There’s no rule that writers of children’s books must have a squeaky-clean private life – indeed, many of them have not. So Keith Richards should feel at home in his new career as a children’s author, says Stephen McGinty
ON THE wedding day of Enid Blyton’s daughter, Gillian, her father did not walk her down the aisle, but secretly watched the bride’s arrival from behind the black iron railings of the church yard. Major Hugh Pollock had not seen his daughter since she was ten years old and the pair had walked hand in hand to the train station on the day he and his wife agreed to divorce. After the confetti had fallen, he would not see his daughter again.
Pollock was a publisher and a married man when in 1923 he first met Enid, a fledgling novelist, who noted in her diary: “He’s going to fall in love with me. I want him to be mine.” He divorced, they married and had two daughters, Gillian and Imogen, who grew up sharing their mother with millions of children, each one a devoted reader of the adventures of the Famous Five, the Secret Seven or Noddy. When letters arrived at the family home, carefully written in crayon or pencil, and asking about the author’s own little girls, Blyton replied: “Dear Boys & Girls, As you can imagine, we’re a happy little family. I could not possibly write a single book if I were not happy with my family and I put them first and foremost.”
Sadly, for her daughters, the letter was as much a fiction as her novels, for Enid Blyton had little time or interest in her children, not when she had 10,000 words a day to type out. There was no bedtime story of Noddy’s latest adventures with Big Ears, read aloud from freshly typed pages. “Most of my mother’s visits to the nursery were hasty, angry ones rather than benevolent,” wrote Imogen in a memoir. “The nursery was a lonely place.”
When Blyton grew bored with Pollock, she began an affair with Kenneth Darrell Waters, a surgeon, and then asked Pollock for a divorce, insisting he be named as the guilty party so as to protect her reputation. Pollock agreed on condition that he could maintain contact with his daughters, but afterwards Blyton reneged on their deal and insisted the two girls never again see their father. After Enid’s death, Gillian tracked her father to Australia and learned of his brief attendance at her wedding, but he died before they were re-united. Enid Blyton, a heroine to every child who longed to join the Famous Five for an adventure on Kirrin Island and “lashings of ginger beer”, was to her own daughter “arrogant, insecure, pretentious …and without a trace of maternal instinct”.
During her long career, Enid Blyton dismissed all criticism of her work, saying that she would not listen to any critic over the age of 12. And she was right. She was a genius, not at motherhood, but at creating a fictitious childhood in which generations of children still wish to belong.
Literary history has taught us that an author doesn’t have to be a good, clean-living person to enchant a child, which is why when the news was announced this week that Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was to pen a children’s book, I thought that might be a book worth reading. Of course, the first things to cross one’s mind when the name of Keith Richards is raised is rock ’n’ roll, heroin addiction and an abundance of groupies, but I’ve sympathy for this devil.
His memoir, ghost-written by James Fox, is a brilliant, touching read and especially good on his childhood, the section most readers might choose to skip, but where the seeds of his antipathy towards the establishment was first sown with his casual dismissal from the choir when his voice broke. The children’s book is about how he was introduced to music by his grandfather, Theodore Augustus Dupree, a jazz musician, and is entitled Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar. As Richards explained: “I have just become a grandfather for the fifth time, so I know what I’m talking about. The bond, the special bond, between kids and grandparents is unique and should be treasured. This is a story of one of those magical moments. May I be as great a grandfather as Gus was to me.” The book, to be published by Little, Brown is to be illustrated by his daughter, Theodora Dupree Richards.
Richards is not the first rock star to put down the plectrum, pick up the pen and then dip it into the coloured ink of children’s fiction. Madonna graduated from her first literary work, Sex, a series of explicit fantasies with accompanying risqué photographs, to write two children’s novels, The English Roses, for her daughter Lourdes and sons Rocco and David. Then there is Aidan Moffat, the singer-songwriter behind Arab Strap whose meditations on sex, drugs and death are to be replaced by cheerier fare with a children’s book, The Lavender Blue Dress, about a young girl called Mabel who desperately wants a new dress for her school ball.
In fact, a wide range of celebrities have tried their hand at children’s fiction, probably on the grounds that the amount of typing is scarcely onerous. Jim Carrey wrote How Rolland Rolls to help children deal with death; Billy Crystal wrote I Already Know I Love You in the hour after the birth of his grandchild; while Jay Leno penned If Roast Beef Could Fly based on a story from his childhood.
Yet writers with complicated private lives and, as Anne Widdecombe said of Michael Howard, “something of the night” about them, have often written engaging children’s fiction. When Graham Greene wasn’t trying to squire his mistress Catherine Walston behind a church altar, he wrote a series of four short novels including The Little Fire Engine. The creator of James Bond, Ian Fleming, put down the leather cat o’ nine tails with which he indulged in sado-masochistic sex with his wife, Ann, and picked up the pen to write Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. TS Eliot, one of the most mentally tortured men of English letters, turned away from the nihilism of The Waste Land to pen Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Ted Hughes, who endured the pain of having two wives commit suicide and whose poetry collection, Crow, is a horror story for anyone with a pulse and a sense of mortality, poured his love of the environment into The Iron Man, about a giant robot who befriends a young boy and later teaches the population of earth how to love.
Two of my favourite children’s stories, The Selfish Giant and The Happy Prince, which both still prompt a tear with every reading, were written by Oscar Wilde, who, after his conviction for homosexuality, was never again allowed to see his own children.
While adults will carry their knowledge of an author into a novel, comparing notes and similarities, a child is engaged only by the story. Roald Dahl could be a complicated, prickly man who cheated on his wife, but what does that matter to the eight-year-old who dreams of winning a golden ticket, taking a ride in a great glass elevator or hanging out with Danny, Champion of the World?
It’s funny, but writing this article has made me remember how much certain novels meant to me as a child and how little I know of the authors behind them. The target audience for Gus and Me will not know nor care about the author’s sundry narcotic overdoses or smash hits, they’ll only know if they like Gus and want to hear more about him; in the same way that, as an eight-year-old, I had no idea who Anne Rutgers Van Der Loeff was, only that her name appeared on the cover of Children of the Oregon Trail, with which I was obsessed and which I’ve only learned today was actually based on a true story of the seven Sager children whose parents died on the wagon trail to the west coast in 1844. I still don’t know anything about Anne Holm, other than that she made a mistake in I Am David which I took considerable pride in pointing out. (If the electrified fence round the concentration camp was deactivated for only 30 seconds, how could she write “a minute later David was over”? I was told by my teacher Mrs Galletly that it was a “figure of speech” and to “shush”.)
Children’s authors are the first to usher us into what, for the fortunate, will be a lifetime’s love affair with books, and I can’t help but wish Keith Richards well in his new apprenticeship.