Invisible Ink: No 199 - Sheila Hodgetts


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The Independent Culture

This is a first; I can’t discover anything about Sheila Hodgetts at all. It’s as if she hid herself entirely. There once was a collectors’ guide to her books which had some biographical detail, but that’s out of print, and even her website has closed. More worryingly, the site owner is offering his complete collection of Hodgetts books for sale.

I have never been quite so stumped by an author, but I remembered her strange tales from childhood, and online bookshops were able to track down a much scribbled-upon copy. Although it was dateless, the poor paper quality suggested that it was printed in the early 1950s, when decent stock was hard to come by, and therefore expensive.

This would have been the era of books you could paint by adding water to the impregnated pages; the time of Rupert Bear and Noddy, characters who lived in odd pastoral neverlands that existed somewhere between Narnia and the Home Counties, comforting and safe havens for young imaginations.

But whereas Rupert and Noddy’s homelands were fairly well-defined, Hodgetts’ were a little more slippery. Her hybrid hero was Toby Twirl, an upright pig in patched dungarees, with human hands and feet. His sidekick was Eli the Elephant, dressed in a smart jacket, grey trousers, and shoes, and there was a penguin called Pete. Like Rupert, they spoke in rhyming couplets and lived in one of those attractive towns with an inn, signposts, and a clocktower. But in Toby’s world there were also witches, wizards, giants, elves, castles, mermen, gnomes, and dragons. Some of the stories take place in Dillyland, a Lilliputian landscape reachable by a miniature train. Even though there are villains and obstacles to overcome, the Toby Twirl books exude a powerful atmosphere of homeliness, security, and warmth.

Defining these characters and their settings are many beautifully evocative drawings by Edward Jeffrey. He excels in visits to enchanted isles, and there’s a trip to Candytown, conjured up in the strange pastel tones of cheap post-war confectionary.

Hodgetts’ character proved immensely popular and her many volumes included regular annuals. The one I have features a Toby Twirl theme song printed with the sheet music, which assumes we can all read music – and perhaps the well-mannered children at whom the books were aimed could do so. The adventures are all out of print, but I don’t see why these utterly charming volumes shouldn’t become highly desired once more.