In the summer of 1998 I was talking with James Mayhew about books, while painting. One of his favourite books as a child, he said, was How the Whale Became by Ted Hughes. I had never heard of it.
” You should illustrate it, ” James said. ” Write to Ted Hughes. Send him some of your work, a couple of books or something. See what he says.”
I bought a copy of the book, read it and fell in love with the stories, the characters, the language. So I wrote a letter, parcelled up some books and sent a package off to Ted Hughes c/o Resurgence Magazine expecting to hear no more but hoping that I might get a reply. A few days later a small handwritten envelope was left on the doormat with this inside.
I was delighted, but as advised didn’t bank on it. Ted Hughes won the Whitbread Prize for Birthday Letters. He didn’t collect it himself, his daughter, Frida, picked it up for him. No one really thought much of that, at least no one who wasn’t close to him and weeks later I was painting a mermaid’s tail when I heard over the radio that Ted Hughes had died. All those poems, all those words, all those stories. An end. So sad.
A few days later Philip Ardagh called me and said that he had been in the offices at Faber and Ted Hughes had been in talking to the editor of children’s books there about maybe doing a colour version of How the Whale Became and the next day Susie Jenvy called. She said that Ted Hughes had indeed been in the office and they had talked about How the Whale Became, about making a new colour version.
My memory of what she spoke of is blurred by time. I seem to remember her saying that they wanted to make a really beautiful book, something that would celebrate and commemorate Ted Hughes’ work for children. She wanted it to be so beautiful, had loved the book herself as a child, and it was clear from how she spoke of Ted Hughes that she loved him too and all his work. I just remember being terrified.
I was given a really open brief on the book, could have done a whole set of books had I wished but it seemed that the stories should sit in one volume. I remember crying when I took the roughs for the cover and a bit of art to the Faber offices, I was so nervous and so convinced that I had let Susie, Faber and Ted down. And Susie cried too, because, she said, it was just what she had imagined, just what she wanted.
The rest was hard swift graft.
How the Hare Became was one of the first hare images I had painted. A beautiful story and the hare in the book owes much to the vision of Jeremy James, ceramicist. While I was working on the book I listen to a tape of Ted Hughes reading the stories. I found this tape in the strangest way. I had cycled in to St Davids and went into the National Trust shop to browse. They had one audio tape in the shop. It was Ted Hughes reading How the Whale Became. So as I worked on each story I played the tape over and over, listening to the cadence of his speech, the emphasis, the wonderful rolling language.
I found most of the animals around where I lived. The black and white dog, Foursquare, is Mouse, Kath Sutton’s collie, a beautiful little dog. The tortoise lived in Solva, maybe still does. ( I thought it wonderful that the tortoise was called Shelley, named after a poet. The owners didn’t like to tell me it was because she had a shell on her back) The donkey belonged to my friend Jane at Druidstone and one of the paintings of the donkey from the book still hangs in the farmhouse kitchen in the hotel.
I worked so hard on this book, and strange things happened around it. On the painting from How the Elephant Became Hughes gave a great long list of animal piled on animal. Sometimes it seemed obvious what to paint. I had drawn out this tower of creatures and was happily painting away. I only had 2 days to complete each double page spread. And so, when I awoke in the middle of the night with the poet leaning over me and whispering in my ear that I had painted a nuthatch where a tree creeper should have been I wasn’t surprised. You can still see the ghost of the nuthatch beneath the treecreeper, but I have as yet not been revisited by the ghost of any other poets.
This book was a labour of love. My children adored the stories as bedtime reading. They would listen to the tapes over and over, and the Tales of the Early World and Dreamfighter and Other Creation Tales. Just wonderful.
The book was published as a hardback by Faber in 2000. The hardback is now out of print, but Frances Lincoln brought the book back to life as a beautiful paperback edition.
How The Whale Became is one of the things that taught me to write. The study of such a wonderful text in order to create illustrations that would compliment the words meant that I gained a new understanding of language. I sent a copy to Michael Morpurgo, and had the good fortune to meet him. He was friends with Ted hughes, spoke so warmly about him. We talked about writing. Keys in my mind unlocked new spaces where words had been hidden. I had been an illustrator, I was finding the courage to be a writer. Learning, always learning.
I had contacted Ted Hughes through Resurgence Magazine because I had read an article Hughes wrote about the power of stories, the weight of words, the way in which, if you have the geography of stories engrained in your soul a single word can unfold a whole story. A word like ‘crucifixion’ floods the mind with one story. But other stories are held in simple phrases. And then there is Ted Hughes’ book Poetry in the Making, which is also a series of audio programs, wonderful for learning how to roll language out in an order that dances through the mind.
The book is available from Solva Woollen Mill, all good independent bookshops, libraries and second hand hardbacks can be picked up too, without too much effort. Out of all the books I have worked on I can say of this one that it is an essential part of any good library, either in school or in the home. It’s a book that will last a lifetime.
I never got to meet Ted Hughes. I hope I did him justice. I thank him for letting me know that the nuthatch should be a treecreeper.