The Philippa Pearce Lecture 2022 began with a welcome instruction to “imagine that it is still 2020. For the next couple of hours, you are licensed to indulge the welcome fantasy that the past two years simply haven’t happened,” said Homerton Vice-Principal Dr Louise Joy in her opening remarks.
The event was originally scheduled to take place in April 2020, marking Philippa Pearce’s centenary year. Its speaker, Geraldine McCaughrean, the double Carnegie Medal winning author of over 170 books including Peter Pan in Scarlet and Where the World Ends, was described by Dr Joy as:
“One of the most prolific and expansive authors for children writing today. The sheer eclecticism of Geraldine’s works is breath-taking. It is hard to think of a genre she hasn’t written in. Her work encompasses both the comic and the serious; the historical and the contemporary and the futuristic; forms that are deliberately imitative and forms that push the envelope. Through them all runs a warmth; a restless intellectual curiosity; a love of language; a faith in humanity; masterful storytelling.”
That theme of storytelling ran through an evening which celebrated and demonstrated the instinctive and enduring power of story. Geraldine McCaughrean opened her lecture with a list of the extraordinary range of authors who had been published in the year of Philippa Pearce’s birth, from L.M. Montgomery to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and said “having spent a lifetime doing what I Iove, and being allowed to call it work, I feel like celebrating.”
She described the craving for storytelling as inherent to the human condition.
“The human spirit shrinks from fear, boredom and sorrow, but the mind and soul go out in search of story. Who knows why?”
However she also expressed concern that sensitivities around cultural appropriation could diminish imaginative output, with publishers nervous of writers stepping too far away from their own lived experience.
“I remember being told as a child ‘write about what you know’, and thinking ‘why would I want to?’ And suddenly it’s back, as an injunction…I firmly believe that an interior world is the greatest resource there is in difficult times.”
She rejected what she saw as a growing trend towards writers being expected to introduce children to concepts such as climate change, presenting them with a duty to solve existential crises which adults had failed to respond to.
“Something inside me recoils at the idea of painting Armageddon on the inside of children’s skulls. When you’re an adult you can scrub it off…my beloved former editor used to say ‘the only difference between adult and children’s fiction is that you owe it to children to leave them in a safe universe at the end of it.’ Entertainment is a noble profession, and we don’t have to lay claim to anything more august.”
Interspersed, without introduction, throughout her talk was a story, Anansi the Spiderman. As each section began, there was a palpable change of focus, as the audience of literary adults settled down, with the same trust and expectation as a class of pre-schoolers, preparing to be carried along by narrative force.
She concluded with a simple explanation of this phenomenon.
“I give you this story, in recompense for the time you have given me today, and to prove a point. It’s hard to listen for an hour to mere talk, but the mind will always latch on to story.”
The power of story was also beautifully demonstrated by an addition to the programme in celebration of the centenary year. A twenty-minute play Inside Her Head by the award-winning playwright and personal friend of Philippa Pearce, Nick Warburton, combined a Pearce short story by the same title with references to her other stories and experiences.
A two-hander by actors Jeremy Whitton Spriggs and Sandra Birnie, the play explored the boundaries between memory, imagination and invention, and involved the audience in a sense of collaboration as a story was constructed in front of them. Following an intellectual probing of why story continues to be so important, it was both fitting and hugely pleasurable to sit back and allow a story to be told, in Philippa Pearce’s own words.