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Canterbury author Anthony Browne tells of Queen's honour and being bitten by an ape at Howletts

Children's author and illustrator Anthony Browne shot to fame in 1983 with the award-winning book, Gorilla, which sold millions across the world.

But his rise to global recognition was not without its tribulations, because he was badly bitten by an ape at a Kent zoo while meeting the animals for a television broadcast.

Anthony Browne is distracted from his work by new puppy Albert
Anthony Browne is distracted from his work by new puppy Albert

Otherwise, his long and illustrious literary career has been without trauma, earning him a host of accolades, including being the first British illustrator to be awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 2002 and being made Children's Laureate from 2009 to 2011.

And after publishing 50 books, he has received a well-deserved CBE in the New Year's Honours list for services to literature.

"In some ways this award feels different", said the 74-year-old, speaking from his home in Canterbury city centre.

"It's like an acknowledgement for the culmination of everything I've done and and I'm really delighted."

Growing up in a 'rough' pub in Bradford which his father ran, Anthony might well have picked up boxing gloves instead of an artist's pen.

But he had his parents' full support when he decided to go to art college to study graphic design.

He was just 17, however, when he suffered the huge shock of witnessing his father suffer a heart attack and die.

"My dad was a big, strong man who kept order in the pub" he said.

"He was like superman to me and I thought he was invincible, so it hit me hard and took a long time to get over.

"But I think he would have been really proud of what I went on to achieve."

Anthony Browne painting by numbers aged seven
Anthony Browne painting by numbers aged seven

Anthony left college and got a job as a medical artist because it "sounded interesting".

He worked at Manchester Royal Infirmary for three years, painting delicate watercolours of graphic operations.

"It taught me a lot more about drawing than I ever learned at art college, and I believe it taught me how to tell stories in pictures," he said.

But in a change of art direction, he began designing greetings cards, working for the Gordon Fraser Gallery.

"Gordon Fraser became a close friend and taught me a lot about card design, which was to prove very useful when I came to do children’s books," he said.

'It's one of those careers where you can keep going as long as the ideas and inspiration keeps coming...'

"I experimented with many styles and many subjects, from snowmen, to dogs with big eyes, to gorillas.

"I sent some of my designs to various children’s book publishers and it was through one of these that I met Julia MacRae, who was to become my editor for the next 20 years.

"She taught me much of what I know about writing and illustrating children’s books."

Anthony's debut book both as writer and as illustrator was Through the Magic Mirror, published by Hamish Hamilton in 1976.

But his breakthrough came with Gorilla, published by Julia MacRae in 1983 and based on one of his greeting cards. For it he won the Kate Greenaway Medal from the Library Association, recognising the year's best children's book illustration by a British subject.

It was while publicising the book that Anthony suffered a rather nasty bit during an encounter with gorillas at Howletts, near Canterbury.

He has been asked by a children's television company if they could film him in an ape enclosure, talking about what it was like to be close to gorillas.

"There was a much more relaxed regime to going in with the animals at Howletts back then and it seemed a good idea at the time, " said Anthony.

Gorilla by Anthony Browne
Gorilla by Anthony Browne

"I went in a couple of times for the gorillas to get used to me without a problem but when it came to the day of filming, they became more agitated, perhaps by the cameras.

"I was bitten on the calf by a female who had a baby, which hurt immensely, but I carried on despite seeing blood on my jeans.

"At the time the keepers didn't seem too fussed about it and said it was just a 'warning bite' and she would have taken my leg off if she meant it.

"Afterwards I went to the hospital to have the wound treated and still have a faint scar.

"It's not the usual occupational hazard of being an author I suppose but it's an entertaining story to retell if I am visiting a school for a talk and feel I'm losing their attention.

"And I certainly haven't lost my love for gorillas."

Anthony's books have been translated into 26 languages, and his illustrations have been exhibited in countries around the world, many of which he has visited and worked with local schoolchildren.

In 2001-2002, he took a job as writer and illustrator at Tate Britain, working with children using art as a stimulus to inspire visual literacy and creative writing activities.

A father-of-two and now a grandfather-of-four, Anthony says he has no plans to retire and currently publishes a new book every year.

"It's one of those careers where you can keep going as long as the ideas and inspiration keeps coming," he said.

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