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Brief encounter: Michael Rosen

"We do not distribute the results of our work in an equitable way"
April 11, 2017
First historical event you can recall?

The Festival of Britain of 1951, when I was five years old. I can remember going into the Dome of Discovery and standing alongside a beautiful blue diesel-electric railway engine, which towered over me. It all seemed magical and I hoped that I would be alive in 2051 for the next one.

The book you are most embarrassed you never yet read?

Bleak House. I can’t explain why not. I haven’t read all of Dickens by any means but what I have read I’ve enjoyed massively. About 10 years ago, I would have answered this question with some other books, but that year I made a list and worked through such things as the Odyssey and Jude the Obscure to make up some gaps. I missed out Bleak House, though!

One bit of advice you’d give to your younger self?

Read Bleak House. OK—I know that sounds facetious but what I mean is that between, say, the years of 14 and 22, of course it’s great to footle about, not doing much apart from wondering why you’re not doing much, but if you’re halfway interested in doing something to do with writing, then the best apprenticeship is reading like crazy.

What is your favourite saying or quotation?

“I am soft sift/in an hour glass.” This comes from “The Wreck of the Deutschland” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins invented a new way of writing poetry, which he created out of experiments with Milton, Anglo-Saxon poems, nursery rhymes and Welsh poetry. This line expresses to me those moments when you are both constrained (“in an hour glass”), under compulsion to do something (flow like sand in an hour glass) and yet without a structure.

If you were given £1m to spend on other people, what would you spend it on and why? 

A Children’s Poetry Centre. I imagine a place that would have a performance space, a writing space, a library, great internet access, musical instruments, collections of odd objects, photos, paintings, walls where poems and pictures could be pinned, in a place where within a mile there are odd, quirky places to visit...

The talent you wish you had?

Being able to count bars of music without having to count them. I’ve worked with musicians over the last five years and I came to realise how bad I am at it. And even when I count myself “in,” I get the beat wrong.

The best and worst presents you’ve ever received?

Worst: a butterfly catching kit. My parents suffered from over-interest in my brother and me. If I mentioned something I was half-interested in, they would leap on it as if it meant that it was something I was fascinated by. I once said I liked insects. Following Christmas: the butterfly kit. Never used it. Best: I’m very keen on a mug that my youngest son (12) gave me which says on it: “Number 1 Dad.” I don’t care how confected that slogan is, he chose that to give to me. I love drinking out of it.

What have you changed your mind about?

Beaches. They’re OK. I used to think that beaches were a nightmare: for a start, they’re sandy. In Britain they’re usually windy and rainy. But under duress, I’ve come to appreciate that there are other qualities that make them OK: you can’t walk fast on the dry bits, it’s great to watch the way the sea flows over the sand.

What is the biggest problem of all?

Inequality. This, surely, is at the core of nearly all our problems. We do not distribute the results of our work in an equitable way. Unless we solve this, we will destroy millions of us, if not all of us.

The last piece of music/play/novel/film that brought you to tears?

I had moments in Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls. I thought it was a powerful way to show how young people struggle to deal with tough things in their lives. I guess there were moments that revived for me the loss of my son, though the film is the reverse: a boy losing a parent.