Lambing is difficult, because everything tends to be born at the time of the Bologna Book Fair – in fact, last November I had to put the ram off. I’ve been to Bologna every year, but next spring I must let Boo have her foal or she’d never forgive me. Bloody horses, they drive you mad – they’re worse than children!
‘There’s a name for it, you know: equiphilia. It’s an addiction affecting mostly English women, and it’s very real – if you’ve not got a horse you feel as if someone’s cut off your arm or leg. Horses are terribly necessary for me to function.’
Bubbly. zany. endlessly chatty, Babette Cole’s name seems too apt to be true: can it be real’? ‘ Course it is – what did you think it was, Muddy-All-Fours? My mother saw Babette on a gravestone in Jersey, where my parents had moved after the war, and thought it rather nice.’ Her voice is ‘rather nice’, too, like a genteel little girl’s – and totally at odds with her merry prettiness, peals and peals of wicked laughter and scandalous anecdotes. They belong to the Babette Cole of the endearing toothy monsters, the creepy-crawlies with bulging eyes and big noses. The voice may be a relic of the Jersey convent school, where a sense of discipline was instilled into what would otherwise have been ‘a quait-out-of-order funny accent sort of person’. It takes discipline to weld the two sides of her life, so different and demanding.
She lives in a Babettishly pretty 500-year-old cottage. up a lane leading deep into the Kentish countryside, with Benjy Big Boots (a lugubriously handsome basset-hound, whose grandmother was the original Hush Puppy) and Snuff (small, white and ancient), numerous accidental cats who have strayed in. recognising a good thing when they see it, four show-class horses, including Mr Flanagan, a splendid heavy cob who is, unbelievably, still not fat enough for top showing. and Percy, a charmingly upper-crust version of a Thelwell Shetland. A substantial flock of sheep graze the hillside for the horses, and chicken potter around. St Plunket, an old but spirited two-seater, provides nippy transport to the outside world. The outside world means not only publishing London and showrings like Hickstead, but also the West Indies, where she has friends and relatives.
Around the disciplined routine of the animals – mucking out, feeding, cleaning, exercising, schooling – she fits up to nine hours’ work a day. ‘And before Bologna, the sky’s the limit: if need be I just don’t sleep for a couple of days, because people are breathing down my neck whose jobs depend on me.
‘I get 60 letters a month from children, and great thick questionnaires from students. I answer the kids, but I won’t visit schools, and I put off the students till I have a spare moment, which of course means they never get done. I could talk for seven days a week and never get any work done, just end up administering for Babette Cole, whoever she is. You have to channel and control your energy and enthusiasm into something productive. Now, Ron Van Der Meer is quite lunatic, but he’s got Atie who’s wonderful: I asked her to marry me, but she said she was allergic to horses…’
Such demands have grown oppressive, prompting her to consider capitalising on the Channel Tunnel property boom and move more cheaply northwards.
‘It’s flattering, but I would be happy with one book a year, not two or three – that’s a lot of work. Plus greetings cards and book jackets. Gordon Fraser are wonderful. I’m on a retainer for five a month, but I got terribly in debt to them from November till after Bologna, about 30 cards – I only caught up by the summer. And they said nothing – they’re so sweet. Yet I hate being in the middle of a book, speeding along, only to stop and do the cards…
‘In reality I enjoy them. They take only a few days, and I’m a good “ideas person” – the only thing I am good at. I call it mental diarrhoea. I throw all my ideas into a special drawer, and call on them later – my books all come from that drawer. No, they’re never anything but jolly – I wouldn’t know how to start a serious work! I could draw seriously, academically, if I wanted to: I could sit out there and make the house look like a photograph. but I’m not into that. Be quicker to trace it, or stick it in your epidiascope and blow it up (some people do), but I prefer to draw straight out of my head.
‘I’ve always worked in a grotesque style. Indeed, I’ve softened it because it used to frighten people – I thought big noses and horrible monsters hysterically funny, but everyone else was terrified! Now all my characters look like Benjy – except Errol!’ The wily and triumphant hero of Three Cheers for Errol is, she says, just like a certain fellow in her life, ‘an inner city rat, very endearing and bright but no good at anything except getting his own way,’ and she erupts into cascades of laughter.
‘Slugs, caterpillars, all my life I’ve drawn slimy things (like that blinking water trough out there), which is probably why my stuff attracts children. It’s often called “surreal” but to me the world really is like that – and just look at the carvings on Canterbury Cathedral benches, the leering little things on the choristers’ stools.
‘As for the script’, that wobble with knobs on that makes kids laugh before they’ve even opened the book, ‘I can’t write any other way!!’ (It’s not possible to sedately erase the exclamation marks and italics from her speech.) ‘I’ve never been very good at typography, and I’ve never found a typeface that actually suits my drawings.
‘You can’t have a coloured typeface against a coloured background when there are foreign editions, because of the cost. But while I was looking at the front of Three Cheers for Errol, and worrying at how weak, how terrible, the typography looked, I coloured it in with red – and that was it! I phoned Ingrid Selberg of Heinemann: “Get a felt pen and colour in that lettering… now you can see it from the end of the room! You’ve got to do it!” And she said, “I’ll bloody kill you, Babette!” But it works – it’ll sell.’
She co-operates with the production team on a book to the end, although, like other artists, she’s never satisfied. ‘I get fairly hysterical over the production process – loss of contrasts, out of register, even thumbprints and smudges, just because some lazy person didn’t clean the plate. There goes months of your life!
‘It takes me half an hour to do a story, but four months for the pictures. Once the dummy, the creative part, is finished, the artwork becomes a chore, and my drawings are not as intricate as they once were.’
Neither, in spite of everything, is her life. The complexity of timetabling lambs. foals and books does not compare with the twelve years she spent with an anthropologist, living for a while in the Okavango Delta of Botswana with the Yei, tactfully dodging the honour of the ‘European toilet’ (even the goats detoured round it) and battling against the malarial ‘Okavango flu’. When it wasn’t hair-raising it was boring, and she busied herself illustrating local myths to give the youngsters something more relevant to their lives than Janet and John. Macdonald later published three books, which Collins are reissuing.
The anthropologist, she says, had to grow up, keep his place in the academic rat-race, return to Africa. ‘I didn’t want to grow up: I could earn my living doing just what I was doing. I’d have had a family if I’d ever met a suitable partner, but now I treasure every moment on my own – I don’t want to have to cook, do housework, hear complaints whenever I’m out on a horse. But I’m a sucker for down-and-outs!’ Like stray cats.
Behind the effervescence and the jokes, however, there has always been a grown-up. She had already worked in advertising before she went to the Canterbury College of Art, so she always knew what she didn’t want to do.
‘I spent every minute trying to get out of that art school. I was not a good graphic designer but I could get past, so I whizzed through their silly projects like lightning and set my own, with lots of printmaking. I love etching, and still have an etching press though I have no time now – it’s worth thousands but I’ll never sell for I know I’ll get back to it. In those days there were few illustration courses, but by my third year I was producing my own little books which everyone liked except my tutors, who thought I should have been doing my Letraset, sitting up properly and not wearing my wellingtons into art school.
‘Right, I thought, I’ll publish: who’s the best publisher? Jonathan Cape. So I marched up to see Tom Maschler. “Oh yes, very good, but we don’t know who you are, nor what you’ve done before, and we’ve never seen anything like this.” This was the original Prom’ (her much-loved pony heroine) ‘but they simply wouldn’t do it. The World was Not Ready for Babette Cole in 1973 – at least, Tom Maschler wasn’t!
‘So I thought I’d get in through the back door. I went to evening classes in life drawing (would you believe there were no life classes in graphic design?) with all the old codgers, and one of them told me about “a delightful little man, Peter Firmin, who does that delightful little Basil Brush”. I rang him, told him I was really good, and he said I’d better come and see him!’
Which is how she came to work with Watch with Mother, Ivor the Engine and Bagpuss, doing TV storyboards, getting her work on television and into a BBC Annual. Rosemary Debnam and Rosemary Sandberg came to look at Prom, and she adapted her to the comic-book style they wanted – and she was off. Thus Firmin led to the Kaye & Ward/Heinemann association.
With the same disciplined doggedness she saw the blossoming of pop-ups and decided to pull one apart to see how it worked in order to make her own dummy. Macdonald, who had published her African books, thought it lovely but unaffordable. ‘They took it to Bologna, and guess who saw it and pinched it?! Wally!’ (That means Wally Hunt of Inter Visual, at that time the name in the field.) A free trip to California – it seemed her fortune was made.
‘It turned out to be the only book of mine to be remaindered. It was a pull-out like a little theatre, a great book but they shrink-wrapped it and no one displayed it properly in the shops.’ But a pop-up Wind in the Willows, distributed by Methuen, followed.
The profitable and pleasurable association with Gordon Fraser came through an introduction by fellow artist Anthony Browne, and it was this that allowed her to get her life together, have her own home and do the books she always knew she could.
Without conscious effort, her humour is international, and her foreign sales are enormous. Prom, her original baby, has a special place in her affections, but many readers treasure the extra dimension, the subtle poignancy underlying the exuberance, of The Trouble with Mum.
‘Poignant? What about Princess Smartypants – that’s incredibly poignant! That’s my autobiography – a complete lack of princes because they’ve all been driven off!!’ And she rocks with laughter, till she has to wipe the tears away.
Photographs by Richard Mewton.
Beware of the Vet, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 10813 6, £5.95; Magnet, 0 416 51560 6, £ 1.50 pbk
The Hairy Book, Cape, 0 224 02193 1, £4.95; Magnet, 0 416 95760 9, £1.95 pbk
Hocus Pocus, compiled by Lesley Young, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 11013 0, £5.95; Magnet, 0 416 52450 8, £ 1.95 pbk
King Change-a-lot, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 12491 3, £6.95
Nungo and the Crocodile, Picturemac, 0 333 39360 0, £2.50 pbk
Prince Cinders, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 12138 8, £6.95
Princess Smartypants, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 11885 9, £5.95; Picture Lions, 0 00 662798 6, £1.95 pbk
Promise and the Monster, Collins, 0 00 184034 7, £4.95
The Slimy Book, Cape, 0 224 02843 X, £4.95; Picture Lions, 0 00 662840 0, £1.95 pbk
The Smelly Book, Cape, 0 224 02454 X, £5.95
Three Cheers for Errol, Heinemann, 0 434 93299 X, £5.95
The Trouble with Dad, Heinemann, 0 434 93295 7, £5.95; Picture Lions, 0 00 662734 X, £1.95 pbk
The Trouble with Gran, Heinemann, 0 434 93296 5, £5.95; Picture Lions, 0 00 662873 7, £2.25 pbk
The Trouble with Grandad, Heinemann, 0 434 93294 9, £5.95
The Trouble with Mum, Picture Lions, 0 00 662377 8, £1.95 pbk
The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame, Methuen, 0 416 44440 7, £6.95