Friday, 2 September 2016

Alan Ahlberg - Phillipa Pearce Lecture 2016


When I qualified as a teacher, way, way back in 1992, one of the first books I bought was a copy of 'Heard it in the Playground' A selection of school based poems that proved an immediate hit with my unruly Year Threes. Peace descended in the classroom when I read from it, even more so when I found another of his poems 'Dog In the Playground' just after we had a dog in the playground. These were pre Google and internet days, days where I would search the picture book section of the local library, or later, Waterstones on Bold Street, Liverpool. Now you can source an Ahlberg Poem within seconds and a touch of a smart phone, but it lacks the charm of a print edition. Burglar Bill became a favourite at school and for my own children, (bogla Bol) I can recall the story as well as We're Going on a Bear Hunt or Where the Wild Things Are. It's a classic, and deservedly so. I took it with me to the annual Phillipa Pearce Lecture, and was delighted when Allan Ahlberg pulled out the same edition as part of his 'ramble.' I felt like throwing mine into the air and shouting 'snap!'


There's a gentleness to Allan in his manner and speech that's reflected in his work. A kindness and strength, mischief and a maverick streak too. He takes the stage and removes a crumpled blue linen jacket, sitting at a desk scattered with papers, clippings and objects, as if he is about to write. And that is what we get for the next hour, not a lecture, but a glimpse into the creative process of a beautiful mind, a preamble through thought and purpose, thought and literature with some strong and salient points along the way.

He confesses to a tendency to gabble as he gets older, he's now 78, and his shy, soft voice is sometimes lost in the hall, the mikes don't pick up and project, but when he reads aloud, its clear and intentional. It doesn't stop the two women behind me from constantly complaining in loud and stroppy whispers, how rude. They would make fitting characters in an Ahlberg book, heads bent together in a sea of white hair and glasses.

Alan apologises. His voice is like a shoal of pebbles falling, amongst the pebbles are nuggets, although we strain to hear, we pay attention. He bears on (So we beat on, boats against the current - apologies to Fitzgerald) as we must, he believes. He admires John Wayne, not for his politics or personal issues, but for his tenacity, we must carry on.
'I'm inclined to keep going, like John Wayne, keep going anyway.' He writes out of love and purpose, 'If you're not going to put your heart and soul into it, it's not worth doing,' and recalls a time when his wife and illustrative partner, Janet, was interviewed about what she did for a living, she said she loved it, but it was strange that two adults would work together and sit having conversations about talking biscuits. The biscuits turned up as a blurb on the back of a miniature toytown annual inside The Jolly Christmas Postman.

Allan meanders through his subject matter, reading from a jumble of books and letters, yellowing snippets of newspaper cuttings and there emerges a theme, push against the rules, find the joy in life.
'What remarkable creatures we are to to be vaguely comic about life, the universe and everything.' He reminds us of the importance of home made things, cakes and books, how they both taste better. The significance of the personal. The story of Burglar Bill came to life when he was deputy head in a Leicestershire school and had to cover a class of five year olds at short notice. He began to tell the story of Burglar Bill and used the register to name each child's house that Bill burgled.
'So he came to number One, the house of Alice Hicks, he saw an umbrella in the hall, "That's a nice umbrella, I'll have that" He went into the kitchen where Alice's mother was, "that's a nice mother, I'll have her." The children were delighted and vied to be next to have Burglar Bill call at their house and steal their mother.

Allan opens a suitcase of old toys to show us the importance of love, soft toys are loved objects for any child 9think of Shirley Hughes, Dogger)'My grandaughter at eighteen months fully understands the importance of a cuddle.' He brings out a panda similar to one he mangled as a child, nods to the war time childhood of "Peepo" here, it's on his desk at home where he is writing a story about a panda, 'I'm auditioning him for a part.' The ramble continues with blasts of music, a waltz through a life in words, thanks for those who help him make his work, 'It takes a whole lot of us to make a book.'It's an insight into an artists mind, a stream of conscious sharing of thought, and I'm glad I was there to listen. Bogla Bol!

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