Drawn back by his Welsh compass

As an honorary professor at Bangor, Philip Pullman is returning to the land of his childhood not so much to teach as to share, writes Tariq Tahir.

February 7, 2008

It is just as well novelist Philip Pullman will not be teaching creative writing in his capacity as honorary professor at Bangor University because he is, by his own admission, "not actually any good" at it.

"I'm not sure how to go about it - I've seen other people go about teaching it. It's not something that I can do," he said.

The award-winning writer, best known for the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, was due to begin his work at Bangor this week by taking part in a day-long event described as a celebration of literature.

The appointment of the renowned author is part of a trend that has seen, among others, musician Johnny Marr, formerly of The Smiths, and authors Martin Amis and Fay Weldon take up positions in UK universities to bring a little something extra. Or to add a sexy bit of marketing cachet, as cynics have suggested.

Mr Pullman's candid admission of his shortcomings as a teacher of creativity in literature comes as his literary colleague Mr Amis limbers up to step into a highly criticised £80,000, 28-hours-a-year post as professor of creative writing at the University of Manchester.

In contrast, Pullman will share his experience of writing and deliver lectures for free.

"I won't be spending very much time at the university because I'm based in Oxford. I shall be going up to Bangor two or three times a year and giving a lecture or two and talking to the students and members of the academic staff about things that I'm particularly interested in.

"I thought it would be useful to give my time there a focus and to concentrate on one thing in particular. It happens to tie in with something that I've wanted to do for some time, which is to write a book about narrative.

"The various things that go on when we tell a story, how they happen, what it means in terms of our human and social nature that we tell stories - that's going to be the central preoccupation of the things I will think about when I'm an honorary professor.

"That will be the main thrust of the lectures I will be giving, but I hope I will be taking part in discussions with students."

The 61-year-old has emotional ties to North Wales, having gone to school there from the age of 11. Indeed, he was at school with Bangor's vice-chancellor, Merfyn Jones.

"I went to the local comprehensive school. I say comprehensive school as the idea of comprehensive schools didn't quite exist then but it's where everybody went whether they passed the 11-plus or not.

"I was very well taught throughout my teenage years. I'm very fond of the place, and I'm still in touch with my English teacher, Miss Enid Jones. We're still very close friends.

"I set a novel called The Broken Bridge in that part of the world as well, which was really, as I sometimes put it, a love letter to that landscape, south of Bangor, around the town of Harlech, where I went to school."

Though he speaks fondly of his school days, he is as he admits less keen to teach himself. His attempts so far have, he says, been uncomfortable and disruptive to his own writing.

"I don't know what I'm doing when I write. I've found that in order to articulate what I do, I have to become self-conscious about the process to a degree that's uncomfortable and when I'm sitting alone at my desk I'm thinking, 'Now how would I talk about this if I were explaining it to someone?' rather than thinking, 'What's going to happen next in the story, what's she going to say at this point?'

"That puts me in an uncomfortable relationship with my work, and I would rather not expose my work to that sort of self-consciousness. I'm sure other people are able to incorporate writing and teaching to a profitable degree, but I've never been able to do that."

Mr Pullman's own experience of university was hit and miss, with his enjoyment of student life offset by a narrow and hidebound syllabus. By the time he left Exeter College, Oxford in 1968, five years after enrolling, it was with a third-class degree. He admits he was lucky to scrape even that.

"When I was at Oxford in the Sixties, it was still very much the old-fashioned weekly tutorial when you could chat to your tutor about large literary questions. It didn't do me any good at all. I enjoyed the whole experience of university, I made a lot of friends and had a good time. But it didn't help me in the least to do what I wanted to do, which was to write. I would have been better off going off and doing something else, like becoming a cabinetmaker.

"It seems to be much more interesting now, much wider. Take the books that one reads. I know Oxford in the Sixties is a bad example, but for us English began with Beowulf and ended with George Eliot. There wasn't much after that. The things I was reading and watching in my spare time just weren't there. Now that's all changed."

Mr Pullman, who has himself written children's fiction, particularly welcomes greater academic study of the genre.

"It would have been absolutely inconceivable to study children's literature to degree level when I was at university, but it's possible now. It is a fascinating field of study. All sorts of interesting things can be seen, and perhaps more clearly, in the books that children read."

tariq.tahir@tsleducation.com.

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