Tuesday 26 December 2017


As the BBC no longer repeats what was – for many years – a staple item in its Radio 4 Christmas schedule, I feel free to pass on this little Sibley Christmas gift to you all–––

First broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at Christmas 1977, it stars the incomparable Miss Penelope Keith (with a belated appearance by Mr Timothy Bateson) in...

And Yet Another Partridge in a Pear Tree: 
A Cautionary Tale for Christmas Showing that it is Better to Give than to Receive

(or, as it's called where we are,
"Il giorno di Santo Stefano"
"St Stephen's Day")

Monday 25 December 2017



[Basilica di San Marco, Venezia. Photo: Brian Sibley]


From the creator of Mary Poppins, P L Travers, a mystical story about that first Christmas and a surprising gift brought to the manger by an unlikely gift-giver.

The Fox and the Manger, which I dramatised for radio in 1990, stars Dame Wendy Hiller and Alec McCowen with Richard Pearce and Cast...

Sunday 24 December 2017


I, as you all must know by now, love (correction – am obsessed by) Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

Each of the story's five 'Staves' has its wonderful evocative scenes – the haunting of Jacob Marley, the bittersweet memories of Christmas Past, the glorious peregrinations of Christmas Present (especially the Cratchit family's humble Christmas dinner) and the terrifying shadows of Christmas Future, but I am particularly fond of the last section in which Scrooge the miser is 'born again'. Dickens called this section – the denouement of his fable – "The End of It".

Here is that conclusion as presented on stage in 2003 by The Lansbury Players in my  adaptation. You will hear Richard Holliss as Ebenezer Scrooge; Cody Barthram as the Boy on Christmas Morning and John Wain as the Poulterer; Chris Holliss and Di Barber as the Charity Collectors; Noel O'Callaghan as Nephew Fred and Joyce Gambles as his wife, Rose; Keith Cummings as Bob Cratchit and Yours Truly as Mr Charles Dickens with the ensemble cast. The songs and original music were by Nick Clark and the production directed by Dave Millard.

So here it is –– the blissful transition from despair to hope of which the true spirit of Christmas speaks to us still...


"On", as Mr Dickens puts it, "of all the good days in the year – Christmas Eve": here is the story of how the world's best-loved Christmas book came to be written and what happened to it afterwards...

HUMBUG! was first broadcast 1993, this is a revised & extended version of a programme originally broadcast in 1987. Told by me (in those far off days when I was still a BBC voice) it features Norman Bird, Diana Olson and more Scrooges and Marleys than you can rattle a chain at!


Saturday 23 December 2017


It's very nearly Christmas, so here's a little entertainment I created (back in 1983) reflecting – not too irreverently, I hope – on the very first Christmas... 

A Birthday at Bethlehem stars the brilliant Dame Thora Hird and Peter Goodwright with Peter Bartlett and Tarleton's Jig...

Friday 22 December 2017


A seasonal conversation between me and the late, great Terry Pratchett about his Discworld and its mythic gift-giver, Hogfather, and what happens when that character gets kidnapped...

This encounter was first broadcast on 'Meridian', BBC World Service, on 30 December 1996 and the reader is the great Stephen Thorne (know to aficionados of Sibley dramatisations as both Aslan and Treebeard).

I hope it provides a seasonal Ho-ho or two...

Thursday 21 December 2017



My absurdly-talented chum: artist and mosaicist, Martin Cheek, appears to have been channeling M C Escher with this latest mosaic masterpiece...

A gaggle of seasonal geese appear to be making a bid for freedom stage left, while one silly goose insists on heading in the wrong direction–––

Or is he, perhaps, the only one who knows which way doesn't lead to the chopping-block?

In any event, this witty composition is a total delight!

To explore Martin's amazing mosaic bestiary of birds and beasts CLICK HERE!

And  you can find out about his latest book HERE!


Here's a little audio Christmas decoration for your tree as you set about wrapping your presents... It comes with love from myself and the great O Henry.

From the BBC Schools Programme, 'Contact', sometime in the early 1980s.

Wednesday 20 December 2017


Another seasonal amuse-bouche...  

Hit the Heights: A Radio Revue For Christmas

I created this show as part of a BBC Radio 4 season devoted to the theatrical entertainments of the 1920s. Compiled from contemporary revues, it features the original ((often unexpurgated, pre-Lord-Camberlain's-blue-pencilled)) scripts along with songs by Cole Porter, Ivor Novello, George Gershwin, Rogers & Hart and Noel Coward.

The show stars Mr John Moffatt, Miss Una Stubbs, Mr Charles Kay, Mr Nikolas Grace, and the incomparable Miss Elisabeth Welch with Mr Nicholas Bolton, Miss Cathy Sayer, Miss Rachel Atkins, Mr Peter Whitman and Mr Michael Onslow.

The Musical Direction is by Mr Richard Holmes and the show was produced and directed by the late Mr Glyn Dearman. It was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in December 1990.

[N.B.: I was not responsible for the opening and closing 'conceit' that ran across the whole season]

Tuesday 19 December 2017


Another seasonal treat...

This is my very first radio dramatisation (1981) and my sole calling-card when I brashly proposed to the BBC the idea of dramatising The Lord of the Rings!

Adapted from one of my all-time favourite books – James Thurber's delightful fable, The Wonderful O, it stars Frederick Jaeger, Eric Allan, Manning Wilson and Cast.

Yes, it is old – and, perhaps, a little worn – but I hope it still has at least a touch of wonder...

Monday 18 December 2017


An early seasonal offering from a Sibley-Christmas-Past courtesy of Lucy M Boston, Patricia Routledge and me!

Join Tolly on his adventurous visit to Green Knowe...

[With music specially composed by the Fratelli Brothers, the play was directed by Marilyn Imrie and first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 18 December 1999]

Friday 15 December 2017


https://blogger.googleusercontent.com/img/b/R29vZ2xl/AVvXsEgw_dfvF1ClaLracOepc0lcCpm2bGs_MF4-zllhX-7XAs7FmtJNATWmSOgyxoVIXj8FFwdDjqIX7ErLlKXyUQvtly4cS1UIS64asyYL33n52ymLcy6D4qjYgNjHWSxWzHr_t8-h/s1600/Mickey_Globe_Crying.jpgThe event I am recalling happened fifty-one years ago today...

I am getting ready for school and, suddenly, my father is calling up the stairs: "Brian, Walt Disney has died..."

Downstairs, I heard the murmuring drone of radio voices as my father – busy brewing early-morning tea – listens, as he does every day, to the BBC’s morning news programme.

I ought, perhaps, to have dashed downstairs to listen to the reports, absorb the details, gather up the tributes. After all, Walt Disney was my hero. A strange idol for a teenage lad, maybe – but that is what he was.

I collected every book, magazine and trivial snippet that I could find about Disney and his studio. I was forever copying pictures of Disney characters in my sketchbooks – in fact my youthful ambition was to be a Disney artist, to animate those fabulous beings that appeared in his films. I longed to be a part of that mystical process that created characters out of ink and paint and then imbued them with a power to move people to laughter or tears; I was obsessed by the man and his movies.

Later that morning, on my way to school, I would buy the daily newspapers and – in a corner of the playground at morning break – pore over the obituaries; but, at the moment of first hearing the news, I had only one response: I sat on the edge of my bed and wept.

For the first time in my young life I experienced that bizarre phenomenon: a feeling of overwhelming grief at the death of someone whom I did not know. Not only had I never met Walt Disney, I had – rather surprisingly – never even written him a fan letter. Yet, I had been bereaved of someone who held a truly unique place in my affections and the loss felt achingly huge.

During the fifty years since that day, I have continued to study and, occasionally, write about the life and work of Walt Disney and, in the process, had the privilege of meeting many of those who knew, loved and (occasionally) loathed the man.

Now, once again, I am working on a book about Disney and am realising that I am passing on a torch to those who will come after who will not have the familiarity of having lived when Disney was still known throughout the world as a flesh-and-blood person as opposed to just a corporate name represented by a copyrighted signature.

That knowledge, as much as anything else, is what fires my enthusiasm, because, whilst my experiences and encounters have brought me very close to feeling that I understand much about the personality and character of Walter Elias Disney, I have never been – and never will be – as close to him as I was on that morning when my father called upstairs to tell me the news that Walt Disney had died.

A version of this post was first published in 2016.

Thursday 7 December 2017


As the Christmas cards daily tumble through the letter box with their vast diversity of designs, I am reminded of this delightful poem by Ogden Nash in praise of the cards of Christmas Past...


When I was but a boy,
'Twas my once-a yearly joy
To arise of a Yuletide morning,
And eagerly behold
The crimson and the gold
Of the messages the mantelpiece adoring.
There were angels, there were squires,
There were steeples, there were spires,
There were villagers, and mistletoe and holly,
There were cosy English inns
With the snow around their chins,
And I innocently thought them rather jolly.
I blush for me, but by your leave,
I'm afraid that I am still naïve.

Oh, give me an old-fashioned Christmas card,
With mistletoe galore and holly by the yard,
With galumptious green and gorgeous scarlets,
With crackling logs and apple-cheeked varlets,
With horses prancing down a frosty road,
And a stagecoach laden with a festive loan,
And the light from the wayside windows streaming,
And a white moon rising and one star gleaming.

Departed is the time
Of Christmases sublime;
My soprano is now mezzo-basso;
And the mantelpiece contains
The angular remains
Of a late representative Picasso.
There are circles, there are dots,
There are corners, there are spots,
There are modernistic snapshots of the city;
Or, when the artist lags,
They are livened up with gags,
You must choose between the arty and the witty.
I blush for me, but I must say
I wish you'd take them all away.

Oh, give me an old-fashioned Christmas card,
With hostlers hostling in an old inn yard,
With church bells chiming their silver notes,
And jolly red squires in their jolly red coats,
And a good fat goose by the fire that dangles,
And a few more angels and few less angles.
Turn backward, Time, to please this bard,
And give me an old-fashioned Christmas card.
– Ogden Nash, from Many Long Years Ago (1945)

Wednesday 29 November 2017


Possibly the funniest – and certainly the riskiest – advertising strap-line seen in a while...

Tuesday 28 November 2017


On show at Chris Beetles Gallery in London is the annual collection of great illustrative art across a century-and-a-half. The ILLUSTRATORS 2017 selling exhibition contains fabulous original works by – among very many others – Phil May, William Heath Robinson, E H Shepard, Eric Fraser, Edward Ardizzone and Ronald Searle...

The exhibition remains on show until 6 January is accompanied by a 240 page illustrated catalogue (£15 + p&p)

Also, coming soon to the Gallery on 9 December to complement THE ILLUSTRATORS  is THE ILLUSTRATORS TODAY: AN EXHIBITION OF CONTEMPORARY ILLUSTRATION with work by wide cross-section of popular illustrators, including Michael Foreman, Helen Oxenbury, Nick Butterworth,Simon Drew and Paul Cox...

There is a 118-page illustrated catalogue of THE ILLUSTRATORS TODAY available (£15 + p&p)

Chris Beetles Gallery can be found at
8 & 10 Ryder Street, St James's, London SW1Y 6QB
Open: Monday-Saturday 10:00-17:30
Tel: 0207839 7551 email: gallery@chris Beetles.com

Wednesday 22 November 2017



Get a little too physical
Some folks get quizzical.
No one but mugs,
Give overlong hugs;
And beware, if you flirt,
You don't land in the dirt.
If you're apt to be tactile,
Remember – be practile:
Every sin of commission
Needs written permission.
– Brian Sibley (in the style of Mr Ogden Nash)
November 2017

Saturday 18 November 2017


I've just noticed that the DVD of Goodbye Christopher Robin is online as a pre-order item which reminds me that I never wrote about the film when it opened, despite having attended the premiere.

The film garnered mixed – indeed polarised – reviews with critiques ranging from:
"Goodbye Christopher Robin touches something bigger than its own ambitions. It touches, in a way movies rarely do, on some essential current of life" to "The film's main conflict is with its source material, twisting and wringing A A Milne's life for everything it's worth and hoping enough is squeezed out to qualify as a film"; and from "the movie's focus on the caustic effects of celebrity make this narrative set in the first half of the 20th century particularly relevant for the media-frenzied 21st" to "everything in this too-too movie feels overfermented, off".

For me, watching the film was a curious experience, mainly because I know too much about the subject. I have a written books, radio plays and programmes touching on the movie's story-line, as well as having known the 'real life Christopher Robin' and corresponded with his mother, his nanny and the artist, Ernest H Shepard who drew the unforgettable illustrations. So, my judgement is probably tainted with both too much knowledge of How Things Actually Were and an abiding affection for the collaboration between Milne and Shepard that created two books of verses about 'Christopher Robin' (and other children) and two books of stories about Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore and the rest of the inhabitants of the 100 Aker Wood that have been literally life-long friends.

Trying to view the film dispassionately is, therefore, quite difficult. But let me try...

The first thing that needs to be said is that the scenario dexterously walks the perilous tightrope between sentiment and sentimentality; and the screenplay – by the absurdly talented Frank Cottrell-Boyce – merges the factual with the fictional while deftly coping with the difficulty of not being able to quote from the books (due to their being the copyright property of the Disney Company) while providing sufficient memory-triggering imagery to take our minds to where the screenwriter wants us to be. So, for example, a scene in which Mr Milne and his young son track their own footsteps through the snow carries us back to a snowy spinney where Pooh and Piglet do something similar without once having to mention the word 'Woozle'.

Simon Curtis has a light but sure hand on the directorial tiller and is served well by his cast: Domhnall Gleeson and Margot Robbie as Alan and Daphne Milne – the former abstracted by shattering experiences from the First World War, the latter a rather self-absorbed '20s socialite – Kelly Macdonald as Olive, the nanny who is closer to the Milne's child than they are, and young Will Tilston (a stunning debut) as the 8-year-old Christopher and Alex Lawther as his, later, 18-year-old self.

The photography by Ben Smithard is full of great beauty – the authentic across-the-seasons Ashdown Forest settings are achingly exquisite featuring the genuine Poohsticks Bridge and the Milne's actual country home, Cotchford Farm.

Some quibbles are inevitable (from a veteran Poohologist) and are easily explained by the need of charactersation and dramatic tension, but it was hard to accept the 'chummy' friendship between Milne and Shepard who – despite their common experiences during the Great War – were never close friends but only ever professional collaborators; and, whilst there is hardly a photograph or portrait of Milne where is depicted without his pipe, there's not a whiff of 'Old Holborn' evident in this writer's study. No doubt the same restrictions on certification meant that the society cocktail party in the film is a similarly smoke-free zone.

But, as I say, these are trivialities (as is the curious decision to give the clean-shave Shepard an unnecessary moustache); however, my overwhelming concern (is that too extreme a word?) about Goodbye Christopher Robin is the way it has impacted on the Truth, whatever that is...

The thing is: the film is the story of how celebrity distorted the life of the title character by fictionalising the young Christopher Milne into that literary character 'Christopher Robin' who said his prayers, went to watch the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace and lived in a tree in the middle of the forest with talking animals.

The film asks us to mourn the cost of that distortion (whilst simultaneously celebrating the brilliance of the books that resulted from it) but in doing so, Goodbye Christopher Robin inevitably fictionalises the story yet again, taking it further from, not closer to, the truth. The image of A A Milne sitting on the top of the Ashdown Forest alongside his son – interchangeably as a child and as a man – suggests a sense of understanding and reconciliation between them that is an emotionally satisfying coda, but one that is basically, and sadly, untrue.

The balance is redressed by the fact that my friend and Pooh-colleague, Ann Thwaite who, in 1990, wrote the definitive biography of A A Milne has now written a new book with a partially-similar title to the film, Goodbye Christopher Robin: A A Milne and the Making of Winnie-the-Pooh.

The book tells the story as it really was, completing the picture with a fuller understanding of who Milne was (his reputation – now largely forgotten – as a premier Punch humorist, essayist, writer of light and a hugely successful West End and Broadway dramatist) and what made him tick, his relationship with Daphne ("I married her because she laughed at my jokes") and the impact of the social mores existing among the upper and upper-middle classes of the 1920s which often resulted in the bond between child and nanny that had greater resonance than between child and mother.

Anne's full biography is also still in print, A A Milne: His Life, as is Milne's own account of How-Things-Were (just reprinted) It's Too Late Now: The Autobiography of a Writer.

And anyone who really wants to know what it was like growing up and growing older as 'Christopher Robin' should read Christopher Milne's brilliantly written reflection – by turn, sharply painful and deeply moving – The Enchanted Places: A Childhood Memoir which, thanks to the film, is back in print.

Also recently published is James Campbell's The Art of Winnie-the-Pooh: How E H Shepard Illustrated an Icon containing a exceptional gallery of illustrations – many published for the first time – but which is so riddled with errors of identification, as to make the book anything but the last word on Shepard's artistry and his contribution to the mythology of the 100 Aker Wood.

And, finally, anyone seeking more news on Pooh can always consult my own Three Cheers for Pooh...

Friday 10 November 2017


Recently up for auction was a series of paintings by the Spanish artist Tony Fernandez featuring Disney stars as they might have been depicted by some of the world's greatest painters, among them Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Lautrec, Lichtenstein, Hopper, Karlo, Klimt, Miro and Munch...



Sunday 5 November 2017


There was a time when I used to think of Tove Jansson, the Finnish artist and writer who wrote in Swedish, as being someone in whom I had some kind of private and personal ownership!

                                                                                                                   Photograph: Lehtikuva Oy

Devotees of Tove Jansson's Moomin characters were, it seemed, a relatively select group; while those who knew anything about the writer and artist, her life and her other work were far and few between.

Not so today! 

Whereas, just a few years ago, when writing a blog post about Tove, I felt the need to begin with some sort of explanation:
What is a Moomin? Well, you could say it is something like a small white hippo but with a bit more tail –– but that really doesn’t get you very far… Basically, the thing is – when it comes to Moomins – you’re either a Moomin person or you’re not… If you're not then you've probably already stopped reading, but if you're still there, then I ought to introduce you to the Finn Family Moomintroll: Moominpapa, Moominmama and their son Moomintroll.

And, of course, all Moomintroll's highly individual friends: Snufkin and Sniff, the Snork and the Snork Maiden, the Muskrat, Tooticky, Ninny, Mimble and Little My, assorted Hemulens and Thingumy and Bob. Not to mention the terrifying Groke and the spooky Hattifatteners...
Today, however, the Moomins are a worldwide franchise – pictured on a veritable department-store of merchandising – and their creator is now recognised not just as the writer of a series of extraordinary children's books, but also as a novelist and short story writer of unique style and as a exceptional painter.

Some of the many talents of this amazingly gifted woman are currently being celebrated with an exhibition at Dulwich Art Gallery: Tove Jansson (1914-2001) that remains on show until 28 January 2018.

Moomintroll is waiting by the entrance to welcome you in...

The exhibition opens with examples of Tove's early imaginative paintings that are stylistic explorations, obliquely foreshadowing the creation of Moominland...

Tove came from an artistically-gifted family that were part of the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland. A stunning group portrait in the exhibition shows Tove in the centre, in black – looking curiously ill at ease – with, right, her father, the sculptor, Viktor Jansson, and, left, her mother, Signe Hammarsten-Jansson, an illustrator and graphic designer whose work included the designs for some 220 Finnish postage stamps across three decades. In the foreground, at the chessboard, are her brothers, Lars (who would later take over the Moomin comic strip from Tove) and Per Olov Jansson who would become a successful photographer.

Tove's mother had worked for the Finnish satirical magazine, Garm, and Tove began drawing for the publication in 1929 when she was only fifteen.

Tove contributed some 500 illustrations and caricatures to Garm through the years of WWII and up until the magazine's demise in 1953. Among her contributions were dozens of cover blistering designs lampooning communism and Nazism.

The Moomins would take over much of her life – first as the books and then as a cartoon strip for a British newspaper and the exhibition celebrates this part of Tove's work with preliminary sketches and a number of intriguing variations on her published illustrations.

One of the surprising realisations from seeing her original art is the small scale at which she worked and the potency and dramatic intensity achieved.

Apart from Tove's memorable illustrations to the Moomin stories – some dense with detailing and cross-hatching, others almost impressionistic in their airy lightness of line –  the exhibition includes examples of her evocative and idiosyncratic illustrations for three books by other authors: Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark and J R R Tolkien's The Hobbit.

Her drawing of the Dwarves crossing the bridge to Rivendell (with the Elven boats on the river below) is a miniature masterpiece...

Following the phenomenal success of the Moomin books, Tove would return to painting for herself, trading-in the 'Tove' signature by which her work had been known for so many years for 'Jansson'.

These paintings include dramatic abstract seascapes that capture the northern wildness of her homeland and recall the storm-tossed exploits of some of her Moomin characters...

Also from this period is, perhaps, her greatest painting: a startling, uncompromising self-portrait that roots the viewer to the spot and haunts the memory...

Dulwich Picture Gallery are to be applauded for the imaginative way in which the exhibits have been displayed in a series of vibrantly coloured rooms that eventually lead the visitor  into a space that makes you feel as if you have stepped into one of Tove's Moomin illustrations.

Wandering round this wonderful exhibition, brought back many personal Moomin memories...........

I first encountered the Moomins in 1954 in the daily comic strips, written and drawn by Tove, which appeared in the Evening News that my Dad used to bring home from work each night.

Tove’s brother, Lars took over the strips in 1961, in which year, Puffin Books (God bless ‘em!) published the first paperback edition of Tove’s novel, Finn Family Moomintroll translated from the original Swedish.

This was followed by, among others, Comet in Moominland, Moominsummer Madness, Moominland Midwinter and Tales from Moominvalley. Eight novels in all, plus various delicious picture books…

What captivated me about the chronicles of Moominland was the combination of fantastical storytelling with exquisite black-and-white illustrations that evoked feelings of warmth, happiness and security, shadowed by a hint of sadness, longing and regret, and tinged with a kind of yearning that is both nostalgic and elegiac.

In Moominvalley, everyone – however curious, odd or downright difficult: an invisible child or a cross-dressing Hemulen – is welcomed and accommodated somewhere in the tall, tower-like, Moomin House.

It is a tolerant world in which love is unconditionally guaranteed and where every individual is allowed – actually encouraged – to be themselves without criticism or censure; a world where home is the safe, centered heartbeat of life to which the inhabitants always return but from which they are also free to set off on adventurous quests in search of whatever might lie over this mountain or beyond that sea…

I always wanted to write to Tove as a youngster, but to a child of the ‘50s, Finland might as well have been on the moon; and, indeed, Tove (with her life partner, the artist Tuulikki Pietilä – not that I knew about her, at the time, unconventional private life), lived on a small island called Klovharu, that, in the days before instant global communications, was about as remote as you could wish an island to be.

Although I never wrote that fan-letter, I loyally maintained my love of Moominvalley into adolescence and beyond, by which time I had found her beautiful adult novel about childhood and old age, The Summer Book.

Over the past few years The Summer Book has been republished along with a companion volume of stories, The Winter Book, and several of Tove's novels and short story collections and, accompanied by endorsements from the likes of Esther Freud, Ali Smith and Philip Pullman, her writing has found a new generation of readers.

Anyway, twenty years after first falling in love with the Moomins, I finally decided to attempt to make contact with their creator.

In the meantime, I had also discovered that Tove had illustrated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and since, at the time, I was working on a book (that has never seen the light of day and, now, will never do so) about interpretations of Lewis Carroll’s story in the popular media there was an added incentive to try to contact this literary and artistic heroine of mine.

So it was that, in 1975, we began a correspondence that ran, on and off, until 1995, during which time, we exchanged letters and cards and Tove sent me several books and a hand-drawn greeting that is now one of my most treasured treasures… 

Tove wrote to me at length about Hans Andersen and Lewis Carroll and talked about how, as a child, she had initially disliked the Alice books:
Reconstructing afterwards is difficult, one is afraid not to be honest, but I believe that I felt Carroll’s anguish and reacted by fright.

Of course, I read Alice again, 20, maybe 30 years later, still without knowing anything about Lewis Carroll’s life – and I was fascinated, enchanted. Most of all by his unbelievable capacity of [sic] changing everyday reality into another underground-reality, more real, overwhelmingly so – one dives into the depths and stays there until the end. It is nightmarish...
As far back as I can remember, I have had nightmares, maybe that was why I couldn’t like Lewis Carroll as a child. In 1966, when I illustrated the Swedish translation of Alice in Wonderland, I read about his life, and understood…

Of Tenniel's original illustrations, she wrote to me: "Tenniel was and is, to me the last word as to illustrating Alice, so I reflected a long time before taking on the job. It was like trying to paint Tahiti after Gauguin!"
Tove asked her Swedish publisher, Bonnier, to send me a copy of Alice (this was in per-internet days when it was difficult to source foreign publications in the UK), but she later reported that they had no copies available, so she generously sent me one of her own – inscribed...

I was overwhelmed by both the gift and Tove's imaginative interpretation of Wonderland, I approached several British publishers on her behalf hoping that someone would take the book for the British market, sadly without success – rather as Tove had predicted: "I don't think there will be any result. When I once sent them these illustrated books they liked my work but explained, very understandable, that they wanted to keep to their classics."

The artist also loaned me her last surviving copy of Snarkjakten, the Swedish edition of The Hunting of the Snark...

Later, Tove wrote to say I could keep the copy because she had found another. Though not inscribed, it has a very special association for me coming as it did from her own collection in the family's home on the island of Bredskär and carrying a beautiful bookplate designed by Tove's mother, Signe "Ham" Hammarsten-Jansson...

A few years later, in 1978, Tove succeeded where I had failed and found an American publisher for her illustrations to Wonderland.

On its publication, I received a personalised copy...

Being by this time a relatively successful broadcaster with a string of BBC radio profiles of children’s writers to my credit, I made several attempts to make a feature about Tove and her world.

We danced around the idea of my travelling to Finland to interview her, but she courteously eluded me for years and then, when she finally turned 80 and was far from well, she wrote to say that she had at last reached an age where she could now be excused a process which she had “disliked and feared” as long as she could remember. “Now it’s final,” she said, “and a great relief.” She signed off saying, “Hope you understand. Have a fine winter…”

Of course I understood, but the disappointment was sharp and still smarts.

In our correspondence I had told her – many times over, I imagine – how much and why I loved her work, but, too late I realised that there was still so many other things that I longed to ask her...

Had I managed to find my way to her and Tuulikki Pietilä's little house on Klovharu, I should have liked to ask her thoughts on Tolkien, especially since her illustrated The Hobbit, like her drawings for The Snark, had still not been published outside Sweden.

I would also have asked about her extraordinary understanding of youth and age; about the sense of longing and loss that runs through her books; and, most of all, about her acutely-felt perceptions of love, parenthood and friendship. Then, if we had reached that far in the conversation, I might even have had the courage to ask her perceptions on same-sex relationships…

Well, alas, that was not to be, but in her letters to me she at least revealed some insights into the mysteries of creativity.

Here are just a couple of thoughts from the Mistress of Moominland…
It is so very difficult to know in what degree one’s work has been influenced… How can I know when I portrait [sic] my own anguish, or dreams, or memories – or somebody else’s? There [are] constant influences… a lot of them maybe part of the big addition ending up in, say, writing or drawing…

Whatever they may be, they are possibly drowned in the everlasting stream of impressions where one never knows what is one’s own and what is a gift from outside…

One last snippet from those letters about that name – Tove – that, as a youngster caught my eye and intrigued me... It was, she told me, Norwegian: "The first Tove, a princess, is said to have been buried in a sea shell. In Hebrew, 'Tove' means 'good'." Any Moomin fan will think both those linguistic associations are appropriate to the person who put Moomin Valley on the map of our imagination...'

In the years since our correspondence and Tove's death, her illustrations to The Hunting of the Snark have at last found their way into an English edition of the poem and some of her pictures for The Hobbit have received limited exposure in Britain and the USA through their choice for the Official 2016 Tolkien Calendar for which I wrote an accompanying essay, 'From Moominland to Middle-earth'.

Then, this year, I received a request from the Finnish publisher WSOY for permission to include my essay as an afterword in a new edition of The Hobbit with Tove's illustrations to mark the 80th anniversary of the publication of Tolkien's story.

At the opening of the Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition, I was thrilled to be able to give a copy of the book to Tove's niece (and keeper of the Moomin legacy), Sophia Jansson.

The exhibition, Tove Jansson (1914-2001) remains on show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 28 January 2018. There is a excellent, lavishly illustrated accompanying catalogue, price £25.00 on sale at the gallery or online.

Dulwich Picture Gallery
Gallery Road
SE21 7AD

Times: 10am - 5pm, Tuesday - Sunday (Closed Mondays except Bank Holidays)
Admission: £15.50 Adult; £14.50 Senior Citizens; £7 Concessions (students, disabled, ES40, Art Fund & Museums Association Members); FREE: Children, Friends


© Moomin Characters™

Parts of this post first appeared on this blog in 2007.