Philip Pullman tackles cavalier councils
Recently named one of the 100 most influential people in the book trade, the author has used his notoriety to boost support for local libraries
When Philip Pullman was invited to speak about the library policy of Brent council he took the invitation for two reasons. Maggie Gee, the local author who invited him, is a good friend, and Pullman noted the historic importance of Kensal Rise library, which was opened by Mark Twain.
“You would think that in a country that has pretentions of being the home of literature the public purse would be used to keep things like this open,” says the Northern Lights author.
Pullman has been very vocal about library closures, both in Brent (whose library policies he calls “political bulls**t”) and in his home county of Oxfordshire since councils began cutbacks.
He is still following the story and, while we are on the topic, he cites a judgment that he found that links library closures and inequality. “It will be harder on some people than others,” he summarises. “The library building is a place where people can go for all sorts of reasons and this is what has often been overlooked.
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“Services that libraries provide for young mothers, for example storytelling sessions, are things that children need desperately. It’s also a way for young mothers to get out of the house and do something with their children – something free and close to home.
“It’s so unreasonable to close them down and say: ‘It’s only a short bus ride to the town centre library.’ That overlooks the fact that taking young children on public transport is not an easy business. This is what has angered me so much about the cavalier way in which some councils have decided to close the libraries that don’t seem to them to matter very much. Maybe they don’t matter because they don’t have many of their voters in those areas.”
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During the course of his authorial career, Pullman has been outspoken about a lot of things, including religion and the library cutbacks. For him, it’s part of the job description of being a person, rather than because he is a writer. “I am a citizen as well as a writer, I hope I’d be speaking out whatever job I had,” he says. “What I do for a living gives me a bit of a name so people notice when I speak, but I feel I should do it as a citizen rather than as a writer.”
As a writer, Pullman’s vast contribution to literature has seen his work succesfully transfer to screen and stage. This Christmas, one of his fairytales, The Firework Maker’s Daughter, is to be staged at the Bloomsbury Theatre. Pullman is excited about seeing his work in different mediums. “I’m not nervous because I know that the stories are great and by and large they always work on the stage.” He’s praised the production, which goes some way to showing how relaxed he is about interpretations of his work.
Although important, all this taking a stand as a citizen and watching new versions of his stories spring up all over the place means Pullman is often drawn away from his main business of writing. For the last few years his main project has been the Book of Dust, a mammoth story to follow on from the Northern Lights trilogy that he has decided will come in two parts. “I shall be really glad to get back to The Book of Dust and give it my full attention – and this time finish it,” he says.
Pullman has recently been busy with writing a film script from the John Blake comic that he created. “I hope it will be made, but you have to use the word ‘hope’ rather than ‘expect’ because it is such a difficult business these days. If it comes off, a film of John Blake will appear in the next two or three years. Meanwhile I shall be writing The Book of Dust.” Although Pullman continues to go to his desk in a morning and stays there until he has done a certain number of words, there’s still no date for the finished product.
Pullman seems unhurried; the book will happen when it happens. It’s one of the many things he has on his plate as a writer. Another goal is trying to write a good short story, something that most people would think comes easily to someone like him. “Short stories-like those in The New Yorker are a particular form and they are rather difficult to do,” he says “It’s got to be like a poem. Every word, every phrase has got to carry some weight in a short story.” It’s surprising to hear that an award-winning writer has difficulty with some forms of writing, I say. Pullman responds humbly with a joke: “I haven’t won awards for short story writing, though.”
The Firework Maker’s Daughter by the Birmingham Stage Company will be at the Bloomsbury Theatre from December 14. Booking on 020 7388 8822.