Philip Pullman: ‘Did I like Harry Potter? Not enough to read a second book’

'My publicists were scared stiff of being associated with a known fascist, racist, imperialist'
'My publicists were scared stiff of being associated with a known fascist, racist, imperialist' - Geoff Pugh

Philip Pullman is wondering about his life choices. “What I should have done is not go to university at all,” he tells me as we sit surrounded by great drifts of books and a platoon of guitars in his 16th-century farmhouse outside Oxford.

“I should have been apprenticed to a cabinet maker. I could still have read all the books I wanted to, and I love working with wood. I made this, for example.” He taps the handsome coffee table round which his two cockapoos are dancing, trying to make off with unregarded biscuits.

Of course, Pullman read English at Oxford and became a master craftsman of words instead, the magnificent His Dark Materials trilogy selling more than 22 million copies. At the moment, the 77-year-old is working on the final novel in the Book of Dust trilogy, which takes Lyra – the spirited orphan girl from the earlier sequence, now a student at Oxford –  to central Asia. This concluding book has been more than five years in the making, partly because Pullman’s energy levels have been “markedly diminished” since contracting Covid a couple of years ago – “I fall asleep all the time” – and also because his writing hand is now arthritic.

Readers are desperate to know if Lyra will be reunited with her “dæmon” Pantalaimon: a sort of manifestation of her soul in the form of a pine marten. In Pullman’s last book, Lyra has been suffering from depression induced by reading books which posit that truth is unknowable and imagination is harmful, one symptom of which is her dæmon abandoning her.

“I was having a bit of a kick at Derrida [the postmodernist philosopher] and that crew, and also Ayn Rand’s malevolent view of humanity. These one-dimensional, one-size-fits-all answers to everything which are very tempting to believe when you’re young, as we’re seeing now with all these young men who are influenced by Andrew Tate.”

Lyra (Dafne Keen) in the BBC series of His Dark Materials
Lyra (Dafne Keen) in the BBC series of His Dark Materials

The irony is that Pullman has often been accused of simplistic morality himself, with the malevolent “Magisterium” in his books bearing a flagrant similarity to the Catholic Church: Peter Hitchens has accused him of being “the most dangerous man in Britain”, as a “missionary” who preaches atheism to children. I find his recent books more nuanced: there are even some nice nuns in The Book of Dust. “Maybe I’m getting a bit more tolerant as I get older,” he says.

Pullman insists, anyway, that although he is dismayed by the “cruelty, war, slaughter on an industrial scale, inspired by religions around the world today”, he has “never been trying to convert anyone”, and was rather annoyed to be lumped in with Richard Dawkins and the like during the period in the 2000s when atheism was intellectually modish: “I haven’t got much in common with Dawkins and that group merrily prancing away on their four horses. He seems to think that all Christians believe the literal truth of the Bible, which is nonsense of course. He forgets something which he is a master of as a writer, which is metaphor.”

When I ask Pullman what label he would attach to his beliefs, he chooses the middle-ground term of “possibilian”, coined by the neuroscientist David Eagleman. He tells me he became positively unsightly when writing the first volume in The Book of Dust, “because I found I’d made a little bet with myself, if I didn’t have my hair cut then the book would be all right or something like that. I don’t believe in a Christian god but I am profoundly superstitious.”

These days he is troubled by the way in which identity seems to have become a kind of substitute for religion. “Did you see [Royal Society of Literature president] Bernardine Evaristo’s piece in The Guardian? She begins by saying: ‘As a black woman from a working-class background …’ She states her position as being a function of what her identity is, which I wouldn’t do. She’d probably say that’s because I’m privileged, the natural assumption is that I’m a white male, and there’s something true in that. But I don’t like the way identity politics seems to lead us into a way of classifying people not according to their merit but according to what they represent.”

Bernardine Evaristo, novelist and president of the Royal Society of Literature
Bernardine Evaristo, novelist and president of the Royal Society of Literature - CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP via Getty Images

Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature when he was 55, he is not convinced by the recent drive to make the fellowship younger and more diverse.

“What I’m wondering about the multitude of stroppy teenagers that are now being made fellows is: do they have anything to say? You need a bit of living, a bit of experience, to write a good novel. I don’t think you should encourage young people,” he says, pulling a naughty cherub face. “All they’re up to is ‘wronging the ancientry’, as the Shepherd says in The Winter’s Tale.”

Pullman has a habit of making provocative statements, especially on X (formerly Twitter)  – although he doesn’t use it as much these days: “Most of the people I liked and admired have left.” In 2021 he got into trouble, while defending the beleaguered memoirist Kate Clanchy, for tweeting that people condemning her book without reading it properly would “find a comfortable home in Isis or the Taliban”. Although dozens of people were busy taking passages from the book out of context, some writers of colour decided that his remarks were targeting them and that the Taliban comparison was racist.

At the time, Pullman was president of the Society of Authors, the writers’ trade union. “They wanted to be neutral on the subject, they didn’t want to get involved in arguments between writers. So they wouldn’t defend me when I was being accused left, right and centre of being misogynistic and racist and God knows what else. I thought this was a pretty poor show. And then they told me that they’d had floods – floods – of messages from members demanding that I should resign, and also the majority of staff wanted me to resign. And that was the point at which I thought, ‘Well, I’m not wanted here, I shall leave’.

“There’s a shocking lack of courage among organisations now. When I was being criticised for being racist etc, the publicists who were looking after my books and my brand” – he puts aural inverted commas round the word – “were the first to leap in and say, ‘Oh Philip, you’ve got to write a letter of apology’. They were scared stiff of being associated in any way with a known fascist, racist, imperialist.”

I notice that Pullman has objected on X to one writer’s suggested checklist of questions authors should ask themselves before embarking on a book, including whether they are the right person to tell the story of somebody different from themselves. Would he think twice these days about writing a book like his 1995 children’s story The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, with a brown-skinned heroine in an unspecified foreign country? “It’s an absurdity, placing these limits on people. You can only do what your imagination prompts you to do, and to say, ‘Oh no, you’re not allowed to imagine that’ seems to me fascist.”

Pullman is hard to pigeonhole, and not everybody who agrees with his stand on freedom of expression will go along with his views in the great Terf vs Trans war (“I’m in sympathy with the trans side in this quarrel because I think that’s the side of the imagination, and I’m in favour of that.”) He has also been a constant and vehement critic of the Tories. Did he have qualms, then, about accepting a knighthood from Theresa May’s government in 2019?

“I did think quite a lot about it, yes, but in the end I thought, there is a certain snobbery among some artistic people, particularly writers, as if honours were not good enough for them, so I wanted to avoid that sort of snobbery. I was conscious, too, of the serried ranks of my ancestors – generation upon generation of farm labourers, leather workers, soldiers, small shopkeepers, domestic servants, all looking at me with arms folded and saying: ‘You’d better have this boy, or else.’ Family piety you could call it.”

Author, Philip Pullman, at home in Oxfordshire
Author, Philip Pullman, at home in Oxfordshire - Geoff Pugh

Before His Dark Materials Pullman wrote a dozen or so children’s books, initially while working in Oxford as a middle school teacher. He can’t imagine working in the profession today: “What’s the point of learning about fronted adverbials? I start gibbering incoherently when I think about the sheer waste of effort and time and emotion and youthful energy that goes on learning stuff that nobody needs to know.”

I ask what he thinks of the epidemic of children’s books by celebrities? “Some of these books might be good, some of them might even have been published if the author wasn’t a celebrity, but some of them are trash, and the money is going down for other [children’s] authors.”

His favourite children’s writers are Kipling, Tove Jansson and Leon Garfield; he can’t stand C S Lewis (“I think he didn’t like children very much or he liked the wrong sort of children.”). He thinks Roald Dahl should not be “updated” but allowed to fall out of print if he no longer chimes with readers. “He can be very funny, he can also be very cruel and unpleasant. I don’t like his books much.” He read a Harry Potter once, as a judge for a children’s book prize. Did he like it? “Not enough to read any of the others.”

These days a dodgy hip prevents Pullman from venturing far from Oxford (he is looking forward to the city’s Literary Festival next month of which he was once patron).  He lives quietly with Judith, his wife of 53 years: they have two sons and four grandchildren. He has few extravagances, apart from his workman’s tools.

“I scour the woodworking videos on YouTube, and I look with lust and longing at the latest bandsaw.”

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