Hardly was I through the door to David Fickling’s office than he was up from his desk eager to share with me some special preview boxes for a forthcoming illustrated project that he is particularly excited about.
Fickling is the kind of editor who exudes excitement for all his enterprises of course, but he did appear to be particularly animated on behalf of this one, the details of which I am sworn to secrecy about, except to say that I was shown and heard enough about the concept to say that I am just as excited to see the project’s eventual fruition, which is not likely to be before the later part of 2016.
The boxed preview editions are being lovingly produced and assembled by hand with the express view of becoming collectors’ items and having a value of their own in the future, but their primary purpose is to interest foreign publishers to buy into and extend the print run.
There had been a longstanding open invitation to me to visit the offices of David Fickling Books ever since it had been established as a Random House imprint based in Oxford over twelve years ago. It is now a fully independent publisher, working out of the same Beaumont Street offices, with its sister company The Phoenix just a couple of doors away.
For a publisher of such influence and renown, with an annual lecture named after him, Fickling’s Wikipedia entry is woefully inadequate. But for all his larger-than-life, booming-voice, bow-tied presence, self-promotion and self-perpetuation do not really interest him, although he is very keen to leave behind a legacy and to create an enterprise that will have longevity.
He likes to consider himself a merchant – someone who is producing fine artefacts, and bringing them to market. And he wants the David Fickling books logo to be a stamp of enduring quality.
He is unabashed about the involvement of several family members in the publishing team. We joke about how he might be one of those publishers who retain an association with the firm well into old age, regularly turning up at the office into his nineties, keeping an eye on how the younger generations are steering things along.
Now in his sixties, there is little sign of him taking things easy. The only indication I saw of his age was some tentative mobility on the steep flight of stairs down to the basement offices, from where, amongst other things, orders from the online shop are processed and dispatched.
If an author is published by DFB, all that author’s works are available to buy from the DFB shop, even if published by a rival firm.
We spoke quite a bit about his early days at OUP, working alongside Ron Heapy for whom there is no Wikipedia entry at all and about whom Fickling speaks just as warmly as everyone I have ever met who was associated with him. [I remember James Riordan, in particular, being more eager to speak about Heapy than himself when I interviewed him for the TES over lunch at Arundel.]
Fickling still has on his office shelves many of the poetry anthologies from the 1980s that he worked on at OUP (including one illustrated by a fledgling Nick Sharratt, hired by Fickling) and says that poetry is something he is keen for DFB to feature prominently on its list. He is proud of having published a sumptuous edition of Wayland by Tony Mitton, illustrated by John Lawrence (and winner of last year’s CLiPPA Poetry Award). Taking a copy from the shelf, unperturbed by my confession that I had not enjoyed it as much as Mitton’s earlier, more lyrical work, he proceeds to read aloud several stanzas.
But if there is one subject that energises Fickling beyond all others it is that of comics. “We have lost them all,” he laments. “All bar The Beano.”
He sees this as one of the great tragedies of children’s reading over the last few decades, and is why he is so pleased that The Phoenix, successor to the DFC, a comic launched by Fickling seven years ago, is, now under the editorship of Fickling’s son, Tom, proving to be viable with a steadily growing subscriber list.
The cover price of £2.99 seemed somewhat steep for a weekly comic when it launched in 2012, but now seems perfectly reasonable – The Beano is £2.20.
I am taken two doors down the street to The Phoenix’s domain, and the atmosphere there is electric. Three of the most recent copies are thrust into my hand and I’m shown a mind-boggling grid mapping out features against weekly editions, as well as various illustrations and home-made copies sent in by readers.
Amongst the editorial, illustrating and writing team in the back room is novelist John Dickinson (son of Peter Dickinson), author of the futuristic SF novel WE, whose official role with the comic is Chief Finance Officer, but also writes some of the strips.
At the time of my visit there were Five Golden Keys to be found in order to SAVE the Phoenix from Doom. The finder of each key gets a feature page. Two of them had already been discovered, so two such features were included in the issues I took away.
The comic has a a regular format with weekly features such as the Phoenix Phictionary, a FanFare page featuring contributed artwork, and Phoenix Soup – a double spread that includes a Q&A with one of the writers or illustrators, a book recommendation and more. There’s a great variety of comic strips which come and go through different sequences of editions (hence the need for the complicated planning grid).
In issue 186 Dark Lloyd (a strip based on Jamie Thomson’s The Dark Lord novels) returned having been last seen in issue 170. I particularly liked Pow!, an almost wordless strip by Alexander Matthews that reappeared in issue 185 after an absence of nine weeks. As a regular reader one of the excitements about getting a new issue must be to see which strips are continuing, have returned or are taking a rest.
As David led me out of The Phoenix offices and back along the street he stopped beside the specially commissioned stone engraving by Bernard Johnson which stands in place of a brass nameplate.
When I got back to my car there was a note on the windscreen which read “Please don’t use my parking space again.” I cannot have followed Rosie Fickling’s directions to the unmarked secret parking space correctly, so my apologies to the disgruntled resident.