Philip Pullman: Soap and the serious writer

The Harry Potter phenomenon has proved there is big money in modern children's fiction. But it took Philip Pullman (who's just won the Whitbread prize) to show us that it had intellectual credibility. So why is he watching Neighbours every lunchtime?

The Deborah Ross Interview
Monday 04 February 2002 01:00 GMT

I am watching Neighbours with Philip Pullman, winner of this year's Whitbread prize for The Amber Spyglass, and total literary genius in most people's books, although not Peter Hitchens's, who, in The Mail on Sunday, accused him of "killing God" and then labelled him "the most dangerous author in Britain". ("Of course," says Pullman, "I sent him a warm card of appreciation and thanks.") I must say, I don't feel in any particular danger. I must say, I don't feel he's about to invoke dark forces and make off with a cup of my blood. He looks kindly, avuncular, like the schoolteacher he once was: 56, grey-haired and not bespectacled, although you kind of feel he ought to be. He is wearing a comfy checked shirt and chinos. He does not say things like: "OK, who's ready for black mass?" Instead, he says things like: "Now, that's Lou and the question is, will he get custody of Lolly?" And: "That's the nice blonde nurse who was made pregnant by the doctor's nasty sidekick."

He watches Neighbours every day, at 1.45pm. Never misses it. Loves it. Some people, he says, assume it's an affectation, but it just isn't so. "There is no distracting realism, the acting is terrible, and the characterisation is negligible, so all you are left with is the story. And that's what interests me. Stories. Ah, here's Harold Bishop. You must know Harold. Terrible old fusspot. He died and came back to life once. Ha!"

It is cosy in here, in its disappointingly un-Satanic way. We've been joined by Jude, Philip's wife, mother of their two grown-up sons. (One's a musician and the other is at Cambridge.) Jude used to be a teacher, too, and then a hypnotherapist. "Although," says Philip later, "not of the crazy sort. She helped people stop smoking." Jude always watches Neighbours with Philip. At the moment, Jude is hoping Michelle doesn't go back with Zac. "He's such a creep," she says. "He stood her up once." Philip, too, is hoping Michelle doesn't go back with Zac. "He's such a nerd, such a dork. Hogarth! Stop playing with your todger!"

Hogarth is not in Neighbours. Hogarth is one of the Pullmans' little pugs. The other is Millie. Hogarth and Millie both have adorable faces, like stepped-on toads, and stiff little tails that squiggle up in the shape of the "@" used in e-mail addresses. This, however, exposes the full geography of their bottoms. The full geography of their bottoms is not so adorable. Millie and Hogarth go "plff" and "shlff" a lot, although whether this noise comes from their front ends or back ends, I really couldn't say. Chances are it's the front end, although I couldn't guarantee that they're not the windiest pugs in Britain. It is quite smelly in here. Philip and Jude, I would suggest, are not a Haze sort of couple.

Anyway, I'd first arrived at his house quite a bit earlier. It's a modest house, in a modest, suburban street in Oxford. Inside, it is all doggy smells, and absolutely full of... stuff. This house makes Tony Benn's place look like something out of Wallpaper*. Books, papers, bric-a-brac, junk, pugs... they spill and teeter and "plff" everywhere. Spaces have to be cleared just to sit down. "Millie, off that chair! You'll have to just shove her off, I'm afraid." He says he's always embarrassed when people come over "because then I can see how truly squalid it is".

He works, actually, in a shed in the garden. Would I like to see it? You bet, I say. So off we go, through the garden, which is a great, muddy tangle of weeds and dog whotsit. "Mind the crap!" Philip cries cheerfully. I ask him if he's ever thought about putting himself up for Ground Force. A bit of blue decking here. A water feature there. A pug-a-loo behind that bush. Could make all the difference. "Ohh," he says, excitedly. "Could you put a word in?"

We reach the shed, which is, well, a shed. Inside, it is falling-off curtains and peeling old wallpaper and so much more stuff, you can't actually turn round in it. "It's the Iris Murdoch school of decoration," he says. Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen? "Ohh, could you put a word in?" He thinks, actually, he and Jude might move soon, to somewhere bigger. After years as a teacher and then a writer who made a living, but not a substantial one, it is very nice to have money, at last. "I used to think the acme of wealth was being able to buy any book when and where you wanted it." And you can now? "Yes." Still, it hasn't all gone to his head. Lunch, when it comes, is toasted Mother's Pride with Marmite. Or would I prefer jam? I'm not saying it doesn't do. It does. I'm just saying that as far as phenomenally successful, mega-selling authors go, he is very un-Barbara Taylor Bradford-esque. She seems a very fragrant, Haze sort of person. Possibly, she never travels anywhere without it.

Whatever, in this shed, Philip does three pages of writing, in longhand, on A4 paper, every morning. Some mornings, it doesn't come as easily as others, but he always persists. "When you go to the doctor with a broken bone, he doesn't say, 'Sorry, I can't deal with that today, I've got doctor's block'. So why should writers get writer's block?" That said, though, he hasn't written since winning the Whitbread prize. It's the first time a book ostensibly for children (a lot of adults have co-opted The Amber Spyglass) has ever won the Whitbread. Was he nervous on the night? "I was in quite a Zen-like state, actually," he says, "because, by that point, there wasn't anything I could do about it. I couldn't suddenly gallop that much faster."

Now, though, there are so many fan letters to reply to. Up to 50 a day. It's flattering and everything but, still, it'll be nice when they fall off a bit and he can get back to what he does. He thinks his next book will be a picture book for younger children. He's hoping to illustrate it himself, has been to life-drawing classes. Trouble is, he can now only draw naked people. He wonders: "Do you think there's a market for a children's book of nudes?" Absolutely, I say. I think, even, that Peter Hitchens has put his name down for a copy already.

We talk sheds. Didn't Roald Dahl, I ask, work in a shed? Yes, he says, but he's not a great fan of Dahl. "On the whole, I don't enjoy his books. There's a degree of interest in cruelty that I find off-putting." Enid Blyton? I tell him I used to love Enid Blyton when I was a kid. Indeed, for years my dearest wish was to be dispatched to St Clare's or Malory Towers so I could exclaim "wicked!" when I made it into the lacrosse team and could then go and do something horrid to someone called Gwendolyn. He says that when he used to train teachers, and they said they'd loved Enid Blyton, he'd send them off to read her again. And? "They'd come back and say, 'We never realised it was such absolute trash'."

I must look pitifully crestfallen, because he then quickly adds: "I quite liked Noddy, though. When I was about five, I read a story about Noddy and Big- Ears building a house, and Noddy wanted to put the roof up before the walls because it was raining. I thought that very funny."

Pullman is no Dahl. Or Blyton. He is something else entirely. But I wasn't looking forward to reading The Amber Spyglass, the third book in the His Dark Materials trilogy, which began with Northern Lights and continued with The Subtle Knife. I was dreading it, in fact. I hate "adventure fantasy" books. Truly, I'd rather eat my fist and sell my children into prostitution and have sex with Michael Fish than read "adventure fantasy". The thing is, I tell him, if it's fantasy and anything can happen, then I always think it doesn't really count somehow, and promptly lose interest. I like realism, and lots of lacrosse. "I know what you mean," he says. "The moment magic comes into it, it's sort of cheating?"

That's it. Exactly. He doesn't think his magic is quite like that, though. He hopes it's more an extension of the characters. "Plus, of course, I sometimes make sure the magic just doesn't work."

Now, while I hated the Chronicles of Narnia – the wardrobe was such a get-out – and hated The Hobbit and hated The Lord of The Rings, which, as it happens, he's no fan of either ("It's an Edwardian schoolboy's idea of good writing"), I adored The Amber Spyglass. True, it is exceedingly fantastical, dealing as it does with parallel universes, and a special knife that can cut through to them, and armoured bears and daemons and witches and little spies riding dragonflies, and, of course, the two main characters, Lyra and Will, who are on a quest to destroy God and his evil church and revive interest in lacrosse, which is a terrific game, much neglected. (OK, only teasing with the last bit.) It's the anti-God business that so displeases Hitchens and his ilk.

"Conservatives," says Pullman, "do have this great fear that if you deny God, there can be no morality, no truth. G K Chesterton was the same. He was terrified of atheism. He thought that once people stopped believing in God, they'd believe in anything – Satanism, vampirism... It's a fear of letting go of nanny's hand. Do you know what the Daily Express think of me? Or are they too busy persecuting asylum-seekers?"

What, I think, sets The Amber Spyglass apart from other "adventure fantasies" is the moral seriousness that underlies it. You don't have to get it. You don't even have to spot it. But you can always sense it is there. Pullman's starting point was, in fact, Milton's Paradise Lost, particularly books I and II, with their vivid descriptions of Hell. "I thought it would be great to set a story in a landscape like that, and then Lyra came to me, named and everything." Characters come to him like that, named and everything. Iorek Byrnison, the armoured bear, came to him named and everything. However, the witch Serafina Pekkala did not. Well, the character came to him, but not the name. "I got it from a Helsinki phone book."

Will and Lyra are a sort of Adam and Eve but, instead of reaffirming the Creation story, CS Lewis-style, they subvert it. Pullman is, actually, all for Eve listening to the serpent and trying the fruit. "I see it as a positive act," he says. Because it shows curiosity, a willingness to embrace life? "Yes. Absolutely." He says that if his book has any message, if readers go away feeling anything, he hopes it is that "this physical place, where we live, is a place of great beauty. We forget it as we grow up. We get so overlaid by habit. I want to say, open your eyes. Living is exciting, a source of amazing joy, and with that comes the responsibility to live it fully".

Oh, come on, I say. None of us can go round in a state of marvel all the time. Can you? "No. I do get tired and fed up, especially when I'm doing my VAT returns." And what do you do then? "Art wakes me up. I put on a piece of music I love, and that stirs me back to wakefulness." I know what he means. Although a good game of lacrosse always does it for me. Or would do, if I'd ever made the team.

Some have expressed considerable surprise that children can connect with all this. He, though, expected it. After all, children are actually in the midst of getting through childhood, which must be one of the hardest and most complex journeys of all. He says that, in the TLS the other day, he read a Peter Porter review of a Louis de Bernières book that went: "It's not very good, but might be suitable for children." His dream, he says, is to see a review that says: "This is such an interesting book, children might enjoy it as well." He adds: "Now, wouldn't that be delightful?"

We discuss what makes great children's writers. Is it, in most instances, the malevolence (although I can't detect any in Pullman)? Certainly, Dahl had it. And Blyton, who used to beat her daughters with the unkind side of a bristle hairbrush. True, he says, but someone like Arthur Ransome, whom he worships, was a perfectly decent sort of chap. He then says that someone recently pointed out to him that many children's writers lost a parent at a young age. This, he continues, might make you think about "where you belong, and to whom you belong". He's not sure, though, whether this holds up particularly well. "Perhaps," he adds, "you'll find that a lot of dentists lost a pet when they were younger."

Philip lost his father, Arthur, an RAF pilot, when he was seven, when Arthur's plane crashed in Kenya. He has, he says, few memories of him beyond "big RAF moustache, pint of beer, cigarette". He was staying with his maternal grandparents in Norwich when news came of his father's death. He doesn't remember being especially perturbed. "I knew him so little and saw him so seldom that I didn't feel a connection. I felt surprise more than anything, and then I was self- aggrandising: 'Hey, look at me, I'm half an orphan!'" His grandfather was, in fact, a clergyman. So what was Philip's first understanding of God? "I thought he was simply grandpa's boss, the MD." It's not that he ever fell out with God as such, more that, intellectually, he could never buy it. "If God is the source of everything, then he must be the source of all evil ­ plague, famine..."

His mother, Audrey, was terribly clever, would have loved to have gone to university and become an academic, but it was beyond her family's financial means. After Arthur's death, she remarried ­ another RAF pilot ­ and had more children. Philip thinks that she was very frustrated, and really rather unhappy. He remembers tranquillisers being around the place. "She never had a chance to do more with her mind."

Perhaps, I suggest, none of us can be happy without a sense of purpose, which is what religion gives to so many. You know, it gives us a role in a cosmic universe much larger than ourselves. Yes, he agrees, a purpose is essential. "But our purpose is to find our own purpose." How? "Through living life, acquiring wisdom, and having a story to tell at the end of it." Oh. Alright, then.

As a boy, he wasn't a precocious reader, but he was a greedy one. He gobbled up books, poetry, anything. He loved Kipling, Hiawatha, the Ancient Mariner. He's not sure about the current government's national literacy strategy. Actually, he is. And he thinks it stinks. "They've completely misunderstood the nature of reading and writing. The strategy gives guidelines for reading full of words like 'analyse' and 'compare' and 'contrast' and 'fillet'. Fillet! But the word 'enjoy' does not appear once!" I think this is about as malevolent as Philip Pullman ever gets. "Fillet! What kind of a word is 'fillet'!"

Now, though, time for Neighbours, so in we go. Hogarth sits on Philip's lap. Millie sits on mine. Jude sits on no one's. Philip says: "Lou's a bit of a rogue, but golden- hearted." Jude says: "Don't go back to him, Michelle. There are better boys in the street." Millie goes "pfflllll". So, not a Satanic household, Mr Hitchens, no. But some Haze wouldn't go amiss.

'The Amber Spyglass' is published by Scholastic at £6.99

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