Sunday, 28 June 2009

Squirrels in waistcoats and all that

Winnie-the-Pooh and Wind in the Willows aside, I never cared much for anthropomorphic children's stories, and I had heard only vaguely of Alison Uttley until I read in the Guardian recently about the publication of her diaries. Her creations strike me as singularly charmless and she herself sounds rather unpleasant, but I much enjoyed this story, also in the Guardian, by Gwyn Headley:

The private diaries of Alison Uttley, creator of the timeless children's characters Little Grey Rabbit and Sam Pig, edited by the author's biographer Professor Denis Judd, are published this month. She was apparently jealous of Enid Blyton's success - calling her "the Blyton", and describing her as boastful and a "vulgar, curled woman". Margaret Tempest, her own illustrator, received equally short shrift as "a humourless bore ... absolutely awful".

When I worked for Collins (the predecessor of HarperCollins) I was asked to accompany Uttley to the Children's Book Fair at the Royal Horticultural Halls in Westminster. I found her a sour little old woman, with no small talk, and I was clearly merely a minion.

But I was quite good at publicity, and I'd arranged for everyone attending the fair to be invited to come and meet Alison Uttley. At half-hourly intervals the PA system hollered out "ALISON UTTLEY! LITTLE GREY RABBIT AUTHOR! HERE AT 12!"

Teachers were whipping their charges into a state of frenzy. I just wanted to sell some books. We'd placed Uttley on a curtained dais, and on the dot of 12 the curtain rose. A howling crowd of excited children stormed the stage.

As Uttley hadn't bothered to listen to a word I'd told her, she was completely unprepared for this. Dimly, she perceived an overwhelming mob running at her and with British pluck she unhesitatingly grabbed her duck-handled umbrella and waded into the attack, felling infants right and left. The kiddies paused, briefly regrouped, then broke up and ran off, screaming in terror. Uttley strode among them, lashing out freely.

The Meet the Author session was abandoned, and I was asked to escort Miss Uttley out of the fair. She was perplexed and indignant, and ready to ask some questions. But I had told her the answers before we arrived at the venue. She simply hadn't cared to listen.

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