Sunday, 23 November 2008

Last Word

I'm pleased to say that BBC Radio 4 decided to feature a Douglas Keen's life on the programme 'Last Word' this week.

I got a phone call on Wednesday asking if I'd be interviewed for the programme - apparently to give a bit of Ladybird 'context'. The programme featured some archive materials of Douglas Keen himself speaking, and an interview with his daughters and I found their contribution a fascinating insight into those years of Ladybird's greatest success.

I was late to my appointment at Broadcasting House having missed the train and then turning up at the wrong building. By the time I got the right building I was about 20 minutes late, out of breath and a little flustered. This helps to explain why I sound like Mary Poppins on speed. But here's the link to the programme on iPlayer. The Douglas Keen bit is the first feature.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Why the silence?

Douglas Keen was a remarkable man who lived a remarkable life. He was:

  • visionary; arguably the main reason for the transformation of Ladybird from jobbing printers to publishing phenomenon
  • the man who led Ladybird to enter the market of non-fiction and educational publishing
  • the force behind the Peter and Jane reading scheme
  • the only person to see Ladybird through from the early post-war days of the Bunnikins books through to the sale of the company to the Longman group in the 1970s
  • an influence on the childhood of several generations of British children
  • socially aware all his life and an advocate for women's rights
  • a much loved family man and loyal friend

Yes, of course I'm an anorak when it comes to Ladybird Books but the achievments of this man transcend niche interest. Why hasn't the press picked up on any of this yet? Does anyone out there have any ideas about what can be done to get a little due tribute to be paid?

I attended his funeral on Thursday. Apparently Douglas Keen did not like funerals but this was a lovely, warm, friendly tribute to his life and his family had set up a corner of his house just as it would have been in the early 1950s with a letter on Wills & Hepworth headed notepaper in the old-fashioned typewriter and his hat on the desk - as you can see in the picture above. I was also shown an amazing prototype book; early on Keen could see a gap in the publishing market for well-produced children's non-fiction aimed at older children and which could be enjoyed by adults. Unable initially to convince the board of W&H to back his vision, he got his mother-in-law (herself trained as an artist) to produce some illustrations and himself wrote the text to create a mock up of the sort of book he had in mind.

The strategy worked; this was the prototype of 'British Birds and their Nests' and the beginning of a new and extraordinarily successful direction for Ladybird.

I hope to write a fuller account of this man and his life as soon as I can. In the meantime, you can read about Keen and 'The Ladybird Years' - part of the tribute spoken by his family at his funeral.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Douglas Keen 1913 - 2008

I learnt today from a family friend that Douglas Keen has died. Douglas Keen was Editorial Director of Ladybird over the period of the 1960s and 70s - the publisher's 'golden age' - and was in no small part responsible for this tremendous success.

It was Keen who pushed for Ladybird to extend into the educational market with factual books, convincing the Board of Wills and Hepworth that this was the right direction to pursue. He was also responsible for promoting the most successful Ladybird series of all time - the Peter and Jane Key Word reading scheme - which is still in print today, over 40 years later.

I never met Douglas Keen, but I wish I had. I would like to pass on my commiserations to his daughters and the rest of his family and friends.

Friday, 7 November 2008

My brand new 'Gallery' of rather old Ladybird Books

New Ladybird Book Gallery

For quite a while now I've been working on a new Ladybird Book gallery, featuring lots of pictures and some commentry, slideshows etc. The old gallery is looking extremely dated and isn't interactive. But this all takes time and so far only the Early Animal Fiction pages on the new bit are worth looking at.

Here's the direct link. Please do take a look; feedback welcome.