Graham Oakley was born in 1929 and, after a stint in the British Army, studied at the Warrington School of Arts. His first foray into the creative world was as a designer in theatre and television, but illustration beckoned in the late 1950s. He is best known for the endearing, witty, and beautifully illustrated series of books on The Church Mice.
The first book in 1972 introduced us to Humphrey and Arthur, the mice in question, and the beleaguered church cat, Sampson, who had listened to so many sermons he had made a vow not to chase mice. The stories centred on the village of ‘Wortlethorpe’, which was actually based on Lyme Regis, where the author lives, and although it was intended that he would write about other public buildings, the Church Mice were so popular that every story stayed with them. There are fourteen books in all detailing their exploits.
There is so much for a child, and for an adult, to like about these books. The detailed illustrations are an absolute joy, with lots to see and point out as you read. I think I loved these sort of illustrations most of all when I was a child, as not only did you have the written story on the page to follow, but you could make up your own about things not mentioned in the text – those children walking down the road, that dog in the park. The written story never once speaks down to a child, but has delightful asides, such as:
But worse of all he (Arthur) was lonely, for in the whole of that church there was not one other mouse, and when he felt like having a chat Sampson always seemed to be having one of his little day-long naps.
Arthur tied the burglar’s boot-laces together and then Sampson obliged with his party piece. It was supposed to be the Song of the Nightingale but everyone else thought it sounded like a policeman’s whistle. They counted on the burglar thinking so too.
For a child who never saw the inside of a church, such as myself, I found everything about these books fascinating – the settings, the overgrown gravestones, the cat (always a cat!), the parson and sweet-eating choirboys, policemen on bicycles, mice – lots of mice! They may hark back to a gentler age, but there is a delightful meandering whimsy to these books that is somehow timeless.