‘This, here, now, is what happiness is. Enjoy it.’
So wrote the poet Wendy Cope, welcoming the publication in 2002 of A Life Drawing, an illustrated memoir by the great Shirley Hughes whose death was announced this week.
At a moment in our history when happiness feels like an elusive and distant thing, the work and life of someone who conveyed it with gentle intensity, whose pictures and stories brought it to millions of children across the world over seven decades, are more important than ever.
There is something timeless about the art of Shirley Hughes. From her first commission in 1952 (illustrating Dorothy Edwards’ My Naughty Little Sister), Shirley established her own unmistakable style of illustration – naturalistic, full of movement and life and unexpected detail. Her pictures and then, very soon, her stories (Alfie, Dogger, Lucy & Tom and many others) expressed an instinctive, emotional understanding of the life of children.
Here she is, describing, how her great character Alfie first came to life.
‘When I was making that first drawing of Alfie I was concentrating hard on his concentration – that mighty, breathless, pink-faced, all-out effort with which children of his age give all of themselves to the matter in hand. And the utter consternation which sometimes ensues if things go wrong. Alfie’s character crystallised at that moment of my drawing him and developed from there.’
I got to know Shirley back in the days when my main job as an author was writing for children. We attended the same parties and festivals, judged the same prizes. Over time, she became a good and kind friend. Although she belonged to the higher aristocracy of children’s writers while I was way down the ladder, she was always genuinely interested in what I was up to. Over recent decades, when I had moved out of London and was no longer on the writing circuit, we would meet up occasionally at her house in Notting Hill Gate. Every couple of months, she would ring me out of the blue and we would have a long gossipy chat.
Shirley had a genuine curiosity about what other people were doing and what they planned; in my experience, that is unusual among people who are highly successful themselves. At first she would be surprised by one’s news (‘Songs! Goodness!‘), but then quickly became enthusiastic. She understood from the inside the itch of creativity, and the restlessness that goes with it. One chapter of A Life Drawing is called ‘Expanding the frontiers’, and that is what she did throughout her life.
From an early age, she saw the power of the picture book. ‘I love doing these books,’ she wrote.
‘There is a huge fascination in contriving a simple whole, very easily accessible and satisfyingly shaped, but like an onion, many layered within. You keep the narrative flowing from left to right, the way we eventually learn to read text. Like a small theatre, the picture-book form is endlessly adaptable and can be used in countless different ways.’
For me, she has been an inspiring figure. It is not just her work down the years that has been easy to love; her personality was naturally generous and life-enhancing. Seeing that tall, imposing behatted figure at a party made one’s heart lift: the evening was going to be OK.
Beyond the energy and the optimism, there was something else which I have appreciated more and more as I have got older. She never whinged. There was a steeliness to her and her approach to work, even into her eighties. She was always on the side of the author. She had a tough-minded understanding of what it means to live by the pen. She embodied that essential quality for those who want to survive as a creative freelance person: maintaining a balance between professional flexibility and being true to the work. Go one way and you can become a hack, go the other and you quickly gain a reputation as a pain in the neck.
The books, of course, will live on for future generations. As Philip Pullman wrote in his obituary for Shirley in the Guardian,
‘The best tribute to her lifetime of production is the physical state of the books of hers on bedside tables, or crammed into bookshelves, or face-down on the floor under the bed: battered, bent, torn here and there, perhaps chewed a little, scribbled on – these books have been loved almost to destruction. She will last as long as there are children.’
She was an extraordinary, wonderful force for good and for kindness. I’ll miss those calls.