January 13, 2015
Who, or what, inspired me? H’m… to be honest, I have a bit of a problem with the word “inspiration.” To me it smacks of unicorns and rainbows and tinkly silver bells, and lady authoresses (is that a word?) draped with gauzy veils gazing out at misty sunsets, and I’m not happy with that. I think of myself as someone who works with words, as against wood and glue and nails; it’s what I do – I’m no different from a carpenter.
I looked “inspiration” up in the dictionary, and one of the suggestions is “an animating influence”, so I’m going to go with that, if that’s ok. I know I was influenced by my father. He wrote dreadful poetry (The Death of a Crab under a Piece of Damp Seaweed) but he was fantastically good at limericks and chirpy doggerel, and was always making up rhymes about anything and everything. When we put our coats on he would push our arms into the sleeves chanting “Moley moley, down the holey”, and tooth brushing was accompanied by songs. “Yellowy teeth make Grandma frown, so swish your toothbrush up and down.”
In a different time my father might have been an actor; he settled for teaching (eventually a much loved headmaster), but he always directed the school plays and was an enthusiastic amateur performer. He wrote a play once; the children howled with laughter, but the adults detected a certain lack of gravitas.
“I’m the sheriff of this town With a star upon my chest
And I’ve got another tattooed on beneath my chilprufe vest…”
He was reined in, and instructed to direct Treasure Island.
Right from when I was tiny and very slow at walking (big head, small feet) he encouraged me along by giving me the first line of a silly poem, then waiting for me to suggest the next line before he went on with the third… and so on. He taught me wildly inaccurate nursery rhymes, including several that he’d made up himself; I gravely recited these at nursery school and, aged four, gained a reputation for eccentricity (and inaccuracy).
He was also wonderful at reading out loud, and particularly loved books that gave him scope to use his acting skills – and it was through our bedtime reading that I met the Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling, and became totally entranced with the English language… just like my father.
My favourite was The Beginning of the Armadillos, but Dad preferred The Elephant’s Child because he so enjoyed doing the voice of the crocodile. We came to a happy compromise. He read me both stories every night for months and months. I think Kipling’s cadences, humour, rhythms and startlingly original use of words sank deep into my bones; even now I read anything I write out loud, just to check that it feels good in the mouth – but I’ve never achieved anything as perfect as “the banks of the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees”. If ever I did, I’d have my father to thank … to thank for being my inspiration.
Vivian French will be visiting primary schools in and around Birmingham this month as part of the Scottish Friendly Children’s Book Tour organised by Scottish Book Trust. Vivian has written over 200 children’s books including Oliver’s Vegetables, the hugely popular Tiara Club and Tales from the Five Kingdoms series as well as non-fiction books such as Caterpillar Butterfly. Her latest book is The Snarling of Wolves.