‘I’m a great admirer of mice, actually,’ says Graham Oakley. This is just as well since he’s currently working on his tenth picture book in The Church Mice series – in this case the diary of Humphrey, the bossy, know-all, ex-teacher mouse who by now seems effortlessly to upstage both his worthy fellow-mouse, Arthur, and Sampson the vestry cat. Along with the rest of its mouse inhabitants they’ve made St John’s Church, Wortlethorpe famous. It’s hard to explain the popularity of these very English books in places like Japan, yet a world-wide appeal they certainly have. Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that mice are ‘incredibly enterprising animals. The lengths they’ll go to to get what they want! If it served their purpose to walk on their hind legs they jolly well would do.’
Once, soon after he’d bought and begun to renovate the old mill in Wiltshire where he now lives, Graham Oakley decided he’d have to do something about the mouse population which was over-running it. ‘So I acquired one of those humane traps that doesn’t kill them since I felt I couldn’t really kill my own bread and butter. When I finally caught one I took it well away from the house and released it… and watched it beat me back to the house straight ahead all the way. They’re wonderful creatures.’
They’re also, as he’s the first to acknowledge, a gift to the illustrator. For a start they have hands, This is an enormous bonus if you want them to behave like human beings and the Oakley books are uninhibitedly anthropomorphic. ‘If you object to this then you’re objecting to a sizeable chunk of children’s literature. Mind you, though my mice have maintained and even developed their person-like qualities through the course of the series, Sampson the cat has become steadily more cat-like. Now I never allow him to do what a real-life cat wouldn’t. In the later books he doesn’t speak, for example. Arthur does all the talking for him by a kind of telepathy.’ Altogether, The Church Mice series has very obviously taken on a life of its own. These days the town of Wortlethorpe, which began as a sort of Warrington set in East Anglia, has more than a touch of Shrewsbury and Chippenham too. And so many changes have been made to St John’s to accommodate various adventures ‘it would be impossible to draw a ground-plan anymore.’ Even Humphrey’s rise to prominence came about naturally. ‘The classic instance of a bad character being more interesting to write about than a good one, I suppose.’
What all the books have in common, though – from the first The Church Mouse (1972) to the most recent The Church Mice in Action (1984) – are two instantly recognisable Oakley assets. Whether his characters are abroad, adrift, at bay, spreading their wings, coping with Christmas or on the way to the moon (and the series has taken them through all of these) they’re presented in a verbal and visual style their author has made very much his own.
Firstly, as an illustrator Graham Oakley is unashamed about being painterly. He believes in drawing rather than graphics and has a special admiration for contemporaries like Shirley Hughes and Nicola Bayley who combine a very individual vision with the ability to represent the world the way it actually looks. His greatest love is for Victorian illustrative painting – also for American artists like Walker and Pile and Remington. His particular favourite is Norman Rockwell whom he describes as ‘quite simply the perfect illustrator’. One reason for the superbly detailed settings in which the action of his books takes place is that ‘the background interests me as much, and sometimes more, than the central characters.’
Secondly, when providing himself with a text he makes few concessions to his child audience. His writing is both droll and formal. Who but Graham Oakley would come up with a phrase like ‘without more ado she bore Sampson off’? And that’s from the latest book in the series! ‘I know a lot of it will go over the head of some children but it won’t go over the head of adults. As long as there’s enough for everybody it doesn’t matter that a lot of it is missed. Anyway what are parents for? Particularly in the States I get an awful lot of criticism for my long words. They say you should only use words a child understands but my argument is that if you do that how do they ever learn new words? Only if the parent doesn’t know the word himself could it be embarrassing but, after all, there’s always a dictionary. I wouldn’t hesitate to use trade-words or phrases of obscure meaning; in The Church Mouse I bring in triple-bob-majors. Obviously a child wouldn’t know what a triple-bob-major was but it’s quite easy to find out.’
The same sort of demand is made by one of the most justly celebrated aspects of the Oakley opus: its humour. This permeates both words and pictures. What other current picture-books make such a sustained use of irony for instance? Sometimes this is employed to make a political point as in the opening of the Michelangelo Shopping Precinct in Hetty and Harriet where the sharp-eyed will spot that the Mayor, Herbert Scroggins Esq., has a much greater interest in this urban venture than merely opening it. Similarly wry observations, from the reading-habits of choirboys to the hubris of Research-Scientists, are there to be picked up by the verbally and visually alert in every Oakley outing. The interplay between text and illustration is one of the delights of the series since ‘as my friend Geoffrey Patterson remarked in a recent Books for Keeps Authorgraph there’s no point in a picture-book if the two merely duplicate each other.’ In his next book they actually contradict each other with Humphrey’s self-approving commentary consistently undercut by what’s seen to be happening all round him.
Which comes first, then, the words or the pictures? ‘The words, actually. Once I’ve sorted out the text and its spacing I’m free to improvise with the drawings – that’s the bit I enjoy most.’
Doing what he enjoys most, however, was a long time coming. He was born and spent his early years in Shrewsbury before moving north to Warrington. ‘I was a duffer at school,’ he claims. ‘The only thing I could do reasonably well was draw. In fact at the grammar school I attended you only did Art if you were useless at everything else. My teachers could see no way of making a living out of art. I can remember my headmaster saying on my leaving-report that it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.’ Two years at art school followed, interrupted by National Service, after which he got a job as a commercial artist in London before enrolling at the Bradford Civic Theatre School to study theatre design for six months. Then came a stint at Huddersfield Rep. as a scene-painter and a return to London ‘the magnet for everybody in the theatre business’. Here he worked at the Royal Opera House with artists like John Piper and actors like John Gielgud though ‘in a very humble capacity’. Already he was freelancing as an illustrator with an edition of Kidnapped for Dent and The King of the Golden River for Hutchinson. Much of his work was for Richard Garnett, the art editor of Rupert Hart-Davis. ‘Thanks to him I just about kept the wolf from the door. The most I was ever paid for a book-jacket was fifteen pounds…
I can remember doing a book of poetry for the London University Press – forty illustrations for something like thirty quid. I was glad to get the work, what’s more.’ After five years, and a period back in advertising, he joined BBC television’s design department. He stayed there for fifteen years. By 1972, though, ‘I thought it was high time I did something of my own and produced Magical Changes.’ This split-page tour-de-force, with its umpteen combination of scenes surreal and fantastic, wasn’t eventually published till after the first two Church Mice books and did better in France and the United States than England. Astonishingly, it’s never appeared in paperback. It wasn’t till 1977, with his BBC contract coming to an end and seven books in print, that the chance came to live off his own work. Something else was prompting him, too. ‘I wanted to live in the country – the real country.’
It’s easy to see why. Kellaways Mill is situated on a river-bend with open fields all round it. There’s more sky and more water than a city-dweller could comfortably cope with – even with the walls and lawns and landscaping Graham Oakley has added over the years. The house itself, built in the early eighteenth century, is long and low with an interior at once simpler and more stylish than any appearing in his books. He works in a living room almost as timbered as a ship, on a gallery like an ample crows-nest. It’s as unfussy and practical as its owner who ‘spends almost all my time here at the mill. I rarely seem to leave the place now! What I tend to do is draw during the winter and during the summer I work on the landscaping round here. During those winter months, though, I keep very regular office hours. I start at half-past eight or nine without fail and stop at five having had a very quick lunch. Invariably I work to the accompaniment of music. Early classical music I find the most stimulating, baroque music. That about covers my working habits, really.’
This is a modest account, of course. It overlooks the albums of photographs and pictures he collects to keep alert the eye for buildings and scenery he developed during his theatre days, the skill he’s developed to make sure his depiction of Sampson, for example, is accurate from any angle. He’s just as modest about the freshness of his pictures (‘that comes from the reproduction because they use transparent inks – my original artwork looks very laboured and worked over’) and their marvellous sense of movement (‘that’s a standard compositional thing to do with the rhythm of a picture. It’s the first art-school exercise you do.’)
Where he’s not at all modest is in his ambitions for picture-books. He’s acutely aware of the inherent limitations of its standard thirty-two page format. The density and detail of his approach to illustration is partly to offset these and partly to give value for money. ‘I feel you’ve got to use every inch – these very self-indulgent books you get with a tiny picture in a sea of white and opposite a page with four lines of text in the middle of emptiness offend my economic sense.’ The latest book, Henry’s Quest, shows his approach at full stretch. His aim was to create ‘a landscape for writing adventures’ with a hero as simple as Simon but as tough as Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe. The result, calling on the experience of a dozen previous books and fifteen years-worth of film’ and television storytelling technique, is a world like a post-holocaust Gormenghast… a world which he makes no secret he’d like to re-visit again and again since ‘a series is one of the ways of moving forward from those thirty-two pages. We must do this if picture-books are to stay alive.’
Which leaves Oakley admirers, of course, in something of a double-bind. More Henry, welcome though this prospect is, would mean no more Humphrey and Co. Is it goodbye to St John’s, Wortlethorpe?
Well… maybe. Mice really are incredibly enterprising animals and Graham Oakley has tried to get rid of them before. Who’s to say they won’t beat him back to some future picture-books, straight ahead all the way?
(published by Macmillan)
The Church Mouse, 0 333 13259 9, £4.95; 0 333 23576 2, £2.25 pbk
The Church Cat Abroad, 0 333 14825 8, £4.95; 0 333 23575 4, £2.25 pbk
The Church Mice Spread Their Wings, 0 333 18566 8, £4.95; 0 333 27644 2, £2.25 pbk
The Church Mice and the Moon, 0 333 16784 8, £4.95; 0 333 24873 2, £2.25 pbk
The Church Mice Adrift, 0 333 19760 7, £4.95; 0 333 25529 1, £2.25 pbk
The Church Mice at Bay, 0 333 23235 6, £4.95; 0 333 30792 5, £2.25 pbk
The Church Mice at Christmas, 0 333 30549 3, £4.95; 0 333 32483 8, £2.25 pbk
The Church Mice in Action, 0 333 33635 6, £4.95; 0 333 35922 4, £2.25 pbk
Magical Changes, 0 333 25816 9, out of stock at present
Hetty and Harriet, 0 333 32373 4, £4.95; 0 333 35844 9, £2.25 pbk
Henry’s Quest, 0 333 40841 1, £4.95
The Diary of a Church Mouse, 0 333 42614 2, £5.95 (October 86)
The Church Mice Chronicles (The Church Mouse, The Church Cat Abroad, The Church Mice and the Moon), 0 333 42613 4, £5.95 (October 86)