In the 2003 German comedy film Goodbye Lenin!, a son engineers an elaborate scheme to conceal from his committed Communist mother the fact that the Soviet Bloc had collapsed while she was in a coma. As a parent, the same temptation has often occurred to me with Ladybird Books. Reading them now, the world they portrayed — as highlighted by Ladybird collector Helen Day’s excellent Twitter account — seems both familiar and unattainable. In both time and aesthetic, the quietly homely drabness of my 1980s childhood memories is closer to Ladybird’s idealised postwar townscapes than to the scruffy, blighted high streets of today.
Ladybird’s Adventures from History series presents the Whiggish, “Our Island Story” version of British history attractively. A national mythology with a dash of flag-waving heroism unimaginable in modern children’s books: the world of Drake and Nelson and Scott, with the Union Jack fluttering defiantly in some distant clime at the climax of an improving tale of risk-taking adventure and personal fortitude.
The What to Watch For in Spring/Summer/Autumn/Winter series places Britain’s natural bounty in harmony with a rural world undergoing going great change, capturing for posterity perhaps the perfect balance between man, machine and nature. Visions of the small farmer puttering his way on his Ferguson tractor across his fields, swallows and curlews flying over him in now-unimaginable profusion; the rural labourer laying his hedges in winter as his real-life counterpart was ripping them out for government grants; ripe hay stacked by hand in small fields rich with butterflies and wildflowers; the cowherd leading his charges back along the winding lane to their barn at dusk.
Yet alongside this timeless bucolic vision was another Ladybird world of technological optimism, even futurism: Macmillan’s Tory paternalist dirigisme and Wilson’s white heat of technology forging their way into children’s bedtime reading in gleaming visions of nuclear power plants, high speed rail networks and supersonic aircraft. While affluent young families potter about in the gigantic gardens of their new suburban homes with their young children, or shop for groceries in the then modernist (and now retrofuturist) high streets of their local towns, new roads, tower blocks and factories spring up across Ladybird Britain — life was good, and the future was yet to lose its appeal.
Now that a certain degree of dirigisme seems to be in the air again, we could do worse than seek inspiration from Ladybird’s postwar utopian vision for rebuilding Britain after Covid. What if we could combine the High Modernist optimism and can-do attitude of the postwar interventionist state with the bucolic romanticism of a landscape restored to nature, and farming on a gentler, and more human scale? British politics has been short on positive visions for decades, so why not this one?
Imagine the Britain of 2040: you’re commuting on your high-speed Maglev train from the northeastern metropolis to your government-subsidised mansion flat in a now much-expanded London. Outside the window, woodsmoke curls above the reforested oak woods of Yorkshire from a million new smallholdings. The countryside is both wilder and more populated: the cities cleaner, greener, buzzing with the optimism of the new industries and the wealth they have spread to every corner of our united island nation.
We are the richest country in Europe, our food and landscapes the glory of the continent, our scientific endeavours the envy of the world. The time of Covid, like the debilitating culture wars of the past, is remembered, if at all, as the springboard for the optimistic world of today: a bucolic, Anglofuturist British utopia, built on a nostalgia for modernity. If “Building Back Better” isn’t just to be another empty slogan, we’ll need a positive and attractive vision of the future to organise our great national task around: in this role, I humbly suggest Ladybird Book Britain 2040.