Alan Yentob spends time with Philip Pullman in Oxford, discovering how the ex-teacher became an acclaimed author of fantasy fiction and an outspoken critic of organised religion.
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Stories have to begin
out of the welter of events and ideas and pictures and characters
and voices that you experience in your head.
You, the storyteller, must choose one moment,
the most suitable moment,
and make that the start.
Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall,
taking care to keep to one side,
out of sight of the kitchen.
The three great tables that ran the length of the hall were laid ready,
the silver and the glass catching what little light there was.
The long benches were pulled out, ready for the guests.
Lyra stopped beside the master's chair and flicked the biggest glass
gently with her fingernail.
The sound rang clearly through the hall.
"You're not taking this seriously," whispered her daemon.
Lyra is the perfect heroine to me.
Most importantly, she's 12,
and you follow her growing up as she matures and realises the world
is a lot more complicated and darker than she knew.
From time to time, a writer emerges who is so extraordinary,
they transform the imagination of a generation.
You mention Philip Pullman in the same breath as CS Lewis.
Um, you know, this is someone who's going to last.
In 1995, Philip Pullman gave us the first in a trilogy of novels,
called His Dark Materials,
set in an alternative universe that contains an imaginary Oxford.
Romantic, fearless, fantastical,
his epic tale follows Lyra on a heart-stopping adventure
into other worlds,
where witches rule the skies,
ice bears are the bravest warriors,
and every human is accompanied by their own animal spirit.
It creates a universe,
and it's a universe I think many of us read and think,
"Oh, I'd like to be in there. I'd like to experience that."
And then you realise that there are many worlds.
It's just such an exciting prospect, and you enter that,
and you live within it for sort of
the time it takes to read through the books.
Pullman's world is dominated by the evil Magisterium,
which seeks to control all humanity,
but there is one child who can stop it,
with the help of a golden compass.
Mr Pullman himself has said
he wants to undermine the basis of Christian faith,
so let's be clear about that.
That's what he's doing, and he's been quite good at it.
No-one has the right to spend their life without being offended.
Nobody has to read this book.
Nobody has to pick it up.
Nobody has to open it, and if they open and read it,
they don't have to like it.
His books have sold over 20 million copies,
and have been translated into 40 languages,
and his recent prequel, La Belle Sauvage,
has become an instant bestseller.
I think La Belle Sauvage has a dark thread in it,
and I think times are dark now.
I felt that I'd been preparing for something.
I felt that I'd been serving a long apprenticeship in various ways,
and that finally I'd got a story
which was going to occupy me for a long time and be worth the telling,
but it was a long apprenticeship.
The commonest question writers get asked is,
"Where do you get your ideas from?"
The truthful answer is, I don't know, they just turn up.
But when you're wandering about with your mouth open
and your eyes glazed, waiting for them to do so,
there are few better places to wander about in than Oxford,
as many novelists have discovered.
I put it down to the mists from the river,
which have a solvent effect on reality.
In Oxford, likelihood evaporates.
Wherever you look from here, you see something beautiful.
It is extraordinary.
I never really lost that, um,
feeling of luck and chance and dream and unlikeliness.
On a day such as this, when the sun is low in the sky,
and you can see all kind of curious combinations of things, um,
at the end of a Victorian terrace, right next to a medieval church,
right next to a modern launderette, that sort of thing.
It's a wonderful place to make things up about.
In Pullman's fantasy Oxford, you can travel to London by zeppelin.
Rooms are lit with anbaric lamps,
and with the slightest slip of a knife,
you can step into another world altogether.
I had a few notions about what I wanted to find out about.
One of them was the notion of the Arctic,
and the Arctic winter in particular,
this place in time with immense deep darkness
where you could hide anything evil and...
It's traditionally been a place of horror and magic and witches
and superstition and so on.
Witches have known of the other worlds for thousands of years.
You can see them sometimes in the Northern Lights.
They aren't part of this universe at all.
Even the furthest stars are part of this universe,
but the lights show us a different universe entirely.
Not further away but interpenetrating with this one.
Here, on this deck, millions of other universes exist,
unaware of one another.
So often, in children's fiction, the world is engaging,
but quite small and quite enclosed around the child,
and what Pullman did
was create a world as big as a real world,
a world that you could inhabit
as if you were actually breathing in it.
I think of myself as a realist, not a fantasist at all,
because my main interest
as a storyteller is in the way
that real people behave in different situations,
what it really means to be a human being.
If I write fantasy, it's only because,
by using the mechanisms of fantasy,
I can say something a little bit more vividly about, for example,
the business of growing up.
In 1965, Philip Pullman arrived,
fresh from a secondary school in North Wales,
to read English at Exeter College, Oxford.
It was here that he met Caradoc King,
who would one day become his literary agent.
My first impression of Caradoc was... Well, he stood out among us,
because he was the only one wearing a suit.
And Philip was wearing a sort of...
A sort of beret, sort of rollneck sweater, hair long,
looking like he'd just come out of some attic in Paris or somewhere,
that he was clearly an artist of some sort,
and I was immediately impressed.
-That's new. You see, we didn't have that in our day.
-There were, I think, about eight or nine of us
who read English,
so we sort of all got together the first day and had a drink together,
to get the measure of each other, I suppose. But at some point,
maybe because the conversation wasn't flowing naturally, I said,
"What are you going to do when you leave here? What's the plan?"
And Philip said,
"Well, I thought I might be a writer or a composer or an artist."
And, um, I think, "Bloody hell, he's a bit of a wanker, isn't he?"
And this stayed in my mind.
His awareness of his talents
was quite clearly sort of in place from very early on.
Your decision to come to Oxford, were you sort of...
Had you visited Oxford before?
-Um, I was like... It was a romantic idea, you know,
studying at Oxford, being an Oxford undergraduate.
So I just sort of tried for it, and I was lucky enough to get in.
I felt I was in heaven for the first few days,
but I never really felt I belonged.
You say you felt slightly as if you were a bit of an intruder.
Fundamentally, I am not a scholar.
I am not a... I'm not an academic, so I was always...
There was a hint of false pretences, really, on my part.
What did you do when you were here? What did you spend your time doing?
I gather you weren't spending a lot of time on academic work.
No, I wasn't spending a great deal of time,
but then everybody says that.
You know, if you get a first class, you go, "Oh, I didn't work for it",
where, if you failed entirely, it was because I didn't work.
You got a third class degree,
so what's your excuse for getting a third?
I'm just not very clever.
Although Philip graduated with that third class degree,
his time at Oxford University wasn't completely wasted.
Many years later,
he would reimagine Exeter College
as Lyra's Jordan College in His Dark Materials.
Jordan College was the grandest and richest
of all the colleges in Oxford.
It was probably the largest, too, yet no-one knew for certain.
The buildings, which were grouped around three irregular quadrants,
dated from every period from the early Middle Ages
to the mid 18th century. It had never been planned.
It had grown piecemeal with past and present overlapping at every spot,
and the final effect was one of jumbled and squalid grandeur.
The day after he graduated from Exeter College,
Pullman began his first novel,
but the road towards literary stardom would be a long one.
I mean, I know your first book, you don't want to talk about,
because you thought it was rubbish.
Well, the first book I wrote wasn't...wasn't...
didn't come near to being published. It was a book in which I practised
writing a novel, see if I could finish a novel,
and having done that,
I put it aside and started another one,
which was published, but, um, thank goodness,
has now sunk into the bog of oblivion.
Right, I won't mention its name.
I don't want to embarrass you any further.
Uh, no. If you do, I'll deny all knowledge of it.
OK. Do you remember a letter that you wrote in 1970,
when you would have been about 24 or something like that, you wrote,
"I want to be famous, but it won't come quickly, and nor will publication,
"so I'm digging in, or mentally retrenching,
"in the expectation of a long stretch of anonymity
"while lesser reputations will bloom and flower and decay."
-It says here!
And you held on to that for, um, 23 years, and you were very patient.
It took you a while.
Yes, um, but then I was vain enough to think that my talent was such
that the world had no choice but to reward it when the time came.
Well, you were right.
While he was waiting for his latent talent to be recognised,
Philip took a teaching position at a school in Oxford.
It gave him time to write,
and a captive audience on which to hone his material.
I was teaching for about 12 years,
teaching children between nine and 13 years old, which is a good age,
an interesting age.
We were more or less free to teach
what we thought was important to teach,
and I thought they would benefit from, among other things,
knowing something about Greek mythology,
so I told them stories from the Greek myths,
and I then told them The Iliad, and then I told them The Odyssey.
I have a repetitive memory of him striding into our classroom
with no books or papers or pens.
He just kind of strode in.
He had this enormous energy,
and he'd come in and launch straight away
into a story that was nearly always...
um, well, it was always a story,
but the ones I remember were the Greek myths.
By the time I'd finished teaching,
I'd told those stories a number of times,
and I was given the chance to have this marvellous apprenticeship,
telling these stories over and over again, so,
refining them and getting the timing a bit better,
so the bell went just at the moment when...maximum tension,
and I'm very glad I did, because it taught me an endless amount.
Teacher by day, writer by night, Pullman began to practise his craft,
trying out different moods, different modes, different worlds,
until he found one that seemed to fit.
On a cold, fretful afternoon, in early October, 1872,
a hansom cab drew up outside the offices of Lockhart and Selby,
shipping agents in the financial heart of London,
and a young girl got out, and paid the driver.
She was a person of 16 or so,
alone, and uncommonly pretty.
Her name was Sally Lockhart,
and, within 15 minutes, she was going to kill a man.
It wasn't the first children's book I'd written,
but it was the first one I'd written in a voice I now recognise as being
a properly authoritative storytelling voice.
I started reading it,
and I just read all the way through, in one gulp.
It came out of a play I'd written
to put on at the school I was teaching at,
and, being thrifty and ecologically minded,
I recycled it into a...into a novel.
These sort of plays I did had some sort of particular atmosphere
that I was interested in.
I was interested in the idea of the Penny Dreadful...
As you wish.
..and the notion of that sort of melodramatic over-the-top
villainy and, um, blood and thunder, that sort of stuff.
I've never received anything where I read it in one straight,
I rushed down the corridor,
and I said, "I just read the most extraordinary story, Jonathan,"
and then he was quite laconic and dry humoured,
and he just looked at me,
and I said, "What am I supposed to do now?"
I can't believe I said that.
And he said, "David, I think you're supposed to publish it."
The plane is a lovely tool.
It really is, because you take off little...
little tiny bits, little tiny bits, little shivers,
little slivers of wood,
until you've got the right thickness that you want.
That's a good start, OK.
Do you enjoy the process of writing,
and does it stop when you leave your desk?
I enjoy it, yes, because I enjoy...
I enjoy making all sorts of things.
I enjoy making things out of bits of wood.
I enjoy the process of constructing a story and making it work better
and clearing it of all the brambles and obstructions that...
I enjoy that.
So, part of me is thinking of it all the time.
That's a little bit less ugly.
Many people can write, but Philip can write a novel.
There's a big, big difference,
and I would take that all the way down to the sentence level.
There's a sort of intense sense of reality,
and closeness to being human and being in the world that he is able
to vividly, um, conjure.
Well, I see you in the carpentry shop.
Do you get the same pleasure of, you know, trying to find the right word,
the right phrase, the right name...
Yes, that's, um, that's very much part of it,
and getting the rhythm right.
You have to hear what you're writing,
because prose isn't simply
sort of porridge with no structure.
It's got a metrical structure, and if you're not aware of it,
you damn well should be.
I do take a great pride in
looking up the exact meanings of words.
Chambers 20th century dictionary.
I love Chambers for its, um, eccentric definitions.
Is this a precious thing?
Um, I think I stole this from a school I used to work in.
I can't remember now,
and of course it wouldn't stand up in court,
so I'm fairly safe in saying that.
Um, it's my favourite dictionary.
For example, eclair - a cake long in shape, but short in duration.
If you look up words that you think you know the meaning of,
like "feisty", you've got it,
you see it derives from the German word "feist", which means a fart,
and a feisty dog's a little dog that bounces around farting a lot,
so if you've got a feisty heroine at work,
just think what that means, you see. She's someone who farts a lot.
Is that what you meant to say?
No, it wasn't, really, wasn't it, so don't use the word "feisty".
Philip Pullman's own story has all the elements of a well-told,
well-crafted fairy tale...
A boy whose world gets turned upside down,
but goes on to fulfil his dream of becoming a writer.
He was born in Norwich, in 1946.
His father was an RAF pilot, who was frequently posted abroad.
I didn't see much of my father during my childhood.
He never seemed to be there. He was always off somewhere else.
When he did turn up, he was a figure of immense glamour for me.
The strong smell of beer and cigarettes surrounded him,
which for me was immensely grown up and glamorous.
He was a sort of heroic warrior figure
that entered our lives occasionally,
and then went away again, and I took it for granted.
That's the way things were.
The itinerant life of an RAF family gave Philip and his younger brother
Francis a rich and varied childhood.
In 1952, the family moved to Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.
It was the first of several journeys that left a lasting impression.
I loved being on ship.
Of course, you get seasick, but, you know, you get used to that,
and then it's such a rich, varied life.
You see this...different kinds of sea.
The seas aren't all the same.
The sea is grey here, and it's blue there, and down there, it's green,
and the ship is a wonderful place to run about and play in.
And the pleasure, the sheer
intellectual and emotional and physical pleasure
of coming into another port.
The motion of the ship changes.
The smell in the air changes, because, you know,
you're smelling the trees from the land,
and you sail right into the middle of the city.
So, you have a real sense of being somewhere different and strange,
and the excitement of going ashore and seeing people riding
strange carts and bicycles
and speaking languages that you hadn't heard before.
It's all thrilling, and I drank it all in.
I was about six, I suppose,
and my mother used to read to me
from Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories.
I loved them. I loved the sound of them.
"Still ran dingo, yellow dog dingo, always hungry,
"grinning like a rat trap, never getting nearer, never getting farther, ran after kangaroo.
"He had to."
And, one day, I was on my own, and I did what she did,
and moved my eyes across the page,
and I remembered the words because they were in my head,
and I saw them on the page,
these little black things becoming transparent,
and I suddenly realised this is what reading was.
The rhythm is intoxicating.
The sounds of the words, the spin effects, things like that.
I didn't know what they meant,
but the magic of the sounds was what helped me see
that those little black letters were what were preserving the sound
of the pages, and that was probably...
and I've never been asked this question because,
that was probably the, um,
the moment when my engagement with language and words and writing
and reading really began.
But Philip's childhood adventures
were interrupted by a tragic telegram.
His father, Alfred,
had died when his plane spun out of control during an air raid.
Philip was just seven years old at the time.
My brother and I had been playing outside, and, um, we were told this,
and there was Mummy crying, and Granny was crying,
and Grandpa was being sort of very kind to everyone,
and it was a sense of big drama,
and I remember thinking, "Well, that's a shame,"
but I couldn't say I missed him, because I hardly knew him.
You got the news and then you... you carried on playing.
I carried on playing, yeah.
So, your father died a hero.
This is what we came to believe,
my brother and I, because, posthumously,
he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross,
and we went to Buckingham Palace
to be presented with the medal by the Queen.
It was all reinforcement in my sense of having lost a hero.
Many of your characters, in some way...
-..have sort of lost a parent or are looking for them.
Not only in my books.
It's a very common thing in books that children read.
It's a dynamic thing to introduce into a story, anyway.
As for Will's father,
he'd vanished long before Will was able to remember him.
Will was passionately curious about his father,
and he used to plague his mother with questions,
most of which she couldn't answer.
Was he a rich man?
Where did he go?
Why did he go?
Is he dead? Will he come back?
What was he like?
The last question was the only one she could help him with.
John Parry had been a handsome man,
a brave and clever officer in the Royal Marines,
who had left the Army to become an explorer
and lead expeditions to remote parts of the world.
Will thrilled to hear about this.
No father could be more exciting than an explorer.
From then on, in all his games, he had an invisible companion.
If you're writing a story where the children
are the heroes and heroines,
you can't have the dead hand of the parent
at their shoulder the whole time,
so I think there's probably all sorts of emotional reasons
of having orphans, but there is a sort of plot-functional reason.
It gets them out. It gets them free to explore,
which is one of the great joys of the books.
Pullman would not remain an almost orphan for long.
Later that year, his mother married again, another RAF officer.
The family moved to North Wales,
where Philip found himself something of an outsider.
On my first day of school, I think my accent had not mutated enough,
and I was called to account for it by someone in the playground,
-In what way?
Oh, there was a bit of a tussle, I think.
"Where do you come from?" "London."
Sort of thing. But that was over very quickly, and next day,
my Welsh accent was, um, firmly in place.
What were your memories of your time there?
Very much the landscape.
There's an estuary there,
tidal estuary. There's a little airfield there,
where my stepfather was working, and sand dunes,
near the beach, um, and there are hills behind the village.
Not the great, rocky mountains of Snowdonia further north,
but rounded, grass-covered hills.
We were free in those days to wander anywhere we wanted to go,
and we did.
We wandered through the woods, and we walked up the rivers,
and we went to the beach, and we clambered over the hills.
It was a wonderful freedom that we had.
And that landscape,
the hills behind the sand dunes and the sea beyond that, is...
is still very dear to me.
My grandfather was a clergyman,
a preacher who told stories about life,
about everyday life, stories from the Bible, of course, um,
and everything for him was imbued
with a sense of the importance of storytelling.
Everything we saw...
There was a little stream that we used to go and play in and catch
tiddlers and things, and, for him, that was Laughing Water.
And the lone tree that we used to drive past,
that was the Trail of the Lonesome Pine.
It was full of, you know,
popular references from popular films
and from poems and from stories, um,
so I had the sense that the world was full of stories.
Grandpa was a very old-fashioned sort of Christian.
He was a Victorian, after all.
So he believed with a rock-like certainly,
which I caught from him, naturally.
Whatever he said must be true.
In the beginning, God created the heaven and the Earth,
and the Earth was without form and void,
and darkness was upon the face of the deep,
and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, and God said,
"Let there be light,"
and there was light,
and God divided the light from the darkness,
and God called the light day, and the darkness, he called night,
and the evening and the morning were the first day.
So those things, and the words of the Bible,
and the words of the hymns, um,
are so bound up with me, that I couldn't...
Even a surgical operation wouldn't be able to get them out,
and I wouldn't want it to, because they made me what I am.
And that's still the case?
Um, yes, you don't lose your early influences, I think.
You've obviously been fascinated by the language, by the mystery,
by the music, by the rhythms and the stories of Christianity,
but..."I don't like God," you've said, or, "I don't..."
Well, God is, um, an invention of the Jews, I suppose,
in the Old Testament,
and developed into full unpleasantness by Christianity.
Um, a completely unpleasant character,
with very little to be said for Him.
When did the revelation come to you that this was the case?
Oh, in my teen years, like everything else.
I began to realise, because I was reading about science, and,
you know, you hear things at school about evolution
and all that sort of stuff, quite rightly, um,
and I began to realise they couldn't both be true,
so one of them is either false, or true in a different sort of sense.
True in a symbolic sense,
so that was when I really...
really when I decided
that the universe might be a mysterious place,
and there might be, somewhere out there, somewhere,
a God, but there's no evidence of him here.
Nature is enormously wide and powerful
and beautiful and all those things,
and I believe in nature...
human beings themselves are quite sufficient
to explain both goodness and evil.
I don't think we need a god or anything supernatural for that.
There is a war coming.
I don't know who will join with us, but I know whom we must fight.
It is the Magisterium, the church.
For all its history - that's not long, by our lives, but it's many,
many of theirs - it's tried to suppress and control
every natural impulse.
And when it can't control them, it cuts them out.
That is what the church does.
And every church is the same - control, destroy,
obliterate every good feeling.
So if a war comes and the church is on one side of it,
we must be on the other,
no matter what strange allies we find ourselves bound to.
Very early on, where you aware of who the enemy was?
Yes. I was, and it's organised religion, it's religion with power.
And that was always the enemy
that Lyra was going to have to face, and still does.
Whenever you have a body of any sort that exerts power
of any sort over any other people, something's going to go wrong.
Power corrupts, as whoever it was said.
And religious power corrupts absolutely.
As a teenager, questioning the existence or otherwise of God,
Philip encountered a version of his grandfather's Bible stories
that he could relate to...
Possibly because it gave the devil all the best tunes.
Into this wild abyss,
the womb of nature and perhaps the grave
of neither sea nor shore nor air nor fire.
But all of these and their pregnant causes mix confusedly,
and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the Almighty maker then ordain his dark materials
to create more worlds.
Into this wild abyss the wary fiend stood on the brink of hell
and looked a while, pondering his voyage.
Paradise Lost, books one and two,
were on the A-level syllabus for that year.
It was a revelation to me to hear that extraordinary language.
When you're saying those words, when you get them in your mouth
and your tongue and your lips and your teeth are involved,
you have a different relationship to them
from the one you have if you don't say them out loud,
because poetry doesn't work by being logically analysed.
Poetry works by a sort of enchantment, by magic,
which is in the sound.
The story itself,
the story of the temptation and the fall, was familiar to me
and every other child who'd been to church,
but was enthralling storytelling,
You couldn't do it any better than Milton does it.
It's an object lesson for everyone, every storyteller.
As a schoolboy, Pullman came to understand the power of stories
and our need for them.
As a young man, he had to rewrite a very personal story that he'd been
telling for most of his life.
Let me come back to the death of your father.
Your father died a hero in the RAF.
I knew he was fighting a sort of war, that's all I knew.
And I imagined that he was shot down.
I found out much, much later
that there was something odd about his death.
He was flying a bomber, and it crashed.
Well, he was an accomplished pilot, he had been flying for years,
he wouldn't crash a plane unless there was a reason for it.
There were hints of this from various sources
that he had done it deliberately.
He was in various kinds of trouble, money trouble, woman trouble,
and he thought it was probably time to say goodbye to all of that,
and he took his plane and flew it into a hill or something.
That can only have been deliberate.
Was it cumulative, this knowledge that...?
-..that this was the sort of fiction you'd been living?
I didn't begin to think about it, really,
it was just something that had happened
and it was over and done with
until after my mother died in about 1990.
But I never had the chance to ask her,
and it was only when I was clearing out
all her papers and photographs and thought...
So it was a sense of mysteries and hidden things
that one wasn't supposed to talk about.
Three years later, Pullman began Northern Lights,
the first book in his Dark Materials trilogy.
When that moment came, how did you begin?
It began with a lot of vague images,
a lot of them from Milton,
because I'd had lunch with my publisher
and we discussed what I might write next.
We'd excited each other over lunch by quoting large chunks of Milton
to enliven the sausage and mash we were having.
I was just agape, because there's that sense of the eyes are lifting,
the scope of the story is lifting.
And he said, "It's going to be over 1,000 pages, David!"
I just thought, "Great!"
And the only question I asked him, "Is it going to be a good story?"
And he said, he sort of looked at me,
and he's got a wonderfully dry sense of humour and just said,
"I think it is."
You have to find a moment which is the best moment to start.
I knew there would be a girl at the centre of the story.
Why? I don't know.
It was just clear to me.
You don't decide these things, you discover them.
Lyra stopped beside the Master's chair
and flicked the biggest glass gently, with a fingernail.
The sound rang clearly through the hall.
"You're not taking this seriously," whispered her daemon.
Her daemon's name was Pantalaimon
and he was currently in the form of a moth.
A dark brown one, so as not to show up in the darkness of the hall.
When I first thought of the daemon,
it was one of those sort of moments when you've been sitting there
for months and nothing's happened and it's gone nowhere,
and suddenly I found myself writing the words, "Lyra and her daemon,"
and I didn't know she had a daemon until then,
and it was spelt D-A-E-M-O-N.
I had to write the rest of the chapter to see what they were doing
and what the daemon was,
and then I realised what an idea I'd got.
It was the best idea I've ever had, I think.
It has the form of an animal,
and it's you, but it's part of you that's external.
And it's born with you and it dies with you,
and it's usually the opposite sex.
And that made the story a lot easier to tell,
because I could have them talking together, and they could say,
"Let's go in there," and she could say, "Let's," and he could say,
"No, we're not supposed to."
And she could say, "Don't be such a coward, come on, you watch out."
So it was much more dynamic
when you've got two characters talking than just one.
As a writer, I really admire what he's done
because it's such shorthand for what a person is.
If you see this person comes in
and their daemon is a slightly mopey dog,
you think, "Right, got it.
"Ah, they're a cat, ah, they're an eagle, OK, I got you."
And it's very, very clever, I wish I'd thought it up.
Talking daemons, what do you imagine your daemon is?
She's probably one of those birds that steals things.
You know, like the jackdaw of Rheims or the thieving magpie,
one of those corvids.
Bright, clever birds that scrounge, scavenge -
just as happy with a scrap of aluminium foil as with a diamond.
If it glitters in the right way
and catches her attention, she'll pick it up.
I think so.
Philip's writing routine operates to an unerring rhythm.
He begins at 10am, writes 1,000 words a day,
and employs various techniques
to keep the dreaded writer's block at bay.
You have a lot of curious rituals, don't you?
Yes, I am...
Well, I have a number of habits connected with paper.
I like to write on paper that's got two holes in it, not four.
And most paper you get these days has got four holes in it.
Well, that's quite impossible,
nobody can write on paper with four holes in it.
It's quite impossible.
So when I could only get hold of four-holed paper,
I used to put little white stickers on the top hole and the one down
there so that my paper would still only have two holes,
and it was possible to write on.
Another thing I do with paper is colour the edge, you see?
I colour the edge of the paper at the top corner,
a different colour for each book that I'm writing.
So when I've coloured a stack of paper,
I can only use it for that book,
and I mustn't write on paper that isn't coloured like that, and, um...
-Why? Because it works.
-How did you get into that habit, then?
I don't know, I'm superstitious.
During the years in which His Dark Materials took shape,
Pullman's thoughts began to focus around a powerful, central theme.
My mother taught me underneath a tree,
And sitting down before the heat of day,
She took me on her lap and kissed me and, pointing to the east,
began to say...
I found that my interest was most vividly caught
by the meaning of the temptation and fall.
Suppose the fall should be celebrated and not deplored?
As I played with it, my story resolved itself into an account
of the necessity of growing up
and the refusal to lament the loss of innocence.
The Bodleian Library in Oxford
holds a rare first edition of William Blake's Songs Of Innocence,
published in 1789.
This is such a privilege.
And it's an extraordinary thing
to look at the very pages, the very paper,
the very colours and inks that his own hands used
to make this beautiful thing.
And what an impact it must have made on the first person who bought it,
and on the first readers.
Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life and bid thee feed
By the stream and o'er the mead?
Gave thee clothing of delight, the softest clothing, woolly, bright?
I think the Songs Of Experience came out about four years later.
There are so many chimes with your writing and your beliefs
and your way of looking at the world and Blake...
Well, I stole it all, I suppose.
This is the little book I've had for, oh, nearly 50, 60 years now.
It's a selection from Blake.
It went everywhere with me.
It's falling apart and has been much repaired.
This is the book that first...
..showed me how important Blake was to me.
"To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wildflower,
"to hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour."
It's a political poem, because it says things like,
"A dog starved at his master's gate predicts the ruin of the state."
Passionate, angry, magnificently oratorical denunciations of cruelty.
It's a great poem.
Blake showed me a way of seeing the world which I found very...
both true and congenial and full of hope.
And I bless him for that and I thank him for that, and I wouldn't be
the person I am, the writer I am, without William Blake.
"The true purpose of human life, I find myself saying,
"was not redemption by a non-existent son of God,
"but the gaining and transmission of wisdom.
"And if we're going to do any good in the world,
"we have to leave childhood behind."
Have your last look, Phillip,
because it's only allowed to be opened for four minutes.
I know, I know. This is such a treasure, such a privilege.
The fact that young people growing with daemons,
a daemon can change and transform itself, and so...
are you saying that's what childhood is about?
That it gives you those options that are available to you?
I don't think I'm saying it, I think I'm showing it.
Someone else is saying it.
They can say what they like.
No, the daemon is a way of showing it, and it does show that, yeah.
The most exciting moment for me came when I realised children's daemons
stopped changing in their adolescence
and a daemon retains one fixed form for the rest of your life.
That was the moment when I saw, yes,
this is something I can use to say something
about the difference between innocence and experience,
in William Blake's terms.
So that was a very exciting moment when I realised I could do that.
A lot of children's books, the story of Peter Pan, for instance,
are stories about...you're a child
and being a child is what you'll always be,
whereas your book is very much about that period of...
The need to grow up. Children don't want to be children for ever,
they get sick and tired of being children.
They want to be grown-up, they want to be exciting things.
I completely understand that, I remember that feeling.
Peter Pan is a sickness, really,
to wish to be a child for ever,
or the AA Milne thing where you have the idea of a little boy
and his teddy bear playing for ever in the Hundred Acre Wood...
There's something wrong with it.
In the world of Pullman's trilogy,
growing up goes hand-in-hand with amassing a mysterious substance,
feared by some and desired by others,
Dust is so central to the idea -
where did that come from?
I needed Lord Asriel, at that point in chapter two, to say something,
to mention something that would cause a shiver
to pass over this group of assembled academics.
So I thought of the word Dust.
And they shiver.
We don't know why. Lyra, in her hiding place,
hears the word and sees their silence and their shock,
and realises that this word must have a capital D or something,
because it's important.
But she doesn't know what it is and we don't know what it is.
This photogram was taken at the magnetic North Pole.
Kingdom of the ice bears.
Ice bears, Pan.
Lord Asriel, is that light rising up from the man's body or coming down?
No, that's coming down from the sky, but that's not light.
Lord Asriel shows this slide show,
and he shows a photograph of an adult
with light coming out all around him,
and it's Dust.
The behaviour of these particles is quite unmistakable.
Dust is flowing into this man through his daemon.
There's a child beside him,
and there's no Dust coming from the child.
The whole idea is, when you mature and you become a sexual being,
you release this energy.
And that's an incredible idea,
and that Lyra stands for that rather than...
rather than for repression and maintaining childhood
and trying to maintain innocence, that actually,
experience is what we're supposed to have, it's the best thing about us.
Dust is what makes you a real, three-dimensional grown-up.
And the desire to keep yourself
from acquiring your cloud of Dust
is a desire for untruth and unreality.
I think I love the books because they're an adventure story,
and Philip is unabashed about using plot, about telling a good story.
But underneath it are the biggest questions about being alive
and what it means to grow up,
to mature, what it means to relate to other people,
how we relate to the world - I mean, it's the biggest questions.
And he manages to marry those two beautifully.
The winner of the 2001 Whitbread Book of the Year is Philip Pullman,
The Amber Spyglass.
It is the first time that a children's book has won this award,
and I am thrilled.
It was going to happen some day, and I'm just delighted it was me.
That was a huge moment, not just for Philip,
but for the world of children's books.
Suddenly, there was considerable respect out there
for a book which was primarily going to be read by young people.
But that the adult world thought, "My goodness, it's learned,
"it's intelligent, sophisticated, beautifully written, it's touching,
"it's a page-turner, it's all those things."
It was also a full-scale,
epic challenge to the story of the redemption
and the fall in the Christian scheme,
and that he had taken on Milton
in what was published as a children's book.
Today, you're quoted as saying, "I am of the devil's party."
His children's trilogy has been described
as a celebration of atheism, but Philip Pullman,
the winner of this year's Whitbread Prize, is unconcerned.
"If there is a God," he says,
"then he deserves to be put down and rebelled against."
Yes, I said that.
A lot of controversy has surrounded the release
of the Nicole Kidman film, The Golden Compass.
The movie is based on one of the trilogy of books
written by Philip Pullman, an avowed atheist.
The Golden Compass is vile!
And some parents and church groups
argue the book is an attack on religion.
The author's very open about how it does attack religion.
I mean, the goal of the main character, Lyra,
is to kill God.
There's nothing to stop fiction from being propaganda.
In fact, Mr Pullman himself has said
that "once upon a time" is a much more effective way
of influencing people's minds than "thou shalt not".
And he knows that.
I think, quite clearly,
if you depict something that looks very like the Christian Church
in the unremittingly, quite extremely negative terms
that Philip does, it's not entirely surprising
if some people are going to be a bit hurt or threatened.
But this is a story.
Stories are thought experiments.
They're "what if" things.
And it's useful for the Christian Church
to have these questions asked,
it's useful for any institution that's powerful and unselfcritical
to have these questions asked.
Last year, Pullman returned to his fantastical Oxford
with La Belle Sauvage,
the first book in a new trilogy, digging deeper into Lyra's past.
Bleaker, more menacing, it begins at the Trout Inn.
"The shadow appeared around the side of the building again,
"and then the man staggered and the burden on his shoulder seemed to squirm away and fall to the ground.
"And then they heard a hideous, high-pitched cry of laughter."
The landlord's son finds himself charged
with saving baby Lyra from the evil forces of the Magisterium.
"The man had a stick in his hands,
"and he had forced the hyena daemon back against the wall,
"and he was thrashing and thrashing her with fury, and she couldn't escape.
"Malcolm and Esther were terrified.
"She turned into a cat and burrowed into his arms,
"and he hid his face in her fur.
"They had never imagined anything so vile."
No-one who reads La Belle Sauvage doesn't feel that it's got darker.
Yes, I think it is.
And the themes that I touch on are adult themes, really.
I'm not sure this is a book for children.
Children are welcome to read it,
as anyone's welcome to read anything that I write, but I think,
on the whole, the concerns of this book and The Book Of Dust
are going to be a bit sort of darker and tougher, perhaps.
The world is in the most extraordinary state,
things so desperately confused, people so bitterly angry,
solutions so far away.
And naturally, if you're a thinking person at all,
if you reflect on what you see in the news and read in the paper,
that's going to colour your understanding of things.
"There was a sort of swagger amongst the badge wearers.
"It was rumoured that in one of the older classes,
"a scripture teacher had been telling them about the miracles of the Bible
"and explaining how some of them could be interpreted realistically,
"such as Moses' parting of the Red Sea.
"He told them that it might just have been a shallow part of the sea,
"and a high wind would sometimes blow the water away,
"so it was possible to walk across.
"One of the boys had challenged him and warned him to be careful,
"and held up his badge."
The presence of these forces, the religious forces,
which is the League of St Alexander - explain that.
Well, the League of St Alexander came to me as an example
in the structure of Lyra's world, of the sort of thing
that the Communist youth movements and the Hitler Youth were doing,
using children to spy on their parents.
A ghastly betrayal, a hideous thing to do.
Morally squalid in every conceivable way.
But governments had done it.
Obviously, the essence of anything
we regard as being a functioning democracy
is freedom of speech and freedom of thought.
The power to control speech is frightening.
The power to control thought is ultimately evil.
Truly wicked. It's what defines us as human beings.
You take that away from us and we have nothing left.
Philip recognises that,
and that's one of the things that makes his writing so powerful.
He's creating, in both in the initial trilogy and now in this,
this sense of a world in which there are big political movements.
There are loyalties, there is political machinations.
In a Brexit world that we're in at the moment,
it works absolutely beautifully.
Who's going to actually do a deal, get together,
assemble allies, save us? Who's going to move our world forwards?
And he does this absolutely brilliantly, I think,
in The Northern Lights,
and again here in La Belle Sauvage.
And it feels real.
And it excites one's loyalties
and one's passion and desire that, frankly,
good will triumph over evil.
La Belle Sauvage is both an end and a beginning.
Its closing pages lead us back to the opening of His Dark Materials.
Beginnings and endings are perhaps the most difficult decision
for any writer.
Where do you make the first mark?
Where do you place the final full stop?
I had the idea of a moonlit garden with bells ringing
in the background, and a mood of mingled sadness and...
hope and love, which is the mood
of the final pages of The Amber Spyglass.
And I didn't know what was going to lead to that or bring that about,
but that was where I was headed.
In the closing chapters of Pullman's trilogy,
Lyra and her loyal partner in crime, Will,
reach the end of their great adventure.
"She led him past a pool with a fountain, under a wide-spreading tree,
"and then struck off to the left, to the beds of plants, towards a huge, many-trunked pine.
"There was a massive stone wall with a doorway in it.
"And in the furthest part of the garden, the trees were younger, the planting less formal.
"Lyra led him almost to the end of the garden, over a little bridge,
"to a wooden seat under a spreading, low-branched tree.
"'Yes,' she said, 'I hoped so much, and here it is, just the same.
"'Will, I used to come here in my Oxford and sit on this exact same bench
"'whenever I wanted to be alone, just me and Pan.'"
One of these elemental story patterns
recurs throughout His Dark Materials,
which is the idea of two things
which are bound together splitting apart.
So the idea that Will and Lyra, who've grown so close together
and who've come to love each other so deeply must leave and must part,
fulfils the pattern.
"'And if we later on,' she was whispering, shakily,
"'If we meet someone we like and if we marry them,
"'then we must be good to them and not make comparisons all the time
"'and wish we were married to each other instead.
"'But just keep up this, coming here once a year, just for an hour,
"'just to be together.'
"They held each other tightly.
"Minutes passed, a water bird on the river bank stirred and called.
"The occasional car moved over Magdalen Bridge.
"Finally, they drew apart."
You so wanted them to stick together.
They had been through so much,
and their ultimate sacrifice was that they had to leave each other.
And it felt so unfair and the universe felt out of kilter.
It felt as if they should be together.
Yet I think there's something very strong and very brave about saying,
"No, this is the price we pay."
Of course, we too have beginnings and endings.
We don't know when or where or how, but we know there will be an end.
In the final part of His Dark Materials,
Lyra ventures into the world of the dead,
where she comes face-to-face with her own death.
As I get older, of course, as we all do, I thought about my own death,
which is much closer to me now than my birth is.
I've thought about it more and more, of course, the more time passes.
I like the idea, that when you die,
you have to give an account of yourself,
and I like the idea that everyone has to have a story.
You have to tell the truth about your life, you have to...
It's no good going there and saying,
"Well, I watched the television, mainly."
That won't get you out of the world of the dead.
But a true story about what you loved and what you saw
and what you knew, how much you did, if it's true
and it resonates with the harpies,
then you're free.
If you can't tell a story about your life, a true story,
you can never escape the world of the dead.
But if you satisfy the harpies by telling a true story
about your life, then they will show you the way out,
and you will dissolve and you become part of the universe again.
Not as yourself any more, but as part of everything else.
I like that vision, I like that idea of death.
I think there's something in that.
Romantic, fearless, fantastical; this edition delves into the thrilling world of Philip Pullman and explores the author's own dark materials.
Pullman has been named both one of Britain's greatest writers and the most dangerous writer in Britain. He is best-known for the much-loved His Dark Materials trilogy, which follows a young heroine, Lyra, through a series of heart-stopping adventures into other worlds. Appealing to both adults and children alike, his books have sold over 20 million copies and have been translated into 40 languages. La Belle Sauvage, his recent novel, became an instant best-seller. 'The things we need most in the world are stories,' he says.
Alan Yentob spends time with Pullman in Oxford, discovering how the inspirational middle-school teacher became an acclaimed author of fantasy fiction and an outspoken critic of organised religion.