The web page of the Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford, now closed (as usual) for business: muses and misspills on books, jazz, poetry, stuff like false flags and smoke screen: was randomly decrepit and proven to be more than neo-bankrupt: it was so analogue it was anal and now deceased.
So I met someone last night who is known as Stig (he’s got an otherwise posh name). He’s nicknamed after Clive King’s hero, Stig of the Dump, the now classic children’s novel that had the good fortune to have been published in 1963 (1960s the trendiest yet most retrospective of decades, The Beatles for instance constantly referred to their own childhood imagery rather than Roy Jenkins or Mary Quant). My Stig (as opposed to Jeremy Clarkson’s Top Gear, flat footed, fossil fuel burning rally driver The Stig) has sort of fashioned a life dwelling in reclaimed environments using reclaimed stuff; he even wore a jumper that looked reclaimed, and I have to say looked more tidy than me. So he’s like the pseudo-troglodyte, Stone Age Stig who collected jam jars, useful stuff like that, and who lived in a chalk pit in Kent that had been used as a rubbish dump. Clive King’s tale is an antidote to much of the popular fantasy children’s writing of his time, and it didn’t exploit the usual narrative twists – magic or time slip devices – and is timeless and charming, rich with humour (the dialogue is whimsically deadpan if saucily derivative), and the tale gallops. It stumbles at its climax though, as King (who is still alive in his nineties) clearly had no ending properly planned, and it reads perhaps as story-boarded on the hoof.
This was published at the tail end of a rich period of natty, rather knowingly retrospective, giggle at the teacher, fag behind the bike shed, quaint schoolroom storytelling. C. Day Lewis’ The Otterbury Incident is in the same vein, and Bill Naughton’s thrilling The Goalkeeper’s Revenge & Other Stories (best book for boys ever, go-kart hero Spit Nolan almost as important as George Best in my childhood) is pure delight, radiated with sharp childhood observation, evocative of that time in our lives when boys at least are still more interested in go-karts than girlies. (Clarkson’s Stig never grew up, that’s obvious, coz girlies have so many more gears than a go-kart and, if lucky, power steering as well.)
The summary of this style of writing, for me, is book illustrator Edward Ardizzone. He illustrated and painted so much else, but his cross hatched drawings I see now to have summed up the divide between the old world and the new, that is storytelling with one leg on the floor at all times (the rule for early Hollywood bedroom scenes) and the ghastly Jacqueline Wilson these days (heavy breathing as soon as school assembly is finished). Ardizzone’s manuscript boxes are housed in the Ashmolean Museum here in Oxford, well worth a visit, so redolent of fizzy pop and bike puncture repair kits, stamp collecting and the age of Dan Dare. His cover illustrations for Stig of the Dump and The Otterbury Incident alone are worth easily a week’s pocket money.
Ardizzone, born in 1900, cut his teeth painting scenes of London life and then came of age as a Second World War artist. His first book illustrations were in 1929, and throughout a lengthy life – he died in 1979 -he remained shy of noticing the divide between fine art and popular graphic work, as did so many jobbing artists of the time (Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Osbert Lancaster, even Cyril Power a little earlier, so many others). A whole raft of book illustration (including his own – the Little Tim series is still popular, his reissues of Graham Greene’s early children’s books also) was accompanied by advertising work (Guinness had been a significant client), telegrams for the Post Office, magazine covers and posters for the Ealing Film Studios. His drawings were lively, underpinned by a compositional style that can only be described as classical and schooled. His colours are gentle and pastoral with a nostalgic wash, occasional detail is whispered pizzicato style, so often a playful dog is present; best of all his vibrant pen and ink sketches, cross hatched, fleshed out with subliminal wonder and delight. A brilliant new illustrated book has been published to accompany a major exhibition in London: Edward Ardizzone: Artist and Illustrator by Alan Powers.