On Philip Pullman – the author ‘who hasn’t forgotten why people need stories’

Written by Elaine – I spy in Queen’s Park blog


Philip Pullman in conversation with local novelist Maggie Gee at Queen’s Park Community School on a wet Wednesday evening?  It was another cracking local literary event organised by the Brent SOS (Save our Six) Libraries group, following on from evenings with Zadie Smith, Alan Bennett and, just the week before, Harriet Walter (interviewed by Deborah Moggach).

Queen’s Park Books have supported all these events by selling tickets in the shop and taking their now famous “pop-up” shop out on the road with the author’s books, ready for signing.  Thank you Lisa and the other staff for organising this – it adds a lot to the evening.

Anyway, back to the packed hall at QPCS where Maggie Gee introduced Philip as an author “who hasn’t forgotten why people need stories” and this turned out to be one of the main themes of the evening.  Maggie  first read “His Dark Materials” with her then teenage daughter Rosa Rankin-Gee (who won Shakespeare and Co’s 2011 Paris literary prize in June this year for a novella by an unpublished writer- many congrats to Rosa who also appeared at the Queen’s Park Book Festival in June this year).

Philip first began writing as a child because he loved reading stories and was lucky (after a childhood growing up all over the world), to have an encouraging teacher at a Welsh school who read out one of his stories and who introduced him to Milton’s “Paradise Lost” in  the “A” level course.  Philip then went on to Oxford to read English Literature “but I was a very bad student.  I didn’t know how to write essays.  I should have been a cabinet maker – I enjoy that much more than writing”.

He left with a 3rd class degree (in the year when they stopped awarding 4ths) and became a teacher in various Oxfordshire middle schools teaching 9-13year olds.  Before the constraints of the National Curriculum Philip devoted a lot of time to telling his pupils Greek myths – “they’re great stories” – and it was that “apprenticeship in story-telling” where he learnt the value of timing and that “I can tell exciting stories, I can’t do funny or domestic stories” which encouraged him to concentrate on writing and give up teaching.

Philip was asked  which particular collection of Greek stories he would recommend and his favourite was the excellent “The God beneath the Sea” by Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen.  My battered copy with its haunting illustrations cost 30p in 1973.  I think it’s out of print, but well worth tracking down second hand.

Apollo’s Horses by Charles Keeping


The inspiration for “His Dark Materials” was books 1 and 2 of “Paradise Lost“, as a fantasy in three volumes.  He’d also been thinking a lot about consciousness (and self-consciousness) and one of the most exciting moments of his life was when he realised that the most interesting characteristic of the “daemons” which he’d invented would be that they would stop changing shape when their humans developed consciousness (when they were no longer children).  If you haven’t read “His Dark Materials“, buy or borrow it and take it on holiday, or read it at home while it rains.  It is gripping and not to be mistaken as a book only suitable for children (not that I accept that idea, but that’s another article).
A boy asked Philip “Do you miss Lyra now you’ve finished writing about her?”.  Great news:  “I do miss Lyra, but I haven’t finished with her yet.  I’m planning “The Book of Dust“,  two volumes about her and her world”.

Despite claiming to be unable to tell funny stories Philip was then very funny on the subject of research (“it’s greatly overrrated.  I never found it helpful to go anywhere”).  He couldn’t afford to go to the arctic so instead went to the library and looked at maps and pictures (particularly of early balloons).  He also deliberately never sets any novel earlier than when there were photographs (for inspiration) and because he doesn’t want to have to deviate from modern English.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” was an exception to this.  It came about because Philip wanted to look at the two different aspects – of Jesus and of Christ, from the point of view of an unbeliever.  The source material was the bible.  Philip was asked which brother he preferred.  “I liked them both equally but I was a bit surprised by Christ.  He became a more interesting character as the book went on”.

Asked about the importance of bible stories and Greek myths, Philip’s reply was that fairy stories are important too (“they nourish us in ways we don’t understand until we’re grown up”), and nursery rhymes.  “I’m passionate about this… children too young to even sit up should have nursery rhymes told to them… with actions… you only get a love for language, a confidence in language from being exposed to language… fun language, friendly language… I’ve a good mind to start a Nursery Rhyme Party and stand against David Cameron at the next election!”

The last question began “Hello Mr Pullman.  I was one of your pupils when I was about twelve…”.  Philip was forced to admit that his great uncle who travelled down the Congo was a figment of his imagination, but it was obviously such a great story that his former pupil remembered it from many years earlier.  I think Philip said “I made a shrunken head out of papier mache” but I may have misheard over a sea of laughter and applause.

If you were there, you’ll know it was a great evening.  If you missed it, I hope this will give you some flavour of the event.

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