Michael Foreman on the slow emergence of One World
Sometimes a book demands to be born. You wake up and there it is, slipping out like a baby dolphin, ready-formed and heading for the surface.
But others aren’t so smooth. They start as a smidgen of something with an idea beating inside. You pick it up, tickle it and breathe on it, then tuck it away, kangaroo like, until it needs attention again. Other adventures become more demanding, but all the time the smidgeon clings on, close to your heart. Incubating, tugging at you.
Land of Dreams took 14 years before it saw the light of day. My new book, One World, took seven years from conception to finished book, and in the beginning it was quite a different creature.
Several years ago I realised that children were much better informed and more concerned about what was happening in the world than many adults.
For the first time ever, through their access to television, children were able to see what was going on, and know about it directly, as it happened, not the edited text book version or through the filtering process of parents. And not just from excellent children’s programmes, like Newsround, but also the regular news and current affairs programmes which are part of the home environment.
I see our young sons laying on the floor amid lego and crayons when an item on the six o’clock news suddenly catches their attention, and sometimes their imagination.
`What’s that, Dad?’
`What does that mean?’
`Why are they doing that?’
I remember as a teenager in Suffolk painting `Ban the Bomb’ on the police station. The mother of a friend of mine told me I’d `grow out of it’ and that as I got older I’d understand the ways of the world.
Today’s parents are different. The teenage Aldermaston marchers are today’s middle-aged. The flower children and young anti-Vietnam protestors are today’s parents. They don’t tell their children to grow out of it. Many adults have kept faith with their youthful ideals.
It seemed to me that there was a small group of very old people making decisions on behalf of a vast number of other old people which would affect the lives of very young people for a very long time. The short term plans to comfort the demise of these old dinosaurs would put a blight on the lives of those too young for a voice and with most to lose. Now that children had access to the news, I hoped they’d find a voice.
I decided to do a book which would raise issues children could in turn raise with adults, at home and in the classroom.
During the summer of 1983 I began the first draft of a story that was eventually to become One World. The first draft had the working title of `Hey! I am Me’. It contained a brief history of the world and the growth of the industrial revolution and the industrial/military complex, plus a quick tour of the planet and its journey through space – all in 32 pages. Needless to say it was confusing and didn’t work.
The book was peopled by the old leaders. Only one still holds office, and she needs no introduction. Multitudes of children swarmed through the pages of the book proclaiming `Hey! I am Me’, and demanding answers to their questions about their inheritance – the world, and the threat of its destruction.
The book contained scenes of mediaeval war machines and huge industrial machines consuming vast amounts of energy. Armies of men, women and children toiled in appalling conditions, and generations of children asked `Why?’
They were told, ‘Sshssh! It’s always done that way. Wait till you’re grown up. You’ll understand.’
I did many versions over the next four or five years but just couldn’t get the balance right. It was either too didactic and angry, or too diffuse and the point was lost. There were too many points, I was hitting out in all directions. Publishers ducked. It contained everything I wanted to say, but was too difficult to grasp. All spouts and no handle.
Then came the Reykjavik Summit. A world leader did what General jodhpur had done in my first book, The General (published 1961). He turned his back on the arms race. The other leaders (who’d been leaning on him) had to step back or fall over. They had to step back and re-think. The bogie man wanted to boogie.
History went into overdrive. Parts of the book that had given me such problems were suddenly out of date.
Sometimes a book comes out ahead of its time. It comes out and nothing much happens. The already converted notice, and everybody else ignores it. Then something happens in the world which prompts similar books and forms a minor genre in which the earlier book can find a place.
While visiting a school in Germany earlier this year, I was told that Dinosaurs and all that Rubbish is more important now than when it was first published in 1972. Wrong. It just gets more attention now.
And much of that additional attention came after Chernobyl.
At 1pm on the day of Chernobyl, I brought the family in from the garden. I didn’t fancy eating our picnic while the clouds went over.
At 3pm three-year-old Ben said `Let’s play. Daddy you be the bad cloud and I’ll be the picnic.’ During the course of an afternoon a catastrophe had become part of a child’s imaginative play.
The threat from the arms race faded beside the accelerating spread of pollution. Even the old leaders made green noises. But only noises.
I started again, and this time I determined to keep the book simple.
I always write the first draft of a story in whichever notebook I’m carrying around at the time. When travelling I never take anything to read to fill the long hours of enforced idleness. Train journeys are great for daydreaming. Delayed flights are good times for people-watching, and the long limbo hours of night flight, when all you love are a thousand miles away, and you feel weightless, stateless and probably legless after a few airline drinks, are rare opportunities for the brain to float, unfettered and de-ranged, into the soup of ideas.
Anyone with a young family will know how rare such moments of real self-indulgence are.
When I’m back home and I feel the story is getting somewhere, I make a little dummy book of folded paper, usually 32 pages in length. I write the story through the pages to see how well it fits, leaving space for pictures, and seeing where the breaks come in the text.
When the text is broken up by the act of page turning it reads differently. Turning the page becomes an extra bit of punctuation. Writing several sentences on a page is like several quick cuts in a movie. Turning the page acts as a kind of dissolve. Like the end of a stanza in a poem. So I find it necessary to work and re-work the idea through a series of blank books rather than sheets of flat paper.
Of course, I’m visualising the pictures all the time and deciding how much of the idea can be told visually.
At this point I know if it’s going to work smoothly or become a case for lengthy incubation. However, even if I think it works well, I’m always in the middle of another book which has to be finished first. So there’s always a delay, maybe of months, before I can begin pictures for the new idea. This enforced delay gives time to re-think, and often when I pick up the idea again I find it has lost something – maybe even its life.
So then the initial idea, the spark, lies buried in its notebook. Another spark, another journey, might make a connection, like Frankenstein’s monster and the lightning, and the idea begins to twitch again.
This time it wasn’t lightning, but a Cornish beach. During the summer of 1989 my sons spent a lot of time exploring rock pools. Suddenly, there it was. A rock pool. A microcosm of the world. Its beauty, its life and its fragility. The simple approach.
`Hey! I am Me’ became One World.
One World with one child and one small part of the planet. Several versions later I realised it needed a touch of dialogue and introduced a second child.
Of course, there are echoes of the wider world, and beyond. I wanted to keep a sense of the enormity of space and time, and the right of every living thing to its own little bit of that space and time.
It’s not the book I set out to write seven years ago, but it’s close to what I wanted to say!
One World is published by Andersen Press, 0 86264 289 2, £6.95.