Pelham has been a kite fancier since his boyhood in England during World War II, when his engineer father made him a model plane from full-scale drawings of Hurricane fighters. "I was 6 or 7 at the time," David remembers. "No one had ever seen a plane like it. It had an elastic engine so you could wind up the propeller, and it flew. I would cry because I always was afraid it would get caught in a tree. My father tied it onto a string, like a kite, so I wouldn't be worried about losing it." Pelham was hooked for life.
As an adult, he pursued his hobby surreptitiously, in the seclusion of the English countryside, for kites were considered to be nothing more than children's toys. "I used to fly them almost in secret, as if it was a perversion," he says. "Kites act like a lightning conductor in reverse. If you have one you have designed and made with your own hands and fly it, it's rewarding and peaceful. The tensions slide away up the line."
A new fascination with kites was soaring in Britain and the U.S. six years ago when Pelham published his first Penguin book. It dealt with the 2,500-year evolution of the devices from their misty origins in China right on through their employment as carriers of archers in ancient Japan and of signal devices in the French Army as recently as the early 20th century. Pelham's absorption with the wind-lofted flying machines grew during a childhood spent in a series of boarding schools while his parents traveled the world over. "I stayed here," he says. "My father's specialty was building bridges and roads. I didn't see very much of my parents."
After he graduated from St. Martin's School of Art in London as a graphic designer, Pelham apprenticed with two small magazines. Then he joined the British edition of Harper's Bazaar as art director, but he left after three years ("The fashion collections in Paris became very boring"). In 1968 he joined Penguin as art director responsible for cover designs. He quit last year to concentrate on what he calls "nonbook books" that involve more than just being read. Kites to Make and Fly is one.
At 20, Pelham married Jilly West-away, who shares his passion for kites. She runs Vertical Visuals, which exports kites to the U.S. They were divorced in 1974, but remain the best of friends. He has a warm relationship, too, with Marion Pelham, the mother of his daughter, Sophie, even though they now are separated. These days David divides his time between his London studio and a friend's apartment in Hampstead Heath. Yet another bird, Jacqueline Graham, a press officer at a book publishing house, shares digs with him from time to time.
As for the other love of his life, Pelham has come out of the closet and now flies his kites openly in Parliament Hill Fields. "It's a mecca for kites, because it's the highest point in London and has few trees," he explains. "Trees eat kites. I feel at one with the countryside. Flying my kite is a way of entering the landscape."
The spring winds have blown in a new kite-flying season, and with it a new guide from England, Kites to Make and Fly (Penguin Books, $14.95). This outsize (17¾ * l3 5/8-inch) paperback is the work of David Pelham, 44, whose 1976 history The Penguin Book of Kites sold more than a million copies in five languages. His latest entry is essentially a handsome kit of 10 kites designed by Pelham to be cut out, assembled and flown by readers.