Dick King-Smith: 27 March 1922 – 4 January 2011
Laura Fraine writes…
Children’s author Dick King-Smith has died in his sleep aged 88, following a long period of poor health.
Best known as the author of The Sheep-Pig (1983), the story that was adapted into the 1995 film Babe, King-Smith wrote more than 100 children’s books, published in 21 languages and is beloved of children around the world. Yet, it was not until he was 56 years old that he began to write for children.
Ronald Gordon King-Smith (Dick was a much-preferred childhood nickname) was born into gentry in 1922 in the village of Bitton, Gloucestershire. He was to live in the surrounding area for almost all his life and much later his writing would become synonymous with this unchanging English countryside.
In his early years Dick surrounded himself with as many pets as he was allowed. The son of an affluent paper mill director, he was educated at prep school and then Marlborough College. Yet animals remained one of his first loves – the other being his future wife, childhood sweetheart and fellow budgerigar enthusiast, Myrle England.
By 1940, aged 18, he had chosen an apprenticeship on a Wiltshire farm earning £1 a week over going up to Cambridge. The following year he enlisted in the Grenadier Guards and in 1943 he and Myrle wed before Dick shipped out to Italy. But the start of what was to be a long and happy marriage was almost over before it had begun – the young lieutenant was caught in the blast of a hand grenade while on patrol outside Florence and barely survived. When her husband was finally transferred to a Liverpool hospital, Myrle found him four stone lighter than the man she knew, only able to raise one hand from his bed. It would be another two years before he recovered.
Dick attended an agricultural course for ex-servicemen. His father bought him a small farm, ostensibly to supply the paper mill’s canteen with eggs and dairy. Dick proved an enthusiastic if unprofitable farmer, enjoying the company of the animals which he couldn’t help but consider as pets. Despite ploughing his efforts into Woodlands Farm for over a decade, it eventually became clear that the mill had long been covering the farm’s losses and neither business was viable. It was by good fortune that, when both went under, he was offered tenancy of a friend’s larger farm. Six years later, however, this operation also failed.
After 20 years as a farmer, Dick found himself unemployed. He tried sales and factory work before finally beginning to retrain as a primary teacher, aged 49, at the same time as his elder daughter Juliet. It was a job he found rewarding and for the next eight years teaching would be his vocation. One hot summer he spent the six-week school holiday writing a children’s story to pass the time. The Fox Busters (1978), about a brood of fearless hens taking their revenge upon a fox, was taken up for publication by Gollancz and immediately well received. Delighted, Dick soon followed up with a second manuscript about a sparrow, which was promptly rejected.
The writer was undeterred and wrote fresh stories, always set in the farmyard and focusing on the personalities of the animals he knew so well. Three further books followed before The Sheep-Pig won The Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize in 1984 and brought his unique blend of anthropomorphism to a wider audience.
He may have come to writing late in life, but for the next 20 years Dick King-Smith, now a full-time author, wrote with zeal, sometimes producing eight or nine books a year across a range of publishers. His young audience rewarded his enthusiasm with their own. These simple ‘farmyard fantasies’ have sold around 15m copies worldwide, including amongst them the six-book ‘Sophie’ series (1988-1995) inspired by King-Smith’s image of his wife as a child; The Queen’s Nose (1983) and Harry’s Mad (1993), both adapted for long-running BBC children’s television series; and Harriet’s Hare, winner of The Children’s Book Award in 1995. His final book, The Mouse Family Robinson, was published in 2007.
Dick King-Smith’s stories, set in a timeless English countryside, remain as vibrant as ever. Crisp, clean prose is both understated and full of life; simple writing that is such a natural pleasure to read it appears to have arrived effortlessly on the page. His books display endless humour and warmth (good almost always outs, as does the underdog), though never whimsy: he trusted his readers to grasp the sometimes dark realities of animal life. Even those works aimed at younger readers, such as The Hodgeheg (1987), a superb tale of squashed and almost-squashed hedgehogs, look death squarely in the eye. ‘I do not blench at nature red in tooth and claw,’ he once said. ‘Much as I love The Wind in the Willows and the works of Beatrix Potter, I never dress my animals in clothes... They behave as animals should behave, with the exception that they open their mouths and speak the Queen's English.’
Dick King-Smith didn’t shy away from human life either, nodding wryly at his own failings with characters such as Farmer Skint in The Golden Goose (2003) and – rather less wryly – with his autobiography, Chewing the Cud (2001) which charmingly details his lack of propensity for the business of farming.
The success of his books led in the early days to a sideline in television presenting with three series, Rub-a-Dub-Tub (1983), Pob’s Programme (1985-1987) and Tumbledown Farm (1988-1989), each with his treasured farmyard animals in tow.
Yet Dick King-Smith was apparently unchanged by his newfound fame and fortune, remaining ever the country gentleman who took great pleasure in his work and a somewhat disbelieving joy in his success. His routine involved writing by hand in the morning, typing up in the afternoon and presenting his day’s work to his wife in the evening. Living in a 17th-century cottage three miles from the village where he was born, sleeping in the very bed in which he was born, he easily resisted London’s fickle publishing scene, despite several times being its toast. He was named Children’s Author of the Year in 1991 and awarded an OBE in the 2010 New Year’s Honours.
Following Myrle’s death in 2000, Dick married an old family friend, Zona Bedding. He is survived by Zona, his three children, Juliet, Giles and Liz, 14 grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and a great-great-grandchild.