I wrote the following in 1998 for the Pelham Puppet Collectors’ Magazine, and it was published in issue No. 10, illustrated with a brush and ink drawing I’d made of my own ‘Bimbo’ puppet. In 2016, Susan Wilmott contacted me at my Facebook page, over fifty years since we’d last seen each other. I know she has never read what I wrote in 1998, and so here it is, dedicated to her.
‘In the 1950’s my family lived in an Edwardian terraced house in a suburb of Newport called Maindee. My early years were idyllic, and from the dizzying perspective of middle age, it seems in memory that this childhood realm was a map of delights such as were once found in the endpapers of favourite books. At the bottom is the pocket-handkerchief sized park where I played. To the left is my Nan’s house, bolt-hole and tuck-shop when I was in trouble with my parents. At the top is the wooden shack of the newsagent’s, fragrant with tar and boiled sweets and crammed under the railway bridge like a swallow’s nest glued to the eaves. On Saturdays I’d loiter over selecting comics from the counter, praying that a train would pass over while I was inside so I could experience the thrill of the little building rattling and lurching fit to slip its moorings. At the heart of the map stands our house, red brick and plain, primly aproned with privet at the front though concealing at the back a marvellous and unruly wilderness of cottage garden where rambling roses, honeysuckle and orange blossom tumbled above the massed bedding flowers that were my father’s pride and my mother’s joy. Overlooking the garden, my bedroom, repository of dreams, books, paper theatres, fossils, old bones and Pelham Puppets. On the map this place bears the legend, ‘Here be treasure!’.
My friend Susan Wilmott lived just around the corner. Both in memory and in school photographs she smiles out shyly, forever in summery cotton frocks under pastel cardigans, her fair hair caught back with plastic slides. Like me she collected Pelham Puppets, and whether by accident or plan, we didn’t seem to double up on what we acquired, between us building quite a varied cast of characters. However, there was a puppet of hers I sorely coveted.
Bimbo was the largest puppet in our joint collection, and both his size and design singled him out as being the most handsome. Susan, always generous, allowed me to play with him whenever I visited. We would lift him reverently from his boxed bed of tissue paper before spinning him like a dervish to unwind his strings, his arms and legs flailing wildly. A weighty and beautifully balanced marionette, the extra joint necessitated by a neck separate to his head enormously extended his potential for subtle animation. His vividly painted clown’s mask conjured both humour and melancholy, but we fretted over his mop of orange rug-wool hair, which we were constantly untangling and smoothing down, resulting in it getting a tad grubby. We were therefore alarmed when we discovered that despite all the care we lavished on him, the rabbit-skin glue attaching wool to scalp had become brittle. Underneath his fringe an unsightly crust of adhesive and paint had crazed and come loose, so poor old Bimbo looked as though he had rampant psoriasis of the hairline. From then on we had to take even greater pains with his appearance, combing his increasingly unravelling fringe forward with our fingers to conceal his disfigurement.
His outsized composition hands and feet made that wonderfully satisfying clonking noise that I’ll always associate with Pelham puppets, and when I finally acquired a Bimbo of my own a couple of years ago, it was after rejecting many of the later models, which have smaller plastic hands, a change that crucially unbalanced the character’s proportions. Another cost-cutting exercise was the introduction of nylon yarn for his hair, and although Bimbo long remained one of Pelham’s most popular puppets, such parings at quality undoubtedly diminished the charm of later versions for those who remembered how magnificent he’d been in his salad days!
The puppet now in my collection is a ringer for the one owned by Susan. He arrived by post, and when I first glimpse him, cradled in tissue wrapping, my heart lurched and I hurtled back through the years to the perpetual summer of childhood. He had mislaid his bow-tie somewhere, and the sharp-eyed Pelham experts among you will have noticed that I replaced it with one made of a checked fabric, instead of a striped one. That apart he is as pristine as the day he left the Marlborough factory all those years ago, and I wonder what became of the child who once owned and cared for him so well. Whoever he or she was, I’m grateful that Bimbo was clearly cherished. He doesn’t have so much as a knot in his strings.
Yesterday Susan sent me a photograph I can’t recall having ever seen. It’s dated 1961 and was taken in the playground of the school we attended in Maindee, Newport. Susan is second from the left in the front row, holding marionettes of Bimbo and Gretel, and I’m next to her with my puppet of Pinocchio. Just over my shoulder our friend Vivienne holds Hansel.
It was a sunny day, and many of us are squinting against the sun or have eyes downcast. Look how clean and tidy we are, all pressed pleats, short trousers, cardigans and pullovers. Jayne Venn, second from the right at the back, with her neat, glossy ‘Louise Brooks’ bobbed hair. David Russell in red at the back just behind Vivienne. I remember him as solid, dependable and kindly. Penny Stark, who I had a crush on, directly behind Susan Wilmott. Behind me, head cocked, Susan Hill. Still living in Newport, Susan Hill provided most of the names that I’d forgotten. I was in awe of her because she was so clever. But who’s the boy on the right in the front, wearing a striped sweater and holding a Pelham Ballerina in his left hand? Can’t recall, though I remember his face so well.