The Philippa Pearce Memorial Lecture by Philip Pullman. Homerton College, September 8th, 2011.
Last Thursday, some three hundred people packed into a large auditorium at Homerton College, Cambridge, learned something of what it must have been like to have been one of Philip Pullman’s pupils. In a couple of words: a pleasure.
The Philippa Pearce Memorial Lecture is given every year in memory of one of the very best of children’s writers, whose Tom’s Midnight Garden was voted Carnegie of Carnegies and all of whose work shines with humanity, elegance and a deep knowledge of the way stories work a special kind of magic on children. The Steering Committee does a grand job every year finding a speaker to honour Pearce’s memory and this year, not only did they invite a luminary, but also one whose Philip neatly matches her Philippa and whose initials are identical. This harmony was obviously some kind of good omen.
Before the lecture, I went down to the station to meet Laura Cecil, who was Philippa’s agent, and David Wood who wrote the magical stage adaptation of Tom’s Midnight Garden. Then who should turn up but June Crebbins, whom I’ve known for years, and on the same train as Laura was Caroline Royds of Walker Books. We took a nice big taxi to Homerton where the halls were humming with people: Morag Styles , Victor Watson, Gillian McLure and others on the Steering Committee, Julia Eccleshare looking extremely glamorous, Jill Paton- Walsh and John Rowe Townsend and of course Philippa Pearce’s own daughter, Sally Christie, with Ben Norland and their elder son, and Ben’s mother, the wonderful illustrator, Helen Craig, who provided such perfect pictures for Pearce’s lovely last book A Finder’s Magic .
I’m sure the lecture will soon be available for everyone to read, but till that day, I’ll do my best to give an account. The title, taken from Burnt Norton, the first of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, was a clue. Philip spoke about TIME. He spoke mainly about Tom’s Midnight Garden. He discussed the different ways of presenting a narrative: the difference between the past and present tense, how you can often use both in a text, first person, where the camera is: all sorts of technical things were described and explained . He also demonstrated how different ways of writing produce different effects on the reader. He talked about the importance of where the camera is when you’re looking at a scene. He spoke of Pearce’s unerring way of knowing when to finish something, when to cut away. He made a couple of good jokes. He spoke at some length about folk tales and their unadorned and hard-hitting language and he drew our attention to the fact that when describing a photograph or painting one never uses the past tense. “She’s standing by the gate” we say, as he pointed up at a lovely photograph of Pearce herself which was set in the middle of the stage. He was clear, concise, and yet detailed throughout and it was wonderful to hear a real lecture about a real book by someone who understands better than most how fiction operates.
After the lecture, we went into the Dining Hall where books by both Philip and Philippa were set out for those who wished to buy them. I ran into Anne Rooney, smiling and happy in a lacy pink top and dark blue floaty skirt and we drank wine and agreed that we were glad to have come to hear this. I met Diana Boston, daughter of Lucy Boston, author of the Green Knowe books. I chatted to Louise Stothard of the Oxford Children’s Book Group of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups. I met Anne Marie Young who used to work at Cambridge University Press and whom I hadn’t seen for years.
And by the time we left Homerton, the clouds (which had been hanging about all day in a rather unconvincing way) had lifted and the sunset was streaming gold and pink on to every window we could see. It was the perfect end to a wonderful afternoon.
PS. I'm posting this photograph of Philip signing books after his lecture, courtesy of the photographer, Jill Paton Walsh and also Nicky Potter. Thanks to both.
“Both perhaps present…”