My Peter, lll
Dad–Punch, Mary-Rose and family: *
So there was Peter at Cambridge. Dad, typically, said that he felt he wasted his time there, worked ineffectually and took little part in the many extra-curricular activities on offer. He didn’t get the hoped-for first in his finals, but even so, the college gave him a bursary to study for a PhD. Half way through this he walked into the Dean’s room and the Dean looked up from the letter he was reading and said “Would you like a job on Punch?”
The background to that story was that when the youngest member of the five-strong editorial staff of the satirical magazine Punch turned 40, they decided that they were getting too old and needed to get some younger blood in to keep them relevant. The editor wrote to a don he knew at Cambridge to ask him to find someone to train up. Allegedly someone else also wrote to a don at Oxford who never replied. So Peter was the only candidate. On his way to the interview for the job he was knocked down by a tram and arrived covered with blood and dirt, but they gave him the job anyway. It makes a great first job story and eventually made its way into his novel Death of a Unicorn.
Around this time, Peter went to a party in a friend’s rooms at Kings and met my mother, Mary-Rose. A pretty girl, standing by the fireplace laughing delightedly because she had just managed to break an unbreakable glass in the grate. Family legend then goes that soon after they met, she was whisked away to India (allegedly because my grandparents did not approve) and he thought he’d lost her forever. Almost a year passed—and Dad was at another party when she came up behind him and rapped him on the shoulder with her fan—he turned around and there was the girl of his dreams.
They were married at Bramdean, Hampshire, on April 26th 1953. They set up house in a flat in Pimlico, he continuing at Punch; Mary-Rose working in the display department of Heal’s furniture store. A couple of years later, I came along, followed by Polly the following year.
They then moved to a seedy area of West London called Holland Park** and set about converting a tall, thin terraced house into a single family home (in common with all the other houses in that street, it had been let as single rooms with coin-operated gas fires***). The pub over the road was a favourite haunt for local workers and Friday nights were frequently enlivened by fights in the street. Occasionally accompanied by a drunken fiddler.
They did as much of the conversion of the house as they could themselves. Dad made cupboards and shelves and created ingeniously designed tables and benches to fit small spaces. Many of our childhood memories include laying slabs, bricklaying, painting and decorating in every house we occupied.
Meanwhile at Punch, Dad was progressing through a number of editorial upheavals and jobs. At various points he was Art Editor (despite only being able to draw dragons and trains sideways), resident poet, Literary Editor and eventually Deputy Editor. It was clearly an extraordinary place to work (occasionally the editorial team played cricket in the corridors) and brought him into contact with some of the great humorists and cartoonists of the time.
At home, the family was growing, with the arrival of John and James. My parents bought a couple of small ramshackle cottages in Hampshire and set about converting them into a single dwelling. With a well, a chalk heap, a growing vegetable garden and wonderful views, this was a great weekend and holiday home—and also eventually became the setting for The Devils’ Children.
Some of the most abiding memories I have of my father from this time are the stories. He would read to us every night without fail and every car journey there would be a new episode of a story to listen to. As I think back, I realise how extraordinary this was but at the time, we just took it as normal. Sometimes they were re-tellings of great legends –with a twist, perhaps. More often they would be completely new. The boys always wanted a battle, so there were lots of those. It was a brilliant way to keep four lively kids quiet on long car journeys. He was our in-car entertainment.
Around this time Peter started tinkering with what he believed to be an original idea for a crime novel, working on the kitchen table after supper.
In 1965 Peter and Mary-Rose moved from their cottage to take over half her parents’ house at Bramdean, which must have been a huge stretch on a journalist’s wages. It was a wonderful place in summer—though freezing cold with a leaky roof in the winter. They developed a large vegetable garden and Dad started brewing beer (more successful than his efforts at wine making!).
By 1966-7ish Dad realised that the crime novel he was writing was completely stuck. That must have been a bad time. But it also brought him the cold-sweat nightmare which became the first scene of The Weathermonger. The following evening, he put the crime novel aside and poured his heart into writing his first children’s novel. Once that was done and on the way to his publisher, he returned to the crime novel, saw pretty much instantly what he needed to do with it and finished The Glass-Sided Ants’ Nest (published as Skin Deep in the UK allegedly because someone at the publisher declared that no woman would ever buy a book with an insect in the title).
In 1968 both The Weathermonger and The Glass-sided Ants’ Nest were published to great reviews. By that time he had completed two more novels and was starting on a fifth. With these successes under his belt, he had what my maternal grandfather described in his diary as ‘a sudden rush of blood to the head’, left his job at Punch to become a full-time author – and also bought the other half of the house at Bramdean.
* * *
* by Philippa^ Dickinson, who, when she retired a year ago, was Managing Director of Random House Children’s Books UK, and is now in training to become ruler of the universe because the universe so badly needs ruling. Peter and I used to listen with rapt fascination to Philippa’s tales of taking on various corporate miscreants^^—the kind of miscreants who are used to ploughing ordinary members of the public under, and probably still don’t know what hit them. The trains/transporters/teleportation booths will run on time in Philippa’s universe. Also, the reason Peter’s memorial service went as brilliantly as it did is largely down to Phil. It’s end of year holidays and everyone is closed for business? Well they’re just going to have to open up again. It’s beginning of year holidays and everyone is on a beach in Barbados? Well they’re just going to have to come back again. We all^^^ pitched in at our various levels of competence—that would be me blubbing along at the bottom—and the Dickinson Managerial Gene in its rich panoply of manifestations was much in evidence# but the honours go to Phil.##
^ I had a brain failure last night—they’re a bit endemic at present—and forgot that I hadn’t already posted Phil’s and was queueing up to post John’s. Fortunately he didn’t answer by return electron.
^^ As if running a large wodge of frelling Random House wasn’t enough. I’m talking about corporate miscreants outside publishing, where no one would know that this woman with the pleasant smile and mild manner is dangerous.
^^^ chiefly Peter’s four kids and I, with crucial input from various spouses, cousins, and Peter’s brothers
# None of Peter’s kids is a wallflower. They had an excellent role model. I remember, early on, once complaining, after a Dickinson family dinner party, that I hadn’t been able to get a word in edgewise. Peter looked at me in surprise. Shout louder, he said.
## This includes a lot of kind and patient support of the blubbing widow.
** For anyone who doesn’t get this joke, Holland Park is like the place to live. Buckingham Palace? Don’t be silly. Notting Hill? So last century. Holland Park is the place to be. But sixty years ago it was urban blight. Peter and Mary-Rose were in the first wave of gentrifiers.
*** And, according to Peter, electricity that consisted of a single naked light bulb on the landing of each floor, and a loo at the bottom of the garden.
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