Published on Monday, March 4th, 2019
Every so often I get a little bit of reflected glory, when someone connects my surname with the man who wrote “The Sheep-Pig” and found fame when it was made into the delightful film “Babe”. Of course, that isn’t quite the full story: my father, Dick King-Smith, wrote over 100 books – starting in 1977 (when he was 55!) and continuing until not long before his death in 2011. “The Water Horse” (about the Loch Ness Monster) was made into a film in 2007; “Harry’s Mad” and “The Queen’s Nose” have both been popular TV series, and there have been stage productions of “Babe” and “The Crowstarver”. And many of his books have been firm favourites with children, and have been used to teach literacy in primary schools.
Dick was a master storyteller, and his own life was quite a story. Born in Gloucestershire, he served in the Grenadier Guards in World War II. He was seriously wounded in a grenade attack and invalided out. He had always loved animals and kept pets, especially rabbits and guinea pigs, and his dream was to become a farmer. He started as an apprentice on a farm in Wiltshire, then became a tenant farmer in South Gloucestershire. But all his hard work and love of farming weren’t matched by any kind of financial acumen, and sadly in 1967 we had to leave the farm. After a couple of temporary jobs, Dick trained as a primary school teacher, and he was teaching at Farmborough School, near Bristol, when he had the idea of putting together his easy way with words – he’d already had a handful of comic poems published – and his affinity for animals. The result, after much pruning insisted on by his kind but firm editor, was “The Fox Busters”. Then a gap, when nothing was accepted, and it seemed he might be a one-book wonder. And then a steady stream of books, from simple picture books for young children, to more demanding novels for young people, like “Godhanger” and “The Crowstarver”.
As for “Babe”, Dick went to a preview screening fearing the worst, and came out thrilled by a film which re-worked his book so imaginatively and yet so faithfully. I have to say that the final scene – Babe’s unlikely triumph at the sheepdog trials – still makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. And all of it in the “King-Smith Stadium”! And the thing is – Dick’s journey from failed farmer to famous author was just as unlikely…
So – what should you read if you want to get into Dick King-Smith? If you have young children or grandchildren, they will love the humour of “George Speaks” or “The Hodgeheg”. If your kids are a bit older, try “Harriet’s Hare”, “Lady Daisy” or “The School Mouse”. And don’t forget the Sophie books, and the magical “Queen’s Nose”. Best of all, Dick’s website – www.dickkingsmith.com – is full of all kinds of interesting stuff, including information about all Dick’s books.
One of the things people ask me is – did your Dad make up stories for you when you were little? And I have to answer: no, he was too busy on the farm. Funnily enough, it was my grandfather (Dick’s father) who used to tell us stories. So maybe it runs in the family – though I can only lay claim to the odd sermon. But being confident with words and enjoying stringing them together is definitely a gift from my Dad.
When Dick died, there were many tributes and obituaries. But I think the one he would have liked best came from a woman who simply tweeted: “This man gave me my love of reading”. That’ll do…