BBC Four comes up with some real gems and last month was one of those times. They have a series called ‘Timeshift’ and the episode I saw was called ‘Ladybird books — the bug that got Britain reading’. For those of a certain generation i.e. late thirties to sixties this programme was always going to have a special resonance. As a child many of my first books were Ladybird books; they followed a simple format — text on one page and pictures on the other and the titles numbered hundreds.
You can still pick them up in second hand bookshops as a change in management in the 1970’s effectively killed the brand. Rather than talk too much about the show, which I hope you will now find on iPlayer, I want to talk about the impact these books had on me — which was far more than I’d realised. Like most of us I have no recollection of when I learnt to read only that my appetite for the written word was voracious and Ladybird seemed to help fulfil it. Whether that was through the school library or the buying of books — they were priced at 2/6 — which in today’s money is 25p; a price set at children’s pocket money back then. See, and you thought you were going through tough times. Still in the 1960’s you could get four blackjacks or fruit salads for a penny. Ahh, the halcyon days.
However I came by these books I could learn so much. The first ever Ladybird book was on British birds and was a massive seller. The books I remember were the Peter and Jane series, the ‘How to read’ series and the ‘history’ series. How I loved those books. Learning about Alfred the Great, Nelson and the tribes of the Great Western plains, back in those days ‘Red Indians’. As these covers were shown on the programme I was transported back to a flat in South London and the primary school I attended poring over the colour pictures (by fantastic artists of the time) and the words. How my love of words grew and grew.
It was thanks to these little books that the seeds were sown for a lifetime love of words, their meanings, their origins, how they work together and an involuntary intake of breath at seeing a word misspelled. It was probably down to Ladybird that I developed my love of collecting too — you have to get the last one in the series, just to make the series complete. Ladybird were fantastic marketers of books as well and there is much for us to learn as authors, poets and storytellers. Even if you don’t know what I have been talking about as you read this take an hour of your time and watch the documentary. You’ll love it too — said Peter to Jane.