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Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Perry's Picture Post part 14

I was telling you about how I'd had two visitors on my first day in Poland Street working for Purnell Books. The first . . . well, you can read the previous episode to find out what happened there. But my second visitor that day passed on some news that left me quite stunned.

I’d left Polystyle Publications on Friday, 9 November 1973 and started my new job with Purnell Books the following Monday. During the late morning or early afternoon, artists' agent Dennis Bosdet called in to find out how I was getting on. He was particularly interested as it had been his suggestion to Managing Editor Charles Harvey and his Number Two Michael Thomas that I might be interested in filling the post of Art Editor that had led me to Poland Street. With initial preliminary pleasantries over (taking all of 2·73 seconds to do so), Dennis quickly launched into something he was bursting to get off his chest.

“I got an urgent call from one of Jon Davis’s children to say that their father had stabbed and killed their mother with a bread knife!”

I knew Jon, of course, for we had met and chatted several times over the years, but I cannot say that I knew him all that well. One reason for this was that about every eight or ten weeks, Dennis had organised a gathering whereby four, five or six couples (plus Dennis and Bernard) had all met up at a certain Chinese Restaurant in Gerard Street which is the hub of London’s Chinese community. The live-in partner of Belinda Lyon (she was mentioned in Part Five, having created the art of our doll-dressing books) was himself a Chinese national and had presided over the meal, ordering all that we were about to eat. Over time, attending couples at these gatherings included Malcolm Stokes, Graham Allan, Jon Davis and several other artists that, after all these years, I now need to be reminded as to who they might have been. Plus, of course, their wives.

It was at one of these get-togethers that Graham Allan (with whom I had worked extensively at 96 Long Acre) had laughingly said that he couldn’t stand redheads . . . and yet, he had married one!

Jon Davis was a big giant of a man whose creative world had revolved around goblins and gnomes and all airy-fairy-like beings of that ilk – he of course had carried out creations of other subjects, but it was these that were what he had enjoyed the most. He lived in Sevenoaks with his wife and five children (although by that time, most had flown the nest and were in the throes of producing offspring of their own). They lived in a pleasant three-up-two-down semi in a short and compact cul-de-sac about a mile outside town. According to Dennis, the wife of their next-door neighbour was an actress and, earlier that year, she had come knocking upon their door so that she might ask Jon and Daphne for their thoughts and advice on a forthcoming employment matter.

It would appear that she had been offered a six-month contract to appear in a variety of plays touring all over South Africa, but had been concerned about leaving her husband on his own for that length of time (as far as I know, they had no children). She was keen to hear what Jon and Daphne thought she should do about it. They both agreed that she should go – particularly as jobs in repertory were few and far between – and tried to alleviate the woman’s worries by saying that, in her absence, they would keep en eye on her husband and would look after him as and when a bit of “looking after” was deemed to be required.

I didn’t hear the blow-by-blow account of what happened in her absence, but from what I understood Daphne had done rather more than keep an eye on her neighbour.

On the evening in question, Daphne had got herself ready to go out, and Jon had asked where she thought she was going.

“I’m going to the cinema with Malcolm,” she had replied smugly.

“Oh no you are not!” retorted Jon. But, ten minutes later, when he looked out of the kitchen window, there was Daphne, bold as brass, walking arm in arm with Malcolm down the cul-de-sac towards the main road.

Jon – in a fit of fury – grabbed hold of the nearest object to hand, which turned out to be a bread-knife, and had down the road after them and to where a small Renault-“Dauphine” mini-cab they had ordered was already waiting. The first thing the cab-driver knew that anything was amiss was when he saw this huge man – clearly in a state of intense fury – run up and plunge the knife he’d been wielding into the woman’s chest. Daphne died instantly and collapsed to the ground (although I have learnt since that it was only when she reached hospital that she was pronounced dead), Jon withdrew the knife and buried the blade up to the hilt in her companion – not actually killing him but certainly doing some damage by puncturing his lung.

An arrest was a foregone conclusion and, while Daphne and the hapless neighbour were being rushed off to the hospital, Jon was taken to a jail in Maidstone. Although he’d wanted to, while in custody, Jon had not been allowed to carry out any kind of illustrative work.

Some months later, Jon was sent for trial. A great hoard of Jon’s friends (including his own children) had appeared as character witnesses and had given the presiding Judge glowing reports on Jon’s character but painted rather a poor picture of Daphne. So Jon – who was given a two-year suspended sentence and was put on probation – was told to “go home” by the Judge. But before he left the Courtroom, the Judge had enquired if Jon had liked living where he did in Sevenoaks.

“Yes, Your Honour,” replied Jon, and proceeded to tell the Court of how as a family, they had moved a good number of times over the years to various spots in southern England, and that at long, long last, he and his family had felt that they had found somewhere that they all had thought was “just about right”.

“Yes,” said the Judge, “Quite right, quite right.” Then he turned to face the neighbour – whose name incidentally had been Butcher – and told him to stand up.

“Butcher,” he ordered, “You have 48 hours to vacate your house and find somewhere else to live.” And that was the end of that.

Jon went home, and a year or two later had found himself a charming new wife. On the occasions when we met up, the two girls had got on so well together that my wife Jenny and I often stayed with them in Sevenoaks.

On our first Sunday there, we’d woken to hear the transforming experience of Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony permeating throughout the house. For those who might not recognise the title, it was a moving piece where one tends to forget the passing of time. It was used extensively in the film Death in Venice staring Dirk Bogarde and Björn Andrésen (with whom Bogarde’s character becomes infatuated).

One of my earliest encounters with a Purnell Books' contributor was with Jesse Davis – yes, another Davis, although I have no evidence that he was related to Jon. Jesse had supplied my predecessors with text and pictures for the pages of his book but as far as I could see had supplied nothing for the front cover. As Jesse lived in London, he called in to see me and when I sketched out how I saw the cover – I wanted a more dreamy, misty, homely sort of shot as I was keen to get away from the bog-standard shot of a ballerina on stage doing her “plum-fairy” thing – he was so enthused by my alternative way at looking at things that he instantly invited me to accompany him at the shoot he’d set up for a day or so later. To create the soft dreamy effect, he’d placed a piece of mid-brown nylon stocking over the lens.

My final six weeks of working in London had been unusual to say the least. In essence, I’d come in daily and toiled away totally on my own in a huge room where I systematically worked my way through the pile of wrapped-up packages. It was a bit like Christmas, as I never knew what the next parcel would bring.

These were the days when bomb scares were ten a penny – some being hoaxes while others were undoubtedly been real. At the beginning of 1974, bombs had exploded at Madame Tussauds Waxworks and at the Boat Show at Earls Court Exhibition Centre. In May, Heathrow airport was targetted; a month later, it was the turn of the Houses of Parliament; and, in July, the target was the Tower of London.

Given the situation, it didn’t come as a surprise when Purnell Books' Production Assistant Michael Gee called in to see me one afternoon to say that the bomb-scare we’d had earlier that day was nothing more than a hoax.

“What bomb scare?” I asked. Apparently everyone had been instructed to leave the building shortly before lunch, but no-one had given any thought of letting me know, so I had just carried on working during the lunch hour, while I chomped my way through the three rounds of Jenny’s lovingly-made sandwiches.

My second encounter with a Purnell Book contributor was with the author Robert Moss, a Spiritual Scientist who believed that even succumbing to the effects of the common cold was a sin (although a sin against whom, he didn’t actually divulge). Mind you, I’ve always thought much along the same lines . . . but it has nothing to do with any religious belief I can tell you.

Robert Moss had many years of association with the various scouting movements and when he supplied the text and art material for the Scouts Pathfinder, Sixer, Girl Guide and Brownie annuals, it was always in apple-pie order with everything there and clearly identified. It was just a pity that the artwork he wanted us to include in the books was very dated and “old hat.”

So, one of the first photographic jobs I carried out for Purnell Books was to capture the images for four Scouting front covers – easy enough, as by this time, not only were my son and daughter old enough to have become enrolled in such organised shenanigans, but they also had chums on whom I could call to stand in.

As I’m speaking about books I produced over forty years ago, many of the covers that you see here I've had to find on the internet (if I can find them). In the picture montage that follows, you will see one that was being advertised by John R Hoggarth, who is selling a "Sixer Annual for 1973" – s’funny, as in 1972 I’d never heard of Purnell Books and the lad depicted on the cover happens to be my son.

Working out of Maidenhead rather than Central London did have its disadvantages. Finding a good assistant designer was vital, but there was little choice when it came to employing someone in Maidenhead. Purnell would place an advert, and often would receive just one application – leaving Purnell with the choice to either employ him or her, or soldier on, understaffed, and try advertising again at some later time.

Everyone makes mistakes, but I’d had one designer under my wing – Becky – who was making rather more mistakes than most. While working at a desk, it's easy to accumulate material when putting together one of these books and as not so easy to find space for it while you concentrate temporarily on something else.

Becky's solution was to use the top of her waste bin as a convenient shelf. One evening, she forgot to remove the pile she had been working on back onto her desk before going home. On seeing this pile which obviously was on the bin, the office cleaners were only doing their job when they subsequently removed it.

The missing book had been one of Robert Moss’s, and luckily, he had carbon copies of the written text and a good many duplicate photographs in his hoard of scouting material, or at least some very similar pictures that could easily replace those items that had been lost. Within a few days, everything had been replaced, but on the morning that Becky had discovered the loss, she’d spent most of the day climbing fruitlessly up and down the land-fill area where the refuse cart was rumoured to have dumped the missing material.

There was, I believe, method to my madness, in designing all four scouting books with a similar theme. I did notice when visiting such outlets as W H Smith that, due to their similarity, that store staff made a greater effort to display them as a set . . . which, after all, was the whole purpose of the exercise.

In general, the average print run for a Christmas annual was around 20,000 or 25,000, depending upon what the Sales Force felt they could handle. If a book was deemed by the Sales Department to be a less popular subject, then the run could go as low as 15,000 but there was very little point in producing a book if the potential sales were any lower. These lower print run titles included such characters a Parsley and Sooty – not because they were unpopular, but because there were so many other characters of that type for them to compete with.

Speaking of Sooty, I need to mention Jim Grey. Not long after our move to Maidenhead, a tall, thin Teddy Boy with a dark-green velvet jacket walked into my office complete with DA hairstyle and 2”-thick crepe-soled shoes. This was Jim Grey, at the time employed full-time to deliver mail for the GPO. His work samples had impressed me so much that I immediately gave him the Sooty Annual cover to illustrate.

The Sales Force invariably had the last say on the matter, and if the book featured a rather more popular subject – say the Pony Club or Jimmy Hill’s Football Review – then the initial print run might rise to around 30,000 units or even higher.

Seven years earlier and during my time at Century 21 Publishing, the three Monkees Annuals had been printed in Rotterdam and were overseen by Jacques Post. Together with a Dutch translation of this unique book, it had achieved a print run of a staggering 185,000 units. It was quite phenomenal! I feel proud at what Andy and I had been able to achieve. So it had been produced on the back of an American television program featuring a zany pop quartet – but as far as I know, there had been no other publication of its type anywhere else on the market.

Roger Perry
The Philippines

Coming Soon: In Part Fifteen, I meet up with Jon Pertwee once again and for two years, associate myself with Jimmy Savile.


Mike Nicoll said...

Thoroughly enjoying this series - fascinating to be shown a glimpse of what went on behind-the-scenes around the time I was buying or being given many of these publications which had such a big influence on my semi-pro career as a writer and artist. The Jon Davis tale was a shocker - it's funny how you get a mental image of how an artist looks because of the was he or she draws - I'd always imagined Jon as a rather slight-framed city gent style character for some reason. Thanks again for this fascinating insight.
Bill Storie

Phil Rushton said...

Absolutely fascinating! I always liked Jon Davis's artwork but had no idea about this incident. It seems amazing that he got off so lightly - I doubt if he'd be treated so leniently today!