Fri Jan 10, 2003
Chris Bertram wrote about the Ladybird Book view of history yesterday. I read those books too. Reading them while growing up in Ireland gave them a weird postcolonial tinge. (In retrospect, I mean: this didn’t occur to me at the time.) Whereas the local culture had anti-Englishness (except for Manchester United) playing as a kind of background muzak, Ladybird histories would be telling you about how England was Top Nation.
Like Chris, though, I think Ladybird books are great. In fact, the very first book I remember reading by myself is a Ladybird book called Piggy Plays Truant. It was a sobering morality tale about the slide of an innocent piggy into disaster, brought on by listening to irresponsible friends. As I recall, the first step towards perdition is taken when Piggy, on his way to school, is encouraged by his mate to waste time playing marbles. This is bad enough, but then his friend suggests they they play “on the roadway, not the grass!” Just appalling. Things go rapidly downhill, and a few pages later the two of them end up stealing a boat and nearly drowning when the weather turns bad. Of course they are rescued, and Piggy is left to contemplate the error of his ways.
Literature to live by, I say. It obviously stuck with me.
Ladybird Update!: A Google search for “Ladybird” inevitably turned up a a Ladybird book fanatic with a collection of covers online. Poking around in the 401-Fiction series, I found the book I was looking for. My memory was off: it’s Piggly who plays truant, not Piggy, but otherwise I was on target. As you can see from the dramatic cover illustration, things got very bad for Piggly indeed. Now I will go wallow (like a Piggly) in nostalgia for the rest of the morning.
Update 2: Oh boy. Now that I know the correct title, it turns out to be everywhere. There’s a plot synopsis and publishing history, it’s Magnus Mills’s sixth favorite book (beating out AJP Taylor’s English History, 1914-1945), and there’s sympathetic review which contains the key lines about marbles that I referred to above:
They forgot about the master, They forgot about the class; Played at marbles on the roadway – On the roadway, not the grass.