Artist John Burningham’s last picturebook project, completed by his wife Helen Oxenbury, working with his old friend Bill Salaman, was to be a moving farewell to their dog Miles, who died in 2018. But Burningham died two months later (at 82), and Air Miles, published in June, has become about the loss of the owner as well as the pet. Nicolette Jones talked to Helen Oxenbury about the book and the two ‘difficult men’ it commemorates.
Burningham and Oxenbury are two of our finest picturebook creators: both won Booktrust
Lifetime Achievement Awards. Among favourites by Burningham are Borka (in 1963, his first book of 70), Mr Gumpy’s Outing, and that other great picturebook about loss, Granpa. Oxenbury’s oeuvre includes the perennial bestseller We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and game-changing illustrations to Alice in Wonderland.
Burningham was in hospital when he asked his wife if she would complete his planned sequel to his Motor Miles. ‘I said I’d love to,’ says Oxenbury, ‘but actually I was terrified. It was John’s vision. I felt rather inadequate. Nobody in the world could do it like John.’
The real-life Miles, a rescue Jack Russell, whose alter ego in Motor Miles drives a car, had reached the age of 15, and, as portrayed in Air Miles, was declining. Oxenbury was obliged to get up in the night to let him out to pee. Usually he would go in the front garden. But that November night he ran across the road. ‘Just one car’, says Oxenbury, who saw it happen. ‘Oh god it was awful’. Her voice is full of emotion. ‘I’ll cry all day.’
After her second loss, Oxenbury found, by chance, Burningham’s plan in thumbnail sketches, which became Air Miles’s endpapers. It revealed the plot: ageing Miles learns to fly a plane and makes a final journey into the skies. ‘It was the only clue,’ says Oxenbury. But there was no text. Burningham’s long-time friend and Scrabble partner, horn player Bill Salaman, was, Oxenbury says. ‘more involved than me in John’s books’, and said he would ‘have a go’ at writing it.
When his version arrived Oxenbury was more moved than she can say. ‘I said “Gosh, Bill, I think you’ve done it.”’ It made her ‘immensely sad’ and though she says she hated starting the illustrations, once into it, ‘it became a job. As you are doing it you are solving problems’. She had to do it her way, without second guessing her husband. ‘I thought “get on and do it, and if it’s no good you will have had a go”.’ She even deviated from Burningham’s plan. His Miles wore flying gear, ‘but I didn’t want him to look like Snoopy.’
There are, though, three images by Burningham in the book: the frontispiece, a flashback borrowed from Motor Miles, and, poignantly, Miles flying through the night.
Burningham’s 1999 picturebook Cloudland conjured children in an afterlife in the clouds. Did Burningham believe in a place above the clouds? ‘I don’t think so. I think he thought it was a nice vision for children. And in Air Miles you can always say: “Miles will be back tomorrow”, if you want to. But we never really talked about death. I’m not sure what he thought. John was an enigma. I never quite worked him out, even after 55 years of marriage.’
One image Oxenbury was determined not to create was an empty chair: Burningham’s own iconic image of loss in Grandpa.
In an epigraph to Air Miles, Oxenbury describes Miles as ‘much-loved but very difficult’ and the book as her ‘homage to the two much-loved men in my life’. ‘I wanted to say, “the two much-loved but difficult men” but they wouldn’t let me.’ A pity: it would have made a connection that added to the book’s power.
After Burningham died, daughter Emily (one of their three children), who lives next door with her family, persuaded Oxenbury to get a new dog that they would share. Enter Bernie, a Basset Fauve de Bretagne. Helen feeds him, Emily walks him. And will he have his own picturebooks? ‘He’ll appear somewhere’.
Nicolette Jones, writer, literary critic and broadcaster, has been the children’s books reviewer of the Sunday Times for more than two decades.
Air Miles is published by Jonathan Cape, 978-0857552198, £12.99 hbk.