I have arranged to meet the writer Philip Pullman in the new restaurant at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Once past the familiar grand entrance and fusty exhibition spaces, there’s a surprise. The museum’s new extension, which opened in November, is a light-filled and vertiginous hallway containing a towering zigzag of stone stairs.
There are five storeys to mount and at every turn there are glass cases and openings into rooms, designed to draw you into different, exotic worlds. One moment you might catch a glimpse of some tiny Minoan statues. A little way further up there’s an 18th-century dining table set for dessert. Beyond, but clearly visible through glass, is a display of the early Chinese ceramics that influenced the great English porcelain designers. It’s clever.
Perched at the top of these stairs is the Ashmolean Dining Room. The restaurant is all glass and very modern, with light fittings that look a little like pre-Cambrian life forms. Pullman is by the door, standing there in a brown leather jacket, staring into space. He says he has never eaten here before – he hasn’t been able to get a table as it has always been booked up.
With his wife Jude, a retired teacher, Pullman lives in a farmhouse just outside the city (they have two grown-up sons). The 63-year old is best-known for the His Dark Materials trilogy, a clever, complex, cantilevered work of fantasy featuring a sea-changed Oxford and child protagonists Lyra and Will, who, rather like visitors to the Ashmolean, move in and out of parallel worlds through special openings.
No fuss is made of Pullman as we sit at a little table and are given our menus. I had expected that the staff here would recognise him. He’s a local celebrity and gave a speech at an opening reception for the revamped museum. As part of a promotion for the museum, there’s an enormous photograph of Pullman on the back of the Oxford to London express coaches. The same photograph, with his favourite Ashmolean painting (by Canaletto) in the background, is also on show in the museum. Pullman looks out rather warily from the portrait. As well he might: the photographer has hung huge pike round his neck.
In fact, Pullman likes fish. He orders garlic prawns followed by chargrilled squid. I ask for babaganoush, an aubergine and tahini dip, followed by risotto. Before I can suggest any wine, Pullman asks for water. We stick with that throughout the meal. “I like having fish when I come out. I don’t cook fish very often because we have an Aga [range cooker]. Fish is best when you cook it quickly and the Aga is best for slow cooking.”
Pullman is a good cook. I interviewed him in 2003 when his book Lyra’s Oxford, a short story featuring the heroine of the His Dark Materials trilogy, was published. We met in his farmhouse surrounded by his two pet pugs and his books, his chisels and his vices, and the rather beautiful head of a rocking horse he had just embarked on carving. Then he had served a delicious lemony chicken soup. “I do the cooking at home because I am more interested in eating than my wife is. I enjoy cooking, I enjoy all technical processes. I enjoy physical engagement with things.
“That is exactly what I miss with the internet. Moving a little mouse about and seeing a cursor zipping down a screen – it is not satisfying. I would infinitely rather draw something – there is more pleasure in moving a pencil across the slightly resistant but also slightly forgiving surface of a roughened paper, the pleasure of seeing a drop of paint on a wet brush bloom as it touches your paper. I like a sensuous engagement with things. Yes!”
Pullman’s prawns arrive. They are big, hot, oily and very much in demand of sensuous engagement. He peels back a shell, and hot garlicky liquid spurts out. Though he says, “Excuse my bad manners, I am spraying this all over the place,” he is neat-fingered and his shirt front remains white.
Pullman loves to grapple – and not only physically. He has a history of gnawing away at the ills of society and taking on public issues. He has spoken out against the Iraq war and the tests used for benchmarking children’s progress at school. He has helped campaign against developers knocking down the old boathouse by the canal in Oxford and has protested about library closures.
But what he is best known for wrestling with – his biggest oily prawn – has been God. Or, more precisely, organised religion and the church. Pullman calls himself an atheist and, like Professor Richard Dawkins (the other great resident Oxford atheist), his work is imbued with biblical references. His Dark Materials features Adam and Eve recast as children, and the death of God.
A 2007 film, The Golden Compass, was based on the first part of the trilogy (the book is called Northern Lights in the UK) and starred Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. It provoked outcries from Christian groups in the US and a negative editorial in Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.
But the criticism hasn’t deterred Pullman. He has once more turned his attention to the Bible, though this time it is the New Testament. As part of a “modern myths” series, the publisher Canongate has just published Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. This new book, as Pullman says, is “an odd sort of thing”. It’s certainly not a work of children’s fiction, nor an adult novel. It is really a mimicked gospel, a work of New Testament exegesis presented in the form of a simple, powerful and knowing little story. You can read it in one sitting. But, like a small grenade, it will ricochet uncomfortably around the mind of any Christian believer for some time to come.
“I suppose the title does attract a certain amount of attention,” says Pullman innocently. “I have had a few letters – four dozen or so – from people who object to the title. They know full well that I am a supporter of evil and that I will go to hell.”
In his book, Pullman has made some rather crucial alterations to the familiar tale. His Virgin Mary doesn’t give birth to Jesus Christ, she has twins. One is Jesus, a hale, hearty man of action and popular preacher. The other is Christ, a shy, timid runt of a brother who writes up Jesus’s life and teachings. Like any writer, Christ edits and shapes. But he also alters parables, and adds miracles and other supernatural elements for good effect. In the end, Christ realises that if the story of his brother’s life and teachings are to live on, if a great “organisation” (aka a church) is to be born, he needs a dramatic, cathartic martyrdom. So Christ betrays Jesus to the Romans, who duly crucify him.
The great set piece of this book, a truly moving passage of writing, is Jesus’s agony in the garden of Gethsemane. Pullman’s Jesus, realising that God has never answered him, whispers, “You’re not listening. I’ve been speaking to you all my life and all I’ve heard back is silence.” (There is a possible echo here of Jesus in Matthew and Mark’s gospels, in agony on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”). But Pullman’s version of Jesus moves from entreaty to anger and then an acceptance that there is no God.
Most of Pullman’s narrative, however, is dominated by the weaselly, compromised, doubt-ridden writer Christ. “He is an interesting character. I found myself getting more and more sympathetic to him. The making of a good story is sometimes more important and more compelling than the retelling of facts. You see, without the story, there would be no church. And without the church, Jesus would be forgotten ... You see, dividing Jesus Christ into two let me examine the two parts of that man and think about them separately.”
Couldn’t a very similar trope be played with the life of Muhammad? Pullman is, quite suddenly, annoyed. “I don’t know enough about the life of Muhammad. Often I’ve had this sort of argument, ‘You don’t hit on a religion that is going to hit back. You are a coward. Why don’t you pick on Islam?’
“My answer to that is, ‘Why don’t you come out and say what you want? If you really want to have me killed, say so.’ I don’t write about Islam because I am not interested in Islam. I didn’t grow up in that tradition. I know nothing about it. The Christian tradition made me what I am. It is in every nerve of my body.”
Born in 1946, Pullman spent his early childhood living with his grandparents in Norfolk, where his grandfather was a clergyman. His father, a distant figure, was killed in an RAF flying accident in Kenya when Pullman was seven and his mother remarried afterwards and the family moved to Wales. He studied English at Oxford University and eventually became a teacher, working in middle schools in Oxford. He believes this job, talking all day to crowds of children, trained him as a storyteller. (He was, according to former pupils, a mesmerising teacher.) By his late twenties, he had already written a couple of adult literary novels but it was when he took to children’s literature (with Count Karlstein, published in 1982) that he really hit his stride.
The main dishes arrive: I have a nice artichoke risotto and Pullman has huge, slippery, tranches of calamari with an accompanying jungle of rocket. Pullman doggedly starts sawing at the white flesh. When did he lose his faith?
He shrugs. “So long ago I can’t remember. It was when I was a teenager – the usual teenage angst. You start asking, ‘Does God exist? And what is the point of life? When will I get a girlfriend?’ All of that stuff.”
And so he, too, experienced the silence? “Yes, the silence.” Pullman laughs. “The silence.”
So what exactly does he believe? “Oh, Jesus existed. I have no doubt about that – that he was born in Palestine and that he was crucified for political reasons by the Romans. But the Christ part has always been a myth. Paul and the author of [the gospel according to St] John were the originators of the all that sort of stuff, ‘The word was God and the word was with God. Light came into the world and the world knew it not’, and so on. It’s all wonderful poetry but it has absolutely nothing to do with the historical Jesus.”
Before embarking on his new book, Pullman spent time reading and studying the New Testament. He says: “I found things I hadn’t noticed before – that Paul, when he is talking about this figure, he calls him ‘Jesus’ about 30 times, calls him ‘Christ Jesus’ or ‘Jesus Christ’ about 60 times, he calls him ‘Christ’ alone 150-plus times. It is quite clear that Paul isn’t interested in Jesus [the man] nearly as much as he’s interested in Christ, his messiah figure.”
Most people who are not believers don’t read (or re-read) the Bible. They certainly don’t count up the Christs. For a non-believer, isn’t Pullman surprisingly interested in religion? “Even though I believe there is no God, that doesn’t stop the questions I ask being religious questions ... questions about life and fate and meaning and purpose and all of that sort of stuff. I think they are important.”
I wonder aloud why he can’t just let everything be. Other people just shrug these questions off. They get on with life. They don’t worry. In response, he gives me an appraising, blue-eyed stare.
Though I don’t believe Pullman is secretly a deeply unresolved, despite-himself Christian, it’s just not in his nature ever to let things slip by. He is hugely ambitious and hard on himself. And this doesn’t just apply to his impressive literary output. It spills over into other things. Look at this lunch – all that tricky seafood and no rewarding wine or pudding. And look at that impossible photograph downstairs with the fish. And that rocking horse in his study – most blokes, after all, just build shelves. Pullman is, in short, a glutton for difficulty.
We finish the meal. Over peppermint tea, he tells me about his next project: “I want to make a Gustav Stickley chair. He was an American maker of arts and crafts – famous for his wooden armchairs. Very comfortable.”
Afterwards we walk back down the white staircase and say goodbye. Somewhere in here is Pullman’s favourite Canaletto, “View of Dolo on the Brenta Canal”. But the museum is so state-of-the-art now that, well, he can’t find it.
Later, I look up Stickley’s reclining chairs. They are, indeed beautiful, constructions, made from quarter-sawed, steam-bent oak, and with adjustment bars and slender square spindles under the arms that have to be perfectly identical for the chair to look right. So that means difficult. Very, very difficult.
Amanda Mitchison is the author of ‘Mission Telemark’ (Walker)
‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’ by Philip Pullman is published by Canongate, £14.99. To buy it from the FT Bookshop for £11.99 plus p&p, call 0870 429 5884 or go to www.ft.com/bookshop
Ashmolean Dining Room
Beaumont Street, Oxford OX1 2PH
Garlic prawns £3.75
Chargrilled marinated squid £12.00
Artichoke risotto £12.50
English tea £2.25
Peppermint tea £2.25
Bottle of water £2.35
Michael Moorcock on reimagining the life of Christ
Like Philip Pullman, I, too, am fond of Stickley furniture, Oxford, real food and progressive politics. Our other points in common are having written successful fantasy stories and now a book with the potential to upset Christians. My book Behold the Man, first published in 1966, is about a time traveller who returns to Palestine in Biblical times in search of the historical Jesus. He discovers that the real Christ is a drooling idiot. Because he so desperately needs the historical Jesus to have existed, my protagonist lives out the rest of his short life in imitation of the Gospels, ultimately engineering his own crucifixion. Though I received flak for writing the book, Behold the Man was received surprisingly well by the British religious press, which seemed to understand what I was trying to do: my protagonist was asking questions rather than confronting an idea.
I was brought up in an almost wholly secular household: religion was not regarded as an enemy because we thought it had pretty much lost common relevance after 1918, even though we were still surrounded by sentimental, sometimes sublime, cultural reminders that England had once taken religion very seriously.
What I wanted to write about was how demagogues are, in Behold the Man, created by the will of the crowd. The man Jesus’s transition to Kristos, the Lord, was shown to be primarily the need of a conquered people for a figurehead with whom to identify. His ideas were presented as borrowings from Greek colonists and a variety of other sources intended, traditionally, to give supernatural authority to a predominantly political creed. I argued that once a spiritual notion becomes organised into a religion it automatically becomes political, which is why so many poorly-educated American evangelicals find it impossible to separate Church and State.
Only after the book came out in paperback in the US did I start getting death threats. Now that I live part of the year in the US Bible Belt, encountering some people who are unable to separate faith from patriotism, I’ve learnt a fair bit about disturbed individuals who become aggressive when the basis of their psychological support system is questioned. Why do these people need so forcefully to eliminate opposition? And why do most religions, as well as extremist political systems, have a history of violent suppression of disagreement?
How did I deal with the evangelicals who thought I should die for my beliefs? Where they gave me an address, I simply returned the cost of the book. Isn’t that the way one should always respectfully treat a dissatisfied customer?
Michael Moorcock’s ‘Hawkmoon: The Mad God’s Amulet’ is published this week