In this book the author, Kate Robertson paints an engaging and fascinating portrait of her mother, Elisabeth Beresford, best known as the creator of The Wombles. It is a story of a life, a life of a quite extraordinary woman who never viewed herself as anything more than ordinary. Drawing from those extensive diaries and contemporaneous source material, Robertson has recreated Elisabeth (Liza)’s life in a charming and thoroughly engaging manner. From the somewhat eccentric childhood with mischievous and inquisitive brothers using her as the subject of many dangerous experiments to a childhood in Brighton interrupted by war in alarming fashion. Evacuation followed, as did service in the WRNS. Robertson’s skill in writing is evident. It is based on meticulous and painstaking research of hitherto unseen source material. The distillation of that large amount of detail into an easily readable account is what makes this book such a treat for the reader.
Becoming after the war a shorthand typist, writer and editor of speeches and articles, a contributor to the BBC’s Woman’s Hour and the Today programme among other steps along the way, Liza’s life is at once mundane and yet punctuated by acquaintance and friendship with some surprising people. Being called a ‘bloody pie-can’ by an early and demanding employer is perhaps the story of everyone’s early career, but it is interspersed with anecdote and the wit and charm of the author; supplemented by the diaries, correspondence and intimate knowledge upon which Robertson relies.
The creation of The Wombles is naturally explored at length and this is the cornerstone of Beresford’s life, the pivot in her professional career. The things that strike me as a reader most about this are essentially two-fold: Firstly, the Wombles were way ahead of their time in 1968 – as late as 2018 the government were adopting the mantra ‘repair, reuse, recycle’ – Great Uncle Bulgaria guiding his team to gather litter and repurpose it is perhaps a better statement of a ‘green’ future than gluing oneself to the motorway. Secondly, until reading this book I had little idea how greatly the books of the Wombles and the charming 5 minute stop frame animation by Ivor Wood, narrated by the legendary Bernard Cribbins had influenced my childhood. I still recall the names of all and could sing the theme tune (word perfect) to this day. Its television development was, however, far from straightforward and the insight given by Robertson in her book is revelatory.
I defy anyone not to love a Womble. There are so many characters to choose from (mostly derived from Beresford’s close family) and so much to love and to be amused by. As the author points out, Liza’s greatest desire was to make children laugh, and to make them feel safe.
As a book, this is, however, no ‘hagiography’ as the author is at pains to point out. It relates the personal and professional tribulations of a woman ahead of her time and both her parents’ and later her own domestic uncertainty and discord. The self-employed and authors in particular will recognise the ever present self-doubt and fear (whether justified or not) of impending insolvency. It is these small and personal details that make the book such an engrossing read for there must be counterpoint to point. This is the long overdue telling of the story of an ordinary and yet, extraordinary woman. It is a story told with wit, charm and honesty and an objectivity that is as refreshing as it is welcome by a writer who has clearly inherited her mother’s gift for words.
Kate Robertson is the daughter of Elisabeth Beresford, on whom the character of Bungo Womble was based. She has had 12 children’s books published (Dilbert the Jumbo Jet series), has worked in non-fiction publishing and is a freelance writer and editor. She was a script advisor on the 1990s Womble films and a consultant on the reissue of the Womble novels by Bloomsbury.
This review was written for Books up North by David Ravenswood, who was delighted to have this opportunity to read this biography as his oldest childhood friend still refers to him ‘Tomsk’!?
If you enjoyed reading this review please share it on social media