It was with enormous sadness that I heard of the passing of Josephine Pullein Thompson last week. She was one of Fidra Books’ first authors and I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting her twice. If you’d told the 10 year-old me that I would one day meet her, never mind publish her books and go to her house for tea, I would never have believed it. Josephine was influential as a writer and significant for her work with PEN and there will be many obituaries and tributes paid to her (I’ll add links below as and when they appear) over the next few weeks. I see no reason to repeat those but rather to talk about my own feelings.
When I was a child, books were hugely important to me. Books were a comfort and a refuge and I was never happier than when I was reading. Worcester City Library was one of my favourite places and among my own fairly small collection of books, K M Peyton’s Flambards series, Ruby Ferguson’s Jill books and Josephine Pullein Thompson’s Six Ponies, were particularly treasured. I still have my battered Armada paperback copy of Six Ponies and it wasn’t until about ten years or so ago when I laid hands on a first edition from 1946 that I realised how brutal the editing by Armada had been when they abridged it to fit within their criteria.
When we set up Fidra Books, Josephine was one of our first authors and I was delighted to meet her. I went to her house for afternoon tea and we had a delightful time talking about books, horses and generally putting the world to rights.
Less mobile than she used to be she’d also recently taken possession of a mobility scooter, nicknamed The Silver Lady, and she was conjecturing about how fast it could go if she went up to the park and really opened her up. Restricted to three miles per hour on the pavements, she was certain that 12 or even 15 mph was possible as long as there weren’t too many dog-walkers in the way. She might have had to give up her horses but the enjoyment of speed would always be there. I heard nothing about devastation being wrought in the local park but I have no doubt that she kept the staff and customers of the Fulham branch of Waitrose on their toes.
The other time I met her was when she came to the London Book Fair at Earl’s Court to have lunch at the PEN cafe with me. From 1976-93, Josephine was the General Secretary of PEN, an organisation of writers which promotes freedom of expression and the rights of writers. The cafe was full of literary heavyweights, all surrounded by their acolytes and earnest admirers and as we chatted, it was fascinating to see how many elbowed their way across to say hello to Josephine. I will never forget one particular writer who PEN had worked very hard to defend practically falling at her feet in adoration. Josephine laughed it off but she was touched that people remembered her.
To some of those people Josephine was – literally – a life saver. To me she has been a beacon all my life.