The National Theatre sent us an article from the Sunday Telegraph Magazine from last Sunday, about Philip Pullman. “In a new short story Philip Pullman has returned to the fantastical world of the award-winning His Dark Materials. He talks to Amanda Mitchison about God, the universe, and what has happened to his famous shed Philip Pullman used to write his fantastical children's books in a grubby shed at the bottom of his garden in north Oxford.” Read More
Update: You may also click here for the version on Telegraph's site.
The art of darkness
In a new short story Philip Pullman has returned to the fantastical world of the award-winning His Dark Materials. He talks to Amanda Mitchison about God, the universe, and what has happened to his famous shed Philip Pullman used to write his fantastical children's books in a grubby shed at the bottom of his garden in north Oxford. The shed was Pullman's nest. Over the years he had accumulated interesting detritus, and, fearing that he might disrupt the flow of his writing, he had grown a little superstitious about clearing it out. Journalists enjoyed describing the fly-blown awfulness of it – the cobwebs, the dusty bric-Ã¯Â¿Â½-brac, the masks, the posters and children's drawings, the defunct computer garlanded in plastic flowers, the faded flowery curtain, the giant 6ft fluffy rat.
Shedless: Success has brought Philip Pullman indoors
But now Pullman, 57, and his wife Jude have moved to a village in the Cotswolds. And it is here that we meet. Pullman is not the shambling, professorial type that the grotty shed might suggest. Instead the door is opened by an alert man with intense blue eyes that disappear when he laughs. From below comes a faint scuffling sound of restricted breathing and, down at Pullman's feet, float two little beady-eyed gargoyles. The couple keep pugs: Hogarth and Nellie.
We enter a long, low-ceilinged living-room. In the kitchen, Pullman's latest creation, a spiced, lemony chicken soup, quietly brews. Pullman is welcoming, the soup is delicious and for pudding there are mulberries picked from his front garden. Afterwards, with a slight flourish, he opens a door and announces in his clear, precise voice, 'I'm afraid the shed is no more.'
Beyond is his new study, furnished with bookshelves, tables, a plan chest and a fancy iMac. There is plenty of other stuff here too: pictures and ornaments, and an electric saw, a plane, and many, many blocks of wood – Pullman is clever with his hands, and is constructing a rocking horse for his 16-month-old grandson.
It was Pullman's fame, and maybe his new-found wealth, that spurred him to move house. For years he was a respected children's writer with an eager following. Then, in 1995, with Northern Lights, the first volume of the His Dark Materials trilogy, Pullman became a bestseller. Adults as well as children loved his universe of strange, parallel worlds and his extraordinary inventions – the armoured bears, the tiny, fierce Gallivespians who rode on dragonflies, the mulefa with their elephant trunks and diamond-shaped spines and the magical knife that could cut windows between worlds. Most ingenious and beguiling are the daemons. These daemons, which take the form of animals, are outward manifestations of his characters' souls – inseparable, intimate companions.
In 2002 The Amber Spyglass, the third volume of Pullman's epic adventure, won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award.
Total British sales for the trilogy are 2.7 million copies. 'I'm not interested in numbers, but I think it has been translated into 36 languages,' he says. Next month a two-part adaptation of His Dark Materials opens at the National Theatre. And a film of Northern Lights, with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, is in the pipeline.
But there is a downside to fame – Pullman started feeling pestered:
'People didn't break into the shed, but the doorbell was always ringing, and I would open the door and find somebody standing there with a big pile of books and a big smile.' Now, says Pullman, he has to be careful to limit his engagements. And, just to remind him, he has placed on a shelf a small skeleton with a sign attached saying i said yes and i should have said no.
Looking round his new study, there is no sign of the multitude of things shored up over time. Instead, if his latest work is anything to go by, the stuff has moved from his workplace into his books. Lyra's Oxford, a short story about Lyra, the feisty, almost feral young heroine of the trilogy, includes an assortment of 'things'. Bound into the neat little red volume is a map of Oxford with handwritten inscriptions in brown ink, a postcard written by one of the central characters of His Dark Materials, a brochure for a cruise of the Levant, a publisher's catalogue including advertisements for draughtsman's materials, arctic travel goods, abstruse travelogues and so on.
The references are antiquated and otherworldly, an intermingling of the real and imaginary. The map of Oxford does not represent the town as we know it, but the town of Oxford in a parallel world inhabited by Lyra. It includes: a zeppelin, a steam train, Lyra's school and a dozen imaginary university colleges. The story in Lyra's Oxford is set in the same series of fictional worlds as the trilogy, but Lyra is back living in Jordan College and something occurs to show that the forces of evil are still very much abroad.
This short story is a sort of taster, or appetite-whetter. Another, much more substantial volume, provisionally entitled The Book of Dust, is to follow. Lyra will be about 16 years old – in the original trilogy she was still a child on the cusp of adolescence. Pullman says he always knew that, after the trilogy, he would want to return to the same world. 'I had a sense from quite early on in the writing that I wanted to go back. There were episodes and questions I wanted to explore.'
However, in his introduction to Lyra's Oxford, Pullman concentrates not on the story but on all the 'things' that accompany his book. These things might, he suggests 'have come from other worlds. That scribbled map, that publisher's catalogue – they might have been put down absent-mindedly in another universe, and been blown by a chance wind through an open window.'
He likens these fragments, somewhat bafflingly, to 'an ionising particle in a bubble chamber: they draw the line of a path taken by something too mysterious to see. That path of the particle is a story.' Then he adds: 'Perhaps some particles move backwards in time; perhaps the future affects the past in some way we don't understand; or perhaps the universe is simply more aware than we are.'
Pullman is at home with scientific conceits. Towards the end of Northern Lights there is an exquisite, intellectually slippery scientific justification for the presence of parallel worlds. There, the explanation comes within the context of a work of fiction. But here, in Lyra's Oxford, his assertions seem more a statement of belief than a mere metaphysical tease.
Does he really believe in other worlds? Pullman looks mildly across the room. 'Yes, yes,' he says. 'Part of me does believe.' He jabs a finger at his head. 'The part that creates the stories does. The other worlds business appears to be supported by modern science. A notable example is the double-slit experiment where, if you are firing photons one at a time through parallel slits in a piece of cardboard, they nevertheless seem to interfere with each other as if there were lots of them going through at once. So, either the photons know what the other ones have done or, in another universe, there are other ones going through the other slits and interfering with them. That is one of the oddnesses in the little corners of quantum physics…'
Then Pullman stops. 'I've forgotten how I began the sentence.' You were saying, in short, that you do believe in other worlds. He smiles a cryptic smile.
Does he believe in other worlds? Pullman doesn't believe in God, or so he has said countless times. He is also vehemently opposed to organised religion – in His Dark Materials, the church and clergy are malevolent, child-destroying forces of repression. The trilogy is in part a reworking of Milton's Paradise Lost with two children, Lyra and Will, taking on the quest to save the world and fighting the war in heaven. Only this time, the fates are reversed. Lyra and Will overturn the established order. Their worlds are redeemed, and God, who turns out to be only a wizened old man encased in a life-support machine, crumbles to dust.
Pullman's stance has produced a furore: the Catholic Herald has condemned the trilogy as 'worthy of the bonfire' and Peter Hitchens, in the Mail on Sunday, spent a column raging against Pullman's godlessness. Yet His Dark Materials remains the most moral and theological of children's stories. As Pullman says, 'I have always been interested in questions that fall under the general heading of what we call religion, questions of reality and meaning and purpose and what are we here for and where do we come from and all that stuff.'
And his imagery and writing remains grounded in the canon of English literature, which has, at core, the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Pullman grew up with religion all around him. His grandfather Sidney was a clergyman and the young Philip and his little brother Francis spent much of their early childhood living in his book-filled house in Norfolk. Pullman's father Alfred, an RAF pilot, was killed in a flying accident in Kenya when the boy was seven. His mother, Audrey, spent her weekdays working in an administrative job at the BBC in London.
Pullman opens a bottom drawer of the chest. Here lies a scattering of family photographs and documents – fragments that trace his upbringing and have their own conundrums and unexpected trajectories. Pullman picks up a photograph of his parents on a night out – his father looking Bertie Woosterish with a goofy smile and a handlebar moustache. Hanging round his arm is Pullman's mother, a pretty, dark-haired woman in a slinky evening dress.
Pullman picks up another, more prosaic photograph, taken some time later. This shows his mother standing in a street, still looking pretty, but now painfully thin. After his mother's death 14 years ago, Pullman was going through her papers when he found deeds of separation – the couple had been on the point of splitting up when Alfred Pullman was killed. 'I knew nothing at the time. It was never mentioned. Quite extraordinary!' Later Pullman's mother remarried – another RAF pilot – and the family travelled across the world on a cruise liner and spent 18 months in Australia before returning to live in the countryside in north Wales.
Pullman loved reading as a boy, and by his teens he was writing poetry. Today, he says, he doesn't know how children find the time to read: they are so busy with their homework, judo, orchestra, mobile phones and emails. He remembers, 'When I was a boy in Wales, my closest friend lived a couple of miles away. But we used to play together all the time and I would think nothing of walking through the woods a mile or two. Children don't have to go and entertain themselves any more as we did, and I am sure that we benefited from it. They seem to have less chance to experience the things like being bored, or darkness, real darkness and silence. I am sure that my imagination was strengthened and fed by the things I had to do in order to play.'
From his comprehensive school Pullman won a scholarship to read English at Oxford. But he was undisciplined and felt that literary criticism was pointless. However, he had the confidence to fail spectacularly and came out with a third-class degree. He then went to London, where he met his wife, Jude. The couple have two sons: Jamie, 31, a viola player, and Tom, 20, who is studying linguistics at Cambridge.
In his early twenties Pullman published his first novel. The Haunted Storm was well received and won a prize, but Pullman is dismissive of it. He calls it 'adult literary fiction' and winces, as if the term were a dirty word. He wrote 'out of a sense of duty, rather than conviction' and says he felt 'glum and resentful' about his work. Certainly writing was not providing a living. Pullman had a job at Moss Bros in Covent Garden. 'Every lunchtime I would go to the churchyard of St Paul's opposite and write a rondo or villanelle or sonnet,' he says.
After 18 months he moved to a more sedate posting as a librarian at Charing Cross library. Then he trained as a teacher. For the next 12 years he worked in two middle schools in Oxford, teaching English to children between nine and 13. Pullman describes his teaching as 'variable' but, according to former pupils, he was exceptional and exciting. Greta Stoddart, the poet, was taught by him at Bishop Kirk Middle School: 'He had an extraordinary energy. And he didn't need books. He would come in and just launch into some story. He had this great mane of long, wavy hair that he would scrape back with his long fingernails – he kept them long to play the guitar. And he had that very direct stare that stays just a little longer than you'd expect. All of us girls were a bit in love with him.'
Pullman wrote plays for his pupils: 'The first one I did was called Spring-Heeled Jack and it was a sort of melodrama, with an outrageous villain and larger-than-life heroes and comic policeman and that sort of thing. And I thought, 'I am really enjoying this! I like this way of telling a story. It's grotesque, absurd and not realistic, but it is really good fun!' Pullman had found his mÃ¯Â¿Â½tier. 'This was where my imagination was active instead of sullen and glum.'
Pullman wrote half a dozen plays for the school – one a year. The plays inspired Pullman to write children's stories – the first, Count Karlstein, was a rewrite of one of his plays. A stream of children's books followed. All were gracefully written and fast-paced, with strong storylines and feisty, somewhat unusual child heroes and heroines. In 1987 Pullman took a job as a senior lecturer at Westminster College, a teaching training college in Oxford. Then, in the late 1990s, he gave up teaching and started to write full-time.
Before he begins a book, Pullman has 'pictures' in his mind. 'You start with scenes and characters, which are bright and clear, and around them is a rapidly decreasing area of visibility. A sort of penumbra of darkness. And because these characters and pictures are so intriguing you set out to write towards them and see what you discover along the way.' Pullman is now finishing a children's book, The Scarecrow and His Servant, and he is soon going to set to work on The Book of Dust. He also has plans, someday, to illustrate his own children's book.
When he's working Pullman gets up in the morning, writes until lunchtime, watches Neighbours, then walks the pugs and chips away at the rocking horse. As with many writers, his daily life is deeply uneventful. He likes routines. 'I have never been interested in travelling really. It's uncomfortable, hot, full of foreigners. I don't like going away. I am an old misery. I like staying at home.' Meanwhile his mind, so eclectic and omnivorous, is charging about everywhere, crossing seas and continents, inventing and entering worlds.
Hogarth and Nellie scrape at the door. It's hard not to wonder whether the pugs are manifesting the impatience that Pullman is too polite to show. We are well into the afternoon, and the dogs like their walks.
Just as we are making our way to the door my eye is drawn to a strange, glass-covered wooden frame at the side of Pullman's desk. The frame is a picture of sorts – it is made up to look like a window, with crossbars and bleached-out curtains, with dark wooden planks as the backdrop. A couple of small, tatty typewritten exhortations are stuck to the planks.
Pullman stoops over the frame and points, 'That is the flowery wallpaper that I had on the shed walls, these are the curtains that I had. These are original cobwebs. This is a bit of the shed roof, and all these stickers I had all round my desk.' Pullman explains. When he moved house he gave the old shed to a friend, who then made him this memento out of the bits and pieces left behind. So, in effect, Pullman never did get rid of his shed – instead he just had it edited it down. He has kept his things with him.
'Lyra's Oxford' (David Fickling Books) by Philip Pullman, published on 6 November, is available from Telegraph Books Direct (0870 155 7222) at Ã¯Â¿Â½9.99 plus Ã¯Â¿Â½2.25 p 'His Dark Materials' opens at the National Theatre, London SE1 (020-7452 3000) on 20 December