There are lots of teenage girls out there who go mad for Justin Bieber, or young boys who idolise football players (I'm afraid I can't name any who weren't playing back in 1998). In my own off-kilter way, I'm in danger of becoming a total fanboy for Slightly Foxed Editions. They're just all good. There are other reprint publishers I love, as you know, but I think these are the most consistently wonderful offerings. No duds. Excuse me while I put a photo of the editorial team on my wall. Ahem.
Edward Ardizzone's childhood seems to have been rather unusual, where parenting is concerned. He was born in 1900, in Tonkin, Vietnam, but moved to Suffolk, England when only five. His father, however, stayed behind, moving around Asia - visiting England at intervals, moving his family around the country (for he was certainly still married to Ardizzone's mother, who spent four years out in Asia with him when Ardizzone was at boarding school) but playing minimal part in Ardizzone's childhood. The chief figure was his tempestuous grandmother - Ardizzone often describes her going 'black in the face with rage', but adds that she 'was normally gay, witty and affectionate'. More diverting relatives! Lucky Ed.
I always love reading about people's childhoods, but I loved Ardizzone's more than most, because it took place in East Bergholt. I'd initially thought, flicking through the book, that only a chapter or two took place in East Bergholt - but he is, in fact, there for a few years. It's the village where my grandparents lived for about 40 years, and Our Vicar's Wife was there for her final teenage years, so I know it pretty well. I even recognise the house Ardizzone lived in from this little sketch.
A very lovely village it is too. Here are some of his recollections:
Yet certain memories are with me still. A particular picnic in a hayfield during haymaking; a fine summer afternoon in a cornfield when the stooks of corn became our wigwams. A certain rutted lane with oak tree arching overhead and hedges so high that the lane looked like a green tunnel leading to the flats below.[...]Not far from the old parish church, with its strange bell cage planted down among the tombstones, was a round bounded on one side by a very high red brick wall. Set in this wall was a small gothic door. It was of wood and decorated with heavy iron studs. Beside this door was a wrought-iron bell pull.It's all quite simply told, but works well with the simple pictures. The name Ardizzone meant nothing to me when I received the book, but I did recognise his illustrations - although I don't know where I encountered them - which are throughout the book as a delightful accompaniment. I must confess, to my unlearned eyes his draughtsmanship is not the very finest, and the comparisons Huon Mallalieu's Preface makes with E.H. Shepard and Beatrix Potter seem a trifle generous. But, even with those reservations, his illustrations enhance the memoir no end. It is almost all done with lines and crosshatching, just a dot or two to suggest facial expressions.
Ardizzone didn't enjoy school greatly - there are some incidents of bullying which seem to me quite shocking, but he only really mentions them in passing, without any suggestion that they have scarred him for life. And, indeed, his various school exploits take up most of the book - with plenty of cheerful moments, especially when describing respected schoolteachers.
I only wish Ardizzone hadn't whipped quite so quickly through the final section of his autobiography - where he explains (in three or four pages) his progression from being shown by the London Group, favourably reviewed at the Bloomsbury Gallery, commissioned to illustrate a Le Fanu collection, and finally a successful children's author/illustrator. He rattles through it all at breakneck speed, which is a shame, as it sounds a fascinating period in his life. So many autobiographers find their own childhood much more interesting than the rest of their life, and many of their readers would find everything interesting. Oh well. Mustn't grumble; I'll accept what Ardizzone has given us. And what he is given us is rather lovely.