This month, after three decades as a team-of-one, Margery Fisher will produce the last issue of her famous journal.
Stephanie Nettell reports.
Thirty years ago Margery Fisher, anxious to find more reviewing and in despair over newspapers, decided to publish her own.
Growing Point was born randomly in May 1962 rather than the following January – a timing that has enraged subscription agents ever since – simply to jump ahead of a children’s book magazine being planned by Eric Baker of the Kensington Bookshop.
It’s less surprising that she should now find it financially impossible to continue than that she has succeeded for so long. ‘I managed by doing all the work myself. I have a deal with this firm in Northampton, where the wife of the owner does the typesetting, so I pay a fraction of what I would normally pay, and they send it to a printer where I get a concessionary price – and so I’ve staggered along!
‘It was a workload, but you get used to it. I do have this “puritan work ethic”‘ – she laughs deprecatingly -‘and I like to have a lot of mechanical work, addressing envelopes, writing invoices, so I can think, “Oh, I’m working very hard!” I love doing it. I can honestly say I still get excited when I open the parcels of books, though I’m not so keen on writing – I’ve got to the stage when I’d like a different language. You use the same word over and over: after 30 years it’s difficult to find something new.’
But there is disenchantment. With standards of literacy and spelling (in adult novels, too – she reports on manuscripts for one daughter-in-law who is an agent, and has to fight her natural prejudice against a sloppily written opening); with publishers who no longer answer, or apparently even read, letters; with the depressing lack of reviewing space (‘For a while, in Jack Lambert’s time in the early seventies, The Sunday Times gave me a column a week – imagine! – with a little picture at the top and anything from six to twelve books’); with the ‘tiddly-widdly’ diet offered to children at school when they could be getting their teeth into something challenging (‘If you don’t bring up children to read classics and the great books they never do’); even with writers.
‘They assume children all want these short televisual sentences, very brief and get-it-over-with, even without verbs – you no longer get what I call good, complex sentences unless you’re reading Philippa Pearce or someone like that. I keep saying things aren’t what they were and then something good comes up … The teenage novel is getting better. It took me time to recognise it as a form of literature, and I do still think that children over 12 or 13 should be reading adult books, yet there are some very good people who seem to satisfy something – Jan Mark particularly, and Adele Geras, and I like Jean Ure – though I always maintain they’re for under-14s, not older!
She is a small, brisk woman, full of zest, living alone now in the book-cluttered rambling house (much of it fifteenth-century) that she and her ornithologist husband James Fisher evolved out of four rural tenements due for demolition. With no sewage, electricity or water, it took ten years to get right; now it is listed and she is not allowed to alter anything. Geese potter around outside – and everywhere inside, on plates, ornaments and pictures.
They had come to the neighbouring Old Rectory in this Northamptonshire village in 1945, but by the late fifties were, with six children, bursting at the seams. During the war James had been working with the Bureau of Animal Population in Oxford (researching rook-roosts meant petrol for house-hunting) and Margery had taught English as a pioneer woman at Oundle where her father-in-law was Headmaster. Teaching straightforward boys, gently leading a football-thickie towards The Mayor of Casterbridge, was far more enjoyable than dealing with devious girls as a new graduate before the war.
With her real ambition to write novels – one was published in about 1953 – thwarted by rejections, she reviewed children’s books for Housewife, partly to afford them for her own children. Olive Jones of the Brockhampton Press took such exception to one review that she came out to see her (‘in those days they obviously minded’), and ended by commissioning Intent Upon Reading (1961). The ten years of her childhood she spent in New Zealand, ‘before Dorothy White had jigged up the library service’, meant she had to fill huge gaps in her own reading -‘great fun and very good for me. It was in print for about 15 years, before John Rowe Townsend and people like that, and I think it helped quite a lot of people at the time.’ The emphasis has always been on fiction, but ‘I made myself take on non-fiction seriously when I did Matters of Fact, hoping people would then think of doing better reviewing.’ She is proud of her Eleanor Farjeon Award, remembering how Ardizzone patted her knee because she was nervous.
The time may be past for dashing weekly to London, for committees and IBBY work, for exhibitions in Bratislava and world lecture tours, but this is no retirement. Despite ‘the awful feeling that I’m getting to the time when people say, “Oh God, is she still alive?”‘, she will never give up her joyous, round-the-clock reading.
She is, though, seriously considering whether to give up digging her vegetables.