Christmas present: a new Dogger

Forty-three years ago, Dave lost Dogger. His sister Bella, arguably the kindest character in  Hughes’s picturebook, Dogger, about a lost toy, voted the public’s favourite winner from 50 years of the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration. And now, Dogger is back to make the season festive. Nicolette Jones interviewed Shirley Hughes about Dogger’s Christmas.

Dogger’s Christmas is, in the spirit of the first Dogger book, full of kindnesses – of people doing things for each other: Dad cleaning the rabbit hutch, the family visiting the elderly neighbour, children greeting their grandparents, with faces full of delight. It is about a child’s small drama, but also more broadly about how Christmases should be.

On a sunny autumn day on her front path Shirley Hughes showed me Dogger, cupping his brown plush body with one ear permanently upright from being pressed against Hughes’s son Ed Vulliamy’s cheek when he was little. It amused me that if you pull that ear down it springs straight back up again.

Dogger was originally a Christmas present, in 1959, from Great

Uncle Hugh. He has been exhibited in galleries from the Walker in Shirley’s native Liverpool to the V&A, and his whereabouts have always been known. But the inspiration for the story came from two losses: of a teddy bear of Ed’s in Holland Park (near where Hughes still lives), and of a koala called Oscar that Shirley tossed out the window of a car on a whim as a child, and who could not be found when she finally confessed her folly.

I talked to Shirley the same way her family has since lockdown began: from a chair half way down the path, while she sat smiling in her doorway. At 93, she looked well and cheerful, her clothes slightly bohemian, white hair ingeniously pinned up, stick within reach (relict of a fall in the autumn). Throughout the first lockdown, and since, she had been isolated.

Family (at a distance), work and the front path have sustained her. She spends mornings in her studio, and already, as Dogger’s Christmas came out, was working on the next: Alfie’s Bedtime, a story-within-a-story about how children resist going to sleep.

In the afternoon she walks a block or two, supported by a wheeled shopper (which she calls ‘my pushy thing’), asking for space as she goes along: ‘People are very kind’. She feels fortunate. She worries more about families with children in small flats.

There are no mobiles or IT in Shirley’s picturebooks, nor in her possession. Her late husband John, who died in 2007, learnt to use a computer and wrote a memoir of his life on it, but she declined, thinking she would be a bother to her family whenever she had a problem with it: ‘I knew that I would be on the phone all the time to my son-in-law saying: “Mark, I think I pressed the wrong key.”’ Shirley relies on the landline for contact with friends, and with her editor.

Shirley’s own childhood was privileged but not idyllic. Her father was the founder of the department store T J Hughes, after starting out with a small draper’s shop, but he died when she was very young. And the war brought deprivations for Shirley and her two sisters. ‘My mother turned from a leisured lady with tea being brought to her in the garden by a maid, to a hard-pressed woman wearing an overcoat indoors because there was no heating, trying to make something over the gas stove, and eke out rations. It was very spartan.’ We speculate about whether the bereavement fixed early childhood in her memory. ‘Whether people’s memories get clicked into a time because something happened I don’t know ... ‘

Shirley in her studio, taken by Clara Vuilliamy, for her birthday in July 2019 18 Books for Keeps No.245 November 2020

As a child, she says, ‘I wasn’t a great reader, but I was a great looker. My visual thing was looking at picturebooks.’ She loved the detail of Arthur Rackham, and colour plates by Edmund Dulac with a piece of tissue paper over them, and The Adventures of Mary Plain. She drew a lot, and ‘made endless paper dolls with dresses with tabs. Time was much more lavish in those days

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