The Daily Telegraph - Review
‘My aunt told me I was a difficult child to like’
As Jill Murphy’s ‘The Worst Witch’ hits the West End, she talks to Helen Brown about the magic of misfits
First published in 1974, The Worst Witch tells the magical tale of an accident-prone girl attempting to navigate the magical codes and murky corridors of Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. Generations of children have met in its first pages young Mildred Hubble: “one of those people who always seem to be in trouble. She didn’t exactly mean to break rules and annoy teachers, but things just seemed to happen when she was around. You could rely on Mildred to have her hat on back-to-front or her bootlaces trailing along the floor.”
“Mildred is me,” admits Jilly Murphy, the book’s author, who turned 70 this month. “I was a misfit. I had the long dark hair in plaits, which were always half undone with bits sticking out. My shoelaces flapping behind me. My hat on back to front. My aunt once told me I was a difficult child to like and that she was embarrassed to be seen out in public with me, which really hurt. But it’s true that I have never liked being told what to do and I never did well in institutions.”
The London-born daughter of an Irish aircraft engineer and a librarian he met during the war, Murphy was a gifted child. Speaking down the phone from her home in Cornwall, she tells me she was reading newspapers before she even started school and found drawing “as easy as breathing”. After an entrance interview in which she dismissed Dickens as “silly”, Murphy earned a place at a Catholic grammar school in Wimbledon, where her complete and “attentiongetting” confidence in English and art soon irked her teachers. They thought her too pleased with herself and, she says, took a sadistic pleasure in pointing out her “hopelessness in all other areas of the curriculum and total lack of common sense”.
On the bright side, the school became the model for Miss Cackle’s
Academy, although Murphy based the imaginary architecture of the building on “a castle which turned out to be a tea room” in Dorset.
Her “light bulb moment” occurred after she had walked home with two friends in the rain. Her mother opened the door, took one look at the soggy trio, and told them they looked like “three witches”.
“It was the best idea I ever had and so easily translatable: the chemistry lab was for potions, the coats were cloaks, the bikes were broomsticks. It all fell into place.”
Did the Catholicism translate to magic? “I don’t think so,” mulls Murphy, who says she “has a great respect for Christianity, although I don’t believe in it any more. I think we invent religions to make sense of life, to give us rules of behaviour and explain the sadness of death.” Having said that, at her primary school the children were given little bottles of holy water, “so I suppose we did have our potions. Later on, at grammar school, the nuns would appear in the dark corridors a bit like the witches in the book. They could materialise from nowhere just as you were talking about them.”
Murphy was 14 when she wrote the first draft of The Worst Witch in her school rough book. “At that point Mildred was a fairy, with pointy ears, at the wrong school – a school for witches,” she says. “The problems started when she began to grow wings and had to hide them from the witches who would “get her” if they found out. In the end she decided her wings were so beautiful she wouldn’t hide them, and she flew away to the Fairy Academy, where she had a wonderful time in a pink frock.” But by the time Murphy wrote the final version, at 18, she had begun to suspect there was no Fairy Academy in life. By then she was “no longer having a terrible time at school, I was having a terrible time at art school,” first in Chelsea, then later at Croydon and Camberwell. “I had believed that when I finally got to art school I’d be a round peg in a round hole at last,” she says. “But it was even worse. We all fell apart when I was asked to leave.”
Pinned to a noticeboard in Murphy’s home is the letter, dated Feb 21 1969, dismissing her from Camberwell after only six months; pinned next to it is the first rejection letter, dated May 1969, from a publisher to whom she’d sent her manuscript of The Worst Witch. She worked as a cleaner, then in a children’s home, and spent time in Africa with her first husband (who was studying Ghanaian onion farmers) before a small publisher named Allison & Busby took on the book.
“I was 23 by then,” she says, “and thrilled to find the publishers were quirky like me. The only changes they asked me to make were to the broomsticks, which, not being a witch myself, I’d drawn with people sitting on the “comfy bit”, which made it look as if they were flying backwards! They also asked if I could make the school co-ed, which I didn’t want to do. In retrospect, that would have queered the pitch for those who came after me.”
This is as close as Murphy comes to referring to the oft-noted similarity between the wizarding world of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series (the first of which appeared in 1997) and that of Mildred Hubble’s witches. When pushed on the subject, she will say only, politely, “I don’t talk about that. It would be nice, I suppose, if people would say thank you. But you have to be gracious.”
And although her sales figures might not match those of Rowling, Murphy’s books have enjoyed no shortage of critical and commercial success. In addition to the eight volumes in the Worst Witch series, she has written and illustrated such classic picture books for younger readers as Peace at Last (1980), The Last Noo Noo (1995) and Dear Hound (2009).
She tells me that, although she raised her son Charlie alone – she
‘I don’t talk about [Harry Potter]. It’d be nice, I suppose, if people said thank you’