Humphrey’s Corner – Snails and Choo Choo Trains

Sometime around 1998/1999 I wandered into an off the beaten track card shop. I think Victoria and I were visiting somewhere, Stratford rings a bell, but I can’t be sure. The one thing that I do know, is that while I was in there I happen chanced upon some cards by an artist named Sally Hunter. The cards were Humphrey’s Corner.

Humph_IllustraotorHumphrey is a soft gentle little elephant. He lives in the house at the top of the hill with Mummy, Daddy, Sister Lottie and Baby Jack. When Humphrey was first born Daddy bought him a rabbit. His name is Mop. Humphrey takes Mop everywhere. He only has one ear now because Humphrey always sucked it when he was a baby.

I fell in love with those illustrations. I bought every Humphrey card in the shop. From that point on I made it my mission to search out new cards. They were far from common, and it was always a moment of joy if I found a new one anywhere. For a while I carried a print out of all the cards I had, so that I could cross reference them. I think they were under the Woodmansterne company at the time. I’ve never really been a collector, before or since.

Victoria thought I was mad. I still have a box piled high with unopened cards.

One day I sent a letter to Sally Hunter. Not sure why, just felt like I need to tell her how much I loved the pictures. Never done that before, never done it since. But for some reason it felt like the right thing to do.

Then, one day, I received a phone call. Sally Hunter actually phoned me to say thanks for the letter! I must admit to being a little starstruck and taken a back, so as I recall, I don’t think that I gave the best conversation! But I remember being amazed that she would take the time to make an actual phone call.

When Rebekah was born, it seemed only natural that we linked her to Humphrey, used his pictures, gave her a Humphrey and a Lottie. My mother even sent Rebekah a Humphrey birthday card for the first five years. With fatherhood now pressing down, I found myself being inspired by the pictures, and started writing poems to go with pictures. I wrote quite a few, and produced a small book with them in.

The cards became more successful and you could even pick the cards up in John Lewis. Then they disappeared for a while. When they reappeared under another company, I think the cards started to get reprinted. Mothercare started selling a lot of branded merchandise, and it seemed Humphrey was everywhere. And, I slowly lost contact with them, as you so often do.

I miss Humphrey, and Lottie, and Baby Jack, and Mop!


Snails and Choo Choo Trains
At the bottom of the garden,
Where only I go to play,
There is a little railway track,
That I visit every day,
It has a little choo choo train,
That travels very fast,
It carries lots and lots of passengers,
To the bottom of the path,
It is used by all the garden snails,

To help them get about,
And when it pass by the station,
The chimney gives a shout,

Chush ta Kur…
Chush ta Kur…

The smoke fluffs up like cotton wool,
Filling up all the air,
Then the conductor asks to see the tickets,
To make sure everyone has paid their fare,
And when the journey is nearly over,
The choo choo slowly stops,
And the snails all go on their way,
And so do me and Mop.

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Many years ago my dad told me a story about one of his friends Billy (
William Black ). He told me about him taking part in a race where he had
to run up a very steep road/hill/lane while carrying a sheep over his

Not long after that conversation I got to thinking about a story “The
Legend of Billy Black”. It never really formed into anything it was just
this concept about this kid who was remarkable at everything he did,
generous to a fault, and extremely well liked by everyone who ever met
him. The story would follow him as he grew up.

I did an amount of searching on Google to see if I could find any high
profile people with the name, especially anything written or filmed. I
didn’t want to create a character that was already prominent. Nothing came up. Yes there were plenty of Billy Black’s but nothing that I felt
concerned about.

As part of my Dreamgate novel I decided to weave Billy into the story in
order to have some form of cross over. I like the idea of connecting my
short stories and other works with Dreamgate. I even toyed with the idea
of giving Blacks identity to one of the mysterious main characters ‘The

Anyway, I started listing to the Audiobook of ’s . I listen while at the gym, it’s so much easier to get through a workout when you are distracted by something else; I clock watch less…

To my horror, very early on, a character called Billy Black appears…
re-doing my google search, the results are filled with Billy Black from
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Aunty Doris had a lemon tree.
She didn’t live in on , where the lemons grow in abundance in the rich fertile soil. Nor did she live in where the ’s grow to the size of a small bowling ball. None of those places where the sun shines in perfectly blue cloudless skies for most of the year and the old people are wrinkled from years of working outside under intense sunlight.
She lived in , a small densely populated mill town in the valley of the River Beal, at the foot of the Pennines. Famous for its forty eight dark satanic cotton mills — large rectangular brick built buildings that once dominated the panorama, making the area the powerhouse of textile manufacture during the industrial revolution. A town where the cold damp air caresses you, welcomes you, makes you feel like you belong, before its dark angry clouds dump their rain on you before they rise over the Pennines. A place of poor sterile soils and rugged terrain. A place described by as having produced ‘a race of hardy and laborious men’.
She lived in a Edwardian mid-terrace opposite the Ideal Bakery. A two-up-two-down house that stood proud flush on the pavement, branded with years of smoke that bellowed from imposing factory chimneys and rows and rows of chimney stacks servicing cosy but functional coal fires.
The house had a back garden, nothing more than a small yard that separated it from the cobbled alleys the interwove between the surrounded houses. Large slabs of stone – not the perfectly formed concrete paving stones of modern, but rough, nobbled, and discoloured slabs that might have been pulled from the local quarries — made a path between the neighbours yard wall and the small perfectly preened patch of grass, toward the back of the yard.
There at the back, nestled between a low wooden fence and the outside privy-cum-coal shed, standing slightly lower than the outbuilding, and surrounded by misplaced homing pigeons, stood the tree she once bought as a small little sapling at The Tree Center. It didn’t grow those gnarly, fragrant, and fresh lemons that you find in the market stalls of , nor the perfectly dull and symmetrical more common to british supermarkets.
The tree wasn’t covered in long dark green elliptical leaves, finely toothed. It didn’t have small perfect red buds or white purplish flowers with yellow anthers. It wasn’t a tall majestic well nursed tree with light yellow fruit shown beautifully against blue skies. It was nondescript, fitting of its place — in the corner of yard in a small cold town. It was old, woody, and ever so slightly out of control.
But on it, at the end of every branch, sat the most elegant lemons; perfectly formed by years of love and care. Tended for in a way that only a little old lady could.
Every when I was still so small that I could barely reach the fruit on the low hanging branches, we would cross the yard, propelled by excitement and expectations, to harvest a precious lemon to squeeze on our pancakes.
I would lift my hand up and caress one of the many perfectly identical plastic fruits hanging from every branch by the thinnest of cotton. No matter which one I took it was always full of the most wonderful juice, the taste of which would always remind me of this special place, this special moment. We would take off the lid and check, just to make sure, before returning to the house to continue with our feast.
Aunty Doris’s Jif Lemon Tree — a work of wonder and beauty.

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