Should the West intervene militarily in Syria?
No. What’s happening in Syria is dreadful, appalling, atrocious, and there is nothing useful that military action on our part can do about it. This is very difficult to face. It’s complicated by the fact that British politicians still want to behave as if we had the power to go swaggering and bullying our way round the world telling other people how to behave. We haven’t, and we haven’t had since the Second World War. The Syrian situation is tragic. Ours is pathetic, and it can be cured only by a sense of the modesty appropriate to our size and power.
Do you think Archbishop Welby is right to use the Church of England to influence British politics?
The question is wrongly framed. What an individual archbishop does is immaterial. We should really be asking whether it’s right that the Church of England has the power to do this, and the answer is no. No religious organisation should have any power to influence legislation. Persuasion by individual clerics is another matter, and I have no objection to their speaking and politicians’ listening; but no religious organisation should be formally part of Parliament, and government should have no ties with any religion. A secular state would benefit all of us, religious and sceptical alike.
What can be done to improve children’s literacy in Britain?
The foundations for success in every form of language, speaking and listening as well as reading and writing, are laid in very early childhood. Young parents need to be taught how to talk to their children from their earliest days; to tell them nursery rhymes, sing them lullabies, point things out and talk about them. It doesn’t matter if they can’t respond yet: they’re hearing language, feeling involved, learning to listen. When they’re old enough to sit up, look at picture books with them and talk about those, too.
What that all does is to give the child a sense that language is theirs to enjoy, to feel confident in, to be successful with. Nothing else is so valuable.
Does the level of government snooping revealed by Edward Snowden strike you as fair in the name of national security, or has it gone too far?
It’s gone too far, of course. The word “snooping” is the clue. No sensible person would object to the police, or MI5, finding out relevant things about criminals or terrorists, because we all want to live in a safe community. But technology is allowing vastly more information, criminal or not, to become available to those who want to see it, and the temptation to use it where it isn’t appropriate or even legal must be too strong to resist. We need to keep a check on this sort of investigation; but how? I haven’t the faintest idea.
London University is being criticised for selling a rare set of early editions of Shakespeare. What is your view?
I think it’s disgraceful. Why would anyone in the future leave precious books to a library, if they thought that once they were dead the library would sell them? It’s the job of a library – especially a university library – to protect and preserve its rare books, not cash them in and buy something else it fancies. If the library is so short of money that it needs substantial support, it should employ a skillful fundraiser. Never sell the very thing it’s your most important task to look after.
It was revealed this week that the late poet Seamus Heaney sent his last words by text. Has texting now come of age as a literary medium?
The first sentence has nothing to do with the second. Seamus Heaney might have had a dozen good reasons for sending a message by text, none of them anything to do with texting as a literary medium (I don’t think he was writing a poem). If I had to bet on the matter, I’d say no, because any process that needs such expensive, fragile, and regularly obsolete apparatus is intrinsically temporary and fugitive. Pen and paper are much more reliable. But the only thing that will really answer the question is time.
The author Sophie Hannah is to write a new Poirot novel in the style of Agatha Christie. How do you feel about the prospect of another author continuing your work?
It will make very little difference to me once I’m dead. I suppose the proper response would be gratitude for the attention. Of course, if they did it better than I’d managed to, my bones might feel differently about the matter, and the graveyard would echo with the gnashing of jealous teeth. If they wrote a masterpiece, though, I could appear in their work as a footnote, which I suppose would be immortality of a kind.
But it does strike me as rather a second-rate kind of thing to do. Why not make up something new?
You have just translated the Brothers Grimm. What do you think is the place of fairy tales in modern life?
First, these tales are part of the general culture, something we should all be able to share. Second, the best of them are great masterpieces of narrative art, and worth knowing for that alone. But third (this is the most interesting reason), I think they have a great deal to do with developing in young children the art of thinking analogically. Children can work out for themselves that not everyone is like a frog in every way, but there are some people who might be like the frog in the story in that way; and that way of thinking is certainly worth learning.
Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales for Young and Old is published by Penguin Classics in paperback, £8.99