Friday, 26 June 2020


After a brief, inglorious career at Art School, I largely gave up drawing and painting, but 26 years ago in Zimbabwe, I wrote a children's picture book, The Animal Bus, which featured my youngest daughter and her friends, and was duly published, although the publishers decided (rightly) that my illustrations weren't up to much. In the end they were professionally done by my brilliant friend, Bee McGuire - illustrations which later won her a Noma Concours award - but the greatest satisfaction for me was that it was a book written for love of people and place, and done in collaboration with a friend.

Since then, I've done others that were not intended for publication. The first was made for a family we met in newly-independent Zimbabwe. They were Canadian, with two children much the same ages as our own, and we became very good friends. But the friendship between the mother and myself was one of those instant recognitions of a kindred spirit, and by the time they left Zimbabwe a couple of years later, we had become so close that the thought of being separated by thousands of miles was so distressing that it regularly reduced us to tears - to the bemusement of both our husbands. Anyway, as a parting gift, I wrote the story of their time in Africa; I did some of the illustrations, but my two older children did the rest, and their father wrote it out in his (proper) artist's calligraphy, and made the cover.  It was a great success: they sat down and read it the moment we handed it over, and we ALL cried.

The next hand-made books were inspired by the births of grandchildren, the first anniversary of my second marriage ('Professor Gloom Meets His Match') and the weddings of both my daughters. I even did one for a dog called Stavros. And the best thing about doing this sort of book is that there's no agent or publisher to please, no appearances to make or money to gain. And no fear of rejection - just the enormous satisfaction of making something for someone you love. 

There's also particular comfort in these days of isolation and enforced distance from friends and family, in forging these links of love. So lockdown has seen me branching out into books about much-loved toys, starting with Damoda the Dragon, companion to my 2 year-old grandson in London. And there are other battered favourites lining up - it's an honourable tradition after all, from The Velveteen Rabbit to Pooh, Piglet, Dogger...
But making any sort of tangible record, especially in these fleeting days of Instagram and Twitter - even a scrapbook or old-fashioned album filled with poems, quotations, postcards, memories - seems all the more worth doing. 

When I finally left Zimbabwe in 2000, I brought with me a parting gift from my friend Bee. She also lives many thousands of miles away, and it's been decades since I saw her. But she gave me a framed original illustration from our book, and it's hung on my wall ever since. It never fails to take me back to the happiness of that time and place.

As for our Canadian friends, we never managed to see them again either. Five years after they went home, I had a phone call to tell me that they'd flown out one morning to ski down a mountain, and all of them - my friend, her husband and their two children, along with their pilot friend - had been killed when their helicopter crashed. 

After their deaths, copies of our book were made for members of their families, and I hope it brought them some comfort. Twenty-five years on, I can still see her face and hear her voice, and I think of them all quite often. When I wrote the last lines of that book, I was worried that they sounded too sentimental, but now I realise how true they were:

    'Besides, the sun that sets over Africa is the same sun that rises over Canada (when you can see it) and the other side of the world is only just over the horizon....
    And good friends are never very far away, if you keep them safe in your hearts.'