His bright materials

He likes fireworks - he scattered his stepfather's ashes via 40 rockets. But it is in children's minds that Philip Pullman really ignites a spark. He talks to Dina Rabinovitch

Wednesday December 10, 2003
The Guardian

Had you been in the Firth of Forth last May, on an evening after it rained all day but then suddenly the skies cleared, you might have seen a deeply pagan sight. For that was the night Philip Pullman, with his step- and half-siblings, said a final farewell to the ashes of his stepfather. Forty spoonfuls of ashes, as it happens, each carefully poured and sealed into 40 fireworks, to be detonated by the assembled family.

"We couldn't decide," says Pullman. "What should we do with the ashes? Bury him at sea, scatter him over the hills? No particular reason to do either."

He sits in his winged chair, legs outstretched, master storyteller poised. Trademark red shoelaces in his brown suede boots, he toys with a whittling knife. In the middle of his study, a jumble of organised piles, is the head and shoulders of a wooden horse Pullman is carving for his first grandchild. Labelled dreamy and impractical as a child, he has rebelliously turned himself into a carpenter. Despite his lack of formal teaching - he follows manuals - his horse's head is so good you can't help but run fingers across the wooden folds of mane.

"I thought," Pullman continues, his tones level, telling the tale of the ashes, "wouldn't it be a good idea to send him up in a rocket, in a firework? And the others all thought, yeah, what a good idea. So my sister - who knows absolutely everyone who's anyone - found a firework-maker in Edinburgh, and said, 'Can you help?' and he said 'Yes.'"

For the quantity of ashes, the firework-maker made up a consignment of 40 rockets, dispensing ashes by spoon into each firework. "And you know," says Pullman, "it was great. We said a few words and then lit the rockets, and up they went, and it was the most wonderful display, and the sky was full of dad, full of stars."

Partly it is an extraordinary episode because it is so unusual, but that it should be Pullman's story is remarkable. It is almost an exact reversal of events in his trilogy, His Dark Materials, when the dead are pulled back into the land of the living, but on arrival explode into particles of matter. So when Pullman blew up his stepfather's ashes, he was living in a world of his own creation.

Pullman has been telling stories all his life, to siblings and then to the children he taught. After school, he would write in the evenings. Now no longer a teacher, he has the kindly but authoritative manner of those with clerics in their background. He is warm, too. He writes an autograph for my daughter, with the phrase "Wan Fu". He takes great pains over spelling her name right, chasing round the house for Tippex when he makes a mistake. It takes weeks to find out what Wan Fu means; no one knows, so bumping into Pullman after the opening night of his play at the National, I ask him. "Oh," he laughs, "it means '100,000 blessings'."

His grandfather, a parish priest, was a big influence. His father died when he was eight, and his mother remarried. Pullman's real dad was in the RAF, returning home only occasionally, smelling of beer and cigarettes, to swing his two boys up on his shoulders and then vanish again. His mother, he says, was "strange and difficult". Shortly after she remarried, when Pullman was nine, his grandfather told him: "Your mother is an unhappy woman and you must make allowances for her." Quite a burden for a nine-year-old, then. "I think he was trying to say she wouldn't have an easy life with my stepfather," says Pullman, "because he was an odd man, eccentric. But I dramatised it - made myself feel terribly important."

His mother, brought up in the 30s, was not educated; her parents only sent her brother to school. Her life, says her son, felt like a series of missed opportunities. For Pullman, the consequence was that she was very hard to please. "She died before I had any success with my books. She thought I was a failure."

JK Rowling and Pullman together dominate children's fiction. This is a capricious market, and Pullman's stories are seen as intellectually sounder, the more heavyweight read in a world where children's fiction is read by adults. The film of His Dark Materials is being scripted by Tom Stoppard. And the play has just begun its run at the National Theatre in London - two parts, each three hours long. Last Saturday, I saw the first preview, playing to a packed Olivier Theatre. It is a beautiful production, the daemons of the novels criss-crossing the stage with shafts of light, tissue paper creations lit from the inside.

Afterwards, people filed out past the tired-looking man in red socks, sitting with his wife. Pullman looked emotionally stunned, his face showing the impact of watching his words brought to life with the full might of the Olivier's huge chunks of stage which can be raised and lowered and wheeled round at the director's will.

When Pullman was interviewed for this article the production was still in rehearsal. But Northern Lights (first volume of the trilogy) had just come out on the Observer list of the hundred best novels. Ever. ("You have to laugh," says Pullman. "Or you run the risk of becoming conceited.")

If all that didn't fuel a chap's vanity, Pullman has also been labelled anti-God because his good guys take on God. This, though, is to misread His Dark Materials, which tells the story of Lyra. In his trilogy, Lyra re-enacts the story of the original Eve. He takes, I say, the Jewish view of Eve. Namely, that what happened in the Garden of Eden was the beginning of the world as we know it (the story appears in Bereishit, the beginning of the Five Books of Moses, for that reason), and not the great Fall, or end of all good, which is the Christian version. "Exactly right," says Pullman.

Still, getting the label anti-God has added an edge to Pullman's intellectual credibility, which may account for the huge interest in the Lyra story. His Dark Materials, rich as it is in incident and invention, is not one of the greatest novels of all time. The characterisation is mostly two-dimensional, and the description of dawning teenage sexuality makes Britney Spears' PR sound realistic. His Dark Materials - too long by half - is not even Pullman's best work.

But as Pullman himself might say, you have to laugh at the claim - made by others first, but repeated by Pullman on Radio 4's Start the Week - that he has rewritten Paradise Lost. Not every story of rebellion against authority is Miltonic. Or, to take another example, Ulysses is a rewriting of the Odyssey; Judith Kerr's Mog goes to the Vee, Eee, Tee (also the story of a departure from, and then a return to, home) is not.

In His Dark Materials, Pullman has written a children's adventure story, and to make larger claims for it is to undervalue the true distinction of Pullman's writing: his narrative gift, at once arresting and spirit-lifting. Like fireworks across a Scottish sky at night.
Dina Rabinovitch 2003

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