Driving into the Hampshire village where Chris Powling lives is rather like entering the kind of idealised English hamlet an American producer might summon up for a TV mini-series. The daffodils on the green are planted in rows; the lawns are neatly manicured. There’s one dash of bohemianism; the large, bright yellow van, ‘Booktalk’ emblazoned on its side, standing outside The Old Chapel – home to Chris, his wife, Jan, and their two daughters.
Deftly converted by previous owners, the Chapel allows you to wind up and down, in and out of rooms and half rooms, often losing a sense of which level you’re on. Despite the cheery warmth, there’s still a lingering feel of the house’s previous life: one room is laughingly dubbed `the old Sunday School’. There are working spaces, like mini-caverns. One where Jan does her work (helping maintain the day-to-day running of Books for Keeps) and holding book events locally (hence the yellow van). In another, Chris’s orderly writing space. And in every crevice, along with photos and lovingly-preserved children’s paintings, books, books, books.
Indeed, books impinge upon every aspect of Chris’s life. He is a lecturer in English (at nearby King Alfred’s College), a broadcaster, reviewer, and of course, editor of this journal. (In 1989, he took over from Pat Triggs, who’d established a lively, innovative magazine. `I thought I’d run out of ideas in no time!’)
Chris Powling is also one of our most prolific writers for children. Since his first book, Daredevils or Scaredycats, in 1979, there have been 18 novels (one shortlisted for the Smarties Prize), a bunch of biographies and a couple of anthologies. There’s a thriller, Where the Quaggy Bends, published this month. The books have been valued by teachers, librarians and, even more heartening for him, by children. There are strong plots; an acute sense of place and a humility towards children. All these features spring from Chris’s own story.
Born in 1943, in Bromley, Kent, `in the working-class end of a middle-class suburban town’, he was one of twin boys. Strong family links with Blackheath and Greenwich gave him a lifelong identity with that patch of South London `on the river, where the meantime comes from’. Being taken by his Dad to see Nelson’s breeches, `bloodstained, to boot’, he learned early on that the past is always visible in the present for city children. Urban landscapes feature strongly in most of his stories and provide the `felt life’ of much of his fiction: `The part where I lived was a city, but at the same time there were all sorts of places kids could go where they can’t go now. We’d wander down alleyways, across streets and bridges … we’d do all sorts of mooching, not being sure what we were doing. Going to the park, exploring, finding a derelict house, going to the Quaggy. …’
The Quaggy looms large in his books:
no more than a gap in the city’s cityness – a musty, weed-choked river winding its way through drab back streets like a wild streak people had forgotten to tame.‘
(Where the Quaggy Bends)
The young Chris and his mates were `pioneers’. Such wastelands, out of sight of the grown-ups, were important to the kids in that they were, the adult Chris realises, `forbidden .. they had this wonderful quality of might-have-been. Because they hadn’t been turned into anything, they could be everything.’ Most of his stories have precise geographical locations: `InMog and the Rectifier. I know exactly where The Two Tigers are – the pubs facing each other at Lee. I know exactly where the bridge is Mog crawls across at the beginning of the book. The `Sark’ is, of course, The Cutty Sark. The Phantom Carwash and The Conker as Hard as a Diamond are set in places I actually knew as a child.’
He now realises that part of him was always `observing, savouring what was going on’.
As a post-1944 Education Act baby, he was taken up on `the escalator of opportunity’ through primary to grammar school (‘streamed to the teeth’). As for many boys, this involved an alienation from his mates and the days `mooching’ in the Quaggy. The fact that 80% of kids did not get the chances he did fixed him with an undimmed commitment to comprehensive education. Later on, he was to be involved as a young teacher in exciting initiatives such as mixed-ability teaching.
Progress through the system to university at Oxford wasn’t without pitfalls. There was a family secret revealed (and echoed poignantly in one of his stories, Dracula in Sunlight). There were dramatic changes in circumstances and when his parents separated for a time Chris had to maintain himself through A-levels whilst teaching in a prep school. He was tutored in Latin by eccentric Goofy Owen, who gladly sacrificed his Saturdays. That’s left Chris with a passionate appreciation of good teachers!
Oxford (‘learning to be a gentleman’s gentleman’) was followed by a PGCE, secondary-orientated. Yet he started teaching in a Peckham primary: `I loved it, and I was telling children stories all the time.’ He tried his hand at writing, even sending one story into a publisher (receiving a polite, encouraging letter from Pam Royds, at Andre Deutsch). But the writing had to wait. `I got sidetracked by teaching!’
The `sidetracking’ was busy and successful. From 1966 to 1985 he was a primary class teacher, secondary English teacher (at Crown Woods, with the influential Michael Marland) and deputy headteacher, followed by ten years’ primary headship in Waltham Forest -‘the most difficult job I’ve ever done’. He began broadcasting, in Now Read On, and later as a regular on BBC 4’s Kaleidoscope. All that was ‘a lifeline, keeping alive my interest in the arts’.
During the latter years as Head, before he joined ‘King Alf’s’ in 1985, the writing took flight. ‘I was always complaining that there were no books for my kind of kids. Someone said to me, why don’t you write one, so I did.’ Daredevils or Scaredycats was, he says, ‘a book of the fifties, deeply autobiographical’, yet the nine short stories were praised by reviewers for catching contemporary-sounding children’s voices. Nearly thirty years on, the childhood adventures in the Quaggy found their way into these tales. Challenging ideas were folded up in accessible (and very funny) plots. Getting the book published by the first publisher he sent it to was the sort of serendipity that’s characterised all of his major turning-points (‘Abelard Schuman was at the top of the alphabetical list!’).
Since then his books have reflected a willingness to try out fresh ideas; ‘My agent complains I seem reluctant ever to do the same thing twice.’ He invests well-trodden themes, (like gang loyalty versus personal aspiration, in Mog and the Rectifier) with vigour. There’s a gift for exploring the hinterland between the ordinary and the fantastic in children’s lives.
One story in particular has origins very dear to him. His daughter, then aged four, had enormous affection for their old tattered family Mini. `She was terrified when we took the car to the carwash and asked as we were about to leave, “Dad, will the car we drive out of the wash be the same car that we drove in?” Good question, I thought. Instantly, with December almost upon us, I realised what was happening: a pantomime transformation, no less. ..’ bringing the first glimmer of The Phantom Carwash.
Hoppity-Gap draws upon a seemingly universal childhood experience: `When I talk to children (or teachers) about this story, I’m surprised at what a common phenomenon an imaginary friend is.’
Concern with the craft of writing for children is central to him: ‘I’m very conscious of being a storyteller. I read my stuff to myself. If it’s not speakable, I put a line through it. It’s hugely important for children to be able to hear “a voice in the head” telling the story.’
Plot, and the pace of narrative, are also of great importance: ‘I’m concerned with the ways my stories unfold. I have to get the plots right. I want readers to say at the end of a story, “of course, it must have been … the clues were there all the time.” I hate it when writers cheat on their plots.’
He dislikes ‘fancy’. or overblown language, preferring the rhythm and simplicity of the surprisingly eclectic stable of writers he admires: Austen, Simenon, Chandler and, with certain polite reservations, Dahl. He admires the unsung children’s books which don’t win the big prizes, but which do ‘create readers – Dick King-Smith’s The Hodgeheg is a flawless example.’
What new directions for him as a writer? `I want to continue to write as accessibly as I possibly can. We’re involved in creating tomorrow’s readers. Reading is, after all, the only artistic enterprise for which everybody is fully equipped. As a writer, I want the kids to turn over pages, and to develop a feel for language.’ He’s particularly fascinated by the interplay between words and pictures, and this may lead to further explorations with picture book texts. (His `Harry’ stories, with Scoular Anderson, are imaginative foretastes.)
How does he view the current children’s book scene? ‘I’m tremendously optimistic. In the last ten years we’ve had multi-channel telly, home computers, videos, leisure centres, yet children are still reading. Here, we owe an enormous debt to teachers. The range of books for children is greater than it was ten years ago. Picture books are better than they’ve ever been. I don’t think it’s any good, as is fashionable, seeing “the glory that was and the waste that is”. Commitment and talent are there. We could be in for some real advances in children’s writing. The most significant writing for children always takes risks!’
And the future? `Well, one of these days, I’ll return to London. I’ve enjoyed living in the country enormously but it still feels like opulent exile to me. Wherever I am, though, I’d still like to see the importance of children’s books to be celebrated more often than it is. I’d love BfK, for example, to be a 32-page monthly publication. Looking at lots of books, I’m constantly surprised by what’s happening. I expect to go on being surprised. There’s life in the old page yet.!’
Despite his cheery, gentle and modest appearance, to talk with Chris Powling is to engage with a passionate concern for writing for children, children as readers, and for the contemporary cultural scene of which children’s books are (for him) a vital part.
Somehow the village appeared less sleepy and complacent as I drove away.
Photographs by Lucy Rogers.
Some of Chris Powling’s books:
The Conker as Hard as a Diamond, Viking, 0 670 81404 0, R£5.50; Puffin, 014 031717 1, £2.50 pbk
The Phantom Carwash, Heinemann, 0 434 93034 2, £2.95
Daredevils or Scaredycats, Lions, 0 00 671897 3, £3.50 pbk
Dracula in Sunlight, Blackie, 0 216 92876 1, £6.95; Lions, 0 00 674297 1, £2.99 pbk (see also Audio review on page 21)
Mog and the Rectifier, Knight, 0 340 28046 8, £1.99 pbk
Hoppity-Gap, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 12236 8, £4.99; Lions, 0 00 6732216, £2.99 pbk
Hiccup Harry, A & C Black, 0 7136 29819, £4.95; Young Lions, 0 00 673009 4, £2.25 pbk
Harry’s Party, A & C Black, 0 7136 3110 4, £4.95; Young Lions, 0 00 673347 6, £2.25 pbk
Harry With Spots On, A & C Black, 0 7136 3224 0, £4.95; Young Lions, 0 00 673884 2, £2.25 pbk
His latest book, Where the Quaggy Bends (0 00 185417 8, £7.99; 0 00 674087 1, £3.50 pbk) is published by HarperCollins this month and is featured on our front cover.