Clare Finney talks to novelist, poet and former Children's Laureate Michael Rosen about suburbia, school and the power of story…
Liminal. That's how Michael Rosen describes Pinner, the town in which he grew up. The word means 'in between – of, relating to or being an intermediate state or condition' – and is fitting for a place neither in the countryside nor in the city, but on the tedious commute in between. Pinner, one of the original Metroland towns (like Northwood, where Rosen lived when he went to Watford Grammar) is perhaps most famous for giving birth to The Good Life, Elton John (and yours truly, as it happens). Yet if Elton John is “arguably the classic liminal character because, by dressing up in Pyrex suits and pink glasses and living this flamboyant life, he was sort of reacting to its conventionality and saying ‘I am so NOT Pinner’…”, as Michael chuckles later, what was it about the parks, trains and mock-Tudor shop fronts that produced him?
How did he get here – ‘here’ being his life as one of our best loved children’s writers and poet in his current home in Muswell Hill, north London? It’s here, on an icy January morning, that I catch him packing teenage daughter Elsie off to school. As the former Children’s Laureate, Michael founded the Roald Dahl Funny Prize – the first award scheme ever for books that just make kids laugh – and created a host of resources for teaching poetry in schools: literary accolades aside, he is one of the most vocal campaigners on schooling out there, having spent years doggedly opposing successive educational ministers policies on curriculum changes via petitioning and his series in The Guardian, called ‘Letters from a curious parent.’ Yet his current concern, which he wittily explores in his latest book Good Ideas, is not the role of teachers in children’s lives, but of their parents and guardians.
The subtitle – How to be Your Child's (and Your Own) Best Teacher – says it all: this is a book that transcends pigeonholes. It begins with some ‘best intentions’ that read less like polemic, more like good common sense. Through insight and anecdote, Michael expounds upon his founding principles, ‘be curious’ and ‘any knowledge out there can be yours’ with such beautifully simple suggestions (utilising the toilet as a means of learning everything from plumbing technology to other cultures around the world was a particular favourite of mine) that you’d respect his authority even without knowing his qualifications: as it is, he’s fathered five children (his second son died, aged 18, of meningitis in 1999), and his own parents were the very personification of the Good Ideas his book proclaims.
Famously, Michael did not set out to write for children, but wrote his first set of poems thinking they were for adults. “I’d written a set of prose poems about growing up, and because my parents used to like reading childhood reminiscences by people like Dylan Thomas, I thought I could do the same.” A year previously, Faber had published a play of his for the Royal Court Theatre, so he hoped they’d take his verse. “I was naïve, I suppose. I was only 18 or 19 at the time.” In the end Faber rejected them and it was publisher André Deutsch who decided they were for kids, and got Quentin Blake on board.
Nowadays, of course, whenever Michael speaks or writes about childhood people sit up straight. To an extent Good Ideas is a culmination: “of working with children, of being a child, of wondering about my own parenting and looking at others.” He is, he confesses, “constantly earwigging” on the approaches of other parents, and drawing comparisons with his own. “I’m a parent-spotter. I’m interested in seeing how other families behave in the same situations – for example the bowling alley or the football pitch – God!” Slapping his forehead dramatically, he launches animatedly into an account of an indoor match he saw recently, where dads were “banging on the school gym window shouting instructions and directions at their kids” at his son’s school. “It made me miserable,” he reflects, suddenly serious. “I couldn’t cope with it. I had to go and sit down somewhere quiet. And it’s not that I don’t like football, because I love it dearly.”
He largely blames high stake testing, forced upon the curriculum to the dismay of most teachers and pupils, for feeding the “mounting anxiety” surrounding parenting. “It means they feel more concerned with getting to the apparent next stage than in the sort of enquiring and discovering processes I discuss in my book.” If Jonny’s parents can’t even watch him play a five a side without worrying he’s passed the ball right, what hope is there of them protecting him from the fear of failure exercised by those “controlling spirits”, the examiners? “If that is the way it’s going to be in schools – well, I will oppose that in a different way,” he says, “but surely as a parent you can inoculate your kids against that fear at home.”
He takes a deep breath. Raising the S-word with Michael is like lighting a bushfire; one never quite knows where it’s going to end. His parents were local teachers who took great interest in how and what he was taught at school. Part of his secondary education was at Watford Grammar where he was taught “what was thought to be the right things for grammar school boys to know,” he shrugs. He remembers little of the experience, beyond it being highly important what your friends thought of you: “it really mattered on some deep level, didn’t it” he ponders. Of far more significance, it seems, is what used to happen in West Lodge Primary School every Friday afternoon.
“Our headteacher read to us: a chapter a week of books like Hue and Cry, a detective thriller set in the bombsites of the Forties. I remember being gripped by it, pleading with him to read ‘just one more pleeaaasse!’” he mimics with a grin. It’s a far cry from today’s ‘Spag’ test, a measure of spelling, punctuation and grammar which strips the fun out of reading so thoroughly that it seems deliberately designed to repulse: Michael recalls his daughter arriving home in Year Three with a Greek myth, Perseus and the Gorgons, summarised briefly on a worksheet. Her task? A series of ‘retrieval’ exercises demanding that she look at the story, then answer questions like ‘Who gave Perseus the bag?’
There was nothing to prompt enjoyment of the story, explain characters’ motives or even the myth’s context. It was a learn and repeat exercise – a classic case, Michael continues, of “the testing regime rippling backwards through school.” His solution in this instance was to read what the teachers, hamstrung by the curriculum, did not (and still do not) have time for. He located a copy of illustrated Greek Myths, and read them every bedtime with his little girl. It was transformative. Stories once alien and irrelevant came to matter on a personal level, and taught her in the process. When Persephone came to nibble on the pomegranate seeds, Michael’s daughter cried out: “Oh no! I didn’t want her to do that!” Later, she asked her father what ‘pity’ meant when they read that Persephone “learned to pity Pluto.”
“We were moving from gut reactions to talking about ideas,” reflects Michael. That's one small step for man but a huge leap for a seven year old. Yet stories are “one of the most powerful and pleasurable” ways of dealing with what we call wisdom, and the curriculum romantically dubs ‘abstract ideas’. Last autumn, Walker Books reprinted Rosen’s beloved Wicked Tales of Till Owlyglass, first published in 1989. "They're based on a collection of German folktales I read as a child," he says, bouncing up from his armchair and over to a bulging bookshelf to grab a tattered paperback. "This is the edition my parents used to read from. I’ve added more dialogue to make it feel modern, and a frame narrative,” in which Michael and his brother, dismayed by their own bad behaviour seek a cure from a wise old man. Enter Till, Germany’s most notorious trickster, and the five century old stories of his dastardly deeds.
"At the end we ask, well what about the cure? And the old man says, are you still inclined to be naughty?” By using the frame narrative, Michael makes the nature of folk tales, originally conceived to initiate the young people in social norms, simultaneously explicit and effective. He and his brother are ‘cured’ of their wickedness, and the tales live on through their lives and through those of their readers. More than any school worksheet, it is books like this which show the power of myths and folklore to transcend culture and time.
Michael grew up on stories: stories told by his parents of life in the Jewish East End before the war broke; stories read by his head teacher; stories acted out by his brother in the bedroom they shared. “At the back of the shop we lived above there was a yard where the shopkeepers met, and chatted. It was like an amphitheatre,” he recalls. “My brother had a different name for each character, and he used to imitate them.” He chuckles, remembering one man nicknamed “Mr Accelerating Behind the Dustbins” – for obvious reasons – and I am with a jolt reminded of being a child myself in Northwood, and the strange, bored creativity that came with suburbia’s neither-city-girl-nor-country-lass life.
Michael agrees with me. “I had an immense sense growing up that there were these two other worlds which were so attractive – one on a farm where I’d milk cows and feed pigs, another where I’d be hanging out in in Camden where my friend lived. It seemed so terribly groovy there, whereas Pinner – my God!” – he slaps his forehead again, comically. “It felt dull… [although] the development of the railway was pretty interesting, when you look at it – and we did have a lot of green belt, so you had both the pleasure of hanging on the streets being annoying, and running in the woods being wild.”
To judge by his work, Michael looks more fondly on suburbia in retrospect than he did living there in the 50s. He’s intrigued by how a place like Pinner can produce Reginald Dwight, aka Elton John – a musical legend and a boy Michael’s friends in music college referred to as ‘little Reg’ because he never paid any attention in class – and by how it affected him. He draws endlessly upon his experiences there in his poetry: earlier last year, he presented some of his poems to a university project focused on what it means to grow up in the suburbs. It might seem odd, given his father’s historic aversion, but the more Michael thinks about it the more important Pinner and his parents relationship to it seem to be. “The way my parents both felt and were a bit detached from suburbia encouraged me as a child to be cast as a witness – we call it a ‘participant observer’ in literature courses.” For his brother, this meant creating sketches out of the shopkeepers’ amphitheatre. For Michael, it meant poetry. “Being cast as a witness enables you to look at the world you’re in, and churn it over – and laugh about it,” he smiles. And that’s great training for being a writer.