Philip Pullman interview – Sunday Times

IMAGINE, for a moment, that Philip Pullman has the same powers as the knife-wielding hero of his fantasy trilogy, and has just cut a magic doorway through into the parallel universe of British education policy.

“Here’s what I’d do,” says the former teacher, with some relish. “I’d take the whole of the national curriculum, the national literacy strategy, all these assessment targets and attainment scores and God knows what else, put them in a heap and set fire to them.”

It’s an intriguing daydream, and not only because it mirrors some critics’ plans for his own books, deemed “fit for the bonfire” by the Catholic Herald for their supposedly corrupting anti-religious theme. Pullman, dubbed by a right wing critic as “the most dangerous author in Britain”, clearly has his own crusading zeal – but for him the real danger is in the smothering of young minds.

“The government is not treating our children as human beings, they are treating them as little worker bees to be drilled and filed and assessed, and put into a slot,” he complains. “It’s all so controlled, it’s stifling! We’ve got to have more mystery in the classroom, allow for a child’s imagination to catch fire in unexpected ways. We’ve got to have that sort of freedom.”

It’s been many years since Pullman left his job as English teacher in an Oxford Middle School and found his own way to free young minds – in a wooden hut at the bottom of his garden. In 25 years of writing from its cobwebbed, cluttered interior, he’s produced dozens of books for children of various ages, but it was the award-winning His Dark Materials trilogy which really brought him celebrity status.

Described somewhat misleadingly by its author as “Paradise Lost in three volumes, for teenagers”, it is in fact a deliberate reversal of Milton’s tale of the war in heaven: this time God loses. Lyra and Will, two children from parallel universes, find themselves called upon to help lead this second rebellion against a senile and pathetic deity encased in a bejewelled life-support machine, who must be deposed in battle so that a “republic of heaven” can be created instead.

They are assisted along the way by a bizarre band of characters including an armoured bear, a gay angel, miniature spies riding dragonflies, wheeled creatures called mulefa and, most importantly, intimate shape-shifting creatures called daemons which are the outward manifestations of their own souls.

It’s ambitious, theologically nuanced stuff, which makes Harry Potter look like Noddy, but it has been devoured hungrily by both children and adults alike, many of whom have hailed Pullman as a literary genius comparable to Chekhov, Dickens, Tolkien, Blake and Milton. Earlier this year the third book of the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, became the first children’s book ever to win the Whitbread Prize, and there are plans to produce both a stage version and a film of the trilogy, the latter reportedly through New Line, the company that made Lord of the Rings. And just to certify success, it’s also earned the publicity-generating tag “semi-satanic” and “truly the stuff of nightmares” from concerned right-wingers and religious groups.

Pullman expected as much – while his primary passion is storytelling, his battle is nothing if not ideological. Adam and Eve’s mythic rebellion against God in eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge was for him an unequivocally positive action, a bid for freedom of the mind. “It’s part of our ineradicable human desire to know things, and it’s led to every advance we’ve ever had.”

The opposing view, that humans are dogged by that “original sin” and must keep ourselves and each other on a tight rein to avoid disaster, has done incalculable damage to the human race, he feels – not least to our idea of childhood. In schools as in churches, we’re protecting our children from the wrong things.

“Children don’t know how to play any more,” he says. “Every minute of the day is regulated, we’ve got little children laden with hours of homework, they’re not allowed outside because it’s dangerous, they’re not allowed to just go out and mess around. Poor little buggers, they’ve got no time at all! Get out of their hair, that’s what I say! Just leave them alone, let them go, let them fool around, let them get lost, let them run about in the mud!”

His own young heroes are accordingly much more bruised than the cosseted middle-class darlings of Blyton or Lewis. Lyra the tomboy runs wild through the streets of Oxford, while Will lives on his wits while trying to care for his mentally ill mother. Their adventures involve not only fantastic creatures but morally difficult choices, and the agonising process of leaving behind their childhood.

“This is how you teach morality,” says Pullman who, contrary to the view of his religious critics, has always taken his responsibility as an author seriously. “You can’t say Put your maths books away, we’re having a morality lesson now. The way you do it is the way humans have always inculcated moral standards in their children, namely by telling them stories, fables and parables, examples and fairy tales, all this sort of stuff which enlist the child’s own imagination on the side of moral understanding.”

This does not mean protecting children from what is unpleasant. Will, for example, struggles with his accidental killing of a man, and later bleeds for days after losing two of his own fingers. “Violence and cruelty have to have a context and you have to show that whatever action takes place has an effect,” explains Pullman. “That’s the way you teach morality. Actions have consequences.”

The book arguably “teaches” sensitivity, courage, loyalty, responsibility, joy, inquisitiveness, care of the soul – yet all in explicit opposition to the established church. No wonder they think he’s dangerous.

“The great lie the church has put out over the centuries is that all morality is due entirely to what God has said. We have the keys to all morality and if you don’t believe us we’ll kill you, and then you’ll go to hell anyway just to teach you a lesson.”

Quite where Pullman found all this virulent antipathy to the church is unclear. He was born in Norwich in 1946 and lost his father, an RAF pilot killed in action, when he was just seven years old. After years abroad with his mother and her new husband, he came home to prep school and found an emotional anchor in his grandfather, a clergyman, who read him Bible stories, and who he still remembers fondly. His loss of faith came in his teens merely as a result of intellectual questioning. Is there a particular Christian who epitomises what he has come to hate?

“Well, I have to say that no-one who’s personally known to me has actually done anything dreadful,” he admits today. “But you don’t have to read very far in history, or in the world around you, before you see examples of religions and people, for religious reasons, executing, amputating, mutilating, persecuting, locking up other human beings for no other reason than that they believe something different. That’s enough to make you angry isn’t it?”

Even Christ, who he admires as a moral teacher (but obviously not as the Son of God), becomes in his hands a weapon for beating the church. “Have Christians really read the gospel and noticed the bit that says Give away all that you have and give it to the poor?” he thunders. “Do they really do a tenth of what Christ says they should do? No of course they don’t.”

Surely the church has done a little bit of good at some point since the Inquisition? “Oh undoubtedly,” he breezes. “But if it’s good, it’s good for human reasons, not religious ones.”

It’s easy to feel a little brow-beaten in a conversation with Pullman. He has a way of stamping his opinions on an argument like unequivocal facts. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles are “blatantly racist”; New age religion is “pick and mix”; His main problem with the church is that “what it says isn’t true.” Even Tolkein, adored by millions, is “psychologically uninteresting”.

In a parallel universe, you can’t help thinking, Philip Pullman might have made a good fundamentalist.

In his art he keeps this strident tendency submerged for the most part – except, perhaps, in the almost pantomime evil of his churchmen, who are conspicuously lacking in either redeeming features or consequently the nuanced psychology that make his heroes so compelling. Interviewed by a Christian magazine recently, Pullman acknowledged this “artistic flaw”, but today he’s more characteristically bullish about the portrayal. “If you want to hit someone, hit ‘em hard!” he says, like a Bible-thumper. “Don’t come at it equivocally and with all sorts of qualifications.”

All of which promises an interesting chemistry at the Edinburgh Book Festival next weekend, when Pullman will find himself grappling with possibly the most formidable yet open of “enemy” minds, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway.

He’s read a couple of Holloway’s books on ethics recently, and admits he rather liked them. “The church habitually and characteristically mixes up a lot of sensible stuff about morals with a lot of nonsense about metaphysics – but the [former] Bishop makes that distinction very clear in his books,” he muses. “I haven’t met him yet, but I suppose we’ll find common ground in the valuation of things like the imagination and our capacity to wonder at things.”

Could he ever imagine being won over to the enemy side by Holloway? Hardly.

“Actually, I wouldn’t be too surprised if he turned out to be a distinguished supporter of the republic,” he says mischievously. “But we’ll have to wait and see.”

In the meantime, suddenly flushed with success after a life of writerly thrift, he’s busy moving with his wife Jude to a bigger house on the outskirts of his beloved Oxford, though his two sons – Jamie, 30, a full-time musician, Tom, 20, a Cambridge linguistics student – have left home. “We need more room for books,” he explains.

Once moved, he’ll be continuing work on a new book for younger children, and then beginning a mystery fourth book to accompany the recent trilogy. At least now, surely, he can finally move out of the “abominable tip” of his small wooden hovel that has been his writer’s workshop for more than two decades?

Not on your life, he says. “The shed’s coming with us.”

4th Aug 2002, Ecosse section

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