|cover illustration by Alan Parry|
Tony Bastable v John Noakes. It's the name of a song by my old friends The Dentists, from their 1985 LP Some People Are On The Pitch They Think It's All Over It Is Now. The title has absolutely nothing to do with the song's lyrics whatsoever (and the album, despite its title, has very little, if anything, to do with football). But it does seem to hint at the eternal question: "Magpie or Blue Peter?"
When I first heard the song in the 80s, I had no idea to what its title referred. I remember bassist Mark Matthews telling me the history behind most of the songs on the album sometime in the late 80s, but if he'd explained the meaning of that title, it probably flew right over my head at the time.
In later years, through the magic of the Internet (as well as various jaunts through charity shops in the U.K, where I've spied many an annual)., I became aware of the children's show Blue Peter and its one-time competitor, Magpie. I still didn't make the connection with the song title.
That only happened this past May, when I met up with The Dentists' guitarist Bob Collins in London. Bob explained, of course, that Tony Bastable was one of the earliest Magpie presenters and his Blue Peter counterpart was John Noakes. Bob said he preferred Magpie. It was weirder and more psychedelic, he said. I have absolutely no doubt that I would have preferred it, too.
|endpaper illustration by Alan Parry|
The next day I found The Magpie Book of Stories (London: Purnell, 1970) in a junk shop in Islington for £2, amidst a bevy of smelly old annuals. While not technically an annual itself, it's printed on similar pulpy stock, so it too has a trace of that odeur that plagues old annuals, but the illustrations were bright and quite psychedelic, so I bought it and subsequently hauled it throughout the rest of my two-week journey.
The Magpie Book of Stories compiles short fiction works submitted by young viewers, and supplements them with a few pieces by known authors. When scanning some of the illustrations very recently, I was struck by the haunty subject matter of the stories submitted by the kids. While the I'm not keen on all of the illustrations in the volume, I was drawn to two stories--and their illustrations--in particular. "The Poppy Field" by Jackie Bradnam, aged 13 at the time, tells the story of young Sarah, who, whilst supine in a field of poppies, meets the spirit of a girl who drowned when the sea swallowed her home--the lost city of Atlantis.
|from "The Poppy Field" by Jackie Bradnam; illustration by Ivan Ripley|
I was also rather taken by the subject matter and illustrations of "The Haunted Valley" by Antony Cavender, aged 15 at the time. A reporter is sent to a rural town to investigate the mysterious deaths of shepherds minding their sheep on a particular hillside and ends up researching local folklore pertaining to witches.
|from "The Haunted Valley" by Antony Cavender; illustration by Alan Abbot|
It's hard for me to imagine something of this ilk being produced in the U.S at the time. It's so essentially British, and that is why I love it. We had Scooby Doo (which I watched religiously) and cheap cash-in paperbacks like The Partridge Family: The Haunted Hall (which I probably still have somewhere), so we knew a thing or two about ghosts and bogeymen. But youthful interest in the mystical/mythical/supernatural--coupled with a connection to the landscape--seems to have run deeper in Britain, as evidenced by stories like these.
When I bought the book, the man behind the counter asked me, "So did you watch Magpie or Blue Peter?" I'm honest to a fault, so I fessed up to being American, but I know what the answer would/should/could have been.