And Puffin books. They were a kind of default Christmas gift for an age that is hard to buy for; past toys and not ready for grown-up things. So they gave me Puffins. Hundreds of them. The funny thing is, I associate them with one place: the apple tree in the backyard in a little patch of lawn behind the garage. The tree was the same one that yielded the worm-filled fruit that became the ammunition for the great apple fight of 1967 (mentioned above) that ended only when my cousin had to go home to Clayton, to us the other side of the world.
I used to read my books under that tree, sitting in a timber and canvas deck chair that had also been a Christmas gift. Books and chairs. Doesn’t get any better.
Ash Road, Ivan Southall. House of Sixty Fathers, Meindert DeJong. Smith, Leon Garfield. Ditta’s Tree, Jean Hughes. Arthur Ransome’s series. One summer I ploughed through the entire Hugh Lofting opus. Emil and the Detectives, Erich Kastner. A Hundred Million Francs, Paul Berna. On it went. Journeys into other people’s worlds without leaving my deck chair. I suppose I read some of them in bed. In the same era, my older sisters were given books under the Peacock imprint for older children. Later, I graduated to Penguins and my younger brothers and sister inherited the Puffin tradition, reading all of Roald Dahl, the Moomintroll series, the Narnia books and Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Puffin by Design (by Phil Baines, Allen Lane, London, 2010) brought the era back to me. It is a study of the design evolution of Puffin books and is an interesting essay about design itself - as in what went so horribly wrong in the 1970s and 1980s? And possibly beyond? I don’t know, but I can guess. The sheer cleanliness and simplicity of early design became boring and designers messed with type and illustration. The marketing people had a growing influence and specified ‘eye-catching’ design. They killed off Peacock and turned it into Puffin Plus. Marketers still do that. Count how many times you see something-‘Plus’ each day. As if it means anything. On the subject of junking good design principles, I see ‘retro’ design everywhere – from books to wine labels to supermarket products, as if the design world is finally admitting it had a forty-year brain snap.
I still have some of my old Puffins. Favourite? No. But the one I remember most is Ash Road, which I read in the drought- and bushfire-ravaged year of 1968. Every time there’s a bushfire, the horror of the story comes back to me.
Wallace cried out, not conscious of his voice or his words, conscious only of the appalling magnitude of what he saw and of what he was certain was about to engulf him. It was as if the sky, aflame, was about to fall and smother him in clouds of fire, yet he sensed beside him the big man with a mouthful of bared teeth shouting things like ‘God’, ‘Mother of God’, ‘Hold on, boy’, Courage, boy’. And Gramps went into it with his foot to the floor because there was nothing else he could do, and Harry went into it with the only prayer that could break through his terror: ‘Gentle Jesus meek and mild …’ The car straddled the centre line; it was the thin white line that Gramps clung to; that rolled and swayed beneath him in excess of sixty miles an hour; that was his anchor to the earth, for everything else was swirling fire and smoke and invisibility and stifling heat, fearful heat, that consumed the very air he breathed. His lungs felt that they would burst, and his senses swam, and the thin white line began to wander and wobble, and he knew he was going to lose it, he knew that it was going to get away from him, and in panic he touched the brakes. Instantly he lost the line. It vanished. He didn’t know whether it had gone to his left or right, and the smoke was as dense as a fog, and his tyres were squealing, scorching rubber sliding on bitumen. He felt the change from hard surface to loose surface, from sealed surface to the gravel at the side of the road. In that moment the car struck the bank side-on and spun.