How I succumbed to the black mermaid of Kensington

Robert Winder's Notebook
Click to follow
It isn't every day you bump into something you have never seen before. But last week, in South Kensington of all places, I came across a black mermaid. There are certain things you expect to see in this plush London playground - Michael Portillo campaigning down the King's Road, Madonna house-hunting in the Boltons, Gianluca Vialli lobbing a set of golf clubs into his Jaguar. But a black mermaid is an exciting novelty, even here.

I'm ashamed to say I hadn't really registered before that they were so rare. They do, after all, tend to inhabit warm tropical seas, where sunlight flashes on multicoloured fish, and turtles flap along the pink and blue reefs; and they are only rarely spotted in the Baltic. They are, if anything, much more likely to be black than white. But Disney's little mermaid was blonde, and so was Daryl Hannah in Splash, and so are the mermaids in Peter Pan, and so is just about every other mermaid you have ever seen in a children's book or film. They all look like cute little ballerinas from Copenhagen, or Page Three dollybirds, and the reason why is so obvious it barely needs going into.

The one I saw was in a children's book published by Verna Wilkins, founder and chief author of Tamarind Books. Ms Wilkins was due to give a talk at the Anglo-French children's book fair at the Institut Francais, but, to the embarrassment of the festival organisers, only one person had turned up to hear it (two, if you include me). So we retired instead to the brasserie for lunch, and had the seminar in tutorial form, over croque-monsieurs and coffee.

"I grew up in Grenada," said Ms Wilkins, "and was brought up on Little Red Riding Hood, and Christmas cards with snow on them. Of course I never saw snow until I came here (and was shocked to discover what happened to it when it melted). But it was having children here in England that showed me the difficulty of finding a book with a black face in it. They just weren't there. And one day my son came home from school with a picture of himself, and he'd painted himself with a pink face - he thought that's how people looked in books. And I thought: how can I change this?"

At that time, a dozen years ago, Ms Wilkins was a lecturer in English. But she set up as a publisher and started writing and producing books that would correct the balance. She is tall, smart and soignee - very South Kensington - but in fact has spent most of her life in Camberley, an army town not usually thought of as smart or trend-setting. "I knew nothing about publishing going into it," she said. "My son said I was `completely unfettered by reality'. But I didn't want to campaign, because it's so boring being an issue all the time, a problem. And I didn't want to just collect rejection slips by sending work off to existing publishers. So I just went ahead. And now I find myself flying to Norway or Zimbabwe to talk about my books and my company." Tamarind Books has done well. One of her books, Dave and the Tooth Fairy , has sold over 100,000 copies.

This kind of talk - the promotion of race awareness in children's books - is often satirised as mere political correctness. And sometimes, in the hands of the well-meaning panels of teachers and social servants who campaign in the area, that is all it is. There have been a few too many books in which nice fair girls ask nice black boys to tell them all about their fascinating and colourful cultures and backgrounds. These merely draw attention to and emphasise gulfs. But Ms Wilkins is not a politician of that sort. "My books are not about race as such," she said. "They're just supposed to be fun. And they're not just for a black readership, either." Her mermaid, Jessica, is a computer-literate conservationist, fighting to save the sea (turquoise, naturally) from pollution. But she is easily gorgeous enough to lure the occasional sailor on to the rocks; in fact, she wouldn't look out of place in a nightclub. "My children call her Mermaid Spice," she said.

In seeking to create uncomplicated role models for children, Ms Wilkins is becoming something of a role model herself. The results are not always happy. "I was once invited to a school in Golders Green," she said. "To talk about all this. And I arrived at the same time as a photographer from The Times. And, no offence, but I had a pretty smart car, and was dressed, well, as I am today. And this photographer came in a 2CV tied together with string, and had jeans with holes in them, and was lugging shapeless bags with cameras - I mean, he was scruffy. And these two little black girls were sent out to fetch the author, and what do they do? They go straight up to this guy and ask him in. And you should be used to it, but I was winded, winded. I went inside and I said to the teacher, `You've got a problem'. And she said, `Why do you think we asked you to come here?'"

When people talk about institutional racism, they conjure up images derived from the Stephen Lawrence affair, all stabbings in the night and high- profile rebuffs. But racism is like an iceberg, and violence is only the tip. The bulk of it consists of these casual assumptions, these daily slights. Ms Wilkins's black mermaid is fun, but she has her work cut out too.

All of which was something of a digression away from the ostensible point of the Anglo-French book fair, a four-day festival which runs until tomorrow. The foyer of the Institut Francais had been converted into a bookstore, with heaps of titles in both languages. Parties of schoolchildren were sitting on the stairs waiting for the next film in the programme - Babar, or Asterix - to begin. And Quentin Blake sat in the middle of them, signing copies of his books. His recent appointment as the nation's children's literature laureate attracted rather less attention than Andrew Motion's investiture as Poet Laureate, but he has been working away in schools and at book festivals.

Here, he found himself in an ambassadorial role, an eager and fluent Francophone apologising for the fact that selling French children's books in England is every bit as hard as selling British beef the other way. It isn't only racial stereotypes that could use some brushing down.

One of the odd features of Britain's children's books is that 95 per cent of them are printed in Singapore, where production is cheaper, better and less hassle than in the UK. Such is the global market. So it was especially moving to see the small exhibition of samizdat books from pre- liberation Czechoslovakia, which opened last week at St Bride's Library, just off Fleet Street. There has been plenty of hoopla about the 10th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution - on Thursday, Prague celebrated it by reminding everyone what things used to be like, running 10-year- old television programmes, emptying the shelves in shops, and urging waiters to be surly. But here, in a few glass cases, sat evidence of another world altogether. Here was the 1909 German typewriter on which some heavy-hitting typist had turned out copies of Nadezhda Mandelstam's memoirs. Here was the rough printing pad, spool of shoemaker's thread, serrated knife and selection of wallpaper used to stitch and bind the illegal pamphlets and books in the Czech intellectual underground.

It wasn't long ago, but the procedures of samizdat looked positively antique, and the books themselves - by Havel, Klima, Hrabel and many others - looked unbelievably precious: typed and stitched by hand in some village with tools that could be hidden in the barn if the police came by. In the 14 years that samizdat publishing existed, more than 1,000 titles were produced, and 200 regular journals. The fact that it already seems ancient does not prevent it from remaining the most romantic emblem of literary tenacity in recent times. It's enough to make one believe that if all our new technology disappeared, people would simply pluck goose quills and start scribbling on parchment.

"It's quite surreal to see these things we used every day looking like archaeological exhibits," said Pavel Seifter, the Czech Republic's ambassador in London and a samizdat printer himself. "There were six of us, with a 19th century printing press, up in the mountains. In fact the first book we made was a history of Czech-German relations in the 19th century. The thing people forget about samizdat is that it wasn't producing political material exactly, it was mainly novels and plays and poetry and history. But you could still go to prison for doing a thing like that."

The technology has certainly moved on. We have electronic desktop publishing; they had elbow-grease hayloft publishing. It is quite something, in an age where illicit books could easily be lap-topped on to the Internet, to be confronted with evidence of the heroism required not by writers, but by printers. It might have been a velvet revolution, but the velvet was steeped in ink.

Comments