How a battered book began my love affair with the written word

We lived in a house opposite a paper mill. Much to my chagrin we were one of the first houses in the row which did not have a third storey or attic room. From early in my life I have always been fascinated by the concept of a garret, a hiding place, a space where secrets are locked away and forgotten. We didn’t have that third floor but we did possess a spare room filled with interesting junk. I would sometimes wander in as a very young girl, aged five perhaps, and look through the old  suitcases and tea chests stored there. It certainly functioned as a creative spark and I dreamed of one day writing about the mental adventures I had there.

I used to retreat in that space and was intrigued by strange objects such as the fat fingered, protective gloves made of thick elastic and leather, my father had worn to play cricket, the bat was in evidence and a stained, stitched ball which had a very particular weight and texture. My mother’s hard backed navy blue leather Constellation suitcase that had made the trip from Brazil by sea was also an object of interest and had an exotic smell. Yet more important than anything else in that room was an old annual which by 1965 was already almost thirty years old. This was the book I would settle down with and I loved the paper which had thickened with age and already possessed all the hallmarks of being antique. The cover was so dirty and dulled by neglect the pictures were  quite difficult to distinguish.

It was my first introduction to Rupert Bear and I loved the gentle adventures whose combination of magic and fantasy and the essential ingredient for me, verse, became such a part of my young life. This book already possessed its own mystery, that interest in books which represent a different time  attracts me still. I collected film star annuals, old copies of The Countryman, gardening tomes from the 19th century and enjoyed peeking into times that had vanished. New Rupert annuals did not obviously possess such history and attractive as they were, they did not exude the mysterious aura such an old book had once held for me.

I liked the silence of that room at the back of the house: the sash window in the corner which overlooked the yard and that book which strangely I was never allowed to add to the collection on my bookshelf; it stayed in that back room until we moved.

We left the old Victorian property and took possession of a brand new three storey town house which was very much a product of the age. Each dwelling was identical down to the door numbers and the colour of the garage doors. Everyone signed a clause in their contract to say doors could only be painted a specific colour; everyone possessed a driveway and integral garage and it was no place for anything, perceived to be  old or outré.  It seemed all kinds of beloved objects vanished overnight and we made ourselves at home in this gleaming palace. The Rupert Bear annual wasn’t welcome. I asked about it and was dismissed with a, ‘What do you want that old thing for? It was filthy and falling apart.’ And that seemed the end of the matter; of course, I never saw it again.

Recently, I came across this annual for sale on the internet and there is a photo of the exact edition  in extraordinarily good condition; it was a shock to distinguish the figures which had appeared so hazy in my copy I had leafed through all those years ago. It was the first annual illustrated by Alfred Bestall and was the first time Rupert was seen to wear his famous red jumper and extraordinarily, this edition, complete with original dust wrapper, is now being sold for £2800.

What I never realised back then was  I had been looking at the very first Rupert annual and what I also didn’t know was that during the war years and until 1949 the covers had to be made from paper, as no board was  available, it really was a special book as I had realised. It was not until 1950 the first hardback edition was published once more and I know there are many fans all over the world – hell, there was even a programme on the radio where famous types waxed lyrical about Rupert Bear!

Alfred Bestall finally stopped drawing Rupert in 1965 for a strip cartoon which used to appear in the Daily Express every day.  Reprints of stories from the archives appeared until 1970, when another artist took over the illustrations; I had no idea! At this point the tradition of the brown-faced Rupert on the cover was severed and  was replaced by the white-faced bear  we recognise today. It’s strange what we remember so vividly from our childhoods and what simply fades away.

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