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Brighton Festival guest director is making his presence felt
As Brighton Festival announced this year’s stellar line-up, Nione Meakin, pictured, spoke to guest director Michael Rosen about his “typical Jewish East End” upbringing, government cuts to art funding, and his love of ‘yoof slang’.
BRIGHTON Festival is pleasingly unpredictable in its choice of guest directors.
Since the post was introduced in 2008, artist Anish Kappor, music producer Brian Eno, Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and actress Vanessa Redgrave have all lent their talents and experience to the May programme. But in Michael Rosen, they might have found their most popular guest director yet.
The writer and poet, a former Children’s Laureate whose books have been staple bedtime reading for generations of kids, is as cherished for his personality as he is for his work and when he opened this year’s festival on Wednesday, Twitter was abuzz with enthusiasm.
“A genuinely inspirational launch – Michael Rosen you have a new fan!” wrote Gary Peters of the Brighton and Hove Economic Partnership; “Delighted with the choice of Michael Rosen,” added arts blogger David Harrison.
The love-in is entirely mutual. “It felt like an award!” Rosen says of being offered the guest director post. “I just thought wow, what an incredible honour.”
We’re in the foyer bar of the Brighton Dome where he’s gulping down a much-needed cup of tea apparently oblivious to the onlooker filming him on his mobile phone.
It’s been a manic morning but he puts on a good show, hands fluttering to illustrate points, googly eyes inviting connection. Rosen isn’t one for shirking his responsibilities, whether it’s fulfilling media obligations or entertaining his youngest son.
He shares Roald Dahl’s assertion that the best a parent can aim to be is ‘sparky’. “I got in last night shattered and my little chap, who’s eight, said, ‘Dad, can you..” and the first thing you think – doesn’t matter what it is – is, ‘no’. But he doesn’t care what I’ve done all day. He just wants some contact and some fun and you owe that to them – so you find the sparky and you collapse later.”
Impassioned columnist His approach to the Festival is similarly hands-on; Rosen is personally involved in ten shows in the programme.
They include a screening of Erich Kastner’s beloved children’s novel Emil and The Detectives, set in 1920s Berlin and full of themes of “cooperation, imagination and cities”; a Guardian debate on education [Rosen is an impassioned columnist for the paper] and new commission The Great Enormo, “a kerfuffle in B flat for orchestra, wasps and soprano” set in a theme park.
They reflect Rosen’s own broad-ranging interests, which have seen him work as a playwright, broadcaster, actor, documentary-maker and campaigner alongside publishing scores of much-loved children’s books including Little Rabbit Foo Foo, Burping Burtha and We’re Going On a Bear Hunt.
He has been writing for children for almost 40 years. After graduating from an English degree at Wadham College, Oxford, taking a brief wrong turn into a medical degree and spending a somewhat frustrated period working in kids’ TV for the BBC. “Their view of ‘educational’ was narrow,” he said. “The machine had decided this was the direction to take. Your own creativity was down the spout.”
Mind Your Own Business, Rosen’s first volume of poetry for children, was published in 1974. With its irreverent tales of a boy who only eats peas and bread rolls that fold when you try to butter them, the book established him as an exciting new voice in children’s publishing with a particular gift for humour.
Humour was very much a family tradition in his ‘typical Jewish East End’ upbringing, he says, and got the family through bad times as well as good. He’s still a firm believer in its power and even established the Roald Dahl Funny Prize to celebrate the best examples of humour in children’s books.
“Children live in a world where they have very little power and I think they’re intrigued by the way powerful people in their lives – ie adults – express such certainty.
“They get tremendous delight when that certainty is broken up, whether through taboos or people falling over or something odd.”
At 66 he’s rather too old to have attended arts festivals as a child – “I do remember being taken to the Festival of Britain as a five-year-old” – but growing up in Harrow, North London, his teacher parents Harold and Connie took him on regular trips to the theatre, for concerts and dance shows and he’s quick to highlight how important such experiences are.
“There’s nothing to replace going out and enjoying something with people you don’t know but in a place where you feel comfortable. There’s a sense of belonging, being part of something and influencing what you’re looking at and that’s very special.”
He recalls attending a screening of Star Wars in the States some years ago. “It got to the line where Harrison Ford tells Princess Leia he loves her and she says, ‘I know.’ The audience all stood up and cheered. I’d never seen the film before and it was wonderful to see it like that, to be part of something.”
The pop culture reference is not unusual; while other Oxford-educated literary stars might think themselves above such earthly pleasures, Rosen embraces all of it – computer games, telly, pop music, the lot. “My feeling is that it’s important to try lots of different things. Trying, experimenting, playing with things – letting different forms fed and fertilise each other.”
‘Yoof slang’ He loves Rolling In The Deep singer Adele – “Here she is, 18 or something and sounding like she’s experienced the whole of life and squeezed it through her voice and words” and thinks TV comedies such as The Thick Of It and The Office are as important as classics.
He even confesses to a love of the sort of ‘yoof slang’ that has teachers shaking their heads. “I really like ‘amazeballs’!” he says, grinning. “The first time I heard my kids saying it I just fell about. Totes, amaze, YOLO – they’re all examples of inventiveness, the way language never stands still. Some people try to fight these things or impose a sort of rule of academy over them but language represents one of the great things about humanity. We make it what we want regardless of what others try to make us do.”
There’s a sense that Rosen is always on the side of the rebel, the child that doesn’t want to do what he’s told and would rather stay up and play than meekly shuffle off to bed. He despairs of the increasingly strict regulations that face children now, the endless tests and timetables and worksheets; the idea that things don’t somehow count unless they can be scored and quantified.
One of the first poets to start making schools visits in the 1970s, he continues to spend two days a week talking to children, reading with them and helping them in their writing. Still he hears from teachers in schools that don’t welcome poets like him that those in charge have told them there is no time for poetry, music, art or dance. “It’s a very odd world it seems to be where there isn’t time to do that stuff, but that’s what people tell me has happened.”
At the end of last year, he wrote an open letter to education secretary Michael Gove outlining tongue-in-cheek methods by which the government might improve education, from ‘suggest at every opportunity that academics and students are spongers and skivers’ to ‘all schools must be turned into limited companies.’ He’s bugged by the wider implication that the arts are some kind of superfluous luxury, as illustrated by the government’s drastic cuts to arts funding. It is, he grumbles, a strand of Puritanism.
“Arts are essential because we’re humans with troubles and joys and excitement and complex feelings and they’re one way we explore these things. It’s not just about money for people to be able to go and stare at a painting, it’s about encouraging and helping young people, older people – all people – to create things, make things for themselves.”
Rosen is to lead a number of workshops to this effect at this year’s festival, which it claims will be its most accessible yet. Tickets for 120 events start at £10 or less and there are 22 entirely free events. It also looks to be one of the most interesting festivals in some years, concerts by psychedelic rock band The Flaming Lips sitting alongside a punk-and-electronica take on Beowulf; beatboxer Beardyman sharing the programme with a world premiere of Benjamin Britten’s The Canticles and numerous other shows exploring death, manners, speech, physical limits of the human body and other big themes.
This will be a festival full of fun, a tribute to imagination and creativity. It’s clear the festival’s charming, animated and engaging guest director is making his presence felt.