On Philip Pullman’s visit to Bedford for Independent Bookshop Week

by Emily Ross

The adage ‘never meet your heroes’, is probably as old as the concept of celebrity itself. We all know people who have found themselves in close proximity to, or else sought out, or bought tickets for, some meeting with their most revered idol – only to find the dream shattered, their feelings towards them misplaced in the face of a grump with a God complex who hurries out an autograph and barely a word. It was not without some trepidation, then, that I anticipated the visit of Philip Pullman to Bedford. Fortunately, my concern was in vain.

It was a Monday night in mid-May when Rachael Rogan of Rogan’s Books (Castle Lane, Bedford) met with Kristina Bullen, Katie Churchill and me, each of the Circus of Illustration, in a low-lit corner of the Three Cups pub on Newnham Street, to discuss the visit of the author of The Book of Dust. Initial plans for a boat ride and a flyover from Airlander had to be scrapped, and we drew up plans for a workshop that would allow children to discover their dæmons, the animal familiars that accompany all humans in the world of Northern Lights. We settled on welcoming children via customs to receive a dual passport that children could fill out themselves, drawing self-portraits, their dæmons, and places that they had visited and so on.

Three days were spent at home writing the copy and drawing up the illustrations for these passports. I made animal forms, replications of the key objects from the series, and a parallel-world coat of arms for Lyra’s country home – Brytain and the Isles – that featured the Welsh dragon, a nod to the Fen-country of Eastern Anglia on the shield, and the Eye of Providence with other religious iconography. Katie formatted the animal options page and added texture to everything, and Kristina completed the piece, putting it together (and it had to be blue, surely – would there have been a European Union in Lyra’s world?) and adding the other-worldly stamps within.

I agreed with Rachael to dress Rogan’s Books for the event. The weekend before the visit found me bringing together scraps of letters that I had constructed, old coats I had given to friends, scouring charity shops for any other objects (I got a beautiful decanter on Castle Road and found Lee Scoresby’s Navajo turquoise ring in All Ears on the High Street), and borrowing a large papier-mâché balloon from the Higgins and a huge cuddly Polar bear named Spitsbergen from Cruise Select on Mill Street. With the very kind and generous assistance of Rachael, a large Ikea glass display cabinet was set up in her now empty back room, and her shop assistant Ellie produced gorgeous typography across the window. Sandra Ross made a suit of Blue Peter-style sky-iron (tinfoil) armour for the bear, and, as I have a huge collection of personal illustrations that I had made over a course of twelve years or so, artists Faye Spencer and the aforementioned Katie and I selected the best pieces, and attached them to string hung about the walls, for something of an exhibition.

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When Mr Pullman arrived on the Monday, we welcomed him graciously. He told us that he had never been to Bedford, save passing through to his son in Cambridge. My first impressions were just how much bigger he seemed in real life; larger-than-life, deft of movement, swift of expression, and another word that might be laconic or sardonic but more positively-charged, and kind. He appeared impressed with the effort that we had put in and took some photos immediately on arrival, and seemed to especially like the homage I had paid to his short story The Collectors, in my inclusion of a portrait of Mrs Marisa Coulter and a bronze statuette of a monkey (Seletti, from Little Clarendon Street in Oxford) [pictured]. He confirmed to me that Marisa’s maiden name was ‘definitely van Zee,’ which I said seemed to imply she was a Fenlander – and he confirmed we’d learn more about her background in the books to come. He asked if The Collectors had been published yet, and I told him it had not (save audiobook and for kindle) and he conceded that it must soon, perhaps in a collection of short stories. Notably, and somewhat morbidly, he stated over lunch, which was generously provided by Emma Garrett at the Pavilion in the Park, that if he ‘kicks the bucket’ before the Book of Dust is complete, he wants no ghostwriter and only a note beneath his last line stating ‘Here, the master laid down his pen’. We also discussed the upcoming BBC adaptation, and he expressed a confidence in the cast and happiness with Clarke Peters as Dr Carne, the Master of Jordan College. Adele Starminster was also confirmed as appearing.

Whilst looking at the displays, he gave a gasp of shock that I had managed to procure a bottle of Elizabeth Arden’s Blue Grass, his mother’s scent, which I (and my grandmother) also ordinarily use, but had included with a guess that Mrs Coulter might use it, too. It has a beautiful scent with citric notes that are initially very like talc, almost metallic, yet later bloom florally like roses. He had a spray, and I talked him through the other ephemera contained within the cabinet, which included mocked up letters from Jordan College and field notes from Dr Mary Malone and a small lodestone resonator (made from a chunk of graphite and a doll’s house violin). In his examination of my drawings, which I hope showed the love I have for His Dark Materials, I asked him if my picture of a cliff-ghast was accurate, to which he said kindly, holding true to a commitment to the vision that lies somewhere between author and reader, ‘well, they look just like that.’

I enjoyed seeing those parts of his character that had come out in the story were some of the parts included in this exhibit: there was a bar of Kendal Mint Cake, the design of which featured on his own pen-case, and we later learned that the decanter of Tokay in the first chapter of Northern Lights was due to Tokaji being his favourite wine, and, thanks to Annamaria Kasa, Rachael had managed to get an authentic Hungarian bottle for him. His publicist, Harriet, commended both the attention to detail within the collection and also the very strong community spirit there clearly was within the town, as so many people had come together to help the event.

Every book signing was completed with a serene benevolence; he wanted every book dedicated where possible, and was patient in his execution. Our walk to the Panacea Museum, through the Castle Gardens in the afternoon sunshine, was as relaxed and calm as if we had stepped on through into some other world, and we shared a conversation about film-making and how many films sacrifice story and character for special effects, explosions and shallow thrills.

He was demonstrably fascinated with the history of the Panacea Society – the hallowed halls of which being the perfect place for any author with philosophical and theological leanings – and I suggested he make a short story about it, perhaps to accompany The Collectors (so you heard it here first, folks). There followed a short radio interview, then a chilling reading from his short story, Clockwork, in the Box Room, more signings, and a walk amongst the workshops. As well as the Circus, Kristina Castle of the Little Science Lab was creating the northern lights in jam jars with iron filings and magnets, and stylized confectionary courtesy of Juliet Magee made its way amongst the children.

At one point, a child asked Mr Pullman what his dæmon would be, and he said that she was a member of the crow family because of his propensity to steal things. He said, however, that the best way to identify your dæmon is really to have a lot of your friends put anonymous nominations into a hat, and if they all think you’re a slug – that’s what you are. Then, a second child piped up and asked his dæmon’s name, to which he paused, before replying thoughtfully, ‘Do you know, I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that. I’ve never really thought about it before. But I will have to think about it.’

The adults then began arriving for the Conversation with Ali Nicholl, the transcript for which can be read here. After more signings, and photographs, and sharing a love of lurid socks with Catherine Monk, the time came for Mr Pullman to depart. Ere, he kissed each of us in turn on both cheeks, accompanied by an embrace, and got into his car. We do sincerely hope that he may find the time to visit again. Thankfully, as it all turned out, I have never been more happy to reject that old adage I mentioned above, and amend it in favour of my own: ‘always meet your heroes’.

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