This week I’m posting some strange, lovely scans from old Ladybird books for children. For most British people who started school at any time between the 1940s and the beginning of the 1980s these will need little introduction, because they’ll be familiar and fondly remembered either from their own homes or from the school library. For all those people who didn’t grow up on this weird little island between the end of World War II and the murder by Thatcherite politics and Reaganomics of what one might call Ladybird values, Ladybird was a publisher of slim hardbacked books intended to help children learn to read, and in a more general sense to instil a peculiarly British (and sometimes just plain peculiar) sense of the world having invariable rules of order, decency, progress and rationalism, of everything being OK and under control and British.
As time went on parents were sometimes depicted changing with the times. Mummy began to step out of the house without wearing a hat, eventually (my goodness!) even leaving the house to work at her job; new occupations and possibilities in general were acknowledged; in a stoic, stiff upper lip and fuss-free way British children of immigrants slipped in unannounced to play happily with the default white children. But otherwise the Ladybird design, typography, ethos and aesthetic remained remarkably unaltered through all the decades they were published, especially considering that their temporal range encompassed the Blitz, the Swinging Sixties, disco, punk and the silicon chip. Even the paper these books were printed on seemed to be unlike any other and never seemed to change.
While this may all seem very nostalgic, I must also admit that I only recall a peripheral engagement with these books when I was a child, mainly via my younger brothers rather than on my own behalf. I myself was a freakish Midwich Cuckoo of a child who was already far too advanced a reader at Ladybird’s target age to have any need of such simplified and overtly didactic texts. Not a brag really because pretty much all of my peers hated me for it and unlike my fictional counterparts I couldn’t even make dimwitted, barely literate classmates die just by thinking about it.
Let’s start with a particularly Brit-centric firework up the bum, shall we? For mystified foreigners and/or internet infants, this image has nothing to do with Anonymous, although it does provide a very clear indication of the real world imagery that Alan Moore and David Lloyd drew upon in their original V for Vendetta comics about thirty years before the mask- familiar to most older Britons as being intended to vaguely represent Guy Fawkes- bled back through into reality again when it was appropriated as the Anonymous mask and logo. Except in a few places (Lewes, for example) November 5th Bonfire Nights are nowadays mostly thin travesties of their former glory, probably because of the anodyne, Americanised commercial Halloween being far too close to Bonfire Night in the calendar. A few people still let off a few token fireworks as a kind of vestigial echo of their own childhood Bonfire Nights or their parents’ pre-Health & Safety regulations childhood Bonfire Nights. Formerly, though, Bonfire Nights really were much loved and vivid events in which the whole community came together to enjoy semi-baked potatoes, hypothermia, the risk of losing an eye, medicinal drunkenness, and burning Catholics in effigy.
James I and the Gunpowder Plot was part of a series called Adventures From History. I can’t help thinking that “adventure” isn’t really the correct word to describe plotting to commit mass murder and destroy a democratic forum with barrels of gunpowder so as to instigate a Catholic dictatorship, getting caught, then undergoing lengthy torture and being sentenced to hanging, drawing and quartering. Wacky old Guy Fawkes. What larks!
I would sincerely like to own the original painting of this.
This one, however, I would not want on my wall. I’d never be able to sleep. The girl on the left has a rather sweet, playful expression of involvement in the game, but the girl on the right- holy shit. It looks like there’s some disturbing method acting going on over there; she’s much too involved in the whole Mr Punch mindset. She’s liable to kill a bitch. That it comes from a book called Fun and Games also has a slightly Clockwork Orange vibe to it. One suspects that the girl on the left had a very different notion of what constitutes fun and games than her friend on the right did. That devotchka grew up to like a bit of the old ultraviolence.
Punch and Judy shows are another British institution that most contemporary children wouldn’t even recognise any more. I don’t recall where I read it, (anecdata ahoy!) but I do remember reading somewhere that where Punch and Judy shows still exist they’ve been purged of all their violent or offensive content. It’s political correctness gone mad when a man isn’t even allowed to get away with beating his wife, his baby and the investigating police officer to death with a huge stick, isn’t it?
And for the Wicker Man/everyday-life-was-creepy-in-the-70s hat trick, this hideous rabbit thing. The four images on the left, however, look like a contemporary art installation. Imagine them ten metres tall in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. More Ladybird stuff tomorrow.