Interview: Michael Rosen
He is the ex-children’s laureate known for his anti-Israel views, and for his classic tales — one of which is now being adapted as a West End show
Michael Rosen believes Israel should be shared by Jews and Palestinians.
Children love Michael Rosen. As one of the most successful and prominent children’s poets of the past 30 years, he has brought laughter, entertainment and a love of literature to youngsters all over the country. Not all adults are so complimentary about him though — particularly those Jews who see his stand against Zionism as hateful and, indeed, self-hating.
Rosen is aware of the apparent dichotomy between much-loved poet and a man whose politics were thought to be so revolutionary that MI5 had a file on him. But he does not see it as a contradiction. Not only does he have a mission to write for children, he is also on a mission to ensure that they are taught to read in what he sees as the proper manner. And yes, he has always been politically motivated.
On educational policy, he contends that primary school children have been failed by the system. Speaking with the authority of children’s laureate (his year in the post finished in June), he says: “The government has over-emphasised drilling — doing endless worksheets. Meanwhile, kids are being turned off reading and writing. It’s a disaster.
“If you take the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac as an example, there are all sorts of interesting things you can ask children. Why did Abraham do it? Should he have defied God? Would you have done it? If the story was on the national curriculum, teachers would probably have come up with a worksheet asking what was Abraham carrying in his right hand.”
Rosen thinks the answer is to abolish all Sats tests and bring back imagination, fun and the joy of learning to the classroom. That is how he describes his mission during his time as Laureate. “I was a spokesperson for children’s books, but also a catalyst. You do all you can to excite as many children as possible, to energise the children’s book world.”
A scene from We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, the West End stage version of his popular children’s poem
He may be 63, but Rosen’s intellect is as lively as ever, darting one way and then another, encompassing a huge number of issues. So it comes as no surprise that he had trouble deciding on a career. His path took a few twists and turns before he became, quite by accident, a children’s writer. His first idea was to follow Jonathan Miller, his teenage role model, after seeing him in the ground-breaking satirical show Beyond the Fringe in the 1960s. “I was 13 or 14. I thought Miller was so clever and funny.”
But rather than write comedy routines, he did one of the other things that Miller was famous for —– he enrolled in medical school. However, he gave up after two years. This disappointed his mother and father who, as signed-up members of the Communist Party may not have been the archetypal Jewish parents, but had been very keen that their son should become a doctor.
“They really prized the idea that their child could be someone who could cure people,” says Rosen. “They didn’t want me to be like them because, as teachers, they didn’t think they were doing anything terribly important — just reading books and talking about them.”
So Rosen embarked on the next phase of his career —– as a “leftie” student at Oxford, then as a trainee at the BBC. However, his general traineeship was also cut short. “Someone thought that I shouldn’t be employed full-time, that somehow I was a security risk. Whether that was to do with my parents having been party members or my activities at university, I don’t know. I produced Play School — I wasn’t a security threat.”
Rosen adds that he has not had a job since 1972. Rather, he fell into children’s writing. “The interesting thing is I didn’t start writing for children. I thought I was writing poems in the voice of a child, but for adults. But as it turned out, the only people interested were editors who worked in children’s books.”
He soon accepted that this was his medium and began to produce more poems. One of his most famous, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, is now to be staged as a children’s play at London’s Duchess Theatre. “Bear Hunt started as a folk rhyme which I adapted,” he says. “I love the fact that people are now adapting my adaptation. Somehow, Bear Hunt now has a life of its own.”
He is also excited by the fact that, through his work, children can relate to his 1950s suburban Jewish childhood, even though their circumstances might be very different. “Childhood has changed over the years. As a writer and performer, my job is to find the common elements. I explain to kids in inner-city schools that my parents used to switch in and out of Yiddish. I get the children to learn a few words. Of course, there are plenty of kids in front of me whose parents do the same in Hindi or Urdu, so they understand.”
Rosen is clearly happy with his identity as a Jew but accepts that, while most Jews express their Jewishness either through religion or an affinity with Israel, he has neither. “For me, it’s no more than knowing I’m Jewish. My parents told me that Jews are these kinds of people — Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe. They said: ‘That’s where we come from so that means this is what you are too.’ There’s a phrase that the singer Billy Bragg taught me — ‘intangible cultural heritage’. We all have that.”
However, he has made damning statements about Israel which have been regarded by some in the community as treacherous. So do his views make him a self-hater?
He does not, he claims, judge Israel any differently to the way he judges other countries. He says: “This would be very difficult to explain to most JC readers, but when I was growing up, Israel didn’t feature in my life. I don’t have any cultural pull or allegiance. When I went to secondary school and there was a bunch of kids who came from more Orthodox backgrounds, I found they used to go on holiday to this country. I was baffled because the best place to go on holiday was clearly France.
“As I got older and became interested in politics I found it disconcerting when I found out how Israel was founded. At the time I was going on demonstrations over South Africa. I was protesting about the dispossession of a people, about unequal rights, about how certain people were on the inside and others were on the outside. It seemed to me that Israel too was failing on some of these fundamental principles.
“And no I haven’t been. But then I never went to South Africa. Is the situation in Israel as bad as what’s going on Tibet or East Timor? Of course not. But if you have principles, they need to be applied across the board.”
Criticism is one thing, but if Rosen was in charge, how would he go about solving the problem? He thinks for a long moment before choosing his words carefully. “As my geography teacher used to say, political frontiers are phoney. It is always a disaster to claim that one piece of land belongs to one kind of people only. There must be a way of sharing that land. I think it is possible to have some kind of federation. People’s rights can be safeguarded and everyone who wants to talk about the area as their homeland can do so. Germany and France were enemies for centuries, yet when the time was right, they started to work together. Why can’t that happen in the Middle East?”
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt opens at the Duchess Theatre, London WC2 on July 8 (tel: 020 7494 5075)