Philip Pullman Q&A: “A body like Tarzan’s would improve my life”

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The author of His Dark Materials on his favourite Prime Minister, time travel, and the best writing advice he’s ever been given.

What’s your earliest memory?

A bright blue sky and huge white clouds, and of equally huge white sheets that my mother was hanging on the washing line (such poverty! No tumble dryers in those days). I remember liking the way the sheets filled up with wind and looked like the clouds, and I remember my mother singing “April in Portugal”.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was Tarzan. I read all the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels from beginning to end, and then read them again. My adult hero is Clive Stafford Smith, the founder of Reprieve, which helps prisoners sentenced to the death penalty. His courage and dedication are peerless.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor and the Myth of Creation by Roderick Tweedy. I thought I knew why William Blake was important – this showed me why he should be important to everyone else.

What political figure, past or present, do you look up to? 

Clement Attlee. He did more good for more people than any other prime minister. The fact that a series of Conservative governments have taken nearly 40 years to dismantle the achievements of the postwar Labour government only shows how great those achievements were.

What time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?

The 20 years or so in Paris around the turn of the 20th century. What was happening in the arts, in painting and in music especially, must have been absolutely thrilling to experience.

What TV show could you not live without?

The news, but I could get that from the radio. I love well-directed broadcasts of orchestral music. I could certainly live without cookery programmes: the sight of self-important people chewing solemnly in close-up is plain revolting.

Who would paint your portrait?

Picasso, in any style he liked.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

The best advice ever offered to any writer is Raymond Chandler’s: “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun.” I follow it in every book I write.

What’s currently bugging you?

At the moment, Brexit and all its consequences. In the background, and one of the founding causes of Brexit, is the utter dysfunctionality of our political system. No intelligent species would design anything like this if they did it from scratch.

What single thing would make your life better?

A body like Tarzan’s.

When were you happiest?

In March 1968, when I learned, from a busker in the underpass at Marble Arch, how to play a guitar with alternating down-picks of the thumb and up-picks of the first and second fingers. It was like light striking in on a great darkness.

If you weren’t a writer what would you be?

Well, for most of the time I’m not being a writer. I’m being a reader or a cook or a woodworker or a grandfather, or else I’m asleep. The premise of the question is wrong. A writer is not something you are: writing is something you do.

Are we all doomed?

Yes, but probably not quite yet.

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