I came to this book, Seeing Things by Oliver Postgate, with a mild sense of curiosity, expecting it to be a quick skim-through rather than an in-depth read. How wrong I was. Within a few pages I was hooked on this witty, beguiling life-story, a tribute to a man who reminds us how much we can use the gifts and opportunities presented to us to live a truly full life.Most people will remember Oliver Postgate as the creator of Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog,The Clangers and Bagpuss- wonderful children’s television series which he created with his business partner Peter Firmin. His eminence as a maker of childrens’ programmes was however a hard-won thing, and Oliver lived a precarious existence through the early years of television, turning his hand to a huge range of occupations while supporting his family.
Oliver was born in 1925 to North London parents of a socialist inclination. Brought up in Hendon, Oliver was exposed to a wide range of people who had a degree of influence in forming the early Labour movement, not least his maternal grandfather, George Lansbury, one-time leader of the Labour Party.
The family were well-connected in Labour circles, and often spent weekends at the house of Francis and Vera Meynell, affectionately known as Bloomsbury-on-the-Marsh, where people came and went among scenes of music, debate and al fresco eating, with people such as H G Wells and Bertrand Russell in attendance.
Oliver’s family were also adventurous and in 1938 his parents, Ray and Daisy, decided to take their family on a cycling tour of France, conscious that war-clouds were looming and such a tour may not be possible in years to come. Oliver’s description of this tour is evocative of pre-war France, the family meandering across rivers and through the gates of mediaeval towns, with picnic lunches being eaten on the green banks of shady streams.
When war came the next year, the family soon found their Hendon home at risk of bombing and so Oliver and his older brother John were sent down to Devon to the progressive school, Dartington Hall. Like so many children of that era the boys had to be self-reliant in ways today’s parents would struggle with – the two boys (13 and 17 years old), were given a lift to Cirencester with their bicycles, then despatched together for the rest of the journey by bike, staying at bed and breakfast accommodation on the way.
By November 1943, Oliver was back living with his parents and studying at Kingston College of Art, when his call-up papers came. Oliver’s father Raymond had been a conscientious objector in the First World War and Oliver decided that this was the only position for himself in the Second. He was advised to turn up at the barracks and then refuse to put on the uniform, so he nervously took the train to Windsor, wondering what awaited him when he arrived at the Household Cavalry’s Combermere Barracks. Oliver found himself in the hands of an army completely unprepared for his arrival, uncomprehending of his status, but quite benign. Within a few days he was court-marshalled and sent to Feltham Juvenile Prison where he was kept in the company of other conscientious objectors. After a week in Wandsworth Prison, he was sent back to the army, who wisely sent him on extended leave.
After the war Oliver first went to war-torn Germany as a driver for a relief team, then returned to England to do agricultural work but eventually ending up back in London to develop his creative talents. After a stint as a stage manager at the BBC he decided he could do better at producing childrens’ films than the material he saw at the time, and invented an animation table. Alexander The Mouse was born and Oliver was able to sell 20 episodes to the BBC, and as they say, the rest is history.
Oliver’s biography, the facts of his life, and his stories of early television production are fascinating, but it is the sheer warmth of his personality which appeals. The story is fascinating, but it is the person behind the stories that shines out, the way he handled the human-stuff of life, finding his way step by step through marriage, family, work while constantly also being fed by a hugely creative brain which inspired him in so many directions.
He married Prue, a mother already of three children, with whom he had three more sons. The story of their marriage is inspiring, but as with all autobiographies written by people in their late seventies, death must put in an appearance here and there. Oliver and Prue’s journey through her cancer was full of challenges but also with bright periods when their journey was suffused with meaning.
In later life Oliver became tremendously worried by the threat of nuclear war and became a powerful campaigner, not by joining protest marches but by writing pamphlets and working to influence politicians and world-leaders, something he did quite successfully, attending meetings in New York, Geneva and other international centres.
Towards the end of his life, after a serious operation, he had a vast and overwhelming experience, which some would call “spiritual” but which he was never really able to explain. Let us say that love overtook him, and turned his life upside down. He writes movingly about this time, and it these chapters are an important source of information about these experiences which researchers say are experienced by 30% of us.
I love the ending to this book. Oliver had retired to Broadstairs to live in a flat underneath another flat owned by his working partner and friend Naomi. They have a staircase put between the floors and share breakfast together. Oliver goes out to the seafront at lunchtime to watch the ships and eat a baguette while Naomi whizzes around town on her mobility scooter. This is a snapshot from the end of a fulfilled life, the final task of which was the writing of the autobiography before us.
Oliver died last year, and the tributes flowed into to someone who not only delighted countless children with his films and stories, but also touched everyone he met with the inspiration of his personality. This is a very well-written, heart-warming (but not sentimental) book, which would be an excellent gift for almost any category of reader. It is hard to think of anyone who would not be pleased to receive this on Christmas Day.