Thursday, 31 January 2013

Hares, bunnies, wild flowers and wild cats

A change of plan last weekend took me to Arundel in West Sussex, and in particular to Kim's Bookshop, a three-story secondhand bookseller. Upstairs in the children's department I came across two little books that I hadn't seen since my childhood. I was given both as a birthday gift when I was six or seven. They were The Ladybird Book of British Wild Flowers and The Ladybird Book of British Wild Animals. I think my original copies had dust jackets; and I'm guessing that these editions, which lacked them, were printed sometime in the 1960s, or during 1970 at the latest. That must be so because the cost of each book when sold was 2/6, that's 'two and six', or two shillings and sixpence, a price that could only have applied before Britain's currency went decimal in February 1971. Sobering to think that 2/6, or in decimal currency £0.125, could once have bought you a hardback book, albeit a slim one. But we are talking about forty-four years ago at the very least. Both books were in good condition, and I didn't hesitate. I paid £4.00 for the two of them.

I felt like I had rediscovered two old friends. You must imagine me at the age of six or seven, an avid book reader, and absolutely fascinated by the illustrations, which I loved. I also had a larger book with some full-colour photographs in it, that Mum had sent off for, called The Weetabix Wonder Book of Birds:

I do wonder what happened to these three books. I'm guessing that they all became tatty from use, fell to bits, and got thrown out a long time before work took me to London in 1978. I don't remember taking them with me. They might well have been binned, along with almost all my school work, in a pre-moving purge. I was so much less sentimental then. Nowadays I have so little left from my childhood that all of it is treasured.

As it was, I was delighted to have even these later copies of the two Ladybird books. I've been looking through them since last weekend, again and again and again. Come with me through each, and share my favourite pages. First, the British Wild Flowers book:

Brian Vezey-Fitzgerald (1900-1981) was a well-known naturalist and country writer, and he wrote the text of this Ladybird book, which was first published in 1957 when I was five and Mr Vezey-Fitzgerald was fifty-seven. I have another of his books, published in 1948, called It's My Delight. That one is for grown-ups, and is all about poaching, with wonderful woodcut prints of hares, pheasants and other eatable game. (Perhaps I should do a post on this other book, which is so evocative of country characters and a rural way of life long vanished)

The illustrations in the Ladybird book were a joint effort, the backgrounds being painted by Rowland Hilder (1905-1993), a famous landscape artist, while the flowers in the foreground were the work of his wife Edith (1904-1992), a famous nature painter in her own right, who loved the natural flowers of the countryside. I imagine she really enjoyed this commission.

The first picture below shows a pressed flower that was still between the pages. What a bonus!

As I child I lived on the Glamorgan coast at Barry. The South Wales countryside wasn't really far away, but for a little person with no money for buses, and no bike, it seemed inaccessible. So I lived in a world of books.

Now the British Wild Animals book:

This time the text was written by George Cansdale (1909-1993) who was a zoologist and a regular TV presenter from the 1950s onward. The illustrations were by Roland Green (1890-1972), who was primarily a bird painter, famous for drawing from life. But as you will see, he was pretty good at eathbound animals as well! The poor chap became stone deaf from flu when he was about thirty, but it didn't affect his abilty to draw and paint. This Ladybird book was published in 1958, when I was six, and since I had both books at the same time, this is why I think I must have been at least six when I first read them.

That last picture of the Wild Cat scared me a bit, but set off an intense wish to see Scotland that I didn't satisfy until 2002 - unless you count the A Level Geography Field Trip to the Isle of Arran in Easter 1969, which I didn't enjoy much. (Another post looms)

Ladybird books always had a good reputation. Certainly, they engaged nationally-known writers and artists for their production, and the paper inside was almost of banknote crispness. A bit different from most children's annuals, although the Rupert Bear annuals were always superior. Those that I might have had when young are getting rare. I'm thinking of one in particular from 1958, 1959 or 1960 that I'd now like to track down. It might cost me £30 upwards, if in anything like reasonable condition.


  1. I remember these books, mostly my cousins, concisely written and clearly illustrated.

    I was somewhat older when I got Observers books of flowers and birds. Did you have those too? It is hard to imagine that my younger self absorbed all the information in them, even about things I never expected to see, only for it to have fallen like silt to the bottom of my memory never to be resuscitated...

    I also got the ones about cars to try and communicate with my car mad father, that did not work, and a train one to try and understand what "boys" were talking about.

    I remember the surprise to my parents when I asked for the train one so perhaps they knew more than I imagine...

  2. Yes, I had one or two Observers books too, and I noticed that Kim's Bookshop had a lot of them. I recall especially the ones on Geology and Flags. Eventually I must have had half a dozen.

    I was curious about many things, because I didn't socialise well, had no close friends, nobody to discuss things with, and so I had to work it all out by myself, with the aid of books. I didn't often succeed, and generally gave up the struggle if I couldn't fathom out what it was all about. This was silly. When I first started work, I spent an embarrassingly long time bluffing my way through so many conversations on quite basic topics I'd never got to grips with, or even heard of. Not a good start to adult life!


  3. I remember those books and the picture of the wild cat especially. somewhere in the house is the Ladybird Book of The History of Clothes and Costume. which I won as a prize for good attendance (I don't think they could think of anything else to give me a prize for). I must get it out ann look up the writer and illustrater on Wikipedia.

  4. So Kim's has moved to Arundel?

    They were in Worthing until a few years back. Loved that shop.



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