Tony Ross: ‘I wasn’t at all like Horrid Henry when I was a boy’

I was born in London in 1938. Then the bombing started and my parents rushed away up north, so I was brought up in Cheshire, knowing how to hold a rifle. If I could go back in time, I’d go back to Runcorn, to be with my father and mother in that house at the end of the war, when there were airmen and soldiers and Land Girls around the dining table.

My father was a conjuror in the Magic Circle – an extraordinary man. I grew up with the idea that you could do fun and extraordinary things for a living because of him. My mother was just a damn good mother. That was something you could be in those days. I adored her.

I wasn’t at all like Horrid Henry when I was a boy. I was only naughty when I thought I could get away with it.

I was excited by the war because I didn’t realise what it meant. I was too young. To me, Hitler was just a funny chap with floppy hair and a funny moustache. I could draw him easily and I used to like drawing him because it would make people laugh. He was just a character – a figure of fun.

I can’t remember not drawing. Even at a young age I knew I was good at it. And I enjoyed that, because there were so many things I couldn’t do – I was awful at school.

My great-grandfather was an illustrator to Charles Dickens. I used to look through 19th-century copies of Punch and find his drawings. So I always knew what being an illustrator was. But as a small child I wanted to be a zookeeper, in charge of the tigers. Tigers are still my favourite animals. But I’ve never been in charge of one and I probably never will be.

Working with Roald Dahl on Fantastic Mr Fox and The Magic Finger was delightful. I’ve come across far lesser authors who tend to want to dominate, who tell the illustrator what to do and how to do it. But Roald Dahl never did that. He was happy to let you get on with it. I loved being in his company.

I don’t feel I’m in my 80s. All my limbs work, I’ve never broken a bone. But my future is not as big and sprawling and adventurous as it was when I was 20. That’s what I dislike most about my age.

I’ve known nothing like Covid. It’s awful. I feel more uncomfortable about Covid than ever I did about Hitler. I feel thankful I had 80-odd years of life without it, and I feel sorry for people being born into a world with this disease in it.

I’m a pessimist and I’m glad I am one. As a pessimist, you feel sorry for optimists. In the world of a pessimist, everything gets better. If you’re an optimist, nothing works out as well as you hope. They have nothing in life to look forward to but disappointment.

I’ve had three marriages and they were all happy. The people I married have all been faultless. It was me that was wrong. I was my own worst enemy. I’m not the easiest person to get on with: sometimes irrational, sometimes self-centred. I have a lot of problems like that. They’re my problems and I recognise them.

Such a lot of life is luck and I’ve had lots of it. It’s sheer luck that I can draw well. It’s sheer luck that I met my first publisher. Life has been a lot of lucky things I couldn’t plan – things that just happened.

I said thank you to God recently. I was looking around my house and I thought, “I’ve stumbled through life. I couldn’t have done all this by myself.” Something has been guiding me. And I suppose that’s God.

I would hate to be remembered as a total shit. I’d like people to say, “Oh, it’s a pity he’s gone. He was fantastic.”

The 35th anniversary edition of the first Little Princess book, I Want My Potty! by Tony Ross is out now

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