Michael Rosen is a man ambushed by stories – his own and other people’s. He thinks he has published four books so far this year, though neither he, nor anyone from what turns out to be five publishers, seems sure. No sooner had he sent his latest, a hefty memoir, to press than a stash of family photographs emerged from a cupboard in the US, adding an irresistible twist to his life story, and that of his extensive tribe. The result, he cheerfully announces, is that the proof copy I have just read is already out of date as he has added a new postscript to the finished version.
So They Call You Pisher! by Michael Rosen review – style and humour
At 71, Rosen is one of the UK’s best-known children’s writers, with more than 200 books to his name – hence his momentary forgetfulness. Though his stock in trade is comic verse for small children, this year’s crop includes a non-fiction book about Émile Zola, the second in a series of novels about 10-year-old Malcolm and his bossy Uncle Gobb, a picture book about a very fierce cat, an illustrated version of his 4m-hit YouTube poem, “Chocolate Cake”, and the memoir, So They Call You Pisher!
He is also a professor of children’s literature at Goldsmiths, University of London, and a passionate defender of progressive education in the UK state school system, with a column in the Guardian and a strong broadcasting presence as presenter of Radio 4’s Word of Mouth. Now a prominent supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, he stood as a Respect candidate in the 2004 London assembly election.
But it’s the memoir that has him bouncing up and down in the north London home where he is under doctor’s orders to take it easy after a minor operation – and in particular the 17 photographs that were discovered in a shoebox during a clear-out of the home of an American relative. The most poignant of them shows two well-dressed women and a younger man in a greatcoat walking arm in arm along a Polish street in the 1930s. At the top, in looping handwriting, are the names Mishka, Stella and Bella. Rosen knew that Stella and Bella were his father’s aunts but it wasn’t until he had sent the picture to a different branch of the family that the young man’s identity emerged.
It took a bit of time to realise the BBC were sacking me, and years to realise it was because I was on an MI5 list
“Mishka” was his father’s cousin Michael, who had been sent out of Poland on a train aged 17, just as the Nazis were invading. He never heard from his immediate family again and, now in his 90s, was overwhelmed to be confronted by the first photograph he had ever seen of himself with his mother. It was, as Rosen says, “this incredible picture of happiness” before the horrors began.
“So why did the American family keep this secret?” he muses, concluding that it must have been due to “a mixture of shame and guilt that they hadn’t got them out,” so that it was only after the older generation died that the faces began tumbling out of their hiding-places.
The belated appearance of the pictures might be a mild inconvenience but it was no great surprise to a man who has coasted along on a lifetime of mysteries. The first one emerges at the very start of his memoir, when he and his older brother, Brian, discover a photo of a sibling they never knew they had.
“That’s Alan. He died,” their father tells the two young boys. “He coughed to death in your mother’s arms. It was during the war. They didn’t have any medicines. He was a lovely boy.” Alan was never mentioned again by either of his parents. “For a moment I felt ashamed that I had made this discovery,” writes Rosen.
Its repercussions ripple through a memoir that is in part a love letter to his educationalist father. He wonders if his special closeness to “the old man” came from the fact that, as the youngest of the three boys – “the one who came after” [his brother’s death] – he was the replacement child. “Perhaps I was also a cough waiting to happen.”
He was born in a nursing home in north London. His mother, Connie, had been an academically gifted child of the Jewish East End. His father, Harold, had a more cosmopolitan background. Born in the US to a mother who fled her marriage for London taking three of her five children with her, he kept his American nationality while reviling its capitalist values. Both Harold and Connie were prominent members of the Communist Party, who had been part of the Cable Street march against Oswald Mosley’s fascists. Neither had any time for their origins. So two of Harold’s more surprising legacies to his youngest son were an army canteen from his days as a second world war conscript to the US army, and the middle name Wayne. In a typically baroque biographical flourish, Rosen explains that he was given the name in honour of Wayne C Booth, who was billeted with Harold at the US army university in Shrivenham, Oxfordshire, and just happened to go on to write a seminal book about the modern novel, The Rhetoric of Fiction.
Rosen recalls a family life driven by his parents’ beliefs, with summer camps in France and one memorable holiday in communist East Germany where his mother suddenly revealed she was fluent in German because of the Yiddish that, unbeknown to her sons, she had spoken as a child. In such a loquacious family, the silences were gaping, setting Rosen off on an early mission to become the family archivist. “A couple of years ago my brother asked: ‘Why was everything ideological?’ Ideology wasn’t just ideology, it could be about coffee or the shape of a bowl,” he says. “But a lot of the time it undermined itself, partly because of Brian undermining it, but also because it led to the paradox of questioning everything, including what I’m questioning.”
Brian, Rosen says, was the brainbox of the family, who has gone on to become a marine palaeontologist with a species of coral named after him. Michael bobbed along in his wake, with interests that ranged from butterflies to theatre. His parents were devoted but “over-involved” in his education. When he told them at the age of 12 that he liked acting, they sent him halfway across London to join the leading am-dram company, Questors. When he later expressed an interest in biology, they decided he was destined to become a doctor.
He dutifully enrolled at Middlesex Hospital medical school, but found that “sitting in the canteen arguing about the metabolism of the liver” was not his idea of fun, so came up with the ruse of applying to Oxford University, as it would allow him to change course. He duly transferred to English and spent a happy three years “acting, writing, directing, doing journalism and the course”. While there, he wrote a play, Backbone, which was staged at London’s Royal Court and published by Faber. Meanwhile, his interest in politics, which had “petrified around the age of 17”, was revivified by encounters with a new generation of activists including Christopher Hitchens, Hilary Wainwright and Tariq Ali.
After university, he was fast-tracked as a graduate trainee into the BBC, where he stayed for three years until, in 1972, he was abruptly asked to leave. “The head of staff training said: ‘We think it would be better if you went freelance.’ At that moment I thought, wow, what a promotion. It took a bit of time to realise they were sacking me, and it took until 1985 to realise that it was because I was on an MI5 list.” The truth emerged through an Observer scoop: he had been blacklisted for, among other things, annoying the US embassy by showing film clips of American soldiers being subjected to tests of LSD.
After leaving the BBC, he wrote some poems for a schools radio programme his mother was running, and began to assemble a collection about his childhood, not imagining that it would be read by children. His first book of poetry, Mind Your Own Business, was published in 1974 with illustrations by Quentin Blake, to whom he feels he owes his publishing career. “Without him, it would have completely died a death. He’s a mime artist on the page. He gave the poems a sort of physicality, which matches my performances on the page.”
The other great debt of his early career was to the deputy head of a London school who asked him to give a poetry reading. “I remember holding the book up in front of my face so the kids couldn’t see me. Halfway through he said: ‘No, it doesn’t go like this,’ and there was this great roar. He grabbed the book off me and didn’t just read them – he danced them. I’d thought people would read them on the page and spot the quiet ironies, but I realised, my God, this was a performance.”
It was, he says, “an absolute eureka moment. I immediately remembered all those years of performance that I’d kept separate – all that Brechtian stuff of being in and out of role at the same time, and thought I could do that. It’s only what standup had been doing for 100 years, but it hadn’t occurred to me that you could do it with poetry.”
So began a career that pioneered the two-track life of writing and performance that is now the norm on the children’s book circuit. Generations of parents and children all over the world can quote from his best-loved book – the Smarties prize-winning We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, which has sold more than 8m copies in 18 languages since it was published in 1989.
Then, in 1999, “everything changed” when his 18-year-old son Eddie died overnight of meningitis, after arriving home from school complaining of “feeling groggy”. Carrying the Elephant: A Memoir of Love and Loss, published three years later, recounts the experience as part of a series of 72 prose poems that cover much of the same biographical ground as Pisher. He stares the tragedy down in an almost unbearable central sequence describing the night of Eddie’s death and its immediate aftermath. “He was there. Then he wasn’t. Though in between, he was blue and stiff and landed with a thud when 999 told me to pull him to the floor.”
But tellingly, even in deepest, darkest grief, a schoolboy humour bubbles up, as he recalls his final exchange with his son, which was to ask him for the answer to a riddle.
“- Did you get it?
- Yes, he said, your bum.
- That’s it, I said.
Yes, those were his last words.”
Two years later he teamed up once more with Blake to relive the experience in picture-book form for Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. He did it, he explains, because he felt he owed it to his longstanding fans to explain what had happened to Eddie, who had starred in earlier poems – notably in his 1983 collection Quick, Let’s Get Out of Here, as a tearaway toddler, putting pepper in the raisins and Shreddies in his ear.
Zola’s passion was for truth and justice – if you’re passionate about truth and justice it will turn you on to politics
Eddie was one of three children and two stepchildren that Rosen had accumulated through his first two marriages. He has since married the radio producer and film-maker Emma-Louise Williams, with whom he has a teenage son and daughter. He’s mindful of history repeating itself in this new tale of the children “who came after” – but Eddie, he says, is a mythical figure to them, whose memory is kept alive through the hockey match held every year in his name to raise money for meningitis research. The prize is a goalkeeper’s glove with half a pint of beer in it. Big, gangly Eddie, he says fondly, was a goalkeeper who loved a pint.
Jokes and tribulations are seldom far apart in the work of an author whose books wrap many of the most important experiences of growing up in titles such as Fluff the Farting Fish and Bananas in My Ears, and who made it the mission of his role as the fifth children’s laureate to set up the Roald Dahl funny prize “because funny books often get overlooked when it comes to prizes”. His inaugural Goldsmiths lecture was on humour in children’s books. In it, he mused on the importance of wee-wee jokes and the existential wisdom of Professor Branestawm taking his housekeeper Mrs Flittersnoop out to see a film about the home life of the brussels sprout, as it appeared to a small boy growing up in a household of “the only Jewish communists living in Pinner Middlesex in 1950 … On the one hand this was nothing like our family set-up … on the other hand there was something [in it] of all of us. The joke of the cranky, obsessed, life-ignoring professor was in part a joke on us.”
His Zola project, simultaneously a book and a radio collaboration with Williams, reveals a more academic side. It covers Zola’s exile from France after his “J’accuse” intervention in the Dreyfus affair, in which the celebrated novelist accused the French government of antisemitism in its persecution of an army officer charged with spying. “He was at the height of his career. There was every reason not to get involved, but his passion was also for truth and justice and if you’re passionate about truth and justice it will turn you on to politics. I’ve never been called upon to be as brave as he was in taking a stand.”
He and Williams are now working on a programme about Gerard Manley Hopkins. Did you know, he enthuses, that the Jesuit priest-poet discovered sprung rhythm from nursery rhymes such as “One, two, buckle-my-shoe”?
Professor, punster, political commentator – how does he manage to keep so many balls in the air? His eyes bulge in comic indignation: “That’s like saying your spikes in the front are different to the spikes on your back. I’d say no, I’m just a hedgehog. They’re all my spikes.”
I see what you're saying here! I do believe that all schools should have a core arts curriculum that is guaranteed. We now know that the arts in schools have been marginalised by Sats and Ebacc - I do not blame teachers for this, they are under enormous pressure to succeed, and success is gauged by Sats and GCSE scores. The arts offer a way of thinking and feeling that investigates and reflects on the world. Most tests and exams do not reach this way of thinking. If we practice the arts, this enables us to use materials – whether that's clay, language, our bodies, music – in order to find our place in the world. It doesn't have to be tied to empirical facts; it can suggest or imply or raise questions or raise possibilities. It can express our sense of a culture that we are part of. And it can be a way, perhaps the sole way, in which we can reach out and communicate with others. It can also, for example with a play or dance, be a way of combining with other people, co-operating, collaborating, in ways that are very egalitarian and very empathetic to other people's feelings and intentions. This kind of stuff is gold dust. It may well be a door through to new states of being for the person taking part, or if you want to be utilitarian about it, to jobs. Sometimes the experience of taking part in the arts might be the first point on a journey where people discover they do have worth, ability, and qualities that they didn't realise they had. But for all of us, through expressing our feelings and ideas, we discover more about ourselves, and more about the materials around us (and I've used that word material to include words, music and the like because if you think about it, you can only express language and music through material forms such as sound and computers and pens and musical instruments!).