Monday, 26 April 2021

Signed Books: 16 – THE STORY OF WALT DISNEY by Diane Disney Miller as told to Pete Martin



“How much is it?” I asked, and held my breath.

 

“Forty pounds,” he replied.

 

This conversation took place almost fifty years ago, but I remember it as if it were yesterday.

 

Forty pounds was an awful lot of money.

 

I was just twenty years old and was seriously bitten by the Disney-bug. My long-standing fascination – in truth, passion – with Disney movies had been suddenly intensified when I borrowed R. D. Field’s seminal book, The Art of Walt Disney from my local library. Here was an authoritative book about Disney, written by someone who, unlike my Mum, didn’t think of ‘cartoons’ as nothing more than kid’s stuff that any normal lad ought to have grown out of by the time his voice broke.

 

I wanted a copy of The Art of Walt Disney more than anything else in the world and began scouring second-hand bookshops in search of one, which is how I stumbled on Fred Zentner. He later owned one of the coolest stores in London, The Cinema Bookshop in London’s Great Russell Street – a stone’s throw from the British Museum – but, at that time, was selling film books, stills, posters and other gems (including a copy of the aforementioned and much-desired) The Art of Walt Disney – from the basement of The Atlantis Bookshop, a somewhat exotic emporium in nearby Museum Street. Once found, I began, bit-by-bit, buying up Fred’s stock of Disneyana.

 

Then came the day when he placed into my hands a copy of The Story of Walt Disney as told to Pete Martin by Walt’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller. It was a first edition American hardback, published by Henry Holt & Co (New York) in 1957. It still had its original dust-wrapper with a cover design by noted Disney studio artist Al Dempster and, what’s more, it was ––– SIGNED!

On the half-title page, in green ballpoint, with that distinctive bold handwriting, was the inscription:


 


It was his very signature ­– including the little circle over the ‘I’ in ‘Disney’ that I emulated in my own signature. This man – whom I had never met but who exercised such an obsessive fascination over me – had held this book, opened it and inscribed his name inside.

I wanted it!

No, I craved it!

But, FORTY POUNDS...

Forty pounds for a book? My mother would go bananas! Besides, I couldn't afford it. I didn’t have forty pounds. I didn’t know when I would ever have forty pounds. But, right there and then, I desired that book with a passion that I have scarcely felt about anything since.

But, FORTY POUNDS...

It was way beyond my meagre means. Then Fred Zentner showed himself to be a man who understood the full anguish of desire, because he made me an amazing offer. If I paid him ten pounds a month for the next four months, he would keep the book for me until I had paid the full amount. Month-by-month, I made my pilgrimage to The Atlantis Bookshop, took another look at the swirling green signature and paid further ten pounds. Then, one day, it was finally mine!

Fast-forward thirteen years; it is 1982 and I am in the Archive at the Walt Disney Studio in Burbank, California, talking to Archivist, Dave Smith. I am researching a television documentary about the soon-to-be-opened EPCOT and I mention, in passing, that the prize of my personal Disney collection is an autographed copy of The Story of Walt Disney.

Dave Smith laughs and asks a question that almost brings the universe crashing down around my ears.

“Are you sure it’s actually signed by Walt Disney?”

“Of course! It says so, in green ballpoint: ‘Best Wishes Walt Disney’!”

“That may be,” he replies, “but many people at the Studio - some of them distinguished animators – signed books and pictures on Walt’s behalf.”

I look stunned. But, Dave goes on: “The Disney signatures by these other artists are more like the famous logo signature that appears on Disney movies and merchandise. Walt’s personal signature, however, is quite distinctive. Would you like to see a GENUINE Disney signature?”

Nothing could be simpler: within seconds I could know whether or not I owned the real thing. Or, I could leave things as they were. Except, of course, that now I couldn’t. Dave Smith had sowed a seed of terrible doubt...

I hesitate for no more than a second. “OK, yes, let’s see a GENUINE Disney autograph…”

Dave give me a copy of an article he had written in 1981 for Manuscripts, the journal of The Manuscript Society, illustrated with a whole series of official Walt Disney signatures – mostly not by the man himself.

Then I saw this one...

 

 


Relief! Joy! The signature was just like mine!


When, a few years later, I got to know Diane Disney Miller, I asked her about the book and she told me that her father used to sign copies for sale in the bookshop at Disneyland, which was very probably where my copy had originally been purchased.



 

Diane also explained that whilst The Story of Walt Disney carried her name as author (and, indeed, included several of her own reminiscences) it had been Walt himself who had collaborated directly with Pete Martin on the book, which had originally been serialised in the pages of The Saturday Evening Post in 1956. Her father had decided that it would be better for his life-story to be presented as if told by his daughter, so that the Post’s fee could go directly to Diane who – with her husband, Ron Miller, and their two young children – was currently living with her parents while saving to buy a home of their own. So everyone involved agreed to the ruse and the story appeared with the copy-selling tag line: 

 

AT LAST

the intimate story of America’s

best-loved, least-known genius, told by

his daughter… 

MY DAD WALT DISNEY

 

 


Fast-forward to 1998, a decade-and-a-half on, when I find myself in San Francisco working with Diane on a BBC radio series about her father. I have carried the treasured volume with me and I ask her if she would add her signature to the book’s title page.


Diane is modestly reluctant since, as she had already told me, she didn’t consider herself in any sense the book’s ‘author’. However, she eventually relents and graciously inscribes the book: 

 

 

 

 

A few more years down the road, 2001, and I am, once again, in California attending the Los Angeles premiere of the documentary film, Walt Disney: The Man Behind the Myth in which I appear as an interviewee. By this time, I have acquired a British edition of that Disney life-story published in London by Odhams Press in 1958. 

 

 

  

At the post-screening party, chatting with Diane and her husband Ron Miller, I produce this volume and ask whether the book’s Non-Author would oblige with another inscription!

Appreciating the joke, she unhesitatingly agrees and beneath the printed sub-title - ‘An intimate biography by his daughter, DIANE DISNEY MILLER, as told to Pete Martin’ – she teasingly adds:

 



 

When, four years later in 2005, the Disney Press belatedly reissued The Story of Walt Disney, Diane wrote a foreword in which – for the first time publicly – she revealed the truth about the book’s writing.  

 

***

 

The autograph business is big business: a few years ago, at auction, a copy of the original edition signed by Walt (like mine in green ballpoint!) realised over three thousand dollars. And, there’s currently a signed copy listed on the Internet for twice that figure. I have only ever seen one other copy signed by both Walt and Diane.

So, all in all, I think that original ­– and seemingly astronomical – price-tag of forty pounds feels like money incredibly well spent!

It is not, however, for any financial value that I treasure these two volumes, but for the even more valuable memories and associations that they hold…


Sunday, 25 April 2021

FORTY YEARS ON... Eric Fraser's LORD OF THE RINGS radio art: Week 8

 

On this Sunday, forty years ago, BBC Radio's dramatisation of The Lord of the Rings reached its seventh episode, 'The Mines of Moria'; Eric Fraser's accompanying illustration in the Radio Times, depicts the doomful Bridge of Khazad-dûm.

 

The episode ended, obviously, with the cliffhanger-moment of Gandalf's fall with the Balrog into the abyss and his line: "Fly, you fools!" 

 

This denouement prompted an anxious inquiry directed to the producer, Jane Morgan, from Michael Hordern, playing Gandalf: "Jane...? My agent clearly said I was to be in 22 episodes, but I seem to have been killed off in Episode 8..."

 

"Don't worry, Michael," replied Jane reassuringly, "you're resurrected in Episode 12."

 

No further explanation being required, Michael wandered off muttering, "Splendid, splendid..." 

 

Sunday, 18 April 2021

FORTY YEARS ON... Eric Fraser's LORD OF THE RINGS radio art: Week 7

Forty years ago, today, BBC Radio's dramatisation of The Lord of the Rings continued with its seventh episode, 'The Fellowship of the Ring'; Eric Fraser's accompanying illustration in the weekly listings magazine, Radio Times, depicting the furious snowstorm on the Pass of Caradhras: the first great obstacle faced by the Fellowship of the Nine, having set out from Rivendell on their quest to destroy the One Ring...

 


  

Saturday, 17 April 2021

Signed Books: 15 – PUSS IN BOOTS by Philip Pullman and Ian Beck

 

Having recently written in praise of the work of my friend, artist and illustrator, Ian Beck, I thought I'd choose this signed volume as it links him with another of my heroes, Philip Pullman...

 

 

The Adventures of that Most Enterprising Feline Puss in Boots (2000) is an ingeniously-presented retelling of that popular fairy-tale, the oldest version of which was written by Italian author Giovanni Francesco Straparola, who included it in his The Facetious Nights of Straparola (c. 1550–1553). Later, of course, it found its way into French and the better-known narrative found in Charles Perrault's 1697 book Histoires ou contes du temps passé. This particularly delightful interpretation combines an elegant nod to the antique ('Written by Mr. Philip Pullman and Illustrated by Mr. Ian Beck') with a modern graphic-novel twist...

 


I first encountered Philip Pullman when I interviewed him for a radio programme I was making about J. R. R. Tolkien and I mentioned that Tolkien had intended his stories of Middle-earth to be seen as having taken place in Britain thousands of years ago. "Well," he responded, "I'd be happy to accept that as a fact when an archeologist finds the first hobbit skull!"

 

We met again when I was writing my 'making-of-the-movie-guide' to the 2007 film version of his The Golden Compass – indeed, I have a copy of my book signed by Mr P which I picked up on ebay! Other signed Pullmans in the collection are the 'His Dark Materials' trilogy (inscribed to me by the author and illustrator, John Lawrence), The Book of Dust and Daemon Voices.

 

Puss in Boots was a purchase and – apart from everything else delightful about the book – I especially like the fact that the author and illustrator have signed the title-page in the same antique style as their names are printed: each preceded by a 'Mr.'

 

 

 

 

Friday, 16 April 2021

AN ARTIST'S YEAR IN LOCK-DOWN

 
Joy unbounded! Delight unrestrained!

Just received: Ian Beck's recently published The Light in Suburbia
 
 
Having followed Ian's year-long, week-on-week sharing of these paintings on his always lively and engaging Facebook page, to now have and revisit these glorious presentations of light and colour (or, sometimes, the absence of colour) in book-form has provided a journey of re-discovery. For, from the book's elegantly written introduction we are provided with the reason why and how Ian began making these potent, emotionally-charged images. 
 
For so many of us the Covid-19 lock-down – with its vacant streets and timeless atmosphere and with the empty skies reclaimed from the drone of aircraft by the song of birds – released long-locked-away memories of our youth.
 
For Ian, after an extraordinary and hugely successful career as one of our great national illustrators (over a hundred books and counting), lock-down gave him the opportunity and insight to re-view the 'ordinary' world of his everyday dog-walks with an artist's-eye sensibility, capturing the 'extraordinary' in what, at other times might pass for the commonplace. Infused with recollections of his childhood and his early days as a student of the craft of which he is such a master, he found a new source of creative inspiration; as he says: 'I noticed clearly and tried to record the beauty around me in the unprepossessing every day.'
 
This record of such perceived beauty – elusive but for the imposed mindfulness of a pandemic – takes on a year-long journey, season-by-season, not across stunning natural landscapes, but along the streets, back gardens (with, sometimes, interior glimpses behind kitchen windows) of a London suburb where the natural world and human habitation tolerantly co-exist: tree-lined streets of semi-detached 1920s villas – variegated with the odd startlingly-rigid modernist house – illuminated by the pale sunlight of spring, the blaze of summer, the weakening glow of autumn or the pellucid light of street-lamp and moonshine.
 
Although Ian thanks his social media followers for their enthusiasm and encouragement, I wonder if he is fully aware just how very much his artist's journey through lock-down helped the rest of us carry the heavy burdens of what has been, without doubt, the strangest of years. 
 
Now, the record of that journey, in the form of this book, will go on transforming the vision of day-to-day things and places for anyone who turns its pages...
 







Sunday, 11 April 2021

FORTY YEARS ON... Eric Fraser's LORD OF THE RINGS radio art: Week 6

 

Forty years ago, on this Sunday, BBC Radio's dramatisation of The Lord of the Rings reached its sixth episode, 'The Council of Elrond', with Frodo and his companions finding sanctuary in the fair valley of Rivendell, 'The Last Homely House East of the Sea', depicted here in Eric Fraser's original art for his illustration made to accompany the programme's billing in the weekly listings magazine, Radio Times...

 


"And the house of Elrond was a refuge for the weary and the oppressed, and a treasury of good counsel and wise lore.

Friday, 9 April 2021

Signed Books: 14 – PHILIP: AN INFORMAL BIOGRAHY by Basil Boothroyd

 

On the day when the media is obsessively (but quite understandably) focused on the life and times of the Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, I reached for this book, published, fifty years ago, in 1971...

 


 

It's an uncommon book that has a front cover without a title – although Richard Wilson's affectionate caricature was doubtless more enough to identify the subject; but, if there any doubt, the title and author do appear on the back cover... 


 

Basil Boothroyd (1910-1988) was one of the wittiest writers and broadcasters of his era whose humorous pieces for the late-lamented Punch magazine were jewels among gems. He was a long-serving Assistant Editor on that magazine and was beloved by many others who worked at the difficult craft of creating seemingly-effortless humour. 

P G Wodehouse wrote of Boothroyd: There are very few humorists you can rely on to be funny every time. In fact I can think of only one. He is a writer of whom I never miss a word.

And a later Punch editor, Alan Coren recalled:

He was probably the most professional writer I have ever known; and consequently both the most self-punishing and the least self-satisfied. Few have worked harder to make a sentence right, or to conceal the effort that had made it so, few have truffled longer or deeper in our bottomless vocabulary for the one word which would corral the elusive thought, and very few indeed have sat like him, staring at a typed semi-colon for half an hour and deliberating whether or not a full colon might produce a more effective pause. Then coming back two hours later and making it a comma … It prevented him from writing novels: "I might spend the rest of my life," [he said] "re-polishing the first thousand words!"

Boothroyd was also an accomplished broadcaster: a past master at 'talking with' rather than 'speaking to' the listener and his radio series, The Small, Intricate Life of Gerald C Potter – given audio life by Ian Carmichaelwas one of the joys of BBC radio comedy from the mid-'seventies until the early 'eighties.

What makes Boothroyd unique among 'Royal Biographers', is that he was personally invited to write the book by his subject, HRH being an admirer of the Boothroyd style. 

After spending a year accompanying the Prince on his duties – with plenty of interview opportunities and free access to Royal files and staff – the book is, as the title proclaims, an 'informal' biography. Nevertheless, it is full of richly researched detail (did you know, for example, that Prince Philip's Passport number was '1', the Queen not having a passport?) and Boothroyd's reported conversations with the Prince are candid and entertaining. 

Today we've heard from a welter of 'Royal Authors and Observers', but if you're interested in a very real glimpse of the man who married the Queen, I'd recommend scouring ebay for a copy of Boothroyd's book.

Mine is a much-valued 'association copy': inscribed and signed by the author to fellow journalist whom I also admired: Allan Hargreaves (1935-2011), reporter, interviewer and presenter for Thames TV and Capital Radio and best-known for Thames' early evening programme, Today, with Eamonn Andrews and Bill Grundy on which programme he worked from day one in 1968 until 1982. 



A final quote from HRH back in the days when he'd only been Royal Consort for a mere eighteen years: 'I look at it as a job, and I imagine I do it at much the same pressure that I would do any other job.'

Somehow, I doubt that assessment changed much over the next fifty years.

Monday, 5 April 2021

Signed Books: 13 – THE MELANCHOLY DEATH OF OYSTER BOY & OTHER STORIES by Tim Burton

 

This edition of The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories was published in the UK in 1998 in a superior, cloth-bound, limited-signed-and-numbered edition, complete with slip-case. I can't remember how much it cost, but – suffice it to say – it wasn't cheap. But as a committed fan of that wild genius, Tim Burton, I had to own it! 



 

The story of Oyster Boy is a curious and tragic little tale and – together with the other characters and episodes in this dark little volume – feels like an unholy child of those two masters of mournful histories: Edward Lear and Edward Gorey... 

I've had a number of encounters with Tim Burton over the years: interviewing him on the release of several of his films, including Batman, Mars Attacks, Ed Wood and Alice in Wonderland (as well as being the unheard 'prompter' for his audio commentary on The Nightmare Before Christmas) and, as a result, a number of signed items have accrued from those meetings. 

When Sleepy Hollow had its UK release in 1999, I interviewed him about the film at London's Dorchester Hotel and took Oyster Boy along with me, hoping that I might be able to get my already signed copy 'upgraded' with a personal inscription. The conversation went like this...

 

SIBLEY: This is a really easy autograph request –– you’ve already signed the book, so all I’m asking is whether you’d be kind enough to add a personal dedication.

 

BURTON: Well, since I’m saving on the ink I’d have used to write ‘Tim Burton’, I’ll use it to do you a little drawing!


Sunday, 4 April 2021

FORGET THE EGGS – HAND ROUND THE EASTER CAKE!

 

Today we'll be observing another ancient custom with a slice of Simnel cake.

 


The name 'simnel' comes from simila, the Latin word for fine, wheaten flour, and it is a fruit cake – not unlike a Christmas cake – covered in a thick coating of marzipan and, sometimes, with another layer of marzipan or almond paste baked into the middle of the cake. Yummy!

The cake is decorated, around the top, with eleven marzipan balls representing the true disciples of Jesus (Judas being excluded) and, in some cases, with single, larger, ball of marzipan placed in the centre of the cake to represent Christ. Today, they could well feature a few fluffy chicks and be dotted with mini-chocolate eggs, but there are many kinds of variations on the Simnel cake tradition.

Although the cake is now an Easter treat (and, so, is often just called 'Easter Cake'), but in the 18th and 19th Centuries, it was associated with Mothering Sunday (or, as we now more commonly refer to it, 'Mother's Day') which falls a few weeks earlier than Easter, on the fourth Sunday in Lent – a day which has been known by many other old names, among them 'Refreshment Sunday' so called because it was marked by a relaxation of the Lenten fast and was the day in the year when people made the pilgrimage to their 'mother church' where they had received the sacrament of baptism. 

Since it was often the same church as the one in which their family had been baptized, it meant that children who were working away from home as domestic servants or apprentices, had an opportunity to be with their parents and pay their respects to their earthly – along with their spiritual – mother. Many girls working as maids and kitchen staff in the 'big houses' would often take their mothers a homemade Simnel cake, baked in their employers' kitchens.

Lesson over; now, just cut a slice –– and tuck in!

FORTY YEARS ON... Eric Fraser's LORD OF THE RINGS radio art: Week 5

 

Forty years ago, on this Sunday, BBC Radio Four continued its dramatisation of The Lord of the Rings.

Here's the original art for Eric Fraser's illustration in the weekly listings magazine, Radio Times, drawn to accompany the billing for Episode 5: 'The Knife in the Dark'...

 

Friday, 2 April 2021

WHAT'S GOOD ABOUT GOOD FRIDAY?

 

My old granny used to say, "I don't know why they call it Good Friday! Hardly good for Jesus, was it?"

Well, that's the subject for a sermon and I am no preacher. But whatever your beliefs, the Christian allegory of death and resurrection represented by the cross and the empty tomb remains an eternal, universal and life-enhancing symbol of hope...


 

My granny also believed that Good Friday was the day on which one could plant something in your garden with the sure and certain expectation that it would grow and blossom.

I've always remembered this piece of folklore and, every Good Friday, have wondered at its origin. Thanks to Google, I've found the answer... or, rather... answers!

* Good Friday was thought to be a good day for planting seeds inspired by interpreting the Parable of the Sower, in which seeds needs to be planted in the ground in order to bear fruit, as a metaphor for Jesus' death and burial on this day.

* Gardeners and farmers considered Good Friday to be the best day of planting peas, potatoes and parsley because it was the only day of the year when the devil was believed to be powerless. Parsley is notoriously slow to germinate, and very often gardeners would make three sowings - two for the devil and one for the gardener - before getting a crop to come up. They even poured boiling water over the soil before planting to deter the devil and that technique may have actually helped, since parsley germinates faster in warmer soils.

* There was probably also the practical reason for working in the garden on Good Friday in that men were free to work for their own benefit. However, this was not true everywhere; in North Yorkshire in the 1860s, "great care (was) taken not to disturb the earth in any way; it were impious to use spade, plough or harrow… a villager… shocked his neighbours by planting potatoes on Good Friday, but they never came up."

* Many people in the upper Midwest of the USA religiously planted their potato crop on a Good Friday - even when Easter came early and they had to chop their way through icy soil in order to do so!

* Some people believe that the moon phases were important to the planting of crops and that potatoes thrive if planted under a full moon and there is always a full moon on Good Friday, or a few days before, or the Saturday/Sunday afterwards.


So, there you are (true or not) and whether you're gardening (or not) may your day today be a good Good Friday!

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Signed Books: 12 – A POSITIVELY FINAL APPEARANCE by Alec Guinness

 

As a youngster – especially one bitten by the acting-bug and still dreaming of a career in the spotlight – Alec Guinness was my greatest theatrical hero, so – in addition to a couple of replies to fan letters, I have signed copies of his three autobiographical volumes, of which A Positively Final Appearance: A Journal, 1996-97 was (as the title suggests) the last.   

 


In truth, I only twice saw Guinness on stage: in 1971, as the irascible blind barrister in John Mortimer's A Voyage round My Father with Jeremy Brett; and, two years later, wickedly funny as Doctor Wickstead in Alan Bennett's raucous farce, Habeas Corpus – that's Sir Alec in his deadpan comic performance in that play on the book's cover.   

In truth, my infatuation with Guinness's work was mostly to do with his astonishing chameleon roles for the cinema: his two Dickensian turns as Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations and Fagin in Oliver Twist, Kind Hearts and Coronets (no fewer than eight separate roles), The Lavender Hill Mob (teamed up with Stanley Holloway), The Man in the White Suit, The Card, The Ladykillers (perhaps his funniest role as the sinister Professor Marcus with his ghastly leer and tombstone teeth), The Bridge on the River Kwai (as the stiff-upper-lip Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson), The Horse's Mouth, Tunes of Glory, Lawrence of Arabia (an inscrutable Prince Faisal), Doctor Zhivago, Cromwell (the ill-fated King Charles I), Scrooge (as Marley's grey-green Ghost), Brother Sun and Sister Moon in which he gave a cameo performance as Pope Innocent III and, in contrast, in the title role of Hitler: The Last Ten Days –– I am, of course, talking here about an era prior to Star Wars!   

Only later did I discover just what, a splendid writer Guinness was: a witty – but never bitchy – theatrical raconteur with a cunning gift for creating unforgettable pen portraits that are as affectionate as they are candid. 

But the only reason for choosing this particular volume today is because it is, as far as I'm aware, the only signed book in my library with an inscription that is dated 1st April!