One of the books I’ve revisited from my own shelves this summer has been Shepard’s reminiscences of the year before his mother became ill and died. Published in 1957 when Shepard was in his nineties, the short book (175 pages with illustrations) recalls the time when Shepard was seven and eight years old. In his “Preface,” Shepard says “No. 10 Kent Terrace and No. 53 Gordon Square look today very much the same from the outside as they did seventy years ago” (10); a little research courtesy of Google Maps suggests that Shepard might still recognise some of his childhood haunts even after one hundred and thirty years. This permanence is all the more poignant, I think, for an emigrant such as myself. When Ernest went to his school in Upper Baker Street, Vancouver had barely received its charter of incorporation.
Shepard captures the magic of the memories of a happy childhood in a world where buses were still drawn by horses and the underground trains were drawn by steam engines. “Along the pavements of Euston road, and in the middle of the road as well, were gratings through which some of the smoke found its way out” (82). He recalls the fun of “steeplechase[ing]” over the third class seats that “were just wooden boards, with low partititons between” (82). It was a world where a “woman was never seen on top of a bus, the climb up was too steep for the long skirts worn at the time, though a young friend of [his] Mother’s called Poppy once clambered up to the consternation and horror of the inside passengers” (70).
His kindergarten, violin lessons where his “little fingers never seemed to be in the right place,” visits to a farm in Kent, to his Aunts, to the pantomime with Marie Lloyd in her first show, Victoria’s golden jubilee, the fire at Whiteleys, and his beloved hobby-horse tricycle, Septimus: all are recalled in the tones of a man remembering his past with a certain wistful nostalgia and his younger self with gently ironic sympathy.
He also, as one might expect, illustrates the book. In my paper back edition, these illustrations are black and white line drawings. Superficial delving into the Abe Books catalogue suggests that the hard cover edition has colour on its dust jacket and maybe one colour plate. No matter. Most of us are probably most familiar with Shepard’s work through his illustration of A. A. Milne’s Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh books and of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, The Golden Age, and Dream Days. In his illustrations for his own memoir, we find the same skill in capturing expression and evoking the mood of a particular place. The pictures, as much as the text, take us back into that secure, Victorian world when the First World War was still nearly thirty years away. He also includes some of his childhood drawings (very humbling when one remembers one’s own efforts at seven years old) and recalls that his father “had quite decided that I should be an artist when I grew up, though I myself considered an artist’s life to be a dull one and looked for something more adventurous.” Shepard’s father saved the early efforts, and Shepard tells us that when “they came to light many years later, . . .[they] showed that I was gifted with a somewhat lively imagination, mostly concerned with battle scenes” (48). Things don’t change. My observation, though I admit it’s somewhat limited, suggests that seven-year-old boys still like to draw battle scenes.
If you can find a copy of this book and would like to lose yourself for a brief period in a time when a middle class family still depended on a live-in staff of at least two, or when a child had the comfort of “our own policeman standing at the corner by the pillar-box” (98), then you will discover that Drawn from Memory gently delivers a little social history in the company of a talented, insightful, entertaining man. Shepard’s memoir is one of those books that is a joy to read.