One of my most treasured childhood books, Jennifer and the Flower Fairies, is all in pieces. The pages have come away from the buckram spine. Pages 41/42 have fled altogether. In an historic raid, one of my younger siblings tore page 49 in half and defaced many of the delicate line illustrations with crayoned scrawls. Fortunately untouched is the flyleaf inscription in my mother’s small, neat hand: “To Wendy on her fifth birthday, with love and best wishes.”
The book’s cover is also still exactly as I keep it in memory, a deep blue border embellished with buttercup yellow drawings of the characters one will meet inside: Alfie the gnome with his teasel duster, the handsome Bluebell Prince in his billowing cape, the silly, arrogant high-hatted Lords and Ladies who fancies himself a fairy knight, and of course Jennifer herself, soaring on her newly acquired wings. Inset in this blue border is a photo portrait of the teenage Jennifer Gay, the host of BBC’s Television Children’s Hour. She has a lovely open face and smile, and a smooth pageboy hairdo secured by a red Alice band. She wears a flocked print dress of yellow-green with an immaculate white collar.
It was likely Jennifer’s photo image that immediately attracted me to the advertisement for the book in my parents’ News of the World Sunday paper. She looked, as I at five, wished one day to look. That I asked for this book and actually received it for my birthday was a piece of magic in itself. The tiny advertisement which had compelled my attention turned into the actual object in my hands.
I reread the book recently, revisiting the particular scenes that have lodged in my memory so strongly − like Alfie’s appearance in the BBC studio when Jennifer has closed her eyes, thinking how wonderful it would be if there really were fairies the size of her hand. And suddenly, there he is on her outstretched palm, weighing as much as “a rather heavy feather.” I loved Alfie’s rudeness and how he told Jennifer, when she first sees him, not to gulp like a fish in a bowl. He was my first experience of an external perspective on human beings, subjected to a purely critical eye. In Alfie’s opinion, we are noisy, dusty and of course much too big. “A horrible size, like a great mountain,” he tells Jennifer, as he gives her a pill to make her small enough to enter the fairy realm.
Alfie entices her there with dreams, whispering in her ear of how he can stand on his head inside a foxglove or visit the children of the Moon. These imagined visions have stayed with me subliminally, whereas Jennifer’s running through the air to reach the television camera – dizzy, knees shaking – has remained with me as a visceral sensation. As has Alfie’s softening of the camera lens so that they can both push through to his world.
I had not forgotten the ruined pink marble fairy palace. However, the thought-arrows the Bluebell Prince seeks hidden away there had completely slipped my mind. Armed with these, Jennifer returns to the mortal world on a fairyland commission. She is charged with confronting and dissuading a group of boys from destroying a bluebell wood. I had interiorized the pictured image of the wood itself, and am quite sure that my mother and I had at some point visited a real one outside Glasgow. That remembered luxuriance likely seeded my enduring love for blue flowers of all kinds.
Perhaps above all else, Alfie’s little song has stayed with me, a charming reworking of the Golden Rule, with enough silliness to catch a child’s attention: Do as you would be done by, do as you would be did. A boiling pot is mighty hot, so don’t sit on the lid.
With the help of Google, I have learned that Annette Mills, the author of Jennifer and the Flower Fairies, was also the creator of the Muffin the Mule stories. A YouTube video allowed me to hear at last Jennifer Gay introducing Children’s Hour on the BBC. I had not seen the program in Scotland because my parents did not own a television. Her articulation is as one would expect, immaculate as her white collar. She sounds very like the young Queen Elizabeth. Jennifer is every bit as lovely and quietly confident in this archival video as she is on the cover of my childhood treasure. I yearn to be like her still, even with the passing of so many decades.