Age of innocence

Easy reading - Malcolm Clark visits the optimistic (and Aryan) world of Ladybird books

Harry Wingfield, who died last month, barely managed to scrape into the obituaries. This despite his work being lodged deep in the memories of a whole generation. As the most illustrious of the illustrators for the Ladybird children's books, Wingfield set the tone for the publisher and created a distinctive look: bright primary colours, blue skies, cotton-wool clouds and children running around, limbs akimbo, when they weren't trying to mend kites or conduct wide-eyed experiments on miniature pulleys.

For anyone under the age of 50, a glance at an old Ladybird book is a peek into a lost age of innocence. If nothing else, most of us can remember when Your Body was passed around a class for the first time, and its anatomical drawings of a naked family struck ten-year-olds dumb. I had an immediate crush on the father, I hate to say, but then I also had a crush on Jesus, so that probably doesn't count.

In the Sixties and Seventies, Ladybird books sold by the million - 80 million, in fact, for the Key Words Reading Scheme alone. Since their heyday, however, it has become fashionable to criticise them and Wingfield's work. In particular, his inventions Peter and Jane, the stars of the reading scheme, with their high spirits, healthy outdoor optimism and general overall whiteness, are seen as politically suspect. Supposedly, their passion for exercise as well as school uniforms has a little too much of the Teutonic, if you get my drift. Jane, smiling till her face ached, with a thatch of blonde (yes blonde) hair, is supposed to be nothing less than Riefenstahl for infants.

Wingfield did not exactly help his case when he admitted preferring to draw nice, middle-class children, because no one wants to read about "dustbin kids". No Gavyn Davies-style self-hatred there, then. He was inspired by Walsall, where he first began working as a designer, in the 1920s, and so claimed that the reason there were no black faces in his books was that "there weren't any in Walsall in the 1960s". Ahem.

You can see how all this would annoy the torn-faced politicos who went on to attack Ladybird as bourgeois propaganda. The same brigade now seem to be running Ladybird itself. The company's official website apologises that some of the old books were "not very politically correct". It turns out that the worst example they can find is that the letter "A", in the "Learn Your Alphabet" series, was originally represented by an armoured car. I suppose there weren't that many of them in Walsall in the 1960s, either.

By contrast, nowadays, the books feature a black policewoman and fireman. There's even a Builder Bill with a bright-yellow construction helmet that is touchingly YMCA. Their smiles are never quite as uninhibited as Peter's and Jane's, doubtless a necessary reflection of their continuing battle against unconscious prejudice within their respective hierarchies. Or dodgy drawing.

All this political angst seems misplaced. If children really did think their books represented reality, then Charlotte's Web should have convinced a generation to adore fluffy spiders and conduct conversations with them. There is, however, one way in which, unwittingly, the books do reflect the reality of their period. It goes unmentioned in the books because it is something we were unaware of at the time. Those wide expanses of seashore and countryside on Planet Ladybird are seen as totally safe. There are no overprotective parents, no teachers dreading accidents or subsequent inquests, no lawyers waiting to sue when Peter stumbles during a jump over a stile. Nor are there any dirty white vans prowling along B-roads on the off chance.

Public space was not thought to be dangerous then, and this is not just nostalgic idealisation. I grew up in a small town in the early 1970s. The vast public park really did have attendants. It also happened to have well-tended flower beds and a boating pond. These days, you have to train your dog to tiptoe over the syringes. The war memorial is covered in graffiti and there isn't a police station for ten miles. If you sent Peter and Jane there to fly a kite, you'd kit them out in bulletproof vests first.

In fact, the entire old Ladybird project had an indefinable public-spiritedness about it. This partly reflected a strain in British culture that went all the way back to Samuel Smiles's Self-Help and the Victorian reference libraries. The quest for knowledge was seen as an uncomplicated and enjoyable pursuit, one in which young citizens should be encouraged to share. So once you had learnt to read, you could move on to a panoply of different subjects, each featured in its own dedicated little tome, from the lives of biographical figures, such as Captain Scott or Robert the Bruce, to significant moments in history, such as the civil war. You could learn about "wind and flight", or even Australasian mammals. The nesting habits of the platypus were a major talking point, if I remember correctly, in Primary Five (in between comparing the length of our Bay City Rollers trousers - the rot had clearly set in).

It is telling that the books which Ladybird no longer publishes are these factual ones. Apparently, they were just not selling enough. Ladybird has managed, however, to arrange a juicy commercial tie-in with Disney. You might no longer be able to read about William the Conqueror or trace the migratory patterns of the North American bison, but you can read abridged and illustrated texts of famous Hollywood movies. One of the most popular is Dumbo - which somehow seems appropriate.

Malcolm Clark is a documentary producer

This article first appeared in the 15 April 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Who does he think he is?