On the day I met Philip Ridley we were both late for the appointment. Converging on a rain-soaked Soho from opposite poles of East London, our rail journeys had been harried by both official and freelance vandalisation of the neglected infrastructure serving the capital. This seemed an appropriate prelude for a chat with an author whose work is drenched with visions of urban dereliction.
My first encounter with the work of this author came when I was sent a copy of Dakota of the White Flats to review, a book in which the mangled supermarket trolley, that quintessential emblem of modern Britain, plays a crucial role. After reading the first sentence, ‘ Dakota Pink was woken by screaming’, I couldn’t put the book down until I’d savoured every disconcerting image in this dazzling amalgam of dirty and magic realism.
The following day, my class of eight-year-olds were similarly entranced. The tale is resplendent with a diseased magnificence typical of Ridley’s fiction. A jewelled turtle is stolen from a demented Haversham figure living on a dilapidated housing estate. Dakota and her sidekick identify the thief as a hypochondriac who lives in a fortress of broken glass, but in order to recover the turtle the girls have to cross a polluted canal infested with mutant eels.
Other books offer similar enchantments. In Mercedes Ice , his first children’s novel, a romantic power struggle between a princess in a cloak of spider webs and a prince in a robe of rat skins is played out within an immense tower block which slowly putrefies into a birdshit-sheathed necropolis. Krindlekrax , which won both the Smarties Prize and the W H Smith Mind-boggling Books Award in 1991, depicts a combat between a dragon-like crocodile and a bullied, wimpish adolescent in the sewers beneath an East End street. In Meteorite Spoon , to be published next month, the children of a violently bickering couple are magically transported from their collapsing slum to the paradisial island where their parents honeymooned, only to witness its immolation into a volcanic eruption. In all of the stories, powerful female figures strive against vain and self-indulgent men, and the quixotic aspirations by which ordinary people seek the extraordinary are mocked by invincible drudgery and physical decline.
Slightly over 30, and far more cheerful than the bleakness of his settings would lead one to anticipate, Philip Ridley has enjoyed the kind of success that eludes his fictional protagonists. He’s published four children’s novels, with another ( Kaspar in the Glitter ) to come in the autumn, as well as three works of fiction for adults. (He finds it disconcerting to become a best-selling children’s author having had his first novel, In the Eyes of Mr Fury , dismissed as ‘pure pornography’ by one critic.) He’s made one feature film, is working on another, he wrote the filmscript for The Krays , and also has two stage plays to his name, with a third in the offing. He was born and still lives in the East End, the setting for all his fiction.
The environment has been providing him with stories since he was first able to pick up a pencil, and he insists he’ll never leave it, fearing that inspiration will desert him if he does. The first audience for his fiction was his younger brother, Tony, who refused to go to sleep at night until he heard another of Philip’s stories. It wasn’t until he was 25, however, that he became a professional writer. Educated at St Martin’s College of Art, his first career was in painting, and he’s exhibited his work (‘Not quite surrealism, but definitely bizarre’) at the ICA and internationally.
I wondered whether a painterly aesthetic determined his decision to ground all his stories in post-industrial badlands, or did political and autobiographical influences come into it as well?
‘I’ve become gradually more explicit in showing that the setting for my stories is the Bethnal Green in which I grew up, though it’s a Bethnal Green of the mind, given a gothic twist in order to create a sequence of modern fairy tales. I used to claim my writing was apolitical, but I’ve come to realise that just in the choice of setting the writer is making a political statement. I suppose I’m concerned with the plight of children growing up in dysfunctional families, and the main theme of my stories is the child’s struggle against this, the child’s ability to cut through the pessimism that cripples adults. And I do think there’s a peculiar beauty and energy in landscapes often dismissed as ugly by condescending people who don’t have to live in them. If you live among the ruins, you can’t see them as ruins; you’ve got to find a way of celebrating them.’
Ridley himself grew up in the kind of matriarchy celebrated in his film script for The Krays . ‘I’m very much a child of the sixties. It was a time of full employment, and during the days the streets were clear of men; dads would come home from work completely exhausted at six, have their tea, sprawl in front of the telly for a while and then go to bed. I suppose the sorceress figures who keep cropping up in my stories are embodiments of the powerful women who seemed to hold families together then.’
Ridley’s genius is in fusing such domestic details and recognisable settings with archetypal motifs, a process which he identifies as being at the core of children’s language and play.
‘Right up until the late sixties and early seventies, the most common playground for East End children was the bomb site, which was also a rubbish dump. There was a huge one just opposite the house where I grew up, so it’s hardly surprising I chose to write about that rather than telling lollipoppy stories about Hampstead kids quarrelling with their nannies. I can still recall the smell of those places in summer, the powerful weeds struggling through the wreckage, and the magic of finding a ladybird or a butterfly. Every single one of those memories could be the start of a new novel. This sort of scenery breeds its own mythology: a car can become a chariot, a sewer a dungeon, a disused factory a castle.
‘I grew up with the tower block from Mercedes Ice overshadowing our school as it was built, and the man killed in an industrial accident in that story was a builder I befriended who was, indeed, killed. Now, those are quite archetypal experiences, and the archetypal is an instinctive language for children. You don’t have to force them to believe that polluted canals spawn monster eels, or that you might meet a soothsayer on a demolition site who gives you a spoon made out of a meteorite, or that dragons prowl the sewers. It’s only as we get older we think of that kind of imagery as cliched, or, that awful English word, pretentious.’
The influences on his work are cinematic rather than literary. During our conversation he cited Spielberg as a major influence, and suggested his own fictional territory was that of Scorcese’s Mean Streets visited by the magic carpet of Walt Disney’s Aladdin .
‘Children now are more visually literate than ever before. They can cope with incredibly complex sequences of imagery and I’m trying to reflect that in my stories, where I try to maintain the pace of a film or a computer game rather than that of a traditional novel. In Meteorite Spoon , once the reader has been briefed on the setting, the chapters get shorter and shorter, and many of them consist entirely of dialogue and onomatopoeia. If you can carry the story in powerful speech rhythms; it enables you to slash all the extraneous verbiage away. The children I’ve read the book to seem to find the stripped down, kaleidoscopic style very exciting. They seem to fly with it.’
This impetuous, cartoon-strip pace, reminiscent of children’s own attempts at story, is nowhere more apparent than in the outrageous over-the-top dialogues which illuminate Ridley’s narratives. Characters engage in neurotic badinage and escalating verbal rituals, in which increasingly baroque insults or endearments are traded. Here, for example, Dakota Pink seeks to overcome her best friend’s reluctance to join in an adventure:
`You’re nothing but a useless flake of septic toe nail, Treacle Duck, you’re a tealeaf, a rat-bag, a large green bogey with burst blood vessels, a lump of sleep from somebody’s eyes, a teabag that’s been used twenty times and turning mouldy, a carbuncle full of pus and slimy watery bits, you’re nothing but bits of toast caught between the teeth of a story, a throbbing blister in the marathon of my adventures, a rustling crisp bag in the motion picture of my story, a torn page in the paperback of my ambition, a piece of diced carrot in the recurring vomit of life’s throw-ups, you’re a boil, a pimple, a walking lump of smelly breath…’
and so on for several more lines.
‘I find children love that kind of rhythm and exaggeration! I suppose it’s a more poetic or musical version of what they do themselves on the street or the playground. I never have to think too hard about what my characters might say. A character might be based on the memory of an actual person, like the school-keeper in Krindlekrax, or they might be purely imaginary, but they all emerge with their verbal mannerisms intact. I draw pictures of them to keep on display while I’m writing, and I often talk to them to check out whether the things I’m getting them to say or do are really in character.’
Philip Ridley also maintains a dialogue with the huge audience of children who appear to recognise their own down-to-earth predicaments in his surrealistic rhapsodies. He personally responds to the letters he receives, and has been particularly impressed by the ‘phenomenally acute’ interpretations children bring to the image of the dragon in Krindlekrax. He enjoys reading his stories to children, an experience which has influenced the style of his latest book, where the narrator’s voice emerges like that of a storyteller talking directly to his audience. Krindlekrax and Meteorite Spoon also seem to have a warmth and optimism that was entirely absent from Mercedes Ice and barely perceptible in Dakota .
‘I’m increasingly concerned to help children confront their problems. My stories are obsessed with all the modern sources of anxiety: with money, poverty, vanity, ageing, decay, but I want to express these anxieties in a way that cuts through all that stuff to the core of what really matters, which is, I suppose, a kind of solidarity in adversity. In Krindlekrax it’s Ruskin’s love for his friend the school-keeper that causes him to confront the dragon, and in doing so to heal a whole street. Meteorite Spoon is almost entirely about violent argument and disappointment, but in the end the children teach their parents the value of love. If I had to sum up what I’m trying to do with these modern fairy tales, I’d say it’s an attempt to make children feel less lonely in their fears.’
Photograph by courtesy of Puffin Books.
Krindlekrax, Red Fox, 0 09 997920 9, £2.99 pbk
Meteorite Spoon (0 670 85418 2, £8.99) is published in April 1994.
Kaspar in the Glitter will be published in September 1994.
Mercedes Ice will be reissued in March 1995.
Dakota of the White Flats will be reissued in October 1995.