While politicians seem preoccupied just now with what precisely makes up Britishness, Ladybird books never had that problem. Shiny kids (one of each, and nothing inbetween), a permanently smiley mother with a Cinderella waist who wears gloves to the shops, and a breadwinning dad who deserves to see his dinner on the table when he gets home from a hard day’s work.
The Ladybird imprint began life in 1914 and survives as an element of the Penguin publishing family. It, and specifically its design and distinctive illustrations, are currently the subject of a highly enjoyable exhibition at Bexhill’s De la Warr Pavilion. Followers of this blog need no reminding of its preoccupation with art deco buildings, and the De la Warr is one well worth a special visit at any time. Bexhill’s famous son, Eddy Izzard, may have done as much in recent years to put the place on the map but he doesn’t offer afternoon teas and didn’t sport a precariously wobbling bus on his roof in 2012 in tribute to the Italian Job movie.
So, where were we?
From the 1950s to the late 1970s Ladybird books were a national institution, pocket sized and collectible and costing just two shillings and sixpence (12.5p) throughout that time. Their Key Words Reading Scheme featuring Peter and Jane helped millions to learn to read (though not me, I’m afraid – my first language was French thanks to the HP sauce bottle permanently on our dining room table.)
Ladybird book offered a vision of an innocent world where learning to read was fun, nursery rhymes were enchanting, science was enthralling and its effects entirely positive, and history was heroic and written from a very British standpoint – presented as an exciting adventure largely instigated by heroes and occasionally heroines from the United Kingdom. (This may have been where Margaret Thatcher derived her views on the history syllabus for the nation’s schools.) Modern life was seemingly bathed in the bright sunshine of eternal summer.
Design was always a key element of Ladybird’s success. The format of the book – 56 pages printed in full colour from a single sheet of 40 x 30 inch paper – was born initially of necessity during wartime paper shortages. The simple but clear layout – a single page of clear text with an accompanying illustration on the opposite page – was a fundamental aspect of all Ladybird books.
Viewed from today many of the series present an image of Britain which by the 1950s was already becoming a tad unrepresentative (though no doubt helping to shape the UKIP manifesto.) This from The Story of Cricket: “The women and girls wear pretty summer dresses, and the men and boys take off their jackets. The spectators often eat ice-cream or drink orangeade.” And not a non-white player in sight – in 1964.
Shopping with Mother (1958) has always been a favourite and takes pride of place in the exhibition. Every High Street shopkeeper (Mr. Smith, Mr. Brown – and not a single misplaced greengrocers’ apostrophe) bears the kind of smile that you should worry about if the wind shifted. Mother is relaxed and almost euphorically content throughout her two hour expedition, the young daughter carries a shopping basket that neatly matches her mum’s while eyeing up dolls in the toyshop, and young son in tie and blazer selects a very grown-up hammer from the hardware shop to take home as his treat (and that certainly won’t go in his hand luggage.) Not a sign of a tantrum or pressure on mum to come up with the Fruit Gums – “Oh, yes please, mummy, if I’m good may I eat a plum this week?”
Ladybird were always helpful in distinguishing between books suitable for boys and girls, the former being schooled in healthy pastimes like do-it-yourself nuclear fission, while the latter were encouraged to master the sophisticated techniques of dishwashing and egg boiling.
I’m fortunate to have in my possession a later, revised edition of one of the most popular of the Ladybird books, The Wise Robin.
Here is a brief extract:
“Hey babes,” said Mrs. Robin to Mr. Robin, “What I want, what I really, really want, is some of that lovely tinsel that I can see hanging on the Christmas tree in that semi over there where those stereotypical humans with the shiny children and the smiley Golden Retriever live. Please, please, pretty please, could you just pop in there and pick some up for me so we’ll win Best Decorated Nest again this year? I can’t bear the thought of those swallows migrating over here and taking what’s rightfully ours.”
“Why me? I really don’t fancy it.”
“Because you’re the man, as it were. I’d do it myself only it’s my role to sit here grooming myself and waiting for you to fly home with stuff. And I’ve got the girls coming round to plan the hen party – though not for the hens obviously. Go on, shift yourself!”
“Cool, I hear where you’re coming from, ok? But I’m sure, if we wait till January, I’ll be able to get my beak on some tinsel going cheep. I have a seriously bad feeling about that family. The candles on their tree are REAL, an absolute fire hazard, I kid you not. If you’re so bothered, why don’t you go and get it and I’ll stay and tidy up here?”
Cont on p.42 after the ads for McDonald’s and Starbucks
Later series of Ladybird books reflected the social change taking place across the country
Ladybird by Design is at the De la Warr Pavilion until 10 May, entry free. http://www.dlwp.com