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‘Martin Aitchison thought Peter and Jane were dull and twee but it was quick money’

PUBLISHED: 08:00 15 June 2017

The Ladybird book of Mindfulness

The Ladybird book of Mindfulness

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Bridget Galton talks to the son of Martin Aitchison who illustrated 80 original Ladybird books and Jason Hazeley who uses the old images in updated spoofs

Ladybird Books hold a deep nostalgia for those of us raised in the 60s and 70s.

The same generation who learned to read with tow-headed siblings Peter and Jane have helped the recent spoof incarnations to sell millions.

They are penned by comedy duo Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley who between writing for Miranda Hart and Charlie Brooker pastiche adult subjects such as The Hangover and The Sickie. When they talk about them on June 24 at St Jude’s literary festival, they will be returning to Ladybird heartland.

Former Suburb resident Martin Aitchison was among several artists who drew for the Key Words reading scheme and from 1965, the enclave’s suburban hedges and homes were the backdrop for illustrations of this cloying middle-class nuclear family and their dog Pat.

His son Nick and local siblings the Glendinnings stood in as “body doubles” for Peter and Jane.

“I was 13 when he started, too old for Peter, but if there was a particularly unusual pose he would get me to roll up my trouser leg and stand on the lawn in Widecombe Way and take photographs as references,” says the 67-year-old ex UCS pupil.

“I remember standing at the top of the stairs in my swimming trunks pretending to dive into a flaming pool at a funfair.”

Illustrator Harry Wingfield had kicked off the series so Aitchison inherited Peter and Jane’s faces.

“My father never met them but he had some photographs. By the end he knew them as if they were his own children.”

Aitchison, who also drew comic strip Luck of the Legion for Eagle Magazine, illustrated 80 Ladybird Books including the lives of great musicians, and classic stories.

“Gulliver’s Travels was his absolute favourite. The BBC did an adaptation starring Ted Danson and in an interview the director said they got all the costume ideas out of the Ladybird Book.” When Aitchison updated the reading books in the ‘70s, Nick jokes: “All he did was to make Peter’s hair grow longer and put Jane into jeans.”

But it was a source of frustration that he was perhaps best remembered for books which he found “bloody tedious”.

“The Arab steeds and burning forts of Luck of the Legion were a lot more fun than Peter and Jane. He wasn’t a traditionalist and thought it all a bit twee and the text dull. But it was quick money – it paid my school fees for which I am grateful! He regarded it with wry amusement. When he was invited to Ladybird events he thought they were bonkers but he went along. Anything for a free drink.”

Born in 1919, Aitchison’s hearing was severely impaired following a bout of measles but his early caricatures of teachers and drawings earned him prizes. He studied at The Slade and although his deafness excluded him from military service, during World War II he illustrated technical handbooks for Wellington Bombers and diagrams for Barnes Wallis’ dam-busting bombs at Vickers.

“My father was a very good lip reader and coped pretty well with being deaf. He was very laid back, mischievous with a good sense of humour and a quiet charisma. Before he died last October, we talked about how fulfilled he felt. He was quite phlegmatic, for someone severely deaf who became an artist, to have worked for more than 50 years he couldn’t complain.”

Hazeley says: “Joel and I had the books as kids, and as adults started collecting them from charity shops. Some of our memories are pre-literate: the purple glow of the magic porridge pot or the vivid crimson of Peter’s trolley can send us tumbling back into toddlerhood. We bought some of the original artwork with our first royalty cheque.”

Asked why there’s such nostalgia for the books he adds: “Probably because they were always better than they needed to be, and of such a high quality that they remain the special treat they were to our younger selves. The Ladybird world was full of certainty something that, in these unsettling times has an air of safety and comfort.”

Using real drawings from the archive he says it’s “bags of fun and an enormous privilege to be let loose to muck about with a national treasure”. “But we treat the job like we are real Ladybird authors, not the scruffy oiks we actually are, so we don’t swear or add to the artwork. We play the gags with a straight bat but also laugh ourselves to bits. It’s the best gig either of us will ever have.”

The Proms at St Jude’s Literary Festival runs over the weekend of June 24 and 25, and features nine talks by writers including Love Nina author Nina Stibbe.

Her letters to hers sister while working as a nanny to film director Stephen Frears’ sons in the 1980s on the same Camden Town street as Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett, was turned into a TV Series starring Helena Bonham Carter.

On Saturday, stand up comedian Natalie Haynes discusses her novel: The Children of Jocasta, and historian and documentary maker Laurence Rees talks about his new book on The Holocaust.

On Sunday June 25, novelist and scriptwriter MJ Arlidge and West Hampstead writer Susie Steiner discuss their latest books. Historian Dan Cruickshank tells Sue MacGregor about his history of Spitalfields. And Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee and co-author David Walker discuss their governmental critique: Dismembered which was published in May. Next week the Ham&High previews Woman’s Hour presenter Jenni Murray on A History of Britain in 21 Women.

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