Friday, 28 September 2012

Helen's People

So much to write about and so little time to write it in at the moment but I will repair that. There is the Wymondham Words Festival to review, there is the matter of new proposed local developments, there was an Ana Maria Pacheco talk, a sudden reques to write an introduction to an anthology in support of Pussy Riot - asked the day before yesterday, one draft completed - and there was the appearance of launch yesterday night at the lovely Book Hive in Norwich,  of In the Land of the Giants, a book of poems for children.

I had only one book for children before, The Red All Over Riddle Book of 1997, published by Faber, which was still selling a few copies fourteen years later.  It consisted of things like this:

Light fingered, invisible
A thief through and through
He’ll steal your hat, he’ll whip your scarf
And your newspaper too.
He’ll hang around street corners
And pounce as you go by
Or hover at your window
And slip in with a sigh.

Nicely illustrated, it was well greeted in a very minor way - Paul Muldoon's children's book came out at the same time - but Faber wound up their children's list soon after, so there was never any chance of a second book.

It was not only Faber but other publishers too were closing their poetry for children lists, at least those with a single author. Books had to be directed towards key stages and were preferably in anthologies, preferably thematic ones. I did contribute to some of these as time went on but I already had a good number of other poems written well before the riddles.

There was a set of about fifty tiny drawings made by our daughter Helen when she was just nine or ten. Here are three of them chosen at random:

I can't quite remember where she made them. It might have been at home or it might have been on one of our longer stays in Budapest in the Eighties. They were extraordinary pieces of characterisation, very sophisticated for her years, each wanting to speak. So I wrote a poem for each of them. It was these I had first offered to Faber, but they turned them down and suggested the riddles instead.

I was stuck with them, but soon enough other series came along without any particular drawing in mind. I continued to write such things and responded to requests to write poems about the elements, the stars, superstititons, acts of wickedness, football and other things. Sometimes one poem sparked off another so I wrote several on a single theme.

I was also asked to translate a number of children's poems from the Hungarian - from Sándor Weöres, Zoltán Zelk, Ottó Orbán and others. Those appeared in another book of 1997, Sheep Don't Go To School, edited by Andew Fusek Peters.

But I had quite given up hope of another children's book until Salt offered me the opportunity to put together a selection. Some twenty of the drawing series, that I had privately referred to as Helen's People, got to be included.

Helen is thirty-six now, married and mother of two. I think she was a little wary of having these early drawings of hers published in a book. What if people thought she had drawn them now? I hope she likes them now. Of the three drawings above only two - the top and the bottom one - made it into the book. Perhaps I will introduce, or end, the next few blogs with one of the unpublished figures and its poem to go with the rest.

meanwhile the poem for the top one (in the book) goes

Plumbing Service

My name is Fred Alcock. 
I've come to fix your ballcock. 

I've brought my spanners and my hammers, 
My stuffers, scrapers, jammers, 
My nippers and my rammers. 

I see you've got some leaks. 
This could take weeks.

Now how did a nine-year old child know it would be like that?


angelatopping said...

I was so pleased to see you were having another children's book out - and on the same list as me and some other friends. It was a dream come true for me that Salt took me onto this list. I can't wait to get my hands on a copy of yours, George. They are such cute little books, and sturdy too. Best of luck with it. I love the tiny detailed drawings.

Mark Granier said...

Marvelous drawings George, and the poems are delightful.

Anonymous said...

Applause--I might get my girls (aged 13) that for Christmas.