Retro delights: Ladybird books

Synonymous with a Sixties childhood, Ladybird books influenced and inspired an entire generation. Robert Elms remises
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The Independent Culture

The covers alone do it for me. One glance at Sir Walter Raleigh proffering his cape or Florence Nightingale swinging her lamp and I am immediately transported back to my tiny bedroom in our north-London council house, snuggling between other covers with a series of heroes. Ladybird books, those little hardback, brightly coloured epics, were such a vital part of my youth that their appeal still resonates to this day.

We weren't the sort of family who had tomes to call our own, but there always seemed to be a smattering of half-a-crown Ladybird books around the house. My passion was for the "Adventure from History" series where a resolutely old-school version of the past came alive over 52 brilliantly drawn and told pages of daring deeds and jutting jaws.

All written by the fabulously monikered L Du Garde Peach (MA PhD, DLitt) and illustrated by the more humble John Kenney, there was a consistency of tone throughout the 30 or so titles they made between 1940 and 1970. When I was devouring them in the late Sixties, they already felt faintly old-fashioned – good always had a habit of winning in the end. They also had great pictures of ferocious battles.

Even better, there was a check-list of all the titles in the range (officially called Series 561) on the back of each volume. This meant that a bookish boy could put trainspotterish ticks by all the ones he'd read and dream of collecting the complete set. I grew out of Ladybird books and into Levi Sta-Press and Trojan Records before I could accomplish the task, but my love of history never left and I ended up doing a degree in the subject at the LSE years later.

Now, later still and with a son of my own who has big eyes for history, I've started collecting them again and just bought my all-time favourite, Oliver Cromwell, for six quid. It has a series of neat ticks on the back and I like to think that just possibly I've seen that particular book before.

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