Felt Trips: “Study In Red Biro” by Marie Winter

Finding the impressions that previous owners have left on their discarded childhood books can be a touching and illuminating experience for those of us scouring jumble sales, second-hand bookshops and eBay for the musty volumes of a bygone age. Every “Happy Birthday, Janet”, scrawled in the front of a 40-year old paperback sitting unloved on a charity shop shelf, has its own elusive backstory: unwritten tales of forgotten family celebrations, much-missed relatives and wistfully regretted teenage clear-outs. As a rule, we never uncover the secrets of these scribbled additions… although, early this year, I was delighted to return at least one Musty Book to its original 1970s owner.

For Marie Winter, an avid collector of vintage Ladybird Books, one such discovery holds a rather sinister fascination. Over to you, Marie…

“Before I start my journey down this Ladybird rabbit hole, I must stress that the drawing I am about to talk about is not my drawing – so, unlike other contributors, I can’t provide you with the inspiration behind it. It makes me wish I had kept my childhood drawings, which were felt-tip pictures of idyllic cottages with roses around the door and lupins in the garden. And Ladybird heroines based upon the beautiful illustrations of Eric Winter… who, unfortunately, is no relation.   

I began collecting Ladybird books 18 years ago, when my niece was born. I had loved my copies of the Well-Loved Tales and Peter and Jane but they were given away by my mum – a story shared by many other collectors. I only have one remaining Ladybird book from my own childhood, Rapunzel, which I defaced horribly by writing my name at the top of the front cover.  But I thought it would be wonderful to start a collection for my niece, so she could enjoy the stories and illustrations that I had so loved as a child.

And that’s where the obsession began…

My niece turned 18 in April and hasn’t had a look-in. To be fair, she isn’t interested in Ladybird books and thinks I’m just a bit of a weirdo. So the collection is mine, all mine. There’s a joy to collecting things that remind us of our childhoods: whether it’s Ladybird Books, Star Wars figures or Look-In magazines, they provide a flicker of recognition that transports us right back to a certain time and place.  Ladybird books do this for me, mainly because of their wonderful illustrations.

I wasn’t aware there were so many books, in so many series… but of course, I had to have them all. So I started out by searching all the bookshops of Edinburgh and Carlisle, and then widened my search to other places I visited. And also auctions… where, very often, the one book I needed to complete a set would be part of an auction lot of books that I already had copies of.

And this is how I came across the below drawing…

…WHICH I REPEAT IS NOT MINE!

It sits unobtrusively in the back of a copy of The Ladybird Book of British Wild Flowers that I picked up as part of a bundle of books at an auction. I didn’t buy them because of this picture, but I definitely would have paid more to secure them if I’d known it was there. 

It’s a particularly strange drawing to find in the back of an innocent little Ladybird book. I could understand it being drawn on the back of a book in Series 522 – their religious series – possibly as a kickback to tales of a kind and benevolent Jesus, or other stories from the Good Book. But no… there it is, on the inside back cover of a book that – rather ironically – has become my Bible, allowing me to identify and differentiate between common mallow, harebells, ragged robin and chicory.

I’ve paraded before it on Twitter, and on a number of Facebook Ladybird fan pages, but am still always a little shocked by it and I also worry that others may find it offensive. And far more than is good for me, I wonder about who drew it and what they might be doing now.  I am torn between prison and Parliament…

I always assume it was drawn by a boy in his sister’s book. But there may be some sort of unconscious bias there, so I do apologise if the artist is reading this and wants to put her hand up and admit to it! So where did the inspiration come from?  A ‘fire and brimstone’ talk at Sunday School? A brief glance at the TV, asking for a glass of water while Mum and Dad were watching Race With the Devil or Rosemary’s Baby on a Saturday night? I have spent far too much time trying to work out whether it’s an image from a film, a book or just a figment of an overactive imagination.  It looks familiar, but maybe that’s because I’ve spent far too much time looking at it…

This might just be my take, but it feels very intense and I’d be surprised if it came purely from a child’s imagination.  That said, we all know that life was drawn with a slightly broader brush in the 1970s, and we were less protected from what might now be classed as disturbing imagery. But it does feel like an angry image. Maybe that’s just the red scratchy biro, but I love the dichotomy of it existing in a book that couldn’t be more gentle and beautiful. 

I’d be interested to know if anyone recognises the artist, or can point me to an original image that they might have copied from…”

Thanks Marie! Felt Trips is a collaborative effort. If anyone wants to contribute their own childhood drawings from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. A good quality scan would be perfect, but – if not – then a clear photo of your artwork, lying flat, is fine. And maybe a few words of explanation, too: when the drawings were done, how old you were, what inspired you to tackle those particular subjects? Thanks so much.

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