Author of The Home Corner Ruth Thomas describes growing up as a book illustrator’s daughter – and the summer she began writing letters to Tove Jansson …
A long time ago, one late summer’s day, my mother took me to Goulden & Curry’s bookshop in Tunbridge Wells, left me in Children’s Fiction and headed on, up another flight of stairs, to the mysterious Non-fiction department.
– ‘Don’t rush,’ she said, ‘choose what you like.’
And I stood and looked at the rows and rows of paperbacks. I didn’t know what to choose at all: it always took me ages to decide in bookshops. But then after a while I put my hand up to a shelf and pulled down Finn Family Moomintroll.
The sky-blue cover was what appealed to me, I remember; and Moomintroll, with his hippo-ish snout and kind expression. And I recall the excitement of first seeing him – this creature I’d always felt must be out there somewhere.
I think this would have been 1974. There were ladybirds everywhere that summer, and flying ants; they landed huge and strange on my arms and legs as I sat reading in the garden on our clanky, spidery camp-bed – which sometimes half-folded up with people still on it. The ants made me think of the ‘lion-ants’ Tove Jansson described in my new book: lion-ants, she said, were ferocious beasts that could drag unsuspecting Moomins beneath the sand. (“You can read all about it in the Encyclopedia if you don’t believe me,” she’d added in an authoritative aside) – and I didn’t know whether to believe her. Did lion ants actually exist? Like the Moomins, they sounded very real; and I wanted the Moomins, very much, to be real.
My sister Ann, nearly three years older than me and a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder, was reading By the Shores of Silver Lake around this time, and The Long Winter; and I wanted the Moomins to be leading true lives somewhere, the way the Ingalls family had. There was something very appealing, in particular, about their hibernating rituals, and Moominmamma’s good coffee, and their solitary wanderings, and their fondness for pine-needles. (‘It is important to have your tummy full of pine if you intend to sleep all the winter …’)
I identified with Moomintroll, of course: I suppose most seven-year-olds see themselves as a book’s protagonist. And my mother was Moominmamma, the epitome of all wise, creative, practical mothers. Little My was a high pony-tailed girl at my primary school who administered Chinese burns; and one of our neighbours, Mrs Jolly, who always covered her cutlery up with table-cloths during thunderstorms – was the Fillyjonk. Then there was Snufkin, of course: free-spirit, hat-wearer, rambler, joker. I’ll tell you who Snufkin reminded me of later.
My dad was working, at that time – for the whole of our childhood, in fact – upstairs in his studio. He was an illustrator – an occupation I’d grown up thinking was perfectly normal. And the summer I discovered the Moomins, like every summer, I’d creep upstairs, knock on the studio door and go in, inhaling the smell of pencil-shavings and fixative. He’d be sitting there on his high office chair, often with a pencil in each hand and an ink-pen between his teeth. He always seemed to be working to something called a ‘deadline’, from any number of publishers – Andre Deutsch, Jonathan Cape, Dorling Kindersley, Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Their names didn’t mean much to me then, but the seriousness of that word ‘deadline’ had already formed an impression.
– ‘Hello,’ he’d say after a moment, the pen still in his mouth.
And I’d just stand, on the other side of his sloping drawing board, and watch him work. We didn’t chat. What I recall most was the hush: the tiny noise of pencil on paper, low voices from The World at One or maybe Brain of Britain coming from the Pye radio – and the view through the window, of bright green larch trees. I remember him working around that time on a book called Hedgerow, for Dorling Kindersley. I remember all the tiny illustrations of the hedgerow’s inhabitants – the mice and the blackbirds and the toads and the robins.
– ‘It’s lunch,’ I might state after a while. Or: ‘It’s supper.’
– ‘Hmm? Is It? OK.’
Because my mother might have sent me up to tell him that. Most of all, though, I just went because I was intrigued by what he did. ‘What does your dad do in your house all day?’ a boy had asked incredulously at school the previous term; and I’d begun to wonder about having a room in your house called a studio. About being something called freelance. Maybe it was quite Hemulen–like, I conjectured. Or maybe my dad was a bit like Moominpappa writing his memoirs, inspired and absorbed, in his study.
Most of the grown-ups I knew in our village worked in the hop gardens or in the shops, or the plastics factory down the road. Some drove to Tonbridge or Maidstone or commuted to Charing Cross. But my dad drew pictures. Ann and I were models for him sometimes, standing very still for ages, to resemble, perhaps, Indian princesses or Victorian chamber-maids. (‘Can I move, yet?’ we’d ask, still as statues; and there’d be a small pause: ‘In a minute, Chickadee …’)
I never imagined then that somewhere in Finland, Tove Jansson might have a job, and a studio, and deadlines, just like my father. Tove’s life, spent inventing Moomin stories on some lonely island, was almost too extraordinary to believe.
The person like Snufkin was so like Snufkin he could have been him. He was a friend of my parents, a poet and journalist, and his name was John Talbot White. He wrote A Country Diary for the Guardian and lived an exciting, metropolitan existence, as far as I could see, in a flat in Blackheath – but he was a country person at heart, always off exploring. He would drive down to Kent at the weekends, walking through the fields and villages and across the South Downs in a khaki safari jacket and a canvas hat and walking-boots.
My mother had met John years earlier at Goldsmith’s Literary Society and had introduced him to my father. Which was how Hedgerow had begun – John writing the book and my father illustrating it. John often came to see him around that time to talk about how it was going. It always seemed to me, though, that he appeared on a whim. He preferred arriving and leaving places without warning … ‘Snufkin Leaves Moomindale: Mysterious Departure at Dawn…!’) He liked company but he also liked to be on his way again.
Anyway, I remember John turning up one evening that summer. My mother and sister and I were in the kitchen, probably listening to Jazz Record Requests, and my father was upstairs drawing a picture of a hawthorn tree or a wren – and suddenly, there was John, knocking at the kitchen door, and walking in.
– ‘Aha! You’re reading Tove Jansson!’ he boomed, striding towards me and turning over the front cover of my book – it was maybe Moominsummer Madness, by then, or Comet in Moominland.
I looked up.
– ‘I’m going to Tove’s island next week,’ John informed me.
Ann looked up, too. We both regarded him, speechless.
– ‘A friend of mine knows her, you see,’ he added.
– ‘You’ve got a friend who knows Tove Jansson …?’ my mother asked.
Which began the days of writing letters to Tove Jansson. It’s all jumbled up with that time in my life, when I was seven, and first aware of my dad having this strange job. Artist. Illustrator.
I don’t remember what I wrote in my first letter to Tove, and I don’t think I ever expected a reply – the image I had of Tove and her island was still too misty and Scandinavian to have anything to do with the GPO. But then one afternoon – winter by now – I came home from school and there was an envelope lying on my pillow. It was a very particular envelope, pure white and fine-papered, and larger than the Basildon Bond ones my mother used. And there was my name on it! – and my address! And there was a stamp from Finland.
I opened it – very carefully – with a butter-knife.
I’m so glad to know that you like my stories, and I do promise trying to invent new ones …’
Over the next three years we wrote to each other four times. Which goes to show how extremely kind she was to the children who read her books. She sent one letter – unbelievably exotic! – from Paris, where she was on holiday with Tooticki. Another mentioned her latest book, The Summer Book – ‘… The grandmother is a picture of my mother…’ Her writing was beautiful, sloping, in black ink, and she always included drawings of Moomins.
Tove’s last letter to me (which I’ve framed and placed – sensibly, in a grown-up way – on my bedroom wall) was inside a card she’d screen-printed. It depicted the Snork Maiden standing in a shallow sea.
Happy Spring to you! she wrote. Which is a phrase I still think of every Springtime. And still reminds me of being seven, and tiptoeing up to my dad’s studio.
Recently I’ve started reading the Moomin stories with my youngest son. And of course I’ve shown all three of my children the letters –
– ‘Wow! – that’s so cool …’
– But I suppose your parents’ old letters are like places where they once lived or people they used to know: to my children, my letters from Tove have something to do with the 1970s, and flying ants and hop gardens and deadlines and a studio. And there was a friend of their grandparents who was a lot like Snufkin –
– ‘Do you think Tove Jansson thought he was like Snufkin?’ my son asked.
– ‘She might well have done.’
He’s more interested, though, in making bark boats like Moominmamma’s. Which of course is how it should be.
Ruth Thomas was born in Kent and now lives in Edinburgh with her husband and three children. She is the author of the story collections Sea Monster Tattoo, The Dance Settee and Super Girl, and two novels – Things to Make and Mend and The Home Corner, which is published this month. Find out more at ruth-thomas.com.