Children’s author Ted Prior
Two minutes into our conversation, Ted Prior says a series of words that at first make no sense to me: “The police force sent me to art school.”
He tells me that he left school at 15, even though he had been doing reasonably well. “It was a public boys’ high school and I just ended up hating it,” he says. At 16 he joined the police cadets program, and at 19 was sworn in as a constable. This is when he says it: “Then, a couple of years later, I left because the police force sent me to art school.”
The author and artist is speaking from his home in Coorabakh, near Taree on the New South Wales mid north coast, where he lives on 80 hectares that is mostly forest. Since bushfires swept through late last year – fortunately sparing his home and studio – he’s been spending his mornings digging up the weeds that have started springing up on the healing land. Today is no different.
Nature forms such an integral part of his life and work that it’s hard to picture Prior without a backdrop of greenery. He tells me about his wooden sculptures, about how the older he gets, the deeper his connection with the Australian wilderness grows. And he tells me how, when his children were very young, he thought it would be fun to create a story about living in the bush.
“Where we were living at the time we had a lot of very big and very old burrawang trees,” he explains animatedly. “They had this big grassy top and I thought, well, we could turn that into an imaginary character – so it falls off the grassy top and turns into Grug.”
It feels a bit redundant to explain Prior’s creation to an Australian audience – even if you didn’t grow up with the Grug books, the image of a friendly-looking stripy round creature who lives in an underground home seems to have seeped into the public consciousness. He’s been on Australian bookshelves since 1979.
This year marks a series of milestones for both Grug and his creator – the 35th Grug book is set for release, and the 10th anniversary staging of Windmill Theatre’s adaptation of the early books is taking place this month in South Australia. “Grug has been really fantastic to me – and for me,” says Prior. But it’s not a path he could have imagined when he was setting out.
Prior had always been interested in drawing – although, he reflects with an edge of sadness, art wasn’t a subject offered at his school. The police, as it turned out, “wanted a couple volunteers to work on drawing identikits and things like that”. He pauses. “Once I actually started attending a class at the art school I just I thought, ‘Oh wow, this is what I want to do.’ Which is great – it’s great you discover that when you’re still young … I ended up resigning and going as a full-time student.”
From there he threw himself into art completely. After graduating, he taught at the TAFE art school in Newcastle, where he stayed for more than 20 years, eventually becoming the head teacher. He wrote and illustrated new Grug stories up until the early ’90s, sometimes at a rate of several a year. And he also worked on other artworks; sometimes paintings, but mostly sculpture.
I ask how his other artworks compare with his books. “Completely different!” he says. He exhibited regularly through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. “I was never actually financially successful in those except when I started putting regular Grug illustrations in the exhibitions – and I was really peeved that they all sold but none of my other artwork did.” He laughs. “But that’s all right.”
It’s a common enough scenario, but it’s still strange to think of different artwork from the same mind, created by the same hands, being valued so differently. Perhaps it’s because when people are buying an original print of Grug, they aren’t just buying an image – they’re buying their memories, their nostalgia, in physical, tangible form.
So what is it about Grug that has made him so enduring and beloved? Prior says that when he first brought the idea of Grug to a publisher, they jumped at it as an Australian answer to the Mr Men books. “That’s basically why the Grug books came out in that small softcover version,” he says. The books sold well over the ’80s and early ’90s – but then, with 24 Grug books out in the world, “they went out of print – mainly because that publisher was taken over by another publisher who wasn’t that interested … They were out of print for about 12 years.”
Even so, the public never really forgot about him. Theatre director Sam Haren had grown up reading the books. In 2009 he wanted to give the series to his young godson and started scouring eBay. Around the same time, Haren met with Rosemary Myers, the artistic director of Windmill Theatre, to discuss what show they should put on next. “I mentioned to her the idea of, oh, what if we could make a show based on Grug?” he tells me. “And then Rose went, ‘Oh that’s really interesting you say that – I’ve just seen the books have been reprinted’ … it was just this great moment of serendipity.”
In the time that Grug had been out of print, the young children who had grown up with the character became adults, including a publisher at Simon & Schuster who was keen to revive the series.
For Prior, the new wave of attention came as a surprise. When the reprinted books were released he set out to do a series of signings. “I was just so taken aback by how many young adults were coming up to have Grug books signed. Some didn’t have children themselves yet, but they just had such fond memories of their own childhood with Grug that they wanted me to sign some books,” he says. “And I didn’t think it would have that kind of effect you know? Such a long-term effect.”
I ask Prior what it’s like to see something from his own imagination viewed through someone else’s eyes. He talks about the characters like old friends – which I guess, after 40 years, they are. “They had a puppeteer build a Grug puppet, which is absolutely fantastic, and Cara as well,” he says. “I was so impressed with how good it was. The way they did it I think, really, it just had a life of its own.”
The pandemic means that Grug is the only show that Windmill is producing this year. “We cancelled everything for this year except this one season of Grug,” says Myers. “We’ve had that feedback from teachers and parents saying the kids have been so disrupted and unsettled this year, just to be able to take them to a show and to feel like things are going to return to normal [is something to look forward to].”
The production has been moved into a larger theatre to accommodate chequerboard seating, and, in a rare move, they are considering having understudies for the cast. The popularity of Grug has been an important factor in the decision to go ahead – the success of past tours means the show is very adaptable to different-sized theatres and its intimate nature means that it works best with a smaller crowd.
“It’s tried and tested,” says Haren. The new measures “will create a setting that hopefully makes everyone feel very comfortable being in the space together … it’ll be interesting to experience as an artist working on a show in this new kind of context … I’m hoping it will be a really lovely experience for people to be able to come back and engage with theatre, which is something people haven’t done for some time.”
Since the original series was reprinted, Prior has written new stories – including 2010’s Grug and His Imaginary Friend. Back in the ’70s when he was first developing Grug, “he started off tall and skinny” but then Prior thought, no, it would make more sense if he were round. Thirty years later, he brought back that first version of Grug as Grug’s imaginary friend, Gubby. There’s a strange poetry to Grug’s imaginary friend actually being himself from an alternate universe – a glimpse into what might have been.
I ask Prior why he thinks Grug is so beloved. “I think because Grug is so childlike and so innocent and also of course that he’s part of the Australian bush. So Grug may not appeal so much to children in other countries maybe –” Prior checks himself as he remembers the theatre production. The show has toured China, North America and Europe, running almost continuously over the past decade. While Australians have a strong sense of familiarity with the character, children who are completely new to him seem just as drawn in. “So maybe it is universal.”
“He thinks and acts like a young child even though he can’t talk … and I think that’s where the appeal of the Grug books are to young children. They can identify with the way Grug does things because that’s the way they do things, and that’s the way they think.” This is also why Prior likes writing for this demographic: “I just enjoy the way young children think and the way they do things – and I think there’s a little bit of the young child in all of us.”
This isn’t the only thing Prior has in common with his creation. Prior initially drew inspiration for the Grug stories from his own children’s experiences. Now, however, he knows he was also tapping into his own memories. “I realise that a lot of the things that happened to Grug in the early stories were things from my own childhood.”
Grug has no family and is very independent, going off to discover new things in the world. When Prior was in primary school his family lived in “a small country town called Kandos where they made cement”, he recalls. “And sometimes I would just wander off into the bush on my own.” He pauses. “I mean, it’s amazing to think now that you would do that – parents wouldn’t allow their kids to do that, but obviously my parents felt completely safe about that – and it was, you know?”
Four years ago, Prior thought he was done with Grug. “I’d sort of felt that I’d used up all of my ideas,” he says matter-of-factly. But then the bushfires came through, burning most of the land on his property. As he started clearing up, he thought about the fact that Grug lives underground, and what that would mean if the character encountered a bushfire.
Whenever he approaches any of his stories, he thinks about a scenario that people – usually children – might face and asks “What would Grug do?” Grug, as a series, isn’t just a cute way to pass the time – it’s a way of looking at realities, fun and less fun, macro or micro, to view them through a new lens at a slight remove. Grug might not be human, but he experiences the same things we do. And so Prior wrote his first book since 2016 – Grug and the Bushfire.
Prior isn’t sure what’s next. He is still working on sculptures and the sketches of new projects. “I can’t imagine trying to do something for anyone except young children,” says Prior. “I’ve had an idea for a couple of years for another children’s book but nothing to do with Grug and nothing like Grug, but it’s just in very early stages working it through.”
For now he is enjoying being surrounded by nature, and confides that he has stopped resisting the urge to have a nap in the middle of the day. “It’s just become part of my routine ... just as young children are allowed to have a nap,” he says, laughing. “I recently turned 75, so I’m allowed!”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 10, 2020 as "Bush tales".
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