We have no idea what Andy Mulligan’s publishers’ rep looks like, so when Andy arrives at the authors’ yurt in Charlotte Square, we walk up to him, and together we look around for a woman brandishing a copy of Ribblestrop. We reminisce a little about our brief meeting at the Philippine Embassy, for the launch of Candy Gourlay’s Tall Story, two years ago.
Andy has already done a school event before our interview, doing a reading from Anne of Green Gables. He’s not sure whether everyone stayed awake for all of it. He likes to read from his own favourites, and picks books according to how he feels.
We’ve found Nicola from the publishers, and she goes off in search of water for us, as we settle down outside the yurt, in the sunshine. Andy is wearing a very fetching sun hat, with what looks like an old tie round it.
I show Andy my copy of Ribblestrop Forever, telling him ‘this is as far as I’ve got, so you mustn’t mention anything after it, giving things away.’
‘Are you enjoying it?’
‘I am. I’ve been on holiday and only got it a couple of days ago. And I’ve not got any further. I would have, but I needed to sleep. It’s wonderful… You’re going to outdo them all. It’s Airplane and it’s Speed and it’s Chamber of Secrets all in one. It’s making a great entrance.’
‘Well I hope so, because it was a tricky one to write, in that I started very differently. I started with the head. I thought I can’t do this again. You know, start with some road disaster, so I started in the headmaster’s office, as he was looking at timetables, and I got 50 pages into it, and sent it off to Jane who always reads first, and she said “it’s so boring, I can’t read it. You can’t be serious?”’ We laugh. ‘So I went back to disaster movie stuff.’
‘Yeah! So do you know how to fly a plane?’
‘You don’t? Did you make it up, or did you ask someone?’
‘I made it up, initially, and when it went to editorial my editor said “you don’t really know how to fly a plane.”’ We laugh at this, ‘“so,” she said, “luckily my brother flies light aircraft.” I got into email exchanges with him, and he started to say “well, that’s not plausible,” and I said “well, nothing in there is plausible…”’
‘I had this difficult business of negotiating with a clearly very sensible aircraft pilot who puts health and safety first at all times, trying to persuade him to allow me to write implausibly. All these dials going wrong, and I took some liberties, but that’s what he approved in the end.’
‘I loved it! When I read the first book I didn’t know what to expect, and I spent quite a few chapters feeling very doubtful about the headmaster, because I wasn’t sure whether he was good or bad.’
‘And it was such a relief that he was good.’
‘I thought, what if poor, innocent Sam, who’s clearly very trusting, has just been sent into the clutches of…’
‘Of some monster.’
‘Everyone’s dread. No, I wouldn’t have taken you there. I mean, there are monsters in the novels, but no, I think somewhere you’ve still got to prove a school is a safe environment.’
‘I don’t think anybody ever wants to read about every parent’s worst nightmare, the sort of thing that crops up in the newspapers. And it is a territory that’s been done so well by others.
I love the idea, because it’s me, really. The whole Ribblestrop series came from that totally autobiographical detail of how much fun it would be to start a school. I was walking past this stately, crumbling, home with a friend and we were laughing at the impossibility of people like us ever being in a position of power like that. People like me and my friends, we end up wishing that one day we could run a school.’
‘I wish you could run a school like that.’ Andy laughs at me. ‘They are learning important things, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they will learn now that they are setting up their camp. Which is as far as I’ve got…’
‘The camp gave me an absolute blank piece of paper, blank slate all over again, because if you’re genuinely casting yourself as an ancient – well, celtic – tribe, then you need to learn the ingenuity of a people who got to be totally self-sufficient, who had nothing, could only work with fire. Just an extraordinary opportunity. So yes, you will find they learn so much; metallurgy, smelting, casting.’
‘I like the way you find these interesting people, like the chap with the animals, in the last book, and now this woman and her…’
‘Ellie and her library van, and her quest.’ He laughs delightedly.
‘It is so very up to date, with the library closures and the van and everything. I suppose you couldn’t have written that even a few years ago?’
‘I suppose I wouldn’t have thought of it, no.’ Andy sounds incredulous when considering this.
‘No, it places it exactly in time.’
‘Every time I open my inbox there’s another circularised email, about a library closure.’
‘Yes, mine too.’
‘My local library, I’m in Horsham, Sussex, at the moment. It hasn’t closed, thank goodness. But it is transforming.’
‘And the way it is transforming is that they are trying to do without human beings. Everything is automated, so you scan your book in, you scan it out. And the library itself is no longer a place – I suppose I’m going to show my age here – but it is no longer a place where you go to revere books, and sit in relative peace, to read a book, to make a book selection…’
Photographer – ‘Hang out with your friends, have a cup of coffee…’
‘Yes, the two times I’ve been recently, concentration has been blasted by 20 or 30 children singing – I kid you not – The wheels on the bus go round and round.’
I have to laugh at Andy’s indignation.
‘Anyway, so that’s Ellie, fighting the good fight.’
‘It’s just so lovely the way everyone slots into it all. With Doonan now being part of the school, rather than an outsider. He’s wonderful, they are all so wonderful.’
Andy laughs. ‘Glad you like it. It was a treat writing it. I won’t give away the ending, but at one point early on in the conception of book one I’d always felt strongly that the school ought to end in disaster, that there ought to be great big dose of reality at the end, a reality check.’
Photographer – ‘It’s called exam results.’
He laughs ‘Well, I was thinking of a speech day. I was thinking of a massive prosecution. And I was dissuaded. My editor said, “you can’t do that to these lovely characters you’ve been creating, you cannot.” Put them out of their comfort zones. Send them into the wilderness.’
‘Are you irrevocably having to end with the third book?’
‘I think irrevocably, yeah. It was always conceived as three terms, and I like to think I’ve brought,’ he sounds careful, thinking about this, ‘it to the place where it is now. It’s almost like a balloon; I’ve inflated the balloon and the school drifts on. I was also finding that book one and book two have quite a clear pattern of troubled child that is redeemed, and I was actually running out of kids that that can happen to.’
‘So that formula had to break in Ribblestrop Forever. It’s not about an individual who moves from sickness to health, it’s more about a community that turns, reconnecting with something in the ground. I don’t want to get too mystical, but as they look for these ancient stones, they look for the pathways their ancestors walked. There is a sense that the children have discovered that they have been there before, in some spiritual way.’
‘Actually it is interesting, because whereas it is very funny and entertaining, you are teaching as well, aren’t you? In the way you show that they can learn, you can do things, you can build a school, you can tame lions…’
‘The funny thing is that in primary school I think that hands-on, learn by doing it approach, is still very prevalent, going back to three-year-olds playing in the sandpit with their little diggers, and they’re constantly making models. If they are studying the Egyptians they are making papyrus, they’re communicating with each other through hieroglyphs.
It’s all presented as an enormous game. Role plays, so frequent in primary school, but then this big hammer comes in secondary school,’ he laughs ruefully, ‘and I’m a secondary teacher so I’m guilty of wielding that hammer. And the demon of exams is suddenly there, and parents no longer want to watch their children playing,’ he laughs, ‘working out the angles of roofs.’
‘Yes,’ I sigh.
‘No, we’re weird parents. My son who is older than Helen did play a lot in the infants, but by the time Helen got there, they’d stopped doing a lot of playing. It’s not as idyllic as you might think.’
‘Has health and safety killed some of it? I noticed in the park the other day, a couple of teachers were taking some children out, and the children were wired to a frame.’ Andy sounds incredulous, and I giggle. ‘You know those awful pictures of slaves, when they used to wear yokes, in order to be transported from one part of the Congo to the other. This was true across Horsham Park… The children were strapped by their belts to a plastic frame and they were wearing fluorescent coats.’
‘Of course they were.’
We discuss risk assessments, and how rules vary from country to country. And Andy recounts a sad story from the past, showing how and why things come about. ‘But in darker moments the comedy began to strike me as well, you’d have mirrors everywhere, you’d have rubber kerbs, so an accident would never ever happen, and ultimately you’d never let your child out to the shops…’
‘Yes, you need to stop somewhere.’ I decide to change the subject. ‘ So, why are the orphans so cheerful? I can’t get over how cheerful they are in every situation.’
He laughs. ‘Great question. Because they’re based on children I have taught, and I’m aware that they spend 99% of their time only seeing positives, and desperate to get out there and deal with it and have fun. And I’m thinking of my time in Calcutta, where most of my orphans have been transplanted from in my head, but also a cross reference to the Philippines. You almost anticipate and expect any child who is orphaned, homeless or poor to be sitting there aware of its deprivations, whereas it’s the complete opposite. And I always loved the idea that they would be the ones to arrive in Ribblestrop, and go “yes, we’ve got a roof over our heads, we’ve got food, we’ve got each other, and they are asking us to do exciting things like build roofs…”’
‘I was going to say they barely have a roof over their heads, when they start.’
‘Funnily enough – I don’t want to spoil the ending for you – but there is a moment when the orphans have a kind of catharsis, and as they rediscover the tribes. They’re walking in the footsteps of the tribe, and they discover that the tribe almost certainly made that epic journey from the Indian subcontinent, across Asia, Europe, across the Mediterranean, and ended up pushing west with the Celts. I’d like to think it’s tinged with sadness, when the orphans for the first time realise “my God, our roots, we’ve come back to where we began.” Tears are shed, shall we say.’
‘Aahhh.’ Andy laughs. It’s got a lot warmer in the sun, and he peels off his pullover, and puts his hat back on.
‘Can we talk about Trash a little bit?’
‘Why Trash in the middle of writing Ribblestrop?’
‘Well, not in the middle of writing Ribblestrop Forever.’
‘I suppose because Trash was one of those books which got inspired very suddenly and violently, and had to be written very quickly. So it seemed a complete move away from the comedy zone.’
‘My hero Dennis Potter, when asked why he was changing from one medium to another, one topic to another, he put a bit of hygiene that I always liked, “you cleanse for a moment to see if you can do something different.” There is obviously, if you stretch the common denominator wide, I suppose you could include Ribblestrop in Trash, it’s still about children…’
‘There are a lot of similarities, but still very different.’
‘Trash, in a way, hasn’t got much sense of humour, I have to admit,’ Andy says reluctantly.
‘But it’s a lot lighter than you’d think.’
‘I was in the Philippines when I wrote it so I visited the dumps and met some of the children. Trash was really inspired by a boy, not from the dump, but a flower seller who trailed the bars late at night in Manila, until the early hours of the morning. The drunker people got, the more he could sell, because he was very cute. He was about eleven, so people got sentimental and they’d give him a little more money, and then he would go round the corner and share it with two or three of his friends, one of whom was the Rat character.
This utterly smashed-to-pieces boy, who’d got heavily addicted to bad things, and it was a journey really, for me. I met him, I met his brother, I met his mother, and they took me back to where they live, explained to me that they had this dream, which was the dream that was the root to Trash; “one day we might get back to the island we came from. And fish, if only we had a boat. Funnily enough, that was the biggest scam you could imagine, because it was a complete pack of lies, I discovered. After I’d bought them a bloody boat!’ Andy sounds indignant, but then he laughs helplessly.
‘And I loved that, so I’m not speaking bitterly. Again, it’s that predominant need to manipulate your situation. I’ve got massive admiration for people who can so brilliantly scam money out of me. They are remarkable. They don’t do it with a gun, they don’t do it with malice, they do it with pure guile and charm, to the point where I’m sure they believe their own stories.
I did go back and visit them, on their paradise island, with their boat, but the problem was they were bored. Paradise, once you’ve been to Manila, is a little bit boring, and they wanted to come back to the fleshpots of the city. So yeah, that’s why Trash got written. It was something that emerged very quickly, from those meetings. I had two weeks to do it so I did it.’
‘Mmm. And how do you divide up your life between the two countries?’
‘The division has been heavily in favour of the Philippines, because that’s where I’ve been working, and I come home on holiday, to see family, and do some book work. That’s changing now because I have given up my contract in the Philippines.’
‘Even though I’m due to go over there for a couple of months after Christmas, I am looking to reconnect with the UK and do some teaching work here.’
‘Because you like it, or because you have to? The teaching, I mean.’
‘Because I like it. I don’t have to any more. I could sit and write all day, but I’d find that horrifically lonely, and unhealthily solitary, as well.’
‘If you’re not careful, you can spend all morning on the internet, and then all afternoon and early evening on the laptop trying to write, and then if you have a break, you think I’ll just check my emails, and suddenly you realise you’ve spent all day alone. Frightening. Then the comic-tragic thing is at the end of your working day, what have you got to talk about? You can’t bore your friends, saying “oh yes, chapter six really was a toughie…”’
‘You clearly aren’t on Facebook,’ I laugh.
‘I don’t blog. I don’t Facebook.’
‘That’s where everyone else is, though.’
‘The lovely thing about teaching is that you’ve got that constant interaction. If you’re in the kind of tough school I was at, one minute you’re teaching Shakespeare, the next minute you’re rushing off to teach children’s fiction, helping kids learn to read. Then the next minute you’ve got a drama lesson, you’ve got colleagues in the staff room grumbling, then a basketball game, and it is genuinely exciting! I know some teachers look at me in astonishment when I say that, but…’
‘I actually believe if most teachers, if you axed their jobs, if you removed them from their schools, even if you gave them paid sabbatical, they’d soon be climbing the walls and want to get back to it. It gets under your skin. Do you think that’s true?’
‘I think it varies between people. Some hate it and only do it because they need to eat, others are born teachers, and are absolutely perfect. Those are the ones we remember and talk about forty years later.’
‘Yes, yes, true.’
‘It is a large spectrum.’
‘I just pity anyone who is standing in front of a group of children, not comfortable in that role. I’ve had moments in an all boys grammar school; there were some inspirational teachers, but there were others who’d got to that awful stage where they had to belittle you.’
‘I can’t see you doing that.’
‘I do get cross with children. Do you know the Jennings books, by any chance?’
‘I haven’t read them, no.’
‘There are two teachers in the Jennings school series. It’s a bit implausible, but the writer just creates two characters. There is patient, kind Mr Carter, who is fascinated by children’s minds and loves getting involved in their strange logic and finds them amusing. And there’s Mr Wilkins who is constantly astonished at the foolishness and the illogicality of children, and finds himself losing his patience all the time. I’ve always wanted to be Mr Carter, of course, and I always end up being Mr bloody Wilkins!’ We laugh at this.
Our time is up, and I thank Andy for writing such brilliant, but varied books. They are the reason why I wanted to interview him, in the first place.
‘The next one will be out in spring, and that’s very different again. I think it is a bit of Ribblestrop mixed with the seriousness of Trash. It’s called The Boy With Two Heads. It’s about a boy at primary school who literally grows two heads, and that second head is not a charming, light, easygoing, obedient child, but full of rage and destructive power. I’ll be interested to see what you think.’
So am I.