A part of me wishes I could wrap Philip Pullman up in a blanket, hand him a pipe and take him home to be my new grandpa. There’s something about the way he talks about his childhood, telling you stories in his soothing voice, seeming to share in all the wonder of children’s literature you had as a kid; you can’t help but fall in love with him a bit. Adding to the atmosphere, his talk in Christ Church Cathedral School brought an audience full of children as young as four and I was there with my younger sister and mum – a real family affair.
Soothing as his voice may be, that’s not to say Pullman doesn’t challenge his young fans. After all, the series His Dark Materials, a trilogy aimed at children, covers broken families, betrayal, war, loss of the soul, death, the afterlife, sexual discovery, unrequited love, and even the end of God. For this reason parts of the books have been censored in some American editions, and the books and film have faced much criticism and protest from Christian groups.
Indeed, he is likely to hear even more protest about his latest publication, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, about which he gave another talk later in the festival. But in the classroom that morning he was focusing on children’s books and childhood, prompted along the way by the sixteen year-old Anouchka Harris, his interviewer. Charming as she was, I enjoyed it a lot more when the audience were asked if they had any questions, especially when a five-year old asked him how old he was when he wrote his first book. “Eight,” he responded, insisting that it wouldn’t be long until she could start too, if she hadn’t already.
Pullman treats his younger fans with care and respect; he listens to them and doesn’t patronise them whatever the age, a quality too rare amongst adults in general. It’s one of the things that make his stories so compelling. In fact, he railed against patronising children’s books where all the characters are happy all the time and nothing really bad ever happens. “Children aren’t stupid; they know the world has bad things in it”. They might have a dying parent, have seen a car crash on the way home from school or any one of a hundred other terrible things. Pretending it isn’t real, that the world isn’t a scary place sometimes is lying to children; it’s more important to let them have somewhere they do feel safe and protected: a home.
He was not afraid to throw out criticism of the film based on his book as well. He pointed out The Golden Compass had been a compromise between a lot of people’s creative visions. He was frustrated that they had cut the film half-way through the book (a point which got an appreciative clap from the audience) and there were production decisions he really didn’t like, such as the slickness of the design in what should have been a far more dirty and haphazard London. He has a keen eye for such things, having painstakingly drawn all the illustrations in Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife himself on tiny squares of white card. I personally would be a lot more liberal with my own criticism of this incredibly disappointing film. However, he loved the spectacular National Theatre production, and admitted the daemons rather stole the show, though was disappointed with the Oxford stage version. He thought it didn’t quite work as well because the puppeteers didn’t wear masks; their faces spoilt the magic.
One element of the talk that was particularly refreshing in this book festival of big egos was how Pullman seemed proud of his novels but not as evidence of his own genius, more because he genuinely cared about these made-up characters and wanted to do them justice. And though he had a slight tendency to give a bit more information about the type of pen he uses or what has happened to his old shed than I think anyone really wanted to know, his ability to tell stories, particularly about his childhood travels, keep you and even the youngest audience-member absorbed.