Peter Dickinson was born `within earshot of Victoria Falls’ in 1927, the son of a colonial civil servant and a South African farmer’s daughter. The landscape of his early years was African and very exotic – he remembers baboons in the school playground.
The family returned to England when he was seven, and their situation changed dramatically. ‘My father died almost immediately. My mother had to bring up four children with very little money of her own, but with rich relations in the background. So we had a curious childhood, with a good deal of pinching and scraping, but with the atmosphere of affluence around.’
Not that this impoverishment had much influence on the sort of education he had. He was sent to prep school and then got a scholarship to Eton (‘the bottom scholarship in the worst year on record, a record previously held by my father!’).
‘I had an absolutely straightforward education for somebody of my generation and class, but it was to my mind a totally useless one. Most of what I did was in Classics but today I can’t read Greek and only comparatively simple Latin.’
The best thing about Eton was the fact that there was plenty of room for freedom and a real tolerance of eccentricity. ‘It was much more like a university, especially because you had your own room from very early on. I was there during the war as well, and although it might seem odd to say, the war was a marvellous time to be a child – restrictions for adults became freedoms for children. Another good thing for me was that there wasn’t anything to spend money on, so although I was a poor child at a rich child’s school, it didn’t matter.’
Interestingly enough, he thinks that private education is a very bad thing. ‘It’s divisive, and I also think that it’s bad for the state sector because it creams off the sort of’ parents who might put pressure on state schools to improve, the sort of parents who might even be able to put pressure on the government. But I sent my children’ (he’s got four) ‘to public schools and I have got a conscience about it. I went to Eton when you could do so without having a conscience about it. But now one’s public and private consciences are often at war with each other.’
He thinks that public school was particularly divisive in his case because it made sure he had a ‘very sheltered life’. The crunch came when he was conscripted into the army as a private soldier, just at the end of the war. ‘The shock of going into a barrack room in the army was almost total. But it was good for me – it was a very widening experience.’ He says he had various ‘wholly unworthy and ludicrous adventures in the army, like most conscripts’. One of these involved falling off a telegraph pole and landing on his head (he was in the Signals). The other was – appropriately enough for a man who was to write detective stories and thrillers – a case of double identity.
‘When I joined the army I was given two identities by mistake, and I was finally arrested by two very seasick military policemen in Belfast for being a deserter – my other identity should have been in a camp on Salisbury Plain.’ The resulting tangle of red tape (and red armbands) took almost the rest of his army service to sort out.
From the army he went to King’s College, Cambridge, where he read Classics for a while (‘until they told me to stop it. I still have nightmares sometimes about being asked to put a passage into Greek.’), before changing to English. ‘I deeply regret that now – I enjoyed it, but it’s such a soft option. I would much rather have done something with a few hard edges to it, like Anthropology. Something with a lot of facts for me to master would have been good for me. I’m not very good with facts.’
He didn’t achieve the first he’d hoped for, but King’s was ‘a very civilised place’. They had various sorts of awards which they made to failed young gentlemen they rather approved of to enable them to stay up for another year and do research. They gave me one of these, but I turned out to be hopeless at it – I’m still appalling at research – and two thirds of the way through it I was offered a job on Punch, simply because the youngest member of staff had recently celebrated his fortieth birthday.’
That was the beginning of seventeen years at the famous magazine, during which time Peter Dickinson rose to being ‘the man who was theoretically in charge of all the written stuff in the paper.’ In his seventeen years at Punch he had ‘several editors shot out from under me’ (including Malcolm Muggeridge), wrote articles, ‘a good deal of verse’ and was at one time reviewing thirty detective stories a month.
‘In the course of reviewing all those thrillers I had an idea for one of my own, and I sort of toyed with it in my mind for a couple of years. Then one evening I sat down in the kitchen and started to write it. never really thinking I was going to get very far. I started on page one, and that’s what I still do, go from page one to the end all at once.’
Three quarters of the way through this, his first novel, he got stuck. Then his boss went away – ironically enough to write his own book – and left Peter Dickinson doing two jobs at Punch ‘and without enough creative energy to go round’. When he came back to the story ‘it had gone cold on me.’
‘Then I had a nightmare which became the first chapter of The Weathermonger. I wrote that book to unblock the first one, and then I started at the beginning of the other book, took a great run up to it and got it done. So effectively I became a children’s writer and an adult writer all at the same time, unlike some adult book writers who have gone into children’s books thinking, as it were, “oh, there must be some money in this.”‘
He started writing these books in late 1966; they were both published in 1968. He thinks he’s ‘a very late developer’. At 23, despite having been in the army, I was still a very moony teenager.’ But his books have obviously been mulled over before emerging in their final form. Most of them – even Tulku, that novel of Buddhism, the wheel of life and reincarnation, and The Blue Hawk – took shape first as stories told in the car to his children. Since 1968 he has written 27 books, at least one adult thriller and a children’s book a year. He says he feels ‘vaguely ashamed of being so prolific’, but justifies it to himself on the grounds that he does no other work at all. In fact on the day we went to interview him, we could hear his typewriter tapping away upstairs as we rang his doorbell, and it transpired that he’d just finished another adult novel.
‘I’m a “hot” writer, I have to keep the material bubbling away and I write very fast. I’m also primarily interested in story, although I quite often start a book without knowing who’s going to do what to whom and why. I have to create the landscape before I can put in the structure, and when I’m on form – although it sounds a very lah-di-dah thing to say – the book dictates to a certain extent its own course. You’re never quite certain of what’s going to happen in your own book. The development of characters is an endless fascination.’
On the subject of writing books for children Peter Dickinson is very definite. ‘I don’t think about language level or an audience at all. When you’re on form you just sit there having a controlled dream and it comes out at the tips of your fingers. There’s nothing else like it.’
‘I think what you’re basically doing is providing children with a tool to think with. You raise questions in books, so you have to provide answers. I wrote the Changes novels’ (three stories about a future in which most people in England have turned against machines) ‘because I thought it was a very good setting to have adventures in, to tell stories about. But once you’ve raised the question of man and machines, you’ve got to answer it in some way. I don’t go on about it. I get on with telling the story. I think there’s a strong element of the teacher and moralist in my make-up, but I don’t set out to write a book to make a point. Books shouldn’t answer questions fully, but they should look at them in terms which give scope for thought, which provide questions and directions.’
Religion, language, politics and art are four major themes running through Peter Dickinson’s books. He describes himself as an agnostic, but an agnostic fascinated by the power of religion in the human mind, and he explores it as a storyteller, through the minds, feelings and actions of the characters he creates in books like The Dancing Bear, The Blue Hawk and Tulku.
The Seventh Raven, his most recent book, started off as ‘a light-hearted thriller’, with some revolutionaries, a hostage and some people putting on a children’s opera, but soon the question of politics and art and the relationship between them came to the fore, and he found himself deepening the book as a whole.
‘This made the very bourgeois, high-middle-class area in which the book is set a lot more important, and I had to bring that to the fore much more. The idea I’m looking at most in that book is that of “art for art’s sake”. That’s a very high bourgeois concept, which implies that artists do what they do in total isolation without having to think about the rest of the world. Again, the book is a tool for thinking with, it asks questions, and it also has a good story.’
A book of Old Testament stories, City of Gold, brought him the Carnegie Medal for the second successive year. (He won in 1980 for Tulku.) ‘Joanna Goldsworthy at Gollancz asked me to do it and I said no. I felt nobody could tell Old Testament stories these days. Then I thought of the method’ (of giving each storyteller a different voice, personality and perspective) ‘and I was off. I wanted to plug the stories back into the oral tradition out of which they’d grown originally. Some work better than others, I feel, but on the whole I think it is a remarkable book, especially because of Michael Foreman’s illustrations.’
Peter Dickinson said this with a rather embarrassed smile, and it’s evidence of the honesty with which he looks back at his own work. He prefers The Blue Hawk to Tulku (agreeing with his brother, a priest, who said that the first is a ‘theological book’, the second ‘merely a religious book’), thinks Annerton Pit has a ‘crack down the middle’, after which it falls to pieces, has a real soft spot for Heartsease, and totally agrees with John Rowe Townsend’s criticism of The Weathermonger that its ending is a let down. One thing he is sure about, though, is his style of English.
‘I like my style very much; I think it’s very flexible. The Weathermonger is written in very good English, old-fashioned, almost ‘teacher’s’ English. And I think that’s very important in children’s books.’
In the small garden behind his house in Holland Park he talked about his keen interest in gardening and tossed out plenty of sonorous Latin names for the profusion of plants in pots. The garden around which Theodore walks at the end of Tulku, he said, actually exists in Hampshire. On our way to the tube station we drove round the church in the square nearby – the church which is at the heart of The Seventh Raven. And where an agnostic who writes books helps enthusiastically to stage plays and operas.
The Weathermonger Gollancz, 0 575 00038 4, £3.95
Puffin, 0 14 03.0433 9, reprinting Spring 1982
The Devil’s Children Gollancz, 0 575 00410 X, £3.95 Puffin, 0 14 03.0546 7, 40p
Heartsease Gollancz, 0 575 00223 9, £3.95 Puffin, 0 14 03.0498 3, 30p
The above titles form the Changes Trilogy
The Gift Gollancz, 0 575 01630 2, £3.95
Puffin, 0 14 03.0731 1, reprinting Spring 1982
The Dancing Bear Gollancz, 0 575 01421 0, £3.20
Emma Tupper’s Diary Gollancz, 0 575 00628 5, £4.95
Annerton Pit Gollancz, 0 575 02239 6, £3.95
Chance, Luck and Destiny Gollancz, 0 575 01865 8, £3.50
The Blue Hawk Gollancz, 0 575 02074 1, £3.95 Puffin, 0 14 03.0929 2, 75p
Tulku Gollancz, 0 575 02503 4, £4.50 Puffin Plus, 0 14 03.1357 5, £1.50
City of Gold Gollancz, 0 575 02883 1, £5.95
The Seventh Raven Gollancz, 0 575 02960 9, £4.95