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Venkatesh Jun 30, 2020
Remembering an extraordinary woman, a good friend and passionate advocate of children’s books.
I can imagine the gleam in her eye if she read that line in the headline. But more about that later.
How does one begin to say anything about Wendy Cooling? There are so many of her. There is the Wendy who spent 20 years as a secondary school teacher in inner city London, the Wendy who was the head of Children’s Book Foundation (the children’s arm of the Book Trust), the Wendy who founded the Bookstart programme in the UK (to get a book or books into every child’s hands), the Wendy who loved India - a love affair that began when she backpacked the country as a 17-year-old - and Bookaroo, sometimes not necessarily in that order and, finally, the Wendy our dear friend who left us on June 21st.
Of Wendy of the Children’s Book Foundation, Book Trust and Bookstart fame, one just has to see the news reports then and the tributes that have been pouring in since. Though Wendy hardly ever talked about her accomplishments, boastfully or otherwise, she was proud of the Bookstart programme. That she was awarded the MBE in 2009 was a well-kept secret, for instance, simply because she did not think that it mattered enough to enter a conversation between friends. In 2006, she won the Eleanor Farjeon award for a life spent promoting children's literature and three years ago, received a Book Trust Outstanding Achievement Award for her incredible work for Bookstart at the programme’s 25th anniversary celebration. Of Wendy the schoolteacher, one unfortunately does not know much apart from snippets that slipped out of her immediately followed by a determined change in subject.
Knowing her distaste for cloyingly effusive and over-the-top tributes, I will attempt to steer clear of that pitfall and stay with the two Wendys I knew. Wendy the special friend whose wisdom often came cloaked in wit and irreverence and Wendy the staunch supporter of Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival. We (Swati, my fellow festival director and I) first met Wendy in November 2008 when she was visiting our friend and former colleague Jo Williams in Delhi having heard about the about-to-be-launched children’s literature festival that was Bookaroo. It was the start of a long and beautiful friendship. In the beginning, one was a little afraid of this stern, lean and ramrod-straight Englishwoman who was frightfully efficient - and proper - about everything she did.
Friend for life
When Wendy believed in something, it was total, be it friendship or a professional commitment. So was the case with Bookaroo as she fell in love with it, never failing to book that November flight to Delhi every year. Sometimes it wasn’t just November. She was with us in Srinagar, Pune, Goa, Jaipur and even to Kuching, Malaysia paying her way to every Bookaroo that she attended. And we got to know each other better. The severity, that we had imagined, was just that as we discovered more about Wendy. She was fun to be with. Later, the friendship blossomed and strengthened just like the G&T evenings that were enlivened by scintillating conversations. She knew everyone and everything about children’s books.
Wendy's was also the shoulder one would look for in times of uncertainty. We were never denied that comfort of that shoulder. She was a good sport too, allowing her leg to be pulled, sometimes mercilessly. Her fumbling attempts to correctly pronounce her favourite Indian dessert Gulab Jamun is one that comes to mind, unbidden. She would keep referring to it as Julaab Gamun (which meant something totally different and far removed from food). Once she discovered her mistake, thanks to our shameless explosions of laughter, she would never refer to it by name. Those ‘brown things’ was how she would refer to them, never rising to the bait when the inevitably ‘innocent’ post dinner question came up.
Her devastatingly nonchalant style of delivering a rap on the knuckles (you usually didn’t see that coming till it was too late) was something to be seen, if you were not on the receiving end. She was not easily flustered but the one thing that would worry her endlessly was how her hair looked. Her little quirks made her that much more lovable.
When it came to Bookaroo, the phrase that springs to mind when thinking of Wendy is selfless volunteerism. There she would be, standing hour after hour (the chair just a backdrop) and going about her session as children filed in and out. Dehydration couldn’t stop her. A bottle of Electral with water and a hat (or cap) were the weapons she brandished to ward it off. Often, she would be the last woman standing, bidding goodbye to the departing children as two-day event wound to a close on Sunday evening.
That did not mean that she put up her feet and took it easy. On the contrary she was thinking of where to go and that was her idea of taking it easy. Wendy was a traveller, not a tourist, who loved wandering the world but she probably loved India and all things Indian a little more. She adored the colours of the country, had a fascination for scarves and earrings. Hill or dale, beach or desert, it was just another bustling day in the office for her.
Don't let the old man in, I wanna leave this alone
Can't leave it up to him, he's knocking on my door
And I knew all of my life, that someday it would end
Get up and go outside, don't let the old man in - Toby Keith
Wendy’s incredible energy levels caused many a jaw to fall in a world where action, for many ‘senior’ citizens, was about contentedly sitting back to reflect as life ground to a crawl. That could only because she didn’t let the old woman in - to paraphrase Keith’s number inspired by Clint Eastwood’s memorable comment when asked about the legendary actor-director’s relentless energy.
Wendy could be stoic and effervescent at the same time and she was the one completely responsible woman. When she had to cancel her India trip at the last moment because of her illness, her over-riding thought in a carefully worded mail to us was concern about letting us down. At the same time, she assured us how well she was being looked after by family and friends. We would like to believe that she never let the old woman in, even as the end was near.
We looked forward to her messages and photographs in a small WhatsApp group created for that purpose. Swati and I believe that she did too - she loved the photos we sent of flowers, trees and the birds of Delhi or other places that we had visited. We, in turn, were transported thousands of miles through the photos of her garden - in full bloom or snowed under depending on the weather.
Technology, however, met its match when it was time for tradition. Not for Wendy the instant stock digital greeting. The carefully chosen and thoughtfully handwritten Christmas cards would unfailingly arrive by snail mail each year on time. As would our respective birthday cards. We will miss those greetings sorely - as we will the ‘more anon’ emails.
Coming back to Betalbatim and the beginning. An edition of Bookaroo can take a lot out of one - from planning to execution. One way of winding down was for us to take a ‘tripette’, as it came to be known in-house. The general idea is to do nothing but go away and find a quiet place somewhere. However, for Wendy, even a tripette was not an off-the-cuff decision. While her visits to India (as were her other tripettes with other friends) were meticulously planned to the last cab ride, a tripette with us was an altogether new story. It would invariably fall on me to plan and make arrangements and I liked having a surprise or two up my sleeve. Though she did not approve of this approach wholly, she would play along. To her credit, she would never Google a destination.
Nearly five years ago, after a Bookaroo in Goa, the tripette was a two-day break in Betalbatim in south Goa. Not a word to Wendy although she tried everything to get at least some information out. Four of us hired a car and set off with Wendy sporting the ‘I-usually-like-to-know-where-I-am-going-and-what-I-am-doing’ look on her face. In her understated way, she would keep trying to extract information about the destination, but every time she turned an enquiring face to me, I would say Betalbatim. It sounded nonsensical and after one Betalbatim too many, she came back with this repartee. “Betalbatim to you too Venky.” As it turned out, she loved every bit of it and even enjoyed, among other things, going for the traditional Tiatr (theatre) - one of Goa’s attractions that is hardly highlighted in the tourist brochures.
There is that one unplanned journey that one has to make finally. However, one can be pretty sure that Wendy would have managed very well on arrival, just as she always did on our tripettes. We will raise a gin and tonic to that Wendy.