Nicholas Fisk (1923–2016) is a half-forgotten name now, and his memoir Pig Ignorant is a wholly forgotten book. It deserves not to be, and he deserves not to be. – Sam Leith
‘I believe we all have a certain time in our lives that we’re good at. I wasn’t good at being a child.’ The epigraph from Victoria Wood to this endearingly honest memoir says it all. In it the best-selling children’s writer Nicholas Fisk lays bare his teenage soul as he beckons us into the world of late 1930s suburbia where he grew up.
On the surface Nicholas Fisk describes a comforting place of ‘horse-drawn milk-floats, lorries delivering Corona soft drinks, postmen with conical hats peaked in front and behind, and “Wallsie”, the Walls Ice-Cream man, pedalling his freezer-box trike’. But underneath it’s all embarrassment and uncertainty for the third-person narrator Nick (real name David Higginbottom) as he searches for an identity, from the kid who’s jeered at by bullies as a ‘Muvvers’ darling’ to the shy, gangling young adult affecting to smoke a pipe because the girl he fancies doesn’t like cigarettes.
Though Pig Ignorant is lightly written, inevitably the big subjects – sex and death – lurk beneath the wry humour, as Nick gets his first job with a theatrical agency and finds his faltering way into Soho jazz clubs where he moonlights as a guitarist. Soon there are girls, idealized and distant in this world before the Pill, impossible to understand and sexually dementing. Death comes in the form of the Blitz, the ‘clamped-down dark of the blackout’, the night when the family home is nearly hit, and the day when Nick sees the ghastly dust-whitened face of an elderly man whose torso is pulled out of the rubble. Pig Ignorant ends with another rite-of-passage, Nick’s call-up into RAF. It’s a brilliant book, the story not only of the making of a man but also of the making of a writer.
‘Nicholas Fisk was a pseudonym for David Higginbottom. He was born in London into a family with a strong creative tradition. His father, William, author of Frightfulness in Modern Art (1928), was an artist and art teacher. His mother, Margaret (nee Willmore), came from a theatrical family and was the sister of the Irish actor Micheál Mac Liammóir. Fisk was educated at Ardingly college, West Sussex, and left school at 16 after his father died. His mother felt that he would be better doing a job than continuing his education.
In his brief memoir of his teenage years, Pig Ignorant (1992), Fisk described his adolescence in London during the blitz and the backdrop of uncertainty and danger that it gave to his life. His first job was working for a theatrical agent, secured on the strength of his phone manner and the fact that he could type. The office was conveniently situated in Covent Garden, and his evenings were spent in the jazz clubs of Soho.
A self-taught jazz-guitarist, he later played with Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt, and he also became a proficient enough illustrator to be a cartoonist for the Daily Sketch. After the second world war, during which he served as an RAF meteorological officer, Fisk worked for the publishers Lund Humphries before moving to a career in advertising.’ Julia Eccleshare, Guardian
The In-Between Years
Nicholas Fisk (1923–2016) is a half-forgotten name now, and his memoir Pig Ignorant is a wholly forgotten book. It deserves not to be, and he deserves not to be. Fisk was a bestselling children’s...Read more