Whatever the conventions about short listed authors attending prize events, there is absolutely no doubt that the winner must turn up. Although Andy Mulligan, a teacher in the Philippines, had a busy week planned, when he heard that he had won this year’s Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize he immediately made plans to get to the prize presentation in London where Chair of judges Julia Eccleshare talked to him for Books for Keeps.
Andy Mulligan’s first novel, Ribblestrop was a runner up for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize but had got no further. Whether it was that experience or his natural caution, when Andy heard that Return to Ribblestrop was on the longlist for the Guardian Prize in May, he said, ‘I’m not going to be on the shortlist. I’m award-padding. It’s highly unlikely I’ll win.’
It’s unusual for an author to be so apparently un-starry eyed about his books. Dig deeper and it isn’t that Andy is doubtful about his book’s quality or very passionate about how and why he writes; it is just that he hadn’t ever thought of it being a prize winner. When I ask why he says, ‘It’s always amazed me that people get stuck into Ribblestrop. I guess I think it is a bit complicated. Its plotting is almost Dickensian. It’s not as instant as many stories.’
Andy’s response is telling. It shows just how much what he writes comes both from his own reading and from his experience as a teacher rather than from an awareness of the market. He is apparently unaffected by the powerful currents, trends and unending search for ‘the next big thing’ which fuels so much of what many authors feel pressurized to write.
Instead of trend following, Andy is quietly but very successfully furrowing his own path. As its title indicates, Return to Ribblestrop is not a stand alone title. It is part two of the ‘Ribblestrop’ trilogy which is designed to cover a school year broken down into three terms – the third is already underway – set in a splendidly anarchic school in which every kind of unlikely and improbable thing seems to take place. Both children and teachers behave outrageously. Rules, where they exist at all, appear to be made only so that they can be broken. Risks are freely taken and usually survived – give or take burning down a hotel room and some other minor accident. While Ribblestrop set the scene for all of this, Return to Ribblestrop has added a plot which is a joyful confection of invention which requires a certain amount of detective work to follow. Bent policemen and irreligious priests are just a couple more good riffs to be seamlessly added to the other adult characters of equally dubious morals.
It is all the greatest possible fun and it is fun that we haven’t seen for some time in books about schools – except the magical kind. With splendid abandon, Andy has thrown away the health and safety rule book and shredded guidelines on political or moral correctness. It was a boldness of intent that critics loved partly because it rolled over obstructions previously deemed unchallengeable. It was hailed in The Independent as, ‘a hilarious and morally questionable tale about a disastrous school’ and in The Irish Times as ‘a boarding school story that owes something to Anthony Buckeridge and nothing to miserable reality. The baggy plot won’t appeal to everyone and the drinking, smoking and gun toting won’t appeal to the virtuous because this is masterful knockabout humour’.
Beyond its scope as a good read, Ribblestop was also welcomed as a new weapon in the fight against the shibboleths of modern childhood. Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood, wrote, ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the children’s novel. Brilliant, un-put-downable and incredibly funny, this is the antidote to “toxic childhood” – a true celebration of the human spirit.’ And author Sally Vickers felt it created a version of education that was so acceptable she was moved to write, ‘If I had my time again I would without hesitation send my children to Ribblestrop.’
Although Andy had no campaigning goal in mind when he began Ribblestrop he did know a lot about schools and, from that, he had a clear sense of the kind of school he wanted to create. And The Irish Times was also right; Ribblestrop does owe a lot to Anthony Buckeridge’s stories of schoolboys Jennings and Darbishire which were important childhood reading for Andy because ‘that was the first experience I had of laughing aloud at a book’. With that in mind and hoping to achieve something of the same affect, he modelled Ruskin and Sam, key characters in Ribblestrop, on Jennings and Darbishire because ‘all their mishaps were born of enthusiasm’. Buckeridge’s influence goes deep with those who also know and love the books. As a teacher, Andy still works on the basis of wanting to be the endlessly patient Mr Carter while admitting that he frequently ends up as the noisily explosive although actually harmless Mr Wilkie.
Andy had the early ideas for Ribblestrop a long time ago. Having begun by working in the theatre and on various arts projects such as the Cheltenham Literary Festival where he was the education officer working under Humphrey Carpenter, he had tried his hand at writing plays with some success and that is what he thought he would end up doing. He took a break working for a charity in India and then returned to the UK, quickly realised that playwriting wasn’t going to earn him a living, and enrolled on a course to train as an English and Drama teacher. But even before the course had begun, Andy had been appointed as an English and drama teacher at Truro School and thought he’d try that first and train later. He had little idea what to expect and feared that it might be dull. Far from it. ‘I just loved it. It was such a laugh and I felt bathed in wonderful stories as there were so many entertaining incidents.’ Andy got on well with the pupils and relished the freedom to teach as he wished. ‘I was desperate to try out every silly idea and found it fun to see what worked.’
It was a setting that proved to be fertile to his imagination as a writer. The inspiration for Ribblestrop was triggered when Andy and a colleague who had previously worked in the music business came across a ruined stately home not far from their school and thought ‘wouldn’t it be fun to start a school and see what happens’? ‘It began as a series of gags and we put into it all the nutcases we’d met in the theatre and music business. But then we thought, who on earth would send their kids here? The only answer was that it would be kids whose parents didn’t have a clue, children who’d already burned down a school and orphans.’ And all of that early thinking remains the premise of Ribblestrop which is indeed housed in the less-ruinous bits of a stately home and has a cast of pupils from exactly those backgrounds.
Even with the basic premise so clearly in Andy’s mind, Ribblestrop didn’t get written for some time. ‘I was dabbling with it for about four years. But I was also writing another, more serious book based on my time in India and I just couldn’t make it work.’
Changing teaching jobs took Andy from Cornwall to San Paulo but the move wasn’t a success and he soon fled back to London and from there managed to get back to Truro School. It was then that he had a real stroke of luck. Doing his best to manage a rowdy bunch of year 9s Andy was asked if he had ever written a book. He began to tell the Ribblestrop stories. One boy came up to him when he’d finished and said, ‘that was really good. You ought to show it to my mum. She’s an agent.’
Andy loves telling this story. It’s the stuff of dreams for any writer although at that point he says that publishing the book hadn’t been at the top of his mind. ‘All I wanted was to be able to say was I’ve finished a book.’ But, the opportunity too big to let slip, he sent Jane Turnbull the manuscript and it was swiftly sold on the basis that he would be willing to work on it. Once, that would have been a big ask for Andy. ‘Ten years earlier I would have been way too stubborn. I thought you should cling onto your thoughts against all comers. But now I don’t.’ Andy really respects and values the editorial support he receives from Venetia Gosling at Simon and Schuster. In fact, he’s submitted so readily to it that he adds pensively, ‘Sometimes I think I am too easily swayed.’
Ribblestrop was quickly followed by Trash, a quite different story about a group of children surviving on a rubbish heap. A tense and touching thriller, it tells how they first find and then protect something seriously exciting. Set in any third world country where such practice is commonplace and drawing on Andy’s first hand experiences of seeing children such as these scavenging for a living in India, it has a seriousness and thoughtfulness that at first glance set it apart from Ribblestrop. But, take away the setting and the humour, how Andy sets up his young characters and how he captures the interplay between them and their dependence on one another is very similar. Trash, like Ribblestrop, received excellent reviews and it is a long way down the line towards being made into a film.
And now a major prize. Does the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize make a difference? ‘It’s changed something in my head but it doesn’t directly affect what I do next. Ribblestrop three is already commissioned and I have another book to deliver for David Fickling who published Trash.’
So Andy knows his writing schedule and he’s planning to take some time off school to fulfil all his commitments but giving up the day job is not part of his plans. ‘Fairly soon, I’ll be looking for a school to join,’ he says. ‘I like people to like and dislike when you’re in a school. And I like belonging.’
Ribblestrop (978 1 8473 8230 6) and Return to Ribblestrop (978 1 8473 8812 4) are published by Simon & Schuster at £6.99 each pbk. Trash (978 1 8499 2056 8) is published by David Fickling Books at £5.99 pbk.
Julia Eccleshare is the children’s book editor of the Guardian and the co-director of CLPE (The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education).