It was a flawless evening when I went to talk to Val Biro, possibly one of the only truly perfect evenings this summer. The brilliance and vivacity of Val’s study was a delight. The long room with its clear Northern light was crammed with pens, paints and pictures, a mouthwatering array of his books and a wonderful fragrance of freshly made coffee. A loud and enthusiastically barked greeting from Hector, Horace’s successor, completed the welcome.
Born in Budapest, Hungary in 1921, Val Biro was the younger of two children. He and his sister, Lilla, and their parents lived `in a big flat overlooking the Houses of Parliament … the law courts and, glory of glories, a fire station’. With an eye for detail that was going to be so effective later on in his life, he `watched the firemen for hours as they polished every bit’ of their equipment – a fascination that was to emerge again in war-torn Britain. Val, newly finished from art school, found that as an `enemy alien’ he was banned from joining the armed forces but the ambulance service or the National Fire Service were open to him. There was no question in his mind -‘before long I was kitted out with helmet, uniform, boots and an axe’. So began a wartime double life of publisher’s assistant during the day and fireman on most nights.
When not fireman watching, the young Val drew cartoons even in his earliest school days. His first drawing was published in an Hungarian national newspaper when he was 17. A talent for catching funny, facial expressions brought him unwanted attention from one of his school masters who predicted he would go far, but not in his lessons! How could they have realised the truth amid the political uncertainties of that 1939 summer so long ago? These may have contributed to Mr Biro senior’s decision to send his son to London to further his studies in art. To our enduring pleasure he stayed.
At the Central School of Art in London, Val found there was more to art than funny faces. Experimentation in many media left him feeling that wood-engraving was his first love. It still is. Oils were also rewarding to use but time-consuming when working `against a commission and up to a deadline, which is always yesterday, so in the end it came down to watercolour… with gouache and other things’. Enjoying the contrasting opacity and transparency, Val has adapted his style to many things. `At one time in the sixties I must have designed more dust jackets in a year than any other artist,’ he says. `Each author needed to be differentiated from the others and the subsequent change in artistic style each time became a sort of game. What to use now -1, 2, 3 or 4?’ I began to wonder what the real Biro style was – and never really found out – but, as I suspected, `Gumdrop is very, very near to me’.
Looking back at some of the recent Gumdrops – Gumdrop For Ever, Gumdrop and the Elephant and Gumdrop and the Secret Switches – I’ve become increasingly sensitive to the `sharper image and brighter colours’ that he feels are needed in picture books for children. As we were talking, I found myself distracted by the assembled sheets of his latest partly finished commission. Casually propped up at the back of the desk were pictures that had the uncomplicated harmony in their arrangement artists can achieve: the no-matter-where-they-put-it-it’s-going-to-look-wonderful syndrome. The new book is about dinosaurs. They glow beguilingly with an intensity of colour that’s irresistible. This is going to be `a sideways book because it requires wide, prehistoric landscapes. I’ve never done an oblong book before … I really am enjoying this one.’ It was then that I began to realise the enthusiasm and joy that went into each and every picture.
Val took the pictures down and as we went from one to another the dinosaur world began to peel back layer by layer. The pencil sketches with their spontaneity and freshness are faithfully copied to capture and freeze the moment ready to have life-giving colour applied. The story unfolded through the images and visual action. There were `little ancillary dinosaurs who pop up on each page, each one silently commenting on the action’. My response, I found, was exactly that of the children. Looking closer, there they were, peeking around trees, hiding in bushes or behind the huge legs of the main characters. The facial expressions reveal their true thoughts. Was I hearing Val’s words correctly when he maintained that `animals are only humans in disguise’? But here, with each one doing its own animal thing, there was no anthropomorphic change, no one had `made them talk’ but it was only too evident that they could certainly speak quite clearly. The secondary plot was there for the children `to discover for themselves’ while the main story bounced along quite happily in the text. The technicalities of wet-on-wet, goache or sub-plots were forgotten in the enchantment that Val Biro wove around his pictures.
The text and the pictures integrated perfectly and I wondered aloud how close the rapport was between author and artist. Val told me of the close collaboration that had flourished between himself and H E Todd, who died a couple of years ago. `He would often show me his text before he would send it to the publishers, then he encouraged me to make any suggestions for improving it before it became a picture book.’ This rare co-operation produced 14 books in all and is certainly a time which has left many rich memories he still treasures with affection.
Eventually we got around to talking about Gumdrop. I’d been waiting for the moment like the last cherry in a cake. In fact `I’ll show you Gumdrop before you go’ was a surprise! I realised I was beginning to catch the magic when I answered as promptly as a seven-year-old, `Oh lovely, yes please!’ Val saw him for the first time in 1961 at an old-fashioned corner garage in Hardwick when he was on the way to view another car in Oxford. The name came from an unconscious remark by his wife. `A stroke of genius, really’ he acknowledges. The stroke of genius stuck. High in personality and low on top speed -’40 miles per hour is a comfortable top’- Gumdrop is an Austin Clifton Healey 12/4 and was around for four years before, accidentally almost, he turned the first corner to becoming a legend. It is a `he’ by the way. After lunch with a publisher when Gumdrop had been the subject of what Biro suspects might have been a rather one-sided conversation, `because once you have a car like that you can’t stop talking about it’, the casual question arose `Why don’t you go and write a story about this car?’ This question `changed my direction’. The drive home was spent planning the outline of the first story: Gumdrop, the Adventures of a Vintage Car. Feverish writing occupied the next two days or so, this and the early sketches were sent off and promptly accepted, then a contract was in the post. Gumdrop was born!
The apparent ease of this astonished me, having been led to believe in school days by fervent teachers of Eng. Lit. that the best stories were born only of suffering, starving and the penury of attic habitation. `Mind you it was because the publisher asked for it’, Val says. Now, about 38 stories and 25 years later, his appeal endures and thrives. There’s a new Gumdrop this year and another for next year is being pondered. The story doesn’t always happen easily, though, I was assured. Often it comes when other things are going on, `cleaning my teeth or something’. The initial conception happens very suddenly. `It literally strikes your head.’ Those of us old enough to remember the earliest Gumdrops will have noticed the subtle changes that have come about with the passage of time. Val Biro acknowledged easily that `Mr Oldcastle has changed too. Mr Oldcastle, let’s face it, is me, because you can’t write about a man who is roughly your age without him becoming you. It’s more convincing if you think it’s yourself.’ Some of the other characters are real, too, although this doesn’t always happen. Bernie Denton in Gumdrop For Ever is a family friend who appears in the book, along with his children, complete of course with his re-built yellow Renault ‘Reggie’. He’s very proud to be in the book; so, no doubt, is Reggie. After all, he did win the race.
Other real-life episodes in Gumdrop’s long history pop up in the books too – the day a modern Jaguar ran into the back of Gumdrop at a zebra crossing demolishing the radiator grille of the Jaguar but leaving Gumdrop unscathed, for instance. Austin Clifton Healey 12/4s, it seems, are a strong breed and well able to resist unwelcome advances from brash newcomers. The episode in the book is blamed upon the ever present Horace who `lurched against the handbrake in his clumsy way’. They collaborate to persuade Oldcastle that selling Gumdrop must be the worst idea he’s ever had. For most readers it’s unthinkable that Gumdrop and Oldcastle should be parted. In reality, the affinity is strong too and this is only partly because Val’s had Gumdrop so long. `Gumdrop is so considerate I hardly ever break down unless I’m almost home or very near a telephone box.’
The latest Biro is Rub-a-Dub-Dub; Val Biro’s 77 Favourite Nursery Rhymes, the publication of which is timed for his 70th birthday. `It’s a book I’ve wanted to do for 20 years perhaps.’ Originally starting life as a smaller collection of 20 rhymes, it has had a long period of gestation, changing radically in the process. A change of publisher and an expansion in content has given us the 64 pages of rhymes, some of which are `great ones’ and many of which are `the subtle ones which demonstrate the joy of language and sheer fun’. Confessing to be on the mouse’s side anyway, I found `Six Little Mice’ terrifying with the huge cat’s face crowding the tiny mouse-sized window. The hickory-dickory clock in the book I noticed was ticking away in the corner of Val’s study.
The chiming of this reminded me that my visit to Val’s world was drawing to a close. Our short walk down the winding garden path led me face to face with Gumdrop gleaming `bluely’ in the garage, spotless and ready for a journey to London the next day. It was to be an early start for Gumdrop and Val so reluctantly I knew that I’d have to go. I must admit, though, I’ve never felt more like thumbing a lift.
A selection of Val Biro titles:
Rub-a-Dub-Dub; Val Biro’s 77 Favourite Nursery Rhymes, Blackie, 0 216 93016 2, £8.95; 0 216 93091X, £4.95 pbk
Golem of Old Prague, written by Michael Rosen, Deutsch, 0 233 98519 0, £7.99; 0 233 98518 2, £3.99 pbk (an example of Val’s wood-engraving)
Tobias and the Dragon, Blackie, 0 216 92652 1, £6.95; Hippo, 0 590 76284 2, £2.25 pbk
Miranda’s Umbrella, Blackie, 0 216 92840 0, £6.95; Hippo, 0 590 76424 1, £2.50 pbk
Gumdrop titles mentioned in the Authorgraph:
Gumdrop For Ever, Picture Puffin, 014 050.9119, £2.99 pbk
Gumdrop and the Elephant, Hodder & Stoughton, 0 340 52650 5, £6.95
Gumdrop and the Secret Switches, Picture Knight, 0 340 52762 5, £2.99 pbk
… there are, of course, many more published by Hippo, Hodder and Puffin.