Children’s author Julia Jarman in conversation
What are your connections to Deeping?
I was born in 1946 in Deeping Gate in my grandmother’s house, Walnut Cottage; sadly long gone, demolished when I was a teenager. I was ready to protest but Grandma Burton, (always known as Grandma Deeping to distinguish her from dad’s mother, actually grandmother, Granny Durham) said, ‘What are you talking about, Julia? They’re moving me to a bungalow with running water and central heating.’ Walnut Cottage had a three-seater outdoor lav and a tap, cold water only, by the back door. I loved Walnut Cottage with its feather beds and brass bedstead. I loved staying with my grandma. But back to my birth. I was delivered, weighing in at 10¾ pounds, by Dr Douglas who lived and worked at Fairfax House by the bridge. Allegedly he held me up by the heels and said, ‘Well done, Alice. I think the next one will be a stone.’ He’d also delivered my brother and sister. I was my mum and dad’s third child and the last. Mum wasn’t going to risk an even bigger baby.
The Burtons in the Deepings go back 200 years at least. Hemp dressers – yes, cannabis sativa – and rope makers, they lived by the river. The river was one of the places we played when we visited Gran, which we did frequently. I grew up six miles away in Walton, a suburb of Peterborough, but most of my childhood memories are of the Deepings: Deeping Gate; Deeping St James; Market Deeping mainly, with forays to West Deeping and Deeping St Nicholas to visit more far-flung members of the family. I think my love of food and cooking came from Grandma. She was a self-taught cook by profession, and regaled me with stories of the eleven-course meals she had cooked for the big house. (Sorry I don’t know where that was.) Gran’s food was delicious. A faddy child at home, I would eat anything cooked by Gran. I have spent a lifetime trying to replicate her mashed potato. Stuffed bullock’s heart is one meal I particularly remember.
There was a field at the back of Walnut Cottage with a spinney in the bottom corner where we played circus
es, we being me my brother and sister and any cousins who might turn up unannounced because, of course, we didn’t have phones. More of the field later. There were also orchards, one either side of the cottage, where we climbed trees and stuffed ourselves with fruit: apples, pears and plums: Golden Drops and Victorias and Greengages. Walnut Cottage was a sort of heaven to me. Staying with Gran was bliss, a respite from home which was a bit pressured. We kids were expected to work hard both at school and in the home. Gran didn’t nag me to tidy my bedroom or help with the washing up or even be clever. She just let me be. She also just let me read, as much as I wanted, and she fed my imagination with stories.
I think my time spent in Deeping, time spent just being and imagining, led to my becoming a writer.
Which of your books have been inspired by the Deepings?
Pillywiggins and the Tree Witch is the first that springs to mind. The seed for this book was sown long ago when Grandma Deeping warned me not to step into the fairy ring in the field at the back of the cottage ‘or the fairies would get me’. The seed grew a bit when Grandma’s cottage was demolished and the land, including the field at the back, was sold to a local business man. (Gran didn’t sell it by the way. She was only the tenant.) Several houses were built on the field and one was built over the fairy ring. When I saw that house a picture came into my head and stayed there for nearly 50 years – of a girl coming downstairs in the night to get a drink of water and seeing the fairy ring growing through the sitting room carpet. (If you don’t know what a fairy ring is please buy the book or borrow it from the library.)
The Ghost of Tantony Pig
One of the reasons we came to Deeping so often, cycling there usually, was that my parents kept pigs in the field at the back. I like pigs. We kids made pets of them, which didn’t help mum and dad make money. One of my most thrilling memories is of seeing piglets born, holding the lantern for dad, while he wiped the piglets clean and put them to suckle or nestle safely behind the farrowing rails. When I grew up and had children of my own I wanted them to have the kind of childhood I had, a rural childhood, and my husband and I bought a house in a village in Bedfordshire next door to a small farm with pigs! This eventually led to another book, one of my best I think, but it is sadly out of print.
You can buy all my books, even the out-of-print The Ghost of Tantony Pig from Amazon, and all my in-print books from good booksellers, though you may have to order them.
What was your career path?
I became a teacher of English and Drama after doing a degree in English and Drama at Manchester University. When I had my three children I took a few years off and started writing stories for them. I was first published in 1985 by Andersen Press (Random House) and have been published by them and other publishers ever since. I started writing novels for 8 to 12s, moved on to teenage, and then when I became a grandmother myself I started writing picture books.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
I think my greatest achievement is keeping going in a precarious profession. I wanted to be a writer from the age of eight, managed it by the time I was 39 and I am still writing 31 years later. Apologies for the cliché but it has been a dream come true.
Your latest book?
My latest book is Lovely Old Lion, a picture book about a grandad lion with dementia, which I was asked to write by a librarian who told me there was an urgent need for a book to explain this worrying condition to children.
When will be able to learn more about your books?
I am very excited about the literary festival In 2017 when I’ll be visiting several local schools.
What are you currently working on?
There are two new picture books in the pipeline: Fussy Freda and Class One Farmyard Fun, a prequel to my popular Class Two at the Zoo and Class Three All At Sea. I am currently writing a book for grown-ups.