I spent a day visiting schools and libraries in Preston a while back. After listening to some stories, the children asked me questions. One of them was, “Where was you born from?” It’s a question I often get asked, in one way or another. So here is some kind of an answer:
I was born in a village in Surrey called Fetcham, but my family moved when I was one, and I grew up a few miles away in a town called Cobham. I lived in a big, quiet house with tall trees around it which, I suppose, gave me some space to think.
From the age of seven I went to a boys’ school in Wimbledon. I would put on a blazer, a tie and a cap, and take the 8.09 train, along with the bankers and the lawyers travelling to work in London. I was probably being prepared to grow into one of these myself but (fortunately for them) it didn’t happen.
I loved stories as a boy. I imagined everyone’s dad read Treasure Island to them, and everyone’s mum would take them to the bookshop and say, “Choose two books you like.” Now I realize I was very lucky to have parents like that.
At school, we read amazing Greek myths, but amazement was not encouraged. Remembering how to spell Aphrodite and Cyclops for a weekly test was encouraged. It felt as though our imaginations were shut in the lockers along with our damp PE kits. And, one of the reasons why I write for young people today is because it’s now clear to me that going on adventures to wild, new, imaginary places in stories is as important as learning how to spell.
When I left school, I worked as a teacher in a secondary school in Zimbabwe. Then I did an English Literature degree at Cambridge University.
After that I lived in London and zigzagged through some different jobs, including work at a publisher called Pluto Press, writing about music, films and theatre for newspapers, teaching evening-classes for adults learning to read and write, and three years as Writing Development Worker for East London.
Through all that time I was writing poems and stories, and I was a member of a group called The Basement Writers. At our meetings on Tuesday nights in the basement of the Town Hall on Cable Street in London’s East End I learnt more about writing than I ever had before.
In 1989 I met a storyteller called Duncan Williamson. He invited me to a singing and storytelling get-together (a ceilidh) in his house in Scotland. I went…and came home with a new excitement about what makes a good story and how good stories can be kept alive. So I started telling folktales myself. And I have been doing that ever since.
My first book was published in 1992. It was a collection of poems for adults. And around that time, I started to get invited into local schools to lead poetry workshops for children. I enjoyed doing it so much that I began to write for, and about, the children around me.
My first children’s story won second prize in the Independent/Scholastic Story of the Year Competition in 1994. It was about a goat with golden teeth and based on a short news item I’d read in a British newspaper. The headline was GOLD-TOOTHED GOAT. The text read: A goat slaughtered and cooked by aides to a Muslim cleric in Tehran, yesterday, was found to have golden teeth. Jewellers called in to test the teeth, confirmed they were covered by a thin film of gold.
Since then, I have published over 40 books for young readers.
My wife, Adriana, and our sons, Joey and Rafael, now spend some of our time in Brazil, where Adriana is from, and some of our time in England.
In Brazil we live in the biggest city anywhere south of the equator, São Paulo. It’s noisy, dangerous, polluted and chaotic. Things don’t happen as you want or expect them to. And it’s very different to the house with tall trees where I grew up.
To get by, the Brazilian way is to show your feelings and be fun-loving and quick on your toes. Being there makes me live very differently to how I would probably choose to. And I think that helps me to write books.
When I’m in Brazil I quite often get asked to tell folktales in Portuguese. The strangest invitation was to tell British ghost stories at the “Werewolf Festival” at a small town called São Luís do Paraitinga. It’s a place where something always seems to be going on that will make you laugh. They had a song-writing competition one year. First prize was a calf, second prize was a piglet, third prize was a chicken and fourth prize was an egg. During the “Werewolf Festival” there was a howling competition in the town square. First prize was a packet of razor-blades!
I hope that gives you some idea of “where I was born from”.