesting coincidence that Keen and illustrator John Berry (People at Work series) were both raised by single mothers whose fathers had left them. Robert Lumley (The Magic Porridge Pot, The Elves and The Shoemaker) had fought at Monte Cassino. John Kenny (Tootles the Taxi and The Story of Nelson) had landed in Normandy on VE Day. Robert Ayton (The story of Ships) was a wartime motorcycle dispatch rider. Their Ladybird work was unashamedly optimistic and idealistic.

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Andy Dickens, nephew of illustrator Harry Wingfield, had his own sixth birthday immortalised in the easy reading book The Party. As he told The Guardian last year: “There was no “wow factor”. The adults around at that time – some had been fighter pilots, some had commandeered U-boats. There was a general acceptance that people did what they did and we were equally respectful of the milkman.”

So much of the political vision of the 1950s has been dismantled – in housing, the public sector and the workplace. Think of the work culture exposed in big companies like Sports Direct. Far from being exercises in nostalgia, Ladybird books remind Brexit Britain how it was people who’d endured horror who had the ambition not to focus on fear, but to build a brighter, fairer future.

 This article originally appeared in The Big Issue magazine ahead of an event I curated at Conway Hall on October 10th 2016.

Further listening (audio of the event):

 

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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