Midwinter Violins

I came across a children’s book from the early 70s in a charity shop, and bought it as much for the cover as anything. I love the artwork in old children’s books. I’m also of the opinion that the 60s and 70s were the golden age of children’s literature. The stories could still be innocent and maybe not as completely realistic as modern novels are expected to be, but were tighter and less wordy than much older ones. Basically, they were great form of escapism and good, old-fashioned story-telling.

This one is called The Midwinter Violins by Sally Bicknell. I really enjoyed it and I wanted to find out more about the author but it wasn’t easy because it was a long time ago and she wasn’t a best-seller. She didn’t write many books and it’s just about the only one you can still find in print.

It struck me that in a few decades someone might find one of my books and wonder about me too. I’m not a big selling author either, there isn’t a Wikipedia page about me, and I don’t know how ephemeral blogs will turn out to be, especially mine!

I felt a great affinity with the unknown Sally Bicknell and all the other authors who have brought pleasure to children as they’ve come and gone, and I was pleased when I finally tracked down an obituary that appeared in the Guardian under her remarried name of Miall. I thought that I can at least do my bit to keep her memory going going a bit longer. So this is about Sally Bicknell, who was an author, who lived a life, and who wrote pretty good books along the way.

I hope someone will write that about me one day.


My mother, Sally Miall, who has died aged 91, had many talents. She played the piano, she drew, she knew and loved the literary canon, and she was a writer – first of trenchant illustrated diaries and later of novels for children and adults, some of them under the name Sally Bicknell. She was a skilful dressmaker, an accomplished cook and a dedicated gardener.

She was born Sally Leith in her mother’s family home in Essex, while her father, a South African architect, was recuperating from being gassed on the western front. After the first world war, they returned to South Africa. In 1934 Sally was sent to school at Roedean in Brighton and then to Newnham College, Cambridge, where she read English. There she met and married Nigel Bicknell, who, on the outbreak of the second world war, joined the RAF, flying reconnaissance missions over Europe. Sally worked on codebreaking at Bletchley Park.

At the end of the war, Nigel was appointed air attache in Washington. Later he was posted to Istanbul and then to Athens where, in 1956, Sally won the ladies’ cup in the Acropolis Rally in a Fiat 600. Back in London, by now with four sons, she enjoyed a rumbustious family life in a rather ramshackle terrace house in Chelsea and a draughty cottage in Sussex.

In 1975 Nigel and Sally were divorced. They both remarried, Sally to Leonard Miall, a BBC executive who had been instrumental in setting up BBC2. She worked as secretary to the British School at Athens, serving a committee of academic archaeologists from the London office in Gordon Square – with yearly trips to the various digs in Greece run by the school. Her earlier experience of living in the near east and her enthusiasm for literature and ancient culture suited her perfectly for this role.

Leonard and Sally’s home in Taplow, Buckinghamshire, saw many happy gatherings of their joint families. Leonard died in 2005. My brother Stephen died in 2007. Sally is survived by three sons, Marcus, Alexander and myself, four stepchildren, and a fleet of grandchildren and step-grandchildren.


About ramblesofawriter

Writer, thinker, tea drinker.
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