Driven by daemons

Philip Pullman has been a compulsive storyteller since childhood, to such effect that readers of all ages are enthralled by the worlds he creates - magical, but strangely familiar. This year, his was the first ever children's book to be longlisted for the Booker Prize. Sally Vincent finds him in his lair

You have to make a speech when you announce the winner of the Booker prize. This year, it was down to Lord Baker of Dorking to stretch the tension with a few apposite allusions to current trends in English literature. It particularly interested him, he mused tantalisingly, that a children's book, albeit one that was also enjoyed by adults, had been long-listed for the first time in the history of the Booker, which innovation he linked to the fact that nearly all the protagonists in the short-listed contenders were children. Might this not, he charmed on, tell us something of great cultural significance about the very potency of childhood, the unique insight of innocence and blah blah blah. Down among the Guildhall diners, Philip Pullman - he whose books are read by the literate of all ages - finished his pudding, put his hands together for the victorious Mr Carey and felt ever so slightly gratified. He hadn't known his nomination was a first; he'd imagined it was just that they hadn't published a long list before. What he did know, having been in receipt of every other literary laurel and palm going over the past several years, plus an embarrassment of riches from the sales of his books, was that he'd probably been doing something right. Anything more fulsome, let alone apocalyptic than that, would neither interest or amuse him.

My friend Beth has been reading Pullman since she was 11. She's 14 now and still talks the metaphysical talk. She can give you the entire plot of the His Dark Materials trilogy, and knows that "daemon" is pronounced "demon" and that we've all got one. Hers changes, she told me once. Sometimes it is a butterfly, sometimes a meerkat or a mongoose. When she grows up, it will be set. She hopes for a panther, or at least a lynx. But not a dog. Only servants have dogs. There was no point asking her what a daemon is. She'd throw her eyes heavenwards: "You know, it's your thing. The thing you have ."

One day, Beth gave me a worn-out paperback copy of Northern Lights, the first of the trilogy. I checked it out in my patronising way, expecting the usual vilely written kiddies' magical adventure codswallop, only to find that it was not. This was something else.

"Thing" puts it mildly. Your daemon, according to Pullmanesque lore, is the creature of your deepest essence; a bird, reptile, insect or animal, attached to you by an inevitable thread, like an externalised soul. It is your guardian angel, your confidante, your conscience, your representative. In childhood, while you make the choices that form your character, your daemon changes; when you become an adult, it is what you have created, and it stays like that until you die. A slimy snake, a sly monkey, a fierce tiger, an obedient dog, a pussy cat: it's yours. It's you. You're never alone with a daemon. Should either of you stray more than a few yards apart, you will both suffer the agonies of the damned; should your daemon be stolen or cut away from you by evil experimenters (and it will, it will), you will not be able to sustain yourself, and you must be on your guard against such cruelty because the world is full of insatiable power-mongers who want you to be less resistant to their wickedness than you are when you've got a good daemon in tow. In other words, there are people out there who will soul-destroy you if you give them half a chance.

Apart from the purity of his language, what distinguishes Pullman from other practitioners of the fantastical is that, however far he flies into universes of his own construction, he keeps you grounded in an immutable moral and intellectual integrity. You soar into the metaphorical and the metaphysical, but never stoop to the supernatural. Here be dragons, sure, but there's none of that lazy nonsense about magical spells, potions and wands. The human condition is as dreadful as it is, and you don't get out of it with one mighty leap unless it's of your own mortal imagination, application, will, curiosity and courage. And while there are no limits to those commodities, there is no happy ever after, either; no end to the story.

In primitive societies, nobody speaks to a visitor until a decent time has elapsed for the stranger to acclimatise. Pullman observes a similar sense of hospitality. Distant barking indicates the proximity of dogs; then, assured that I have nothing against them, Pullman opens a door. Two creatures scurry in, bellies close to the floor. They are pugs. The evil genius who bred them caused their faces to resemble needy babies and their tails to warp in rigid knots above their bums. This obliges them to express their pleasure without recourse to tail-wagging. So they run up, touch you with their forepaws, sort of lean on you and, welcome achieved, they flop close by and snore like grampuses. They are immensely comforting. When we go to visit the Pullman shed, they come, too, snuffling and leaning.

The Pullman faithful know about the shed. They know that it's where he works from morning to 1.45pm precisely, when he emerges for lunch and Neighbours. They probably picture it as a kind of modest conservatory, set in sylvan splendour in some charmingly landscaped garden. It isn't. It's a shed, the sort of shed where you'd expect to find a hoe and a handmower and maybe the odd stick of rusty garden furniture, except here it's a cross between a madman's Tardis and Mr Mole's home. A defunct computer is garlanded with artificial flowers, a life-sized stuffed wolf slavers under a posture chair and billions of little Post-It notes with exquisite handwriting on them are dotted about and Blu-Tac'd on all surfaces. Three quarto-sized sheets, neat as pins, lie on a narrow ledge, beside them a posh Biro. A day's work, 1,000 handwritten words. When he became a full-time writer, Pullman went to night school to learn physically how to write, how to hold a pen correctly, how to shape letters into a perfect script, how to become so expert at the technique of sending messages from the brain down the shoulder and along the arm into the fingers and on to the page, that he'd never have to give it another thought.

Nothing, not an aching right hand and certainly not the stultifying processes of self-analysis, is allowed to interrupt the Pullman flow. "Look," he says at one point, "you keep asking me what I am. I haven't got the faintest idea what I am. I am not. I went to a physiotherapist recently with my stiff neck, and she said I had more tension there than anyone she'd encountered in her entire professional life. I'm not like this to be difficult. I genuinely don't know and am not interested in what I'm like. I don't ask myself if I'm happy or unhappy. I don't care one way or the other. I'm not even interested in what I do besides sitting in the shed writing three pages, having learned correctly how to hold the goddam pen." And he rests his case.

Pullman was born in 1946, into a postwar Britain that nourished its babies on National Health orange juice and cod-liver oil. One day, when he was two, his grandma took him for a walk in the country, and they stood by a roadside watching big, meaty builders install huge earthenware pipes in the road. They let him clamber all over the plumbing, in and out of the fascinating tubes, having a whale of a time. Then grandma took him home and there, to his utter astonishment, was his brand new baby brother. And then his memory packs up. Total blank. However, the baby brother persisted with his unexpected existence, and the pair enjoyed an amicable brotherhood based partly on the fact that, as the sons of an RAF fighter pilot, they tended to find themselves moved from station to station, knowing no other children but each other. They had been in southern Rhodesia for a year while daddy flew his aeroplanes in the action against Mau Mau terrorism when the telegram came and they were, as he puts it, led to believe that his father had been shot down and killed. He was seven years' old.

He remembers the photograph in the newspapers of mummy in a fetching hat with Philip and his brother Francis in short trousers and school blazers standing outside Buckingham Palace admiring the posthumous Distinguished Flying Cross. He took it on the chin at the time. His father was a hero - they didn't hand out DFCs with the biscuits. Only later, much later, he began to wonder. He still does. How did the Mau Mau scrape him out of the sky? With cudgels? Spears? Rifles? He'll never know the truth.

Life went on for the two little boys, now centred in Norfolk with grandma and grandpa while their mother pursued what they imagined to be a glamorous career in London. Again, there was the crippling shyness of being new boys at school, the sense of rootlessness, of loss and, for Philip, a small intimation of envy for people who seemed to have settled ideas of themselves, physically and genetically. But being RAF kids was their normality; their companions, apart from the "daemonic" permanence of each other, were similarly nomadic children, playmates gained and lost according to the adult scheme of things. Then, as sudden and inexplicable as the advent of Francis, there was a stepfather, also an RAF pilot, and another big ship to carry the boys halfway around the world. Thrown together for the duration of the great voyage, and further isolated by scarlet fever, the boys invented intricate games to pass the time; games that took on an intensity and ferocity that had they known it - and, of course, they didn't - rivalled the fantastical dramatic inventions of the Brontë sisters in their formative years. Except the Pullman brothers had the advantage of a plastic construction kit, something between Lego and Meccano, to build their forts and castles and spaceships and cities, to beef up the incessant enmities and conflicts and wars and rivalries going on in their minds and played out with fervid dedication for days and weeks and months at a time.

While they lived in Australia, their games grew more specifically focused. They called it "playing Ks and Ys". This was because they lived next door to a couple of children whose names were Ken and Yvonne. They liked Ken, while Yvonne represented all things suspect and alien to the prepubescent male. Hence K and Y, good guys and bad guys, the eternal friction of the known and unknown, the cosmic battle between opposites.

And then there was Superman. In the mid-1950s, gently bred English boys had comics: Dandy and Beano and, for the really macho stuff, Hotspur and Wizard. Serious efforts were made in high places to ban the import of US contributions to the genre, so-called horror comics, the equivalent of video nasties, all lurid and violent, with fists smashing out of frames and splat and gotcha written all over the place in huge, vulgar letters. The Aussies were less squeamish. They let in Superman and Batman comics, and Philip fell upon them as though his nine years of life had been one long search for this particular holy grail.

Aussie radio was pretty damned wonderful, too. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's Sooooperman! Then there was Clancy Of The Outback, a sort of cowboy with a bullwhip instead of a gun, with which he routinely righted the wrongs of the world; and, better yet, a serial about some kind of marsupial who kept his tools in his pocket so that he could whip out a spanner to mend the train and save everyone's life at the last minute.

It was this particular creature that effectively began Pullman's career. Each night, when the boys were in bed and the light went out, Philip would lie in the dark and sing the pocketed one's signature tune, then, like stepping out over a cliff, launch into a narrative. He didn't know what improvisation meant; he just knew that to begin a story with no idea of what was going to happen was as exciting as it got. His future was assured.

The next year, he was 10, living in Battersea and going to a posh prep school when he dreamed that a boy he was at school with came home with him in order to be killed. He came to the flat and Philip's stepfather duly shot him and left the body in Philip's room where he could see the blood on the boy's chest as the light came through the window. He didn't think it was cruel or wicked, just necessary, something he had to put up with. He felt the horror and the fear at the same time as his own imperative detachment.

Philip went through adolescence understanding that, among boys and men with proper manly occupations and preoccupations, he was the arty-farty, airy-fairy one. They thought he was silly. Silly old Phil with his nose in a book. Silly old Phil painting a picture. Silly old Phil strumming his guitar. When Francis was making model aeroplanes and marching up and down doing his Air Training Corps stuff, Philip was cudgelling his brains writing sonnets. Getting it exactly right, having the rhymes fall in such a way that they fitted precisely the metric pattern and yet appeared so natural it might have been spoken in a Wordsworthian extemporary effusion. It was years before he realised he was not a poet. Looking back, he can make the somewhat contemporary effusion: "It didn't half sharpen my ear. It didn't half teach me which words are redundant."

After Oxford, he wrote books - that is to say, books for adults, only the "adult" part is redundant. There wasn't a living wage in it, so he became a teacher. From 1972, he taught children between nine and 13 at two Oxford schools, one at the rough end of town, the other in a middle-class enclave. Being something of an old ham himself, he put on school plays. He wrote the material himself, ranging from Victorian comic melodrama to Arabian Nights fantasy and Gothic ghost stories, and realised in the process that it is possible to entertain children and adults at the same time. Nothing would have been worse than relying on an audience of parents to turn up merely for the sentimental spectacle of their offspring fooling around on a stage. He didn't want his kids patronised, for one thing, and for another, he wanted the mums and dads back next year, expecting to have a good time.

The day before our meeting, Pullman had driven his younger son to his university in Cambridge. Perhaps he feels his absence. "All children are different from each other," he says. It is something he has said before, but this time there is a nostalgia in his tone: "But all classes are the same." This is 20, 30 years ago. "You put a bunch of kids together, and it's like a record spinning around, chucking them all to the outside in preordained slots. There are two kinds of little girls . The good girls and the others. The good girls are neat and clean, get their homework in on time, bring sweeties and presents for teacher, and dot their "i"s with little circles. They are well-mannered and want to be approved of. Then there are the more grown-up girls, more aware of clothes and pop music and boyfriends, more like cafe society. They include rebels and social outcasts who hover between the two groups. Their friendships are intense and physical. You see them in tight little huddles, communing with each other, spellbinding, touching, manipulating.

"Boys are altogether more democratic. And also more hierarchic. With them, it's all about charisma, but anyone can have charisma. You can have wit, humour, be good at sport or just plain clever, and you're top of the heap. Then, among any group of boys, there'll be the class clown and the class pariah. And the extraordinary thing is they are replaceable . If the clown moves away, leaves school, another boy will come in from left field to take up the role. I've seen it happen."

He goes on in the ruminative vein of one who watches all the time with a passive, all-inclusive and non-judgmental intensity, then locks away his observations until he needs to call on them. If Pullman has a daemon, it is a jackdaw, forever on the hop for something bright, a jewel, a screwed up Kit Kat wrapper, anything, to take home and store away. Nothing bores him. When he laments the passing of teaching as a creative force in society, he buries his anger and bitterness beneath the well-modulated tones of a man who sees every point of view. He saw a National Curriculum directive the other day, a lesson plan, in which children were told how to write a story. "You must spend 15 minutes planning your story," it said, "and 45 minutes writing it." He smiles sadly. "Absolutely bonkers," he says, and strolls to the bookshelf to find something more edifying to talk about.

He gave up the day job. The book he takes down is by way of a visual aid to that leap of faith. It is The Master And Margarita, by a Russian playwright from the 1930s, Mikhail Bulgakov. On the back there is a blurb: "One hot spring the devil arrives in Moscow accompanied by a retinue that includes a beautiful naked witch and an immense talking black cat with a fondness for chess and vodka." That was all it took to mark him permanently. He recognised his own latency. He has never read the book; he says you don't want to look too closely into these things, in case they interfere with the direction of your own imagination.

You don't need to have read a lot of books. Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Jekyll And Hyde, Oliver Twist: you know exactly who they are because their images have transcended literature and lodged where mythology lives. It's as though we know by osmosis what keeps the rich pageant on the road. We hear tell of an individual who defied orthodoxy or survived in isolation or confronted the evil side of humanity or demanded their rights from those who would deny them, and we enshrine them as symbols of our own potential. Should Cervantes or Defoe or Stevenson or Dickens come ambling into the local bookshop for a signing, we probably wouldn't ask them where they got their ideas from or who they based their characters on, because we already know the answers.

When Pullman puts himself among his readers, he is constantly amazed at how literal-minded they are. People come up to him and say, "Excuse me, those two angels in The Amber Spyglass, are they homosexual?" And he'll say, as evenly as he can, "No, they love each other, I have no idea of their sexual orientation." Who, they want to know, is Lyra, the heroine of his trilogy, the hoyden who explores parallel universes with only her daemon and an innate unwillingness to be hoodwinked by way of her special power - where did he find her? It's not enough to say that he made her up. Or that he found her in the shed. But both things are true. "Lyra came to me as all my characters come to me, and I knew who she was at once. I knew what her name was and what she looked like, I could hear her voice. I didn't make her up. And I did make her up, but I didn't do it consciously. She just appeared. In the shed."

He is emotionally involved. He sits in the shed and makes it up and he weeps, yes, weeps copiously at the tragedies that unfold. He frightens himself and upsets himself and makes himself laugh. If the story evangelises, it isn't him that's doing it. It is merely his nature to admire qualities such as courage, kindness, intellectual curiosity, inclusiveness and open-mindedness, and to deplore cruelty, intolerance and fanatical zealotry, but he wouldn't dream of writing stories to promote that world-view. If stories teach, that is not his conscious intention. "It's craftsmanship. Your aim must be to tell a story as well as you can, shaping it and bringing the emotional currents to their... peak of emotional swishing about. You turn the raw materials, and all those loose bits of imagination and experience and memory, into something that stands up like a table with four legs and that doesn't fall over when you put your elbows on it."

It isn't until he's driving me back to where I came from, with the pugs pressing their needy-baby faces to the back window, that he relaxes into a sort of Pullman digest of the world we know, an elliptical exposition of why we are the way we are. All societies, he says, are made of three basic component parts: art, religion and drugs. And all these things come from human curiosity. We have an urge to make patterns. We made marks on the walls of our caves and saw that they looked nice. We had the urge to clap twice while the other fellow clapped once, to make music, the urge to know what happens next - when this colour goes next to that colour, when this chord sounded next to that sound. What do we do once we're warm and fed? We sit around telling stories.

The religious impulse comes from the same place. Why are we here? What happens when we're dead? How do we live our lives virtuously? All very reasonable questions. Then along came religious leaders - Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed - geniuses all of them, to help us formulate some of the answers. Unfortunately, lesser people came trundling in to mediate their ideas for the benefit of the people who they imagine are lesser than themselves; the priests and mullahs and vicars, taking it upon themselves to organise churches and temples so they could control and punish. Which is why religions have a tendency to be rather less than divine.

And drugs, I wonder? Oh yes, he says airily, all societies have drugs. Nothing wrong with drugs. Drugs are all right. They control pain and alter consciousness. They should be legalised. Definitely. Then they can be taxed and the money used for important things. The car draws up at my destination. "Heroin does you no harm," he says. "You could just go out and buy it from a chemist."

I don't know what to say. Would he...? I wonder, terrified that I've just spent the afternoon with a junkie without knowing it. "Me?" he says. "Good God no. Heroin makes you feel happy. When I'm happy, I like to think I've earned it."


Sally Vincent

The GuardianTramp

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