‘When we writers become famous,’ Bernard Shaw once wrote, ‘we become famous suddenly.’ Philip Ardagh certainly has. Awful End, the first of ‘The Eddie Dickens Trilogy’, and Philip’s first venture into fiction, was spectacularly successful, as indeed was the whole trilogy. And we now have The Fall of Fergal and Heir of Mystery, parts one and two of a new trilogy entitled ‘Unlikely Exploits’. UK sales of these books at Faber are soaring and we hear that Ardagh has signed a major six-figure deal in America, rumoured to be identical to the one paid to a certain J K Rowling. And it is not only the USA that is getting the Ardagh treatment. With almost indecent haste his books have been translated into over twenty languages worldwide, including Japanese, Estonian and Catalan. Thai and Greek are soon to follow. Early indications from Faber suggest that the foreign versions ‘are flying off the shelves’. Already preliminary negotiations are under way with Twentieth Century Fox for a film version of ‘The Eddie Dickens Trilogy’.
Such phenomenal success has been quite a time coming. Philip has, he says, ‘always written, and has always needed to write’. He enjoyed writing stories and comic books at school, though there were some aspects of school life that he did not enjoy, like being teased – bullied even – because, he says, he was a ‘bean pole, tall and skinny’. Undoubtedly the strong vein of humour that runs through all his writing – and runs riot in his recent fiction – was nurtured in these early days, for he found, as have others, that he could parry unkind jibes with jokes. But it was not only the Ardagh brand of humour that was being honed. From within himself came a ‘child-like glee and voracious appetite’ for knowing and wanting to know, especially about the castles and archaeological sites that he visited as a boy. History became a passion. So it was perhaps to be expected that when he decided, in the early eighties, to leave his advertising job and concentrate on writing, his first books were non-fiction.
At these books he worked very hard indeed. He wrote about kings and queens, ancient myths, great inventions; about India, South Africa and the Austro-Hungarian Empire; about money, wars, and religions. ‘But,’ I ask him, ‘how can you be an expert in all these areas?’ He answers that he is not an expert in anything. Indeed he prefers not to know very much about a topic before he decides to research it. His role is that of writer, not of expert. This way he can assess and ‘filter the information’ and make it available in an accessible form for young people or indeed anyone else interested.
Typical of Philip’s best non-fiction is the compilation entitled WOW! Discoveries, Inventions, Ideas and Events that Changed the World. Think of anyone or anything that is, or has been, important in the world and the chances are it will be explained in this book – from Adam and Eve, antibiotics and archery to Wilberforce, X-rays and zeppelins. It is a lively and compelling treatise, leavened throughout with wry comment and jokey asides. Equally gripping are his Get a Life! biographies. Ardagh is a very readable writer.
Philip has also retold a beautiful series of legends from many lands sumptuously illustrated by a variety of artists. Each book begins with a cultural overview and brief demography of the peoples in question, followed by examples of the stories they have handed down. These worldwide tales constitute some of Ardagh’s most serious work and haven’t, I would say, had the attention they deserve.
Whether indirectly connected with his years of fiendishly hard work, or whether from some other concatenation, about seven years ago Philip became ill. He was initially diagnosed with chronic fatigue but what he actually had was severe obstructive sleep apnoea, a condition causing persistent insomnia. To correct this, he nowadays wears a mask at night, attached to a machine that pumps oxygen into his lungs. And then, last year, while he was working on the final draft of Heir of Mystery, he experienced violent chest pains. He was rushed by ambulance to hospital. This time it was pericarditis, or inflammation of the membrane surrounding the heart. He now has an enlarged heart.
Throughout this, Philip has kept on working. His cheerfulness and bonhomie appear undiminished. Standing 6’ 7” in his socks and built like a huge, bearded, second-row rugby forward, he looks the picture of health. And his writing daily grows in strength, including two amusingly informative question-and-answer books and two exceptional handbooks. In Did Dinosaurs Snore? and Why are Castles Castle-Shaped? Philip sets himself to answer 100½ commonly asked questions about dinosaurs and castles respectively. The Hieroglyphs Handbook – justly praised by Philip Pullman – is remarkable for its lucid explanation of the intricacies of ancient Egyptian writing and how to read it, and then write it for yourself. The Archaeologist’s Handbook is a knowledgeable, well-researched and clearly written guide for amateur archaeologists, young and old.
So how did fame suddenly come to Philip? A defining moment was maybe the making of The Secret Diary of Prince Tutankhamun. Devised and written by Philip, and published by Franklin Watts, it is rather different from the rest of his work. It is an evocative, witty picture book about the young Egyptian king of over 3,000 years ago, full of flaps, pop-ups, feathers (well, a feather), a sarcophagus, a pyramid and a snake bangle – all recounting Howard Carter’s famous discovery of 1922. Helped by others with lettering, artwork and paper engineering, this book is nevertheless an Ardagh tour de force. Significantly, in view of what was to come, it is a mixture of non-fiction and hilarious fiction.
It was through The Secret Diary that Philip met Suzy Jenvey, who was to become his fiction editor at Faber. As they say, the rest is history. Before very long Awful End appeared, closely followed by Dreadful Acts, Terrible Times and The Fall of Fergal, the latter straightaway serialised on Radio 4’s children’s programme Go for It! Not surprisingly Philip receives sacks of fan mail about these books and is especially proud of his appeal to many children who don’t normally enjoy reading. Indeed it was with this in mind that he recently wrote The Green Men of Gressingham for Barrington Stoke, a specialist publisher of books for young people with reading difficulties.
Philip is a highly unusual storyteller, with an iconoclastic sense of humour. He has, perhaps inevitably, been compared to other offbeat humorists like the Goons and Monty Python, and particularly the American writer Lemony Snicket. But Philip Ardagh is very much his own man. He also resists the idea that he was an information book writer who has now metamorphosed into a writer of humorous fiction. As anyone who has read his books will appreciate, his non-fiction is peppered with fictional asides and digressions, and his fiction is laced with non-fiction. Philip does not expect us to suspend our disbelief and be transported to a story world. Instead he constantly reminds us that this is a story written down in a book by him. He, the author, becomes one of the characters in his own story. So we find, ‘Those of you who read the third and final book in this trilogy will run into this character again’, or ‘I can’t write pages and pages about this now, because there are only twenty-four left to finish the entire story’! At one point Eddie’s father says, ‘I don’t think the author likes me. I always seem to get injured in these books’. The overall effect is surreal.
Philip’s books are full of diversions and interpolations of this kind. It is a moot point whether the diversions are incidental to the story or the story incidental to the diversions. At least half of Terrible Times is taken up with digressions of one sort or another, perhaps to give us a short lesson on the origin of the word ‘window’, or a brief summary of the life of the American railroad hero Casey Jones. There is no particular connection with plot or character. So I asked him: ‘Is this Ardagh, the non-fiction writer, refusing to lie down? Are the novels enriched by these diversions? Aren’t they really extremely distracting?’ Philip replied, archly, ‘Well, I’m catering for all tastes!’
Curious about the humour in Philip’s novels, I read him a couple of extracts, and asked him to explain the joke. What is so funny about ‘He extinguished the conflagration (which is a twenty-eight letter way of saying what “put the fire out” says in fifteen)’ or ‘The detective inspector…made an initial hypothesis (not to be confused with an initialled hippopotamus…which is rather unlikely, come to think of it)’? I’d not got as far as my third extract when I discovered that Philip was convulsed with laughter, and I found I was laughing too, so much so that I couldn’t read any more.
Philip Ardagh is a big man with an extravagant beard from another century who writes ridiculous stories. I think Ardagh fans will know what I mean. (I hope I do.)
Jeff Hynds is an independent literacy consultant and a writer.
Photograph courtesy of Faber & Faber Children’s Books.
Drawing of Philip Ardagh by David Roberts.
Selected Books by Philip Ardagh
The Archaeologist’s Handbook: The Insider’s Guide to Digging up the Past, Faber, 0 571 20687 5, £4.99 pbk
Did Dinosaurs Snore? 100½ Questions About Dinosaurs Answered, Faber, 0 571 20653 0, £4.99 pbk
Get a Life! Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and Mary Queen of Scots, Macmillan, 0 330 39905 5, £4.99 pbk (series includes Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon, Marie Curie and others)
The Green Men of Gressingham, Barrington Stoke, 1 84299 085 3, £4.50 pbk
The Hieroglyphs Handbook: Teach Yourself Ancient Egyptian, Faber, 0 571 19744 2, £4.99 pbk
North American Myths and Legends, Belitha Press, 1 85561 758 7, £10.99 hbk, 1 85561 845 1, £5.99 pbk (series includes Norse, Chinese, and others, eight in all)
The Secret Diary of Prince Tutankhamun, Franklin Watts, 0 7496 2969 X, £9.99 hbk
The Truth About Christmas, Macmillan, 0 333 96605 8, £4.99 hbk
Why Are Castles Castle-Shaped? 100½ Questions About Castles Answered, Faber, 0 571 21437 1, £4.99 pbk
WOW! Discoveries, Inventions, Ideas and Events that Changed the World, Macmillan, 0 330 40049 5, £4.99 pbk
The Eddie Dickens Trilogy:
Awful End, Faber, 0 571 20354 X, £4.99 pbk
Dreadful Acts, Faber, 0 571 20947 5, £4.99 pbk
Terrible Times, Faber, 0 571 20952 1, £7.99 hbk (pbk September 2003)
Trilogy also available on three audio cassettes, read by Sylvester McCoy, Penguin, £7.00 each.
Unlikely Exploits Trilogy:
The Fall of Fergal, Faber, 0 571 21069 4, £7.99 hbk, 0 571 21521 1, £4.99 pbk
Heir of Mystery, 0 571 21522 X, £8.99 hbk (April 2003)
The Rise of the House of McNally (April 2004)