George Hunt interviews an author for whom tragedy and a good laugh are not incompatible.
“`Colin”. said Dr Graham, “I’ve been in touch with the hospital in Sydney where Luke is. “
Colin was impressed. They didn’t mess around, these top blokes.
“I rang early this morning and I spoke to one of the doctors treating Luke, ” continued Dr Graham.
“Mum and Dad’ll want to pay you back for that call, ” said Colin. “Or perhaps Dad’ll just give you a couple of shirts.”
Dr Graham shifted forward slightly on the corner of his desk.
“The doctor told me exactly what type of cancer Luke has, Colin. He told me the exact location and exactly how far advanced it is. His diagnosis is correct, Colin. Luke can’t be cured. He’s going to die.”‘
from Two Weeks with the Queen
‘The first impetus I ever had to be a writer was the realisation that words on a- piece of paper could make people laugh. Incongruous words, perhaps, from an author whose most famous book is about the desperate, ultimately futile efforts of a child to save his younger brother from cancer. In TwoWeeks with the Queen, Colin Mudford’s parents banish him from his brother’s bedside and send him to England in an attempt to shield him from grief. While staying with his repressed relatives, he campaigns to get Royal assistance for Luke, enlisting the reluctant support of his painfully inhibited cousin, Alistair. Later, at the hospital where he seeks out a cancer specialist, he befriends Ted, a young gay man whose lover is dying from Aids, and they help each other to come to terms with bereavement.
Though this hardly sounds like promising material for a light-hearted read, everybody I know who’s read the book has enjoyed a good laugh on almost every page, and derived a sense of fulfilment from the story. The readers I talked to included parents whose two children are in a similar plight to that of the Mudford brothers. They were impressed by the emotional accuracy of the story, recognising in particular Colin’s fear of exclusion from the love of his parents. They had few doubts about the book’s suitability for their children.
Gleitzman’s other books also depict children playing David against the Goliaths of anguish. In Blabber Mouth a mute girl, Rowena Batts, endeavours to tell her puerile father, a Country and Western fan given to sequin shirts and public displays of emotional singing, that he should ‘pull his head in’ and stop crucifying her with embarrassment. In Misery Guts and its sequel Worry Warts, Keith Shipley attempts to save his parents’ marriage by wrenching them away from a failing Lewisham fish and chip shop to the perilous tropical paradise of Orchard Cove, Queensland.
Morris Gleitzman himself moved from London to Australia as a teenager. He spent his childhood devouring the resources of the Welling public Library in South East London (‘I was a classic three times a week visitor: the librarians were very enlightened and let me range at will through the adult sections’). After a rebellious youth he abandoned both books and formal education. While he was ‘dogsbodying’ in Australia, a friend lent him The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Carey to read on the bus, and he rediscovered a passion for literature. He took a degree course in professional writing, then worked producing TV scripts before beginning his current successful career as a children’s author.
When I spoke to him in London recently, I asked whether the tribulations depicted in his fiction had any autobiographical basis.
‘I’ve never been able to reflect my own childhood experiences as a writer. The moment I try to, I become very self-conscious about the writing process. My characters come from me as I am now: part of me is an 11-year-old and the books seems to come from a co-writing process between the 40-year-old and the kid inside him.’
Might this joint venture explain the adult-like predicaments these child characters get into?
‘It’s certainly true that my characters, adults and children, have some’ duality. All my child characters have an adult, a parent, inside them as well. My stories are about young people often having to fight to preserve their childhood in the face of circumstances that push them into something like a parental role. At the same time, they’re having to deal with adults who’ve lost touch with the child inside themselves. So there’s interplay, very often tension, between kids and adults but also between the kid and adult parts of each character. That’s probably the major theme in everything I’m writing.’
‘Dad lifted a big sack of flour onto the counter. And a big drum of fat. He didn’t Iook as if he was suffering from anything too bad.
“Do you know what this is?” he asked. Keith nodded. “Fat and flour. “
Dad lifted a sack of potatoes onto the counter and took a block of fish out of the freezer.
Oh no, thought Keith. Don’t tell me Dad’s banged his head on the fryer hood and forgotten the basic ingredients of fish and chips.
“Fish and potatoes, ” he said. “The potatoes are the round ones. “
“Not just fat and flour and fish and potatoes, ” said Dad. “Cheap fat and cheap flour and cheap fish and cheap potatoes.”
Keith realised with a shock that there was a wobble in Dad’s voice.
“The sort of fat and flour and fish and potatoes I said I’d never use. When I started this shop, before you were born, I only used the best vegetable oil and the best matzo flour and the freshest fish and the best potatoes. I used to turn out the best fish and chips in South London. I don’t anymore and that’s why I don’t spend much time cracking jokes and kicking up my heels. “‘
from Misery Guts
I mentioned the talent shown by his characters for casting a hectic radiance into life’s gloomier corners: Keith painting his parents’ chippy a raging orange and viridian to enliven the dismal street it slouches in; Ted’s theatrical distribution of chocolate frogs to anxious visitors in the hospital cafe; Colin’s transformation of Alistair from a cringing neurotic to an adventurous sidekick.
This brought us back to Two Weeks with the Queen, which Morris Gleitzman argues is as much about death deferred as the loss of life.
‘When I was writing that story I knew from the start Luke was going to die, but Colin as well was threatened by a form of death. That kind of experience could have destroyed his childhood, his determination, all the things that make us like him, but he survives and he grows. And not only that: he doesn’t save Luke but he does save Alistair, he gives him his childhood back. He also helps to give Ted and Griff something real and important during their last days together.’
I admitted my own initial qualms about sharing the book with children, particularly those who were in the throes of such a predicament themselves.
‘Look – it’s quite fascinating, quite ironic, that the book itself has I guess become subject to exactly the dilemma the story is about. Colin’s parents are very loving and caring, but they do the wrong thing and send him away. It’s his good fortune that through Ted and Griff he has an experience similar to what he would have had if he’d stayed: an experience he needed. This notion of turning away is crucially important. I can understand the desire to flinch, and I don’t condemn anybody for wanting to shield children from harshness, but I think there’s a lot of adult fear and superstition at work here. Kids don’t have it innately. Kids turn away a lot less frequently than we do until they are taught that they’re too fragile to face things. Maybe if we hadn’t been taught that fear and fragility, as a community we wouldn’t turn away so readily from really difficult things like cancer and Aids.
‘Now with the book itself, a lot of librarians and teachers have confided that they initially felt they should shield children from the stuff it deals with. In England, there was also the problem that at the time the book was published the Thatcher government had passed an amendment to the Local Government Act making people nervous about anything that depicted gay relationships in a positive light. But after reading the book for themselves, these people realised it would be mistaken to withhold it from children, and I think it was the humour in the book that convinced them.’
In Blabber Mouth, the central character has a speech disability. Why did he choose to introduce this theme?
‘I didn’t know Rowena was mute when I started that story. But it’s about a communication crisis. Rowena’s in the situation where she has to tell someone she loves something he needs to be told, but which she knows will hurt him. We’re all familiar with such a situation. I thought it would be a more interesting story if the main character was physically unable to talk. There’s a kind of polarity there with Dad, who’s an extremely vocal character.’
One of the fascinating things about this book is the paradoxical influence of three powerful female figures who never actually appear in the story: Rowena’s mother and best friend, both dead, and the semi-mythological figure of Carla Tamworth, the Country and Western star. Was this an attempt to provide a counterpoise to the hulking male ‘Ozziness’ of Dad?
‘Not consciously. He’s certainly an extremely ‘male’ character, but he’s also very much a child and, again, Rowena has to save her own childhood by playing the parental role. As for the Ozziness, I’m proud to be part of a culture that’s so wonderfully unconstrained by convention.’
Through our conversation, Morris Gleitzman had talked with warmth and humour about ‘his characters’, as if they continued to thrive like real children somewhere beyond the pages of his books. Rowena Batts will soon re-appear in Sticky Beak, and Keith Shipley’s adventures are to become a trilogy. How far was his writing influenced by the contact he maintains with his child readers?
‘When I sit down and talk to kids I’m always surprised and delighted by the multitude of individual variations in the way they interpret my books. It’s a reminder that, though a writer can pretend to play God with the lives of his characters, as soon as a reader picks up the book, the writer loses control.
‘Also, the fear I’ve had of being seen to trample on the sensitivities of people who’ve been through ordeals has largely been quashed by the responses from such people to my stories. That’s the most important kind of feedback I’ve had.
‘What I take away from talking to kids is a reminder of the child in me. I think we all need to keep in touch with that optimism, irrepressibility, cheekiness, irreverence. I remember once talking to a bunch of kids about my books, then getting them to ask me any questions they liked. One girl stuck her hand up and said straightaway, “Mr Gleitzman, how do you feel about going bald?”.’
Morris Gleitzman’s books:
Two Weeks with the Queen, Piper, 0 330 31376 2, £2.99
Misery Guts, Piper, 0 330 32440 3, £2.99
Worry Warts, Piper, 0 330 32845 X, £2.99
Blabber Mouth, Macmillan, 0 333 59501 7, £8.99. The Piper paperback (0 330 33283 X, £2.99) will be published on 25th February 1994.
Sticky Beak will also be published in February by Macmillan (0 333 60185 8, £8.99).