As a beloved writer, poet and broadcaster, Michael Rosen has more going on in his head than most.
Now, though, he’s received a most unusual and enticing opportunity. “I mean, just imagine it,” Rosen tells Northern Soul. “Somebody comes along to you and says, ‘I’m going to make an exhibition out of the stuff that’s in your head. Go on, tell me about your childhood, tell me about some poems that you like and some songs that you like. Now I’m going to make an exhibition out of it and people are going to be able to walk through your head’. Well, it’s a privilege, isn’t it?”
The result is Bear Hunt, Chocolate Cake and Bad Things, a new touring interactive exhibition that has recently arrived at Z-Arts in Manchester. It’s a zippy, sprawling visual feast, jam-packed with references to Rosen’s life and work, complete with everything from a replica of his childhood school room and a sinister shed to a walk-in chocolate cake and – yes – a big, dark forest. Fittingly, it’s a celebration of stories and creativity just as much as of the man himself, and it’s guaranteed to get ideas sparking with the families and schools groups who pass through.
Speaking exclusively to Northern Soul at the launch event, Rosen himself is evidently tickled by how the exhibition’s turned out.
“It’s wonderful,” he says. “I’ve just been in a room that’s mocked up as my grandparents’ front room and I’m actually quite moved by it. There’s a photo in there that’s actually responsible for me living in England and not America. It’s the picture of my grandmother coming to England, splitting off from her husband and bringing my dad with her. My dad is two and a half years old. If that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be here. So when I look at that picture, I’m like, ‘Waaaah!’. Not many people have photos of that moment of migration but there it is.”
This rush of memories must be something that Rosen is steeped in just now, as he’s working on the first volume of his autobiography for Verso Books. In the next few weeks alone, though, he’s putting out a new book of poetry, Jelly Boots Smelly Boots, plus, in a timely echo of his own family’s tale, a non-fiction book for children, Who are Refugees and Migrants?, co-written by Annemarie Young. Evidently he’s not a man who likes to be bored.
The title of the exhibition, and lots of its content, refers back to We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Rosen’s classic children’s picture book. He didn’t actually invent that from scratch – it had been floating around as a children’s folk song for a good while – but he took up his editor’s challenge to write it down and knock it into a full, satisfying shape. Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, the book was first published in 1989, so a swift bit of mental arithmetic tells us that its first wave of readers might now be bringing their own children along to this exhibition.
“That’s right,” says Rosen. “Let’s see, if you were three in ’89, you’re 30 now. So you could well have a three-year-old and see yourself in the cycle. You’re saying, ‘ooh, we used to play this in the garden. My mum – you know, Nan – she used to sing this with me’. And of course that’s lovely. I mean, I think any of us remembering when we were kids, we know that our parents used to get a bit misty-eyed about certain books. With my dad it was Great Expectations. With my mum it was some poems. And it was because these had power, and then you could have a conversation with your parents and say, ‘well, why was that book special?’. Now, those are very important things that help us get into books, because they’re the sort of hooks that go with the books, if you like, and draw us in and so books start to matter. Or, you may reject it and go, ‘oh, I’m not going anywhere near there coz Mum and Dad liked that’. That’s fine. That’s all right, because then you go and find something different, so it all matters. I try to get my little boy to enjoy The Tailor of Gloucester. He thinks it’s completely boring, and then he comes and says ‘Look, I found this other book, Dad, ha ha!’. And of course secretly I’m thinking, ‘Yep, jolly good!’”
Rosen has long been an active champion of children’s books. He held the post of Children’s Laureate from 2007 to 2009, and is currently Professor of Children’s Literature at Goldsmiths in London. It’s a fine, important cause and striking that most children’s books reflect a roughly similar set of values – generosity, inclusiveness, forgiveness, kindness – which, let’s face it, grown-up society could do with displaying a better grasp of.
“Yes, it’s kind of an irony isn’t it? There’s no price on kindness, is there, so you can’t sell it. You can’t exploit it. You can’t make money out of kindness, so it’s a bit under-valued, isn’t it? And then obviously if you trample all over people, as you’re shown in TV programmes like The Apprentice, you get wonderful awards. Big Brother, I’m a Celebrity, any of these things, you can be kind and nice on them, but at the end of the day you’ve got to do the others down. This is then seen as really brilliant and you get all the rewards and all the champagne and everything else. As you say, children’s books, by and large, have the values of, ‘If we hang about together and try and solve problems, we’ll get through the dangers. We’ll get through the bad times and we might discover that it wasn’t sensible to be really horrible to the other person’. Think of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Sometimes it’s preachy and sometimes it’s hidden, but yes, fundamentally it’s those values.”
He says: “You hear people on the television saying, ‘oh, the only thing you’ve got to do in secondary education is this..’. And then you listen to a teacher and they say, ‘Well, do you know, I’ve got two children in my class who are carers, and we keep quiet about it because we can’t say. I’ve got children in my class who are this that and t’other, you know, all sorts of problems. That’s what we’re dealing with and we do all our best to convey the curriculum to them. But there’s no point in us denying that’.
“Now, of course, when teachers say that, they then get lacerated and get told they’re social workers, they’re molly-coddlers and all the rest of it. But as we saw in Educating Yorkshire and so on, some of those teachers are working 12 hours a day saving those kids. I remember seeing a guy on there who said, ‘I don’t want to let this kid go from this school. He’s going to come with me into this unit within the school, because I want this kid to get at least one GCSE and I will do my damnedest to do it’. Now, why should we lacerate that teacher? He isn’t a social worker but he’s doing his very best to keep hold of that kid. That isn’t easy.”
Rosen marvels at the thought.
“Cor blimey. I’ve worked in secondary schools, you know. The kids will insult you, they’ll say all sorts of things about you, because of their difficult lives. It’s their way of getting back at the adults. After all, they’ve only been in the world for 13, 14, 15 years. Of course they’re going to get back at an adult who looks and sounds a bit like their parents and be cheeky to them. I was, and I can understand it, no matter how difficult and horrible it is for the teacher concerned. So if the teacher busts through that barrier and is able to save a kid from just being junked and stuck in a Pupil Referral Unit, I take my hat off to them.”
If providing support and stimulus for eager young minds is the name of the game then Rosen has been playing his part for years, and this exhibition reflects and continues his work admirably. Take a child along to see it – borrow one if need be – and watch their eyes light up and their imagination take flight.
Photos by Chris Payne
Michael Rosen’s Bear Hunt, Chocolate Cake & Bad Things, is a Discover Touring Exhibition. It’s at Z-arts, 335 Stretford Road, Manchester every Saturday until December 17, 2016, plus every day October 24-29, 2016. For more information, click here.
Michael Rosen is at the Manchester Literature Festival on October 7, 2016