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A Conversation with Ian Beck

I think it's fair to say that Ian Beck is something of a legend in the world of children's books; part of that great generation of illustrators who emerged from Britain's art colleges in the 1960s.  He has long been famed for his picture books, but in recent years he's turned to writing longer stories too: his beautifully illustrated Tom Trueheart series harks back to the era of Arthur Rackham and Heath-Robinson, while the novel Pastworld uses his deep knowledge of Victorian London as the basis for a very 21st century sci-fi thriller.  He's kindly taken time out from writing and drawing to answer a few questions for the Bee.  But first, settle down and enjoy this trailer for his latest book, Tom Trueheart and the Land of Myths and Legends.

Philip Reeve: It turns out we're both Brighton boys.  Can you tell us a bit about your background?

Ian Beck: I was born just after the war (WW2 that is) not in Brighton itself but in Hove. My family was working class, and very much so. My father was a milkman, and we lived in a house with, and rented by, my maternal grandmother. Most of our neighbours lived in rented houses and they mostly rented from the same landlord. It was essentially the end of an Edwardian way of life which was still lingering on post war. Our immediate neighbours were an elderly brother and sister who were completely Edwardian, he wore a tasselled smoking cap and a black velvet smoking jacket with a quilted collar and frogging and I can still remember the texture of their chenille table cloth, and the pictures of Queen Victoria on their biscuit tins. I have no doubt that this fuelled my later obsession with the era. Although we were poor I never felt the lack of anything and indeed had the usual sort of 1950's childhood, Saturday morning cinema club, (ABC Minors) cubs and scouts, Adrian Hill and Sketch Club and Quatermass on television, all of that.

A youthful Ian Beck (far right).
I failed my eleven plus and went to the local secondary modern school. This in many ways was the saving of me. No real pressure to perform academically.  After the first year the incumbent headmaster was imprisoned for paedophilic crimes against some of the boys. A new head was appointed who was very keen on Shakespeare and plays and drama and the arts  generally and as time went on I got very involved in acting in the school productions and designing the programmes etc inluding making a lino cut for Macbeth. I liked performing and public speaking and even went to elocution lessons run by of all things the CO-OP (my father was a Co-op milkman). This has certainly helped latterly in my visits to schools and so on. At the same time I had noticed and studied the profusion of  little black and white drawings that were all over the Radio Times, and I noticed the names of the illustrators who drew them too, only in those days they would have been referred to by most people not as illustrators but commercial artists. My immediate ambition was to get a job drawing for the Radio Times, I wrote to them and a had a polite reply which suggested art school as the first priority.

Following the uprising in Hungary against the Russians in 1956 a great many creative refugees came to Britain. One of them, a sculptor named Victor Prejm, ended up teaching art at my school. Both he, and the headmaster, Mr Turner, encouraged my ambition in their different ways. Mr Prejm suggested that I went to the children's saturday morning art classes at Brighton School of Art.  This was  a revelation to me, the feel of the art school that is and the glimpses I managed to get of the glamorous full time students, girls with pony tails black slacks or stockings and baggy sweaters. I was at once determined to go there as a full time student myself when I left school. However my Father died suddenly just before my final year, and it took some persuading by my headmaster for my mother to allow me to go to the art school at all, which in the end  (very happily) I did in 1963.

At art school I had ambitions to be a painter. However during my foundation year  it was clear to the staff that my interests were almost entirely literary, I would produce large charcoal and conte drawings based on seeing Orson Welle's film of Kafka's The Trial and after foundation I was bundled off into Graphics. We were very lucky to be taught then by a profusion of talented illustrators. Raymond Briggs was a part time tutor as was John Lawrence, John Vernon Lord, Ferelith Eccles Williams, and Justin Todd. Of my fellow students during those five happy years, one of them, Ian Butterworth, has latterly designed several of my picture books, it is amazing to have had that continuity of friendship and collaboration over nearly fifty years. Several illustrators came out of my year, most notably Peter and Sian Bailey, and designer illustrators too, like Bob Norrington. I became focussed at Art School on a career in Illustration, I drifted for a while after I left and was eventually persuaded by my then girlfriend's mother to move to London, which was the best and most sensible thing I ever did. I certainly feel that London is where I belong now even though I still have great affection for the sea and seaside places.

PR:  I've been aware of your picture books for a long time, but I think you've only recently started writing longer texts, including Pastworld, which isn't illustrated at all.  Was writing novels always an ambition, or something that came later?

IB: While I was at Art School, and indeed before, I was an obsessive reader. I got totally hooked on certain writers. Ray Bradbury, Vladimir Nabokov, M R James, Chesterton's Father Brown stories, odd novels, such as Portrait of Jennie by Robert Nathan which I found trawling the second hand bookshops. I tried to write throughout my art school years, principally adult fiction but was very easily distracted and was also very good at self discouragement. After my move to London I went to creative writing courses at the City Lit, in Stukeley Street but these somehow only strengthened my own insecurities. It was after all the early seventies and avant garde novels were the only thing possible for a young would be or aspiring writer. I admired Alan Garner, and also and especially Thomas Pynchon. I ended up writing pale versions of them which inevitably petered out after a few pages. By this time I was earning a good living as an illustrator. Not for children's books but for magazines, album covers, that sort of thing. By the mid seventies I was also a regular illustrator for the Radio Times, so one childhood ambition was fulfilled at least. It was only when I was married and we had our first baby that I began to get interested in the idea of illustrating for children. Looking back on some of my earlier commercial work, it seems an obvious leap. A lot of what I was doing before was heavily influenced by various children's illustrators of the past, a kind of nursery nostalgia which seemed popular with art directors then.

When our first child was about a year old I had an approach from the Oxford University Press. A young editor there named David Fickling had an idea for a baby book, which showed parents how to play all the old finger games. I drew some samples and was offered the book to illustrate, which was; Round and  Round the Garden, first published in 1983 and still going strong. This was such a pleasurable experience, both drawing for the book and working with David, that I wanted to do more. Luckily the book was a success and so more followed until the books gradually edged out all the other work.  David also encouraged me to write my own stories to illustrate which I did increasingly.
PR:  I remember the Radio Times being a treasure-trove of illustration.  By the '70s when I was looking at it the TV section was mostly photographs, as was the cover - except at Christmas - but the radio pages always had illustrations, and I remember trying to copy these little images by people like Robin Jacques, who was the first illustrator whose work I came to recognise.  I probably had a go at some of yours, too! 
We should talk about influences. From following you on Twitter I've gleaned that you're a big fan of cinema, and I've also heard you mention that the Pre-Raphaelites were important to you...

IB:  I grew up in the era before Television. In my childhood you could wander into a cinema at any time during the programme, ('B' picture, cartoon, newsreel, trailers, adverts, ice creams, 'A' picture) you could also sit there all day and see it all through more than once if you wanted to. It was common to walk in half way through a thriller, pick up the story as it went along, in media res, as it were. See it through to the end, then catch the beginning watch it through until the middle, then say, 'this is where we came in', and leave. This all changed with Psycho in 1960, when Hitchock allowed no admission after the film had started, so gradually continuous programming stopped. Cinema was and is certainly, along with music the biggest influence on my work. Seeing films in those big glamorous single screen cinemas in Technicolor and Cinemascope was bound to have a lasting effect, it still does.

There was a big revival of interest in Victorian art while I was at art school, the art nouveau revival, the re-discovery of Aubrey Beardlsey ( a Brightonian) and Alphonse Mucha all of that set me to reading books on the period by James Laver, William Gaunt, and others and I soon immersed myself in it, the recognition and interest partly stemming, I have no doubt, from those quaint childhood neighhbours in Hove. It all felt and still feels very alive and real to me.No accident then that my first novel for young adults, Pastworld, should be set in an alternate version of that London.
PR: There's a house in Brighton with a blue plaque on it to say it was once home to Aubrey Beardsley, 'master of the line'.  Some friends of mine used to think he must have been a famous angler!  And I remember falling completely under the spell of the Pre-Raphaelites when I was about sixteen and making pilgrimages with my friend Justin Hill to see the Burne Jones windows in Ovingdean Church; I wanted to be a Pre-Raphaelite.  Unfortunately there wasn't much call for that sort of thing in the 1980's; I think the Victorian revival had passed by then, and they pretty much knocked it out of me at art college.  But I did feel that fascination with things Victorian and Edwardian all through my childhood, and for a long time afterwards; it seemed much more real to me than the real world, which I thought was hugely overrated!
Can you tell us a bit about what you're working on at the moment?

IB: I have just finished the second draft (I doubt it will be the last) of a new novel for younger readers, again a Victorian setting but not London, a big square house in the country which is surrounded by an enchanted wood,there is a changeling girl, and such like is called at the moment; The Haunting of Charity La Touche, it will be illustrated too, with black and white drawings as are my Tom Trueheart books, but not silhouettes.

I am also finishing the first draft of another young adult title, provisionally called The Hidden Kingdom, which I am enjoying writing very much. I don't want to say too much about it, except that it snows a lot and it is set in a mythical place.
PR:  Every time I look at Twitter there seems to be something by you saying, "A good day's writing!" or "Just polished off another chapter - going well!"...  Do you really enjoy the writing process? And do you plan the stories, or just let them grow?
IB:  I do enjoy the process of building the story. I feel I am blessed to be given a chance at a new phase in my work and especially at my late age. It all feels like a bonus, I can imagine nothing nicer than settling in with a good scene to write. I do plan, and then, despite the planning, the thing suddenly runs away on its own power. Things crop up, accidents, notions, links I hadn't thought of and so I follow them. The craft is I think in lacing it all together and making it seem meant and the only way the story could have gone, that is what I have been gradually learning. Not only over the last four years or so, but of course in all my years of reading too.

For further information (and illustration and animation) visit Ian's Website...

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