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Michael Rosen tells Rosy Moorhead about his days as a sixth former at Watford Grammar School for Boys
Michael Rosen is a journalist’s dream. You ask him the briefest of questions and he’s off, reeling off half a dozen memories and funny stories for each one, giving you enough material to fill several features, never mind one.
We start in Harrow, where the children’s author and poet and former Children’s Laureate was born and grew up – taking in his nursery, two primary schools and secondary school, discovering his love of writing stories and poems, his inspirational teachers, and breaking his teeth go-karting – before moving on to his family’s move to Northwood and his being a sixth-former at Watford Grammar School for Boys from 1962 to 1964.
“Going to Watford Boys was an extraordinary break,“ says the 67-year-old. “We moved because my mum, a teacher, got a job at Eastbury Farm School in Northwood.
“Harrow Weald County Grammar School, where I’d been until then, was a mixed school and very liberal and very relaxed in its way of going on.
"But Watford was like any town grammar school, these big city schools that grew up during the post-war years. It was very much about tradition and it all seemed very grand and rather formal when I arrived.
“I was quite surprised and rather destabilised by it, and didn’t behave very well I’m afraid, which I regret bitterly.“
But Michael says he was only ‘naughty’ at the very beginning.
“I think I couldn’t cope emotionally with the sort of teasing that boys do of each other. I couldn’t take what I’d given out at my previous school. So I did some silly things, drawing on desks and things.“
Before long, Michael was taken to one side by the then headmaster, Harry Rée, who was famed for his wartime membership of the Special Operations Executive and who went on to become a celebrated educationalist, with whom Michael worked on a number of projects.
“He was the head but he happened to be a friend of my dad’s," Michael remembers. “I remember him saying ‘Rosen, you’ve made a bloody bad start’. In those days teachers didn’t swear, you didn’t hear them say ‘bloody’, but he did, it was quite funny."
His talking to by Harry Rée made it into his poetry collection Michael Rosen’s Big Book of Bad Things.
But Michael grew to “really, really like it“ at Watford and got involved in rugby and working on the school magazine, The Fullerian, and he is occasionally invited back to give a talk to the current pupils, as he is to all his former schools in Harrow.
Listening to him talk, you’re struck by just how much detail Michael remembers from his childhood 50, 60 years ago.
“It’s all still very clear to me,“ he says. “There are loads and loads of poems about Pinner and growing up there in my books, like Quick, Let’s Get Out of Here and You Wait Till I’m Older Than You.
“There’s one about Pinner station, about waiting for my mum to come back from teaching at Harvey Road Primary School in Croxley Green, where she worked before Eastbury Farm. I used to come out of school in Harrow and there was this little gap between the time school ended and the time she got back, so I used to wait at the station. I would sit there and talk to the lady in the sweetie booth and she’d sometimes give me a quick Mars bar or something. And then my mum would come back on the ten to five train, she was always on that train.“
Michael loved English and writing, but went to Middlesex Hospital Medical School to study to be a doctor, after being instilled with a love of biology and zoology by his science teacher at Harrow Weald. But he quickly realised he ‘wasn’t very good at it’ and ended up going to Oxford to study English instead.
Firmly back on the artistic side of things, Michael says he didn’t originally intend to write for children.
“I was writing poems that I thought were poems about my childhood but for adults,“ he says, “but then I found out that people didn’t really want to publish those, they thought they were naïve, I don’t know. But a couple of people suggested that I should try children’s publishers and, through a combination of friends and family, we found a publisher who was interested. I was a bit amazed really.
“So I put together this group of poems, Mind Your Own Business, illustrated by Quentin Blake, and they came out in 1974, and suddenly the children’s book world welcomed me in and said ‘Ooh look, lovely new poems about modern children’. That was what started it – the fact that people were so enthusiastic.“
Since then, Michael has written getting on for 150 books, and has also been writing articles for newspapers and magazines, talking and performing at schools, libraries, theatres, making radio and TV documentaries mainly about words, language and books, and teaching and running workshops.
“This is the dream – no, beyond the dream job,“ he laughs. “I’m a kind of one-man talkie show, I do a mixture of poems and anecdotes, I can ad lib, I can improvise. If I could have imagined myself, at 15, doing this in 50 years’ time, I would have said ‘How would I get from here to there because that’s a dream?’“
- Lifelines with Michael Rosen takes place at Burgh House, New End Square, Hampstead on Thursday, October 10 at 7pm. Details: 020 7431 0144, burghhouse.org.uk
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