Tony Bradman was going down the King’s Road on a bus towards the old Penguin offices, anxiously hoping they would take his little football story as a ‘Kite’. Suddenly a childhood memory compelled him to add up the numbers on his ticket. Yes – 21! He tucked the lucky ticket carefully into the wallet where he kept such things. Sure enough, not only was One Nil accepted, but Liz Attenborough took it for Puffin. ‘I was really, really excited. Me, a Puffin Author – it was a big moment!’
Two years ago he was clearing out the wallet and found the ticket. The numbers added up to 22.
He roars with laughter, but you know he would do the same today. The essence of Bradman is here – all the insecurity, but also the thrilled pride in success. Even the way One Nil came into being demonstrates his determined ambition, the freelance’s eye for an opportunity, the mining of everyday life to unearth a plot.
Two years previously – 1982, still unpublished and with the big three-oh on the horizon – he made himself write half-a-dozen short stories. One of them recalled an incident from his schooldays, when a friend had skived off school to watch the England team train, only to be snapped by a Daily Mail photographer. When he turned up next day with a letter from his mum, he’d been already spotted on the back page of the Mail. ‘I knew at the time those stories were good, that this one was publishable.’ Later, with top-and-tailing chapters, One Nil became his earliest work to be published as a book.
A South Londoner through and through, by the time he was school age and his parents had divorced, Tony Bradman and his older sister were living with his mother in a flat in Anerley not far from his present Beckenham home. Emerging from the affluent fifties as part of a first generation of working class families to enter higher education, he puzzled his highly traditional grammar school by overcoming the horrendous handicap of being ‘a child of a single-parent family before such things existed’ to become a high-flier.
‘I was very bright and very hard-working. I did classics and played rugby, while all my uncles were great football supporters. I’m not of the Angry Young Men generation, and I don’t feel alienated, but I understand that sense of being cut off from one’s roots.’ His mother provided a secure background, but it’s his absent father to whom his talk repeatedly turns, who looms over his thoughts, fills his memories with pain and regret, and whose influence ironically directed his life.
‘I’ve interviewed and read about many children’s writers, and I’ve noticed repeatedly how their childhood contains some kind of trauma – a period of illness, or a problem that focuses their attention on the family. My own experience, and stories of my parents’ early lives, sensitised me to the feelings of childhood: my mum had a tough time during the 30s in north London, as one of six with a father wounded in the First War and unemployed. I’ve just read Westall’s The Night Mare – that’s my mother’s childhood.
‘My father himself had a difficult background, in an orphanage and with a mother who didn’t want him back. I didn’t see him for years – he loved me but we didn’t ever communicate as father and son. He sacrificed his family life on the altar of worldly success: he started out as a south London lad with a south London accent, but by the time I knew him he had a BBC accent and read the Telegraph. I was a long-haired radical and wanted nothing of that. He sent me postcards from round the world (I have them still), but only really took notice when I went to grammar school and he could see I was an achiever too.
‘He’d served on HMS Belfast, and his stories of torpedoes, the Arctic and the Scharnhorst fascinated me, but the pivotal experience for this interesting, articulate man was being turned down for officer training in spite of all his cleverness and charm. It was class.’ So when Tony went to Queen’s College, Cambridge, with a clutch of A grades, his father saw it not as an intellectual triumph but one of class.
After being famous in his school community Tony felt unloved at Cambridge (‘security’s important for me – after all, I’m still living in the same place!’), and pastoral indifference left him floundering from Modern Languages through English to Philosophy, where he gave up lectures altogether. Cinema has played a constant role in his life, and he would go five times a week, while voracious reading piled up the bill at Heffer’s. ‘I regret it, but perhaps it helped me by killing off my original dream of being an academic.’
What Cambridge did was introduce him to Sally, the sixth-form girlfriend of a mate, whom he married when he was 23 and she just 20. For a while they lived with Tony’s mother, then in a peeling, decrepit flat in Brockley. He’d always known he would be a writer by the time he was 30 – without any notion that he should therefore be writing. With hindsight, he wonders if he should have been a film director or musician or (given the thrill he gets from hamming it up in schools) an actor: Look Out, He’s Behind You! turns a book into a pantomime, a crossing of barriers that intrigues him. ‘Although I’ve always devoured literature, behind it all throbs a passion for popular culture.’
In practice he was jobless after graduating, then joined Record Mirror and Sounds, which, despite free concerts and records, he hated for its posers, its teeny-bop coverage, and the way it kept him from baby Emma. ‘Being a father was a job I’d been waiting to do all my life.’ They worked their way through stony-broke years, selling his record collection – ‘selling everything, in fact’ – and buying their present house as a wreck. It was a deliberate substitute for being with his child when he applied to ‘a funny little magazine run by four people on a shoestring’ called Parents, where from 1979 he was ‘immersed in the world of young family life’. He learned to write and to rewrite others, then, discovering a pile of children’s books, offered to review them. A life-changing moment.
Helen was born in 1981, Thomas two years later, and he read to them every night. He had, he feels, stumbled into a golden age. That very first parcel contained Peepo!, and still today ‘Allan Ahlberg is the boss, the governor. One of my heroes is Orwell – “prose like a window-pane” – and that’s Ahlberg. It was only when I had children that I realised what sort of writer I wanted to be.’
Everything happened at once. Because he was a journalist, a rare male journalist writing on family life, Julia MacRae commissioned a book about having children and Allen & Unwin one on fatherhood. A reviewer’s lunch with Heinemann led to his offering the little rhymes that became A Kiss on the Nose. He met Janetta Otter-Barry, which led in time to a relationship with Methuen ‘when they were publishing huge amounts of things, really huge – it seemed as if all I had to do was suggest something and I’d get a contract’ – that later extended with her to Frances Lincoln.
The genie was out of the bottle. Three contracts coincided, momentously, with his father’s last illness, just as he was getting to know him. The compulsive details of his memories betrays their weight. That final week he’d been able to say, ‘Dad, I’m going to be an author,’ but the man he longed to impress never saw his success.
‘Two letters came that morning, one saying we were £1,000 overdrawn, one suggesting a contract for £1,000. He died at 4.21 on April 18, 1983, aged 57. My twenties had been terrible – no money, two kids, and that deadline for being a writer drawing closer. Then one week after he died, I was signing a contract for a book on fatherhood in offices right beside the British Museum where, in spite of hating it, he used to take me because I insisted. We’d just discovered Sally was expecting number three, and at that moment I absolutely knew it would be a boy – Thomas was born at the end of the year. Today I look at that book and it seems like a disguised novel.’ That day, too, he saw the sandal in the BM which reminded him of baby Helen’s Mothercare one, an idea that marinated until he and Philippe Dupasquier conjured up their wonderfully cinematic book, The Sandal.
From a standing start, by mid-1986 he’d written nine books with another 10 in production. It was a bullish period in publishing, but it’s also a tribute to his industry as an energetic freelance: ‘I know too well from my upbringing about financial insecurity, and I’ve been obsessive about the business side.’ He devised the Best Books for Babies Award on Parents partly as a calculated way of meeting interesting and useful judges, people like Cynthia Felgate of Play School who would later produce 13 animated Dilly stories for television.
But he’s not the speedy worker his prolificacy suggests, and is slowing down as his skill increases. ‘The first Dilly took a week, but the last book took four months.’ He rewrites compulsively, managing at best 500 words a day, but he needs and enjoys work, while still enduring crises of confidence. Dilly has been a huge success, although not abroad, and he reckons writing 60 stories about one family must surely have taught him his trade. Brenda Gardner of Piccadilly Press had remembered the popularity of My Naughty Little Sister but suggested a dinosaur family. ‘Suddenly all my own experience that had been looking for an outlet – the guerilla warfare between parents and kids, the sibling rivalry and superiority of the older one, the lively curiosity of kids that is so frustrated – was funnelled into these books.’ She taught him how to structure stories (‘Plot, plot, plot, Tony – clues, mystery, theme’), and in his neat study there are piles of notebooks with the process of writing laid out in detail like an A-level essay. He aims at sophisticated early reading, snappy like American sit-coms and dense with visual events, but sparingly expressed.
‘I’m very fond of Dilly. He’s the eternal six-year-old, a megastar. Dilly and the Goody-Goody is a new departure, probably the ultimate Dilly story, told objectively rather than from sister Dora’s viewpoint, so that we can see inside him for the first time.’ Susan Hellard, quiet and professional, has contributed to Dilly’s triumphs with her own Stone Age jokes although, like many author-artist partnerships, they rarely communicate.
There’s no doubting now Tony Bradman’s success, nor his awed revelling in it. Witness about 90 titles (he’s lost count) – picture books with legendary artists (Tony Ross’s Michael has 12 co-editions and is the most read), or ‘The Bluebeards’ pastiche of Treasure Island or the Marlowesque Sam the Girl Detective. Witness 20-odd anthologies. Witness the now comfortably renovated house. Witness three bonny kids.
If only his dad could see.
Photographs by Richard Mewton.
Details of titles mentioned:
One Nil, Puffin, 0 14 031983 2, £3.25 pbk
Look Out, He’s Behind You!, ill. Margaret Chamberlain, Mammoth, 0 7497 0024 6, £4.99 pbk
The Sandal, ill. Philippe Dupasquier, Puffin, 0 14 054173 X, £3.99 pbk
Michael, ill. Tony Ross, Andersen, 0 86262 271 X, £7.99; Red Fox, 0 09 984020 0, £3.99 pbk
Sam the Girl Detective, Yearling, 0 440 86241 8, £2.50 pbk
There are 15 Dilly titles in print, illustrated by Susan Hellard, and published by Heinemann in hardback and Mammoth in paperback. The first was Dilly the Dinosaur, 0 7497 0366 0, £2.99 pbk, and the latest is Dilly and the Vampire which will be published in June at £7.99.
Heinemann will publish Dilly and the Goody-Goody as one of their new ‘Blue Bananas’ in July this year.