Friday, 11 September 2015

Don't be Afraid to Be Afraid - Meg Rosoff

It's helpful to take inspiration from those involved in writing life, so I was delighted to attend the 2015 Phillipa Pearce lecture at Homerton College, Cambridge, especially as it was to be given by a "Young Adult" writer of verve and clarity - Meg Rosoff.

My 16 year old son and I waited outside, enjoying the surprising heat of early September sun, before entering the Mary Allen Building. It was much like a school hall, it smelled of school, Homerton is an education college. My son has been to author talks since he was knee high, David Almond, Eoin Colfer and met Frank Cottrell Boyce, always on the promise that it would be 'good for him', he wasn't convinced. By the end he was engaged, enlivened and actually enjoyed himself, he even asked a question.

Such is the charm of Meg that she can turn an audience who look unlikely to share her maverick sensibilities and possibly controversial views, a Cambridge audience, all white, all middle and older aged, but then who knows what anarchist sensibilities lurk beneath the swish of a calf length pleated skirt.
After all, it was Cambridge where I joined an audience sing along to a version of 'I am an anarchist' by the Sex Pistols, even if it was by The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.

Meg is a small, but powerful figure, commanding the lectern as if she were steering a ship a steady course. Her hair a shock of honey blonde, swinging earrings and ubiquitous writer garb of monochrome and scarf. I find those scarves useful for catching crumbs, and as age advances, for hiding neck wrinkles (I'm with Nora Ephron on that one, I hate my neck too). This is a woman who knows what she wants, I thought, and knows how to get it.

Alongside Meg Rosoff there was a screen with a black and white picture of Phillipa Pearce, her hand resting on a wooden door set in a wall, a door to a secret garden? Her most famous novel was about a garden - Tom's Midnight Garden. Meg talked about her connection to Phillipa, and the importance of children's literature. I wasn't going to argue with that, I took an MA in the subject, led by the inspirational Michael Rosen. As an audience we were immersed in children's literature (Even the event photographer was a children's writer, the lovely Jill Paton Walsh) it is our first books that shape our literary taste and memory. For Meg this was 'The Cat in The Hat' and she recognises she has become this character by telling children to do the 'wrong thing' in her own books, "I am The Cat in The Hat."

Meg writes for a young audience because maybe writers write about the place in their own personal history where they "get stuck" and for her that was adolescence, "When you write for children or young people, you give someone the ability to write their own story." She was 46 when she started writing for children, but I think she'd had writing sensibilities long before then, surely working in advertising is writing fiction? She hadn't read children's fiction herself for over 30 years when she wrote her first book. Who has? Perhaps we should, beyond reading to our offspring, it's good to revisit those books from our childhood, "Most people have a book somewhere in their past that unlocks a world for them." Her first book was a pony book and it was suggested she write for older children, she took the advice, desperate to get out of her advertising job. Her first published novel was How I Live Now - also a film with Saoirse Ronan - and my favourite Meg Rosoff so far, it cuts through literary waffle like a clear stream running on a hot day.


"Literature allows us to think unthinkable thoughts, to embrace lateral thinking." Meg questioned whether it is the responsibility of adults to stick to the facts and illustrated this with a dark, realist telling of Goldilocks and The Three Bears, with a finale where the bears disembowel Goldilocks. (I was reminded of Dahl and Angela Carter)
She endorsed the importance of fairy tales, important because they are fiction, if we don't tell them we succumb to the idea that children's imaginations are dangerous, an idea gaining credence in some education circles. Although children's books, by nature of who they are written for, are always under scrutiny, they always have been. It is our ability to create fiction, to tell stories, that makes us human, "Imagination makes you better at everything, with the possible exception of accountancy, where creativity may land you in Jail."


Meg admitted she seemed to be lacking the fear gene, she had been very lucky, as her first novel was such a succuess she was allowed more grace to do what she wanted, although lacking fear doesn't detract from the importance of embracing it, she admits that we need to treasure our faults, to dare to fail, to take risks and question the status quo, if the system remains the same we are trapped, without fear there is very little motivation for change,

"Think big thoughts, do not be afraid to be afraid."

Her lecture met with rapturous applause, inspiring the pleated skirts of Cambridge and promoting my now fearless son to ask a question. Thank you Meg, long may you write. Next year it's Alan Ahlberg, "bogla bol!"