A tribute to Sheila McCullagh, 3 December 1920 – 7 July 2014

Back when I was small, it took me a long time to start to read. I’m not entirely sure why this was, but I put at least part of the blame on the dreadful Janet and John books, with their dull lives and 1949 dress sense. What I needed to get my interests moving were stories of pirates, possibly with dragons and important issues such as the location of buried treasure.

One day, my mother, an educationalist, produced a copy of a book she thought I might like. It was entitled ‘The Three Pirates’, and I instantly fell in love with the subject matter and the illustrations. It was enough to make me want to decipher the Linear B which was the English alphabet to me at the time, and read the first words I ever read, which were ‘The blue pirate sails’.

The blue pirate sails! Of all the first lines in the world, this was the one which has had the most profound influence on me, because it opened up the world of books for the very first time. As a piece of literature, in retrospect, it was better than anything I read in infants or junior school. Even the Ladybird books — infinitely preferable to Janet and John — did not introduce action until late in the volume. Characters were static: Janet. John. Peter. Jane. They existed on the page. I think — if I remember correctly — that I was instructed to like Peter, and to like Jane. Why? What was there about Peter or Jane, apart from Jane’s nice smile that was somewhat reminiscent of the girl on the BBC2 test card, to like?

While Janet, John, Peter and Jane did nothing in domestic middle-class England, which I did not need to read about because it was all around me, the blue pirate was sailing. I did not find out his name until much later — Benjamin, since you ask. His name, though, was not important. He was the blue pirate, and what he did was sail.

In a very few pages, I was introduced to the Red Pirate and the Green Pirate. They did things as well — things that made Captain Pugwash look positively anemic. Here was adventure, characterisation and far off lands in a different time.

My school did not approve of blue pirates, or any other kind of pirates, so it was up to my mother to procure as much of the rest of the series for me as she could. The stories became steadily more exciting, and the books longer, as the series went on. Then there were the Dragon Pirate books: stand-alone stories of a more advanced nature culminating in the beautiful and terrifying People of the Mist.

By the time I had finished all the Griffin and Dragon Pirate books I could lay my hands on, I could read.

All this is down to an author called Sheila McCullagh, who died earlier this month. Sheila McCullagh understood exactly what children needed to start reading. No amount of being forced through Peter and Jane (new word, Peter) or staring blankly at Janet and John would ever have persuaded me that there was anything in books which could not be had through play.

I met her only once. It was in my second year at Oxford. Towards the end of my first year I had called up from the stacks the entire Griffin and Dragon Pirate series: treasure indeed. By the way they had been tied together with ribbon, and the dusty newness of the covers, it was obvious that nobody had ever touched these particular copies. I read through them voraciously. In retrospect,  I should have written about them in my first year exams.

At the start of the second year, I saw that she was coming to speak at Blackwells on the subject of her new work: Puddle Lane. I was the youngest person at the event, by at least twenty years. She, of course, was already old by that time. Afterwards, I introduced myself, told her I was studying English literature, and that the only reason I had learned to read was because of the blue pirate, who sailed.

In our very brief acquaintance of a few minutes, I found her to be one of the kindest, most charming people I have met, with a deep concern for making books interesting for children.

All life moves on, and many things which were once precious are now discarded. Not so the Griffin Pirate stories. They change hands on Amazon or eBay for about £20-£40 per copy of a single book, perhaps no more than 20 pages from cover to cover. Peter and Jane, by contrast, go for as little as £0.02 a copy, plus rather more for postage, despite being hardback. An original 1949 Janet and John might set you back £6.49. On eBay, at the moment, there is a copy of the original Three Pirates for sale at £149.99, paperback.

I’m sure that I would have learned to read without the Pirates. My mother would have seen to it. But I doubt that I would have had the love of books which has stayed with me ever since. I doubt I would have seen books as the gateway to adventure, wonder and magic.

Janet. John. Peter. Jane. The blue pirate sails. There’s really no comparison. Contemporary editors suggest that a budding author’s first line should be a named character in motion. Sheila McCullagh was not afraid to give children exactly that. While others were content to offer reading books, Sheila McCullagh gave me literature.

May her memory never fade.

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