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Seven pearls of wisdom from Philip Pullman

Literary legend Philip Pullman spent his early years as a school teacher, it wasn’t until the release of the trilogy ‘His Dark Materials’ that his success skyrocketed.

Since publication, it has seen adaptations at the National Theatre, in a Hollywood movie, and a BBC series is currently in production.

In conversation with Mary Beard, this is what we learned.

Language can be dangerous

‘I’m very interested in what politicians do with language, and what journalists, TV, news people do with language. This is where media studies is so misunderstood. It’s a common target of ridicule and contempt. It’s rhetoric.’ Philip believes that early writers on rhetoric would have been masters of television, and understood the power of images. ‘[Rhetoric] is so important to us as a democracy, we really need to study it, we really need to talk about it in school and at university and make it understood.’

Children want to grow up

Transitioning into adulthood is an important sentiment to him, ‘That’s the beef I have with Narnia’ he says. ‘If you read the whole sequence you realise that the Lewis who wrote Narnia had a pathological fear and dislike of women and girls, and the whole process of growing up was so horrid that he wanted to preserve his children from this dreadful thing, and he kills them in a railway accident at the end and that’s supposed to be all happy and glorious. I think it’s an utterly miserable thing to say and position to take. I don’t like it at all.’

You use Twitter when you don’t want to write an article

‘It’s such an interesting form, you’ve got a very limited number of characters, some people cheat of course and have a whole chain going. I also like that if I read a book I like, or listened to a CD I like, I can say so on Twitter... I also like exchanging- I suppose you call it banter or something.’

The tests in schools are wrong

Pullman regales us with tale of a child who wrote to him, stating that at school they were required to write obituaries and ‘no one had chosen you’, so ‘can you tell me how you would like to die, and can you make it as dramatic as possible.’

Laughing, Mary suggests that the child would have received ‘points’ for writing to someone famous, ‘It’s terrible. The way we test children now should be banned, we should be forbidden to do it. We shouldn’t treat literature like that, as fodder for tests, material to boost your school in the league tables. It’s all wrong. It’s all wrong.’

Fairy tales and religion have much in common

Philip makes an impassioned case for the necessity of fairy tales, ‘We have to give children fairy tales because it enlarges our imagination, it enlarges our imaginary vocabulary.’

Mary offers that it informs how we consume the world, which is met with agreement, as well as the suggestion that religion does this too, ‘At least the Christianity I grew up in did, because it provided a story, a fascinating story which said: Well this is why we’re here, this what we’re doing here, this is how we got here, and this is what we’ve got to do to get to heaven. And that was a story, and it satisfied because it was a story.’

The story that Christianity tells of justice is a particularly enticing one to Philip, 'He’ll get his comeuppance- that’s a very attractive thing. And actually I think that’s what lies behind the attraction of the fairy tales, they always end in the bad people being punished and the good people being rewarded.'

The meaning of ‘Possibilianism’

‘Zealots of any kind are unattractive. I feel like, I’d rather… there’s a word I learned recently, ‘possibilianism’. [The American neuroscientist David Eagleman] He’s a possibilian. He’s prepared to believe in anything, provided it’s convincing. He’s not going to shut anything out, and I’m very sympathetic to that idea.’

Your tax doesn’t go to the tax man

Philip refers to the ‘civic decency’ that sustained his childhood, as the network of things such as council housing, public libraries and parks, ‘And it is going, if it hasn’t gone.’

So does the literary icon have any solutions?

‘Well, we put up taxes. We tax people a lot harder. Hit the rich. I mean- I’m rich, I pay all the tax should, but I should be paying much more’ he insists.

‘It’s part of the lie that was being fostered by the market people, by Thatcher and co. ‘Don’t give your money to the tax man’ Well you’re not giving it to the tax man, you’re giving it to the people who are going to cure your heart attack in ten years time.’