Part of the pleasure of re-reading the ‘People at Work’ books today is that, unlike so many Ladybirds which dealt with fiction, history or Nature – their stated aim was to show children contemporary, urban Britain. But when the contemporary world of 1973 becomes a thing of nostalgia and curiosity, the books begin to work on an entirely different level. Of course, appreciation of them is closely bound up with appreciation John Berry’s remarkable illustrations and all their vivid realism.
In a Big Store, published in 1973, was the last of the series to be produced. (The first – The Policeman – came out in 1962). The ‘Big Store’ pictured on the cover was the long-established and fondly-remembered department store in Kingston-upon-Thames: Bentalls.
At the start of the book, traditional ways of shopping – the family shop and market square – are contrasted with the modern: the big department square. The market square depicted is also Kingston-upon-Thames – just around the corner from the department store. (Today, of course, things have moved on again. The impressive Bentalls frontage still stands proud in the centre of Kingston but is now, I understand, just a facade behind which is situated a large shopping mall).
In the course of researching this piece, I came across this truly lovely pathe’ news clip – about post-war-Bentall’s fightback against deteriorating standards of customer care.
After the introduction, the rest of the book brings us back to the (1973) present-day, looking in more detail at all the different areas involved in the running of one large store – the shop floor, services, warehouse, packing, training, management etc.
So right from the start, the impression is given that that almost all of these scenes of the workings of the shop were based on Bentall’s. I imagined that Berry had perhaps paid a visit to the store and took lots of photographs or perhaps Bentall’s provided Berry with photographs to use (Berry always worked from photographs when he could). But I found out fairly recently that a fair proportion of the reference pictures used to make the book was actually based on Sainsbury’s supermarket – and finding the original reference photos throws an interesting light on the process behind the illustration of a Ladybird book; on John Berry’s skills and approach.
In 1969 Sainsbury’s was celebrating a big birthday – 100 years of trading – and the produced a book ‘The Story of Sainsbury’s’ to celebrate.
I should add here that I only know this because I saw a tweet about it by Jason Hazeley and he, in turn, heard this from LCCMunicipal.com.
The staff canteen in the ‘Big Store’ is actually the staff canteen at the Ruislip Sainsbury’s – the men at the back are playing darts.
In this picture, the ‘Big Store’ managers’ meeting is actually a picture of the Sainsbury’s weekly design meeting- with John Sainsbury centre. To avoid giving away that this is a supermarket, Berry has adapted the products under discussion. (The scene would have appealed to Berry, with his love of the 17th century Spanish Great Masters. There is something of the feel of dark courtier intrigue in Berry’s effortless portraits).
I think this is my favourite. The funky job-interview scene – once seen, never forgotten – is actually created from a rather dull picture of a staff induction meeting. ( I have to keep reminding myself that the manager – a woman! – does not have an open laptop on her desk).
So it’s thanks to Berry’s imagination that the amazing ‘Mother Christmas’ outfit added a splash of colour to my childhood.