‘It rained every day since Grandma arrived in London. Every single day. Not the nice sort of fat rain than makes gentle plopping noises on your rain hat, but the nasty thin sort that runs down your nose and the tops of your Wellington boots and makes your hair stick out all over the place.’
Imagine a nightmare Britain where houses are so poorly built that a period of sustained rain like we have just endured is able to uproot entire buildings and washing them down the street and out into the ocean. Fortunately though in this scenario they can also float, which sounds like the premise of a sci-fi dystopia where people have become so inured to extreme weather that they have developed buoyant bricks and mortar.
Of course The House that Sailed Away isn’t a dystopia at all. It’s wonderfully, gleefully silly. Pat and her husband Laurence Hutchins have created a story that is infused with the humour of the Goons and Les Dawson. It’s the product of two people creating something quite personal and having a lot of fun.
Pat you already know as the creator of one of the all-time great picture books, Rosie’s Walk, along with countless others including The Silver Christmas Tree. Here she’s on writing duties while her husband Laurence provides the images. As with Clara Vulliamy illustrating her mum Shirley Hughes’s words for their Dixie O’Day books, there is a happy continuity in this family collaboration. The cover palette of yellow, red and brown echoes Rosie’s Walk, while the wobbly lines used to effectively capture the swelling seas point back to their background in graphic design.
Pat was born in Britain in 1942 and met her future husband while working in the art department of a London advertising agency. Like an unusually whimsical storyline from Mad Men, the pair moved to a small Brownstone in Greenwich Village, New York for a couple of years in the mid-60s, when Laurence was transferred to the New York office of J. Walter Thompson. Pat remained at home, but being more of a Peggy than a Betty she took the opportunity to hawk her illustrations around town, and was promptly signed up by Macmillan, who published her first book, Rosie’s Walk in ’68.
Their son Morgan was born around this time, and it’s presumably the same Morgan who is the model for the young protagonist of The House that Sailed Away. He looks rather like me in the late 70s – right down to the blond mop and OshKosh dungarees. The book is clearly a family affair, as Mother and Father also bear more than a passing resemblance to Pat and Laurence, though I wonder who the dotty, but irrepressible Grandma is based on?
Both visually and in storytelling terms The House that Sailed Away is very much a product of its time, but I don’t think that should put children off from reading it today. The startling central premise is both timely and timeless – the image of the house uprooted and dumped on the shore of a desert island was even repeated in the Pixar movie Up. Though even the mighty Pixar could never do justice to this story, to do that you’d need Aardman and an ocean of plasticine.