A Tribute to Douglas Keen
Part of the spoken tribute at his funeral, by his daugher - The Ladybird Years
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Douglas invented Ladybird books. He didn’t invent the format – that was around since 1941; but the image and content that made ‘Ladybird book’ into a generic term were his concept. He had the imagination to envisage factual books exciting enough in their illustrations to inspire children to learn, but so detailed and accurate that their parents could use them too. And it wasn’t only parents – the Ministry of Defence bought copies of the 1967 Understanding Maps to give to the invasion forces in the Falklands in 1982 to assist with orienteering, and the police used How It Works: The Motor Car, in the 1960s for the instruction of officers taking to the streets for the first time in patrol cars rather than on bikes.
But back to the early days ….. when he returned from war service, Douglas’s job was extremely hands-on. He worked long hours travelling the British Isles taking orders for Ladybirds from bookshops and schools, designing and organising the construction of wooden show-cases and hand-painted signs for shops and transporting them in his Morris 8 or on the overnight train to Glasgow. It was - in the most literal sense - a kitchen table enterprise; my grandmother painted in oils the cut-out showcards of leading characters from the books – ranging from a talking duck too John the Baptist - which were often the centre-piece of the window displays he put together.
Everything began to change in 1948. Factions within the firm wanting to revert to catalogue production had already been out-voted, but the books continued as fiction and simple picture books for very young children. My father’s contacts with teachers convinced him there was a strong unfulfilled demand for factual books for older children, written by experts, with the full-colour full-page illustrations that characterised Ladybirds. Unable to convince the majority of the directors of the validity of this idea, he produced the prototype himself – accurate paintings of twenty-four British birds on watercolour boards were commissioned from my grandmother, a talented amateur artist. These were bound together at home, with pages of text written by himself and line drawings of nests and eggs by my mother. I still have this volume, and the letter from the managing director in which he records his change of heart on seeing the prototype. The rest is history; the Book of British Birds became the first of the Nature series, 536, one of the longest-running and most popular of Ladybird series.
The success story continued with Adventures From History, People At Work, How It Works, Achievements, The Story of….; and finally Peter and Jane, Mummy, Daddy and Pat The Dog burst (politely) upon an unsuspecting world in the Key Words Reading Scheme of 1964. This was Ladybirds’ biggest ever success, with 80 million copies sold by the end of the 20th century. Ladybirds became a byword for quality and value, with the 2/6d (12p) price tag retained for an amazing 30-odd years to stay within the single-coin pocket-money range. With global sales rocketing, Douglas (by now a director) and Margaret were launched into world travel, fine wines and bespoke suits. His first made-to measure suit – the benchmark of success for him, and still in the wardrobe - has the date March 1966 sewn into the neckband.
The best part of all this for his family was that he worked at home. He had cleverly negotiated a deal whereby he only spent 2 days a week at head office, and most of his meetings with the authors and artists he commissioned were at Loxley Road, to their evident enjoyment. Somehow they found that their creativity was much enhanced by my mother’s wonderful lunches. Many became life-long friends – Martin Aitchison is here with us today, and John Berry has sent a heartfelt tribute. Martin emailed me yesterday to say …”I shall ever remember Douglas as the best thing that ever happened to me professionally, and a wonderful understanding friend”. Frank Hampson the creator of Dan Dare, Frank Humphris the ‘Wild West’ expert, Harry Wingfield and Robert Ayton and their wives all became friends and often holiday companions. Frank Humphris would do his cowboy ‘quick on the draw’ stunt in our garden with real pistols, and lassoo my mum’s clothes-prop for the entertainment of Caroline and me. Harry, a gentler and much less trigger-happy character and a friend from pre-Ladybird days, took photographs of my sister as the basis for his paintings for the Junior Science series.
The end of Douglas’s Ladybird era came in 1973 when the Ladybird directors decided to accept an offer from Pearson Longman to buy out the firm, and he took a welcome early retirement. The subsequent two decades were wilderness years; Peter and Jane, despite being re-invented in jeans and sweatshirts with Jane removed from cake-making duties, were mocked as racist, classist and sexist, their cosy suburban world derided as out-of-date and irrelevant. The Ladybird brand lost its distinctive typography and illustrative style and my father dissociated himself from the re-branding. But the spread of the internet in the mid 1990s – the 50th anniversary of Ladybird books – and the 60th anniversary in 2001 brought both a linking-up and a coming-out of collectors of pre-1970s Ladybirds who had nurtured their hobby in the privacy of their homes, and a new interest by art historians and cultural commentators. Martin Aitchison, John Berry and Harry Wingfield started having exhibitions of their original artwork in galleries across the country. My father persisted (to the end) in his belief that the internet would never catch on, so it was left to me to contribute accurate histories of Ladybird to websites and become his agent in the nostalgia business, mediating between him and the journalists and collectors who wanted to talk to this living archive. They often got a tetchy response when they wanted to question him closely about their treasured rare early Ladybirds such as Bunnikins’ Picnic Party, Tasseltip Tales or Tootles the Taxi - books which he always made quite clear he hated. In 2001 he was interviewed for a Radio 4 programme ‘Ladybird Ladybird’, and in 2007 James May of Top Gear fame devoted a television programme to his early fascination with Ladybird Junior Science books. In the last 10 years newspaper and magazine features about Ladybirds - mostly affectionate and admiring - have been frequent.
It is only since I started my own Ladybird archive that I have become aware of how much of himself there was in the concept of Ladybirds. His passion for self-fulfilment through self-improvement and the transformative power of education was the driving force behind the factual accuracy and detail in the books, and their choice of subjects – history, science, technology, nature, conservation. (His own children were not insulated from this obsession – I don’t think I was actually locked in the attic with all 10 volumes of the Children’s Encyclopaedia for entertainment as a child, but it sometimes felt like it). His socialist principles imbued him with a deep respect for the traditions of working-class occupations such as mining, and for public service occupations, eulogised in my own favourite series, ‘People at Work’.
Secondly, he had an enduring belief in the necessity for high quality in writing and illustration, and a respect for the authority of the expert; as the commissioning editor, he could ensure that Ladybirds were written and illustrated by the best people in their field, resulting in exemplary and beautiful reference books such as the What to Look For series illustrated by C F Tunnicliffe. The Reading Scheme was based on the theories of one of the country’s most eminent educationalists.
Commentators remark on the nostalgic power of the representation of a golden age of childhood in the Reading Scheme. These illustrations in particular brought to life the happy and secure home life he never had, and set out everything he thought was essential to childhood. In this he was also of his time – the 50s and 60s were a time of hope and renewal after World War 2, and Ladybirds were aimed at the children of the new council estate and welfare state, aspiring (as his own children were) to grammar schools and university on scholarships. Mummies were no longer needed at the armaments factory and were back in the kitchen for a while before they started reading Germaine Greer and contributing to the mortgage payments. Far from being the insufferable middle-class stooges they were branded, Peter and Jane were comparatively radical for their time. Their ancestors in children’s books - Just William, the Famous Five, Nigel Molesworth, Swallows and Amazons – inhabited a world of upper class privilege at prep schools, served at home by a cast of reliable cooks and maids. Peter and Jane’s mummy did her own cleaning and then they all went on the bus to do the shopping.
There have been many professional tributes over the years to Ladybirds’ power and influence, and much writing about the affection and respect that people who grew up in the second half of the 20th century have for the Ladybird collections they made as children. But I’d like to finish with a very short personal tribute by my neighbour Carol, who moved recently into her late father’s house next door-but-one to me. Told of my father’s death by another neighbour, she was amazed and delighted to hear of his association with Ladybirds. “But they were my whole childhood!” she said, and in the card she put through my door she wrote: ‘Your dad left a great legacy to British kids – all brought up on Ladybird books”.
That says it all.