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Caroline Pitcher

Caroline Pitcher: 1

Writer

I’ve always wanted to write. I wrote stories from the age of five. Apparently I am very unpleasant when I don’t get the chance to write. The first book I had published was called Diamond – I was living in Hackney and I had a wonderful sense that I had my life with my little girl, but also had another world that I was carrying around with me and I could go back into. Diamond won the Kathleen Fidler Award.

Sometimes I worry that I don’t pay attention to the people around me because I’m at a certain place in a story and I’m thinking about it. I do think writers are a bit odd from that point of view. They must be quite frustrating to be with. But I could fit my writing around the children. In this house, we understand about preoccupations, so it’s not difficult. My husband works unsocial hours in television. My daughter has studies and a hectic social life and my son lives in jazz land. Yet we all bring something back into the family from what we do.

The family is my priority. I’ve had two very threatening illnesses, and that brings it right back to you: what don’t you want to lose? Your family and friends. I have a weakness in the subarachnoid layer of my brain, which is a web of tiny veins. The neurosurgeons have spent lots of time and money on me, but cannot pinpoint the exact spot which bleeds. I was in hospital for five weeks the first time it happened, and two of those weeks are lost to me. The return of the haemorrhage a year ago was depressing, yet I look at it another way; subarachnoid haemorrhages have a high fatality rate, so I’ve got away with it twice. Major head injuries leave you feeling unwell and the thought of another one can be terrifying. You must just hurl that thought right out of your mind. And being alive is so very, very vivid if you have a life-threatening condition. Like balancing on a tightrope. The air zings! For a while I was a member of the self-help group, Basic, and that was very supportive.

Caroline Pitcher: 2

We’ve lived here, on the edge of Derby, for about 3 years. It’s a halfway house; we’ve got the countryside across the road and pink brick suburbia at the back. We moved from the depths of the country to the edge of the city. We also needed hills for the soul. I can look out of my study and see a little road weaving its way into the hills. That’s what sold the house for me. I can take the dog for have long walks without getting in the car and there’s a fierce little river with kingfishers, swans, herons and fish. There are hares! Living here was a shock at first, because the nearest neighbour to our previous home was half a mile away. When the kids were little, they loved it; it was paradise, with dens, animals, space and mysteries. But when they were teenagers, it was more difficult: their friends’ parents weren’t keen on driving a mile up a farm track full of potholes and the nearest bus stop was a couple of miles away.

This house used to be smaller. A good kitchen was one priority. We both love cooking but we’d always inherited kitchens without enough space to cook. This one we planned ourselves, with lots of workspace and plenty of cupboards. It was also important to have room for friends, a room without a television, and one where there could be very loud music. Our poor builder had a bad back injury so he couldn’t start work for 18 months, so we lived here for quite a while feeling slightly trapped. Then he began work. We cooked in a microwave in the hall.

Now the house is absolutely fine, and suits us well; how long it will, I don’t know. You need different homes for different stages of your life, yet anywhere can be made into a home if you’ve got the right people in it. I’d rather live near hills or mountains. I’m from Yorkshire and we’ve lived in the Derbyshire dales. We love Greece. I went there in my mid-twenties and it inspired me, extended the range of my imagination. I’m not too good in flat country, though I can see the beauty of it. I also miss the sea terribly. I come from just outside Hull, and all my ancestors went to sea from Dorset and Devonshire. We used to spend a lot of time on the North Yorkshire coast at Whitby and Runswick Bay. We went back there a few weeks ago; it was wonderful, still very quiet.

I like a family life in which everyone is around but can retreat, to write, make music and daydream. The first house we lived in, in London, was tiny. Alma, a lady down the street, was born in our bedroom. She said the house used to have several generations living in it, and all the bedrooms were shared. Those streets were the setting for Diamond. I like the idea of the extended family, although it can put burdens on some individuals. My generation was very keen to leave home and escape, but this generation isn’t keen to leave at all. The children are relaxed with us; they don’t hide (quite so many) things away. They talk about all sorts of things we’d never talk about with our parents. I don’t know why there’s such a change, because we laid boundaries for our children. But some of the things they say, I’d never dare have said, certainly not to my father. I love talking to them; I feel chuffed that they’re so relaxed. Their relationships with their teachers are more relaxed too; they respect them and they like them. That must be healthy.

Mum loved people, but she didn’t work once she was married, and she didn’t drive. My father had been brought up in a very structured environment; he was an old-school Tory, bound by a set of rules. He was in the merchant navy, then, during the war, the royal navy. He found talking about his feelings very hard. We had reporters knocking at the door, asking to talk to my mother about my brother’s death. I hated them.

When I was fourteen, my brother died away at school. He was two years older than me. I felt very isolated, because nobody talked about it, even teachers and friends at my school; I suppose they thought I’d burst into tears. There was no system of support in those days. I could talk to Mum but my father didn’t want to talk about it at all. A woman in the local sweet shop broached the subject, and said how sorry she was. That had a tremendous effect on me. I felt she was so brave to do that, to acknowledge that something had happened. I escaped into walking, books and music – the world of the imagination.

My father was quite proud of me going to university, but we argued a lot. When he first met my husband, he was horrified to see a man cook, but accepted my husband and grew very fond of him. Looking back, I think Dad and I were alike in some aspects of character but we had such different outlooks, My mother said our talks were just arguments, `diamond cut diamond’. My own daughter has a relaxed, loving relationship with her father.

Doing a degree in English literature had a significant effect. A lecturer at university told me that I wrote well, and said why didn’t I consider a career in writing. How? When I left university, I worked in a Mayfair art gallery. It was owned by a duke, so I met all sorts of grand and odd people. But then I decided to be a teacher; ILEA were very short of them and if you were a graduate you had six weeks of lectures, then you went into a school for a term and a half, and you were paid while you did it. You quickly found out if you could cope or not, without wasting three years. I was lucky, I went into a school in Bethnal Green, then to one near Mile End with a wonderful head teacher and staff. It was an extraordinary jump, from a Mayfair art gallery to the East End, but I taught for 13 years in Tower Hamlets and I loved it. I used to write plays and stories for the children.

Authority is an interesting thing. I think I always gave in to it at school; even if we laughed at it, we still upheld it. Though I was a rebel at school – I remember hoisting a pair of knickers up the flagpole - I did become a prefect, and a school librarian. I joined C.N.D. and I went along to Greenham Common and fringe organizations like that. Once when I was at Greenham Common, behaving in a vaguely law-abiding way, a policeman shoved me down a hill. And as I lay there, I thought, ‘He can’t do that! I should challenge this’. By the time the senior police followed up my complaint, I was hugely pregnant. You should have seen their eyes bulging when I opened the front door to them. They must have feared headlines in the News of the World. In a way I felt sorry for those policemen at Greenham. They were put in a ridiculous position. Half of them didn’t believe in what they were doing anyway. The one who pushed me over sent an apology, and I was so full of generous hormones, I forgave him.

If I believe something’s right or wrong, I say so. I’ve never been into parliamentary politics; it doesn’t seem to be involved with what I’m interested in. When this government got in, I did think I’d be more interested in politics, but I feel as much an outsider as ever. I’ve been on lots of marches and protests: against nuclear power, and when Ronald Reagan came to London, and against the U.S. military bases. I collected signatures against the Iraq war in Derby market place. Nobody I approached was in favour of the war, every age, every ethnic background. We might have expected it of Margaret Thatcher, but I felt betrayed that it was Blair. I resent governments using their power to do horrendous things that most people don’t want. I don’t want to be in command personally. Self-respect is my main drive. I want to write things I’m pleased with, that I think are good.

I suppose there are messages deep down in my books, which is power in a sense. Yet I think we always find the messages we want. I’m a great believer in childhood. If children learn to appreciate living creatures, and have good stories in which they enjoy their lives and other experiences and respect them, perhaps they’ll carry that through when they’re older. I feel that so much suffering is unnecessary – it’s caused by greed and big business. And lack of imagination. It links to that business of the group: establishing itself and protecting itself by shutting people out, putting people down. It can happen in the playground and internationally. Would people really declare war if they really thought about what would happen to civilians? I know that’s terribly simplistic, but that’s the way I see it.

Someone in The Times said that my On the Wire book, a story about Greenham Common, was too ‘messagey’, but I don’t deliberately put moral messages into my books. I hope children will enjoy the stories I write; that they provide an imaginative realm they can relate to, and also make them look at things differently.

My Eleven o’clock Chocolate Cake was intended to be a book about teenagers having a good time, liking each other, not big major issues or moral choices. Just about friendship, being on the bus to school, liking your teachers, even if you giggle about them. But inevitably choices, unhappy things, did come into the story. Life does change very suddenly, but what might be dreadful, the end of the world, one day, can suddenly get a lot better. My most recent books, Cloud Cat and Sky Shifter, are about living in terrible times. The main character is partially sighted. I lost full sight for a while when I was ill. My beloved editor, the late Miriam Hodgson, once suggested that I write about such a character.

Being in touch with my past is very important to me. Writing brings back my childhood. There was a lot of nature in it. We used to go out as kids, with the dog, and play in a place near the River Humber that we called Little Switzerland. There were little lakes, full of newts and toads and frogs, and I’d be forever carting them home in buckets, much to my mother’s horror. And there were lots of trees and flowers. I was very aware of all those things. In my books I’ve gone back to that, which has made me realise how important it was to me.

Cloud Cat begins in an East European orphanage. It was influenced by the reports about Romanian orphanages, but last weekend, when I was back in Yorkshire, I remembered that my mother had been involved with the Seamen’s Orphanage, quite near us at home. A lot of the children I went to school with lived there, and my mother was friendly with one of the older ones, Maisena, who delivered newspapers. Her brother Adam was at the local junior school with me. I heard years later that he was lost in one of the Hull trawlers that sank in black ice. And my aunt, who has been researching family history (as you do when you’re 92!) discovered that her father, my mother’s father, was in that orphanage for five or six years, because his father was lost at sea. So I’ve always had that idea of a community of children, forming a different kind of family.

I’ve been concerned for a long time with how children cope with war. It first came to me when Bosnia was happening. We all wrote letters and campaigned and I felt very angry and depressed and I thought, ‘what can I do about it?’ So I wrote a related story, which was called ‘Tam the Eldest’, about a boy retaining something of his own culture when his village was attacked. It appeared in an anti-war anthology, Lines in the Sand, which Frances Lincoln published to raise money for Unicef.

The conversations I enjoy most are with children. Most of schools that I do writing residences in are in the multi-ethnic part of Derby. Fabulous. They have an enormous range of children. English is a second language for many. Some have learning difficulties, some are incredibly bright, some have traumas. They listened to Sky Shifter, and most of them could relate to something in it; one boy with learning difficulties loved the Cloud Cat and the Eagle as characters. Teaching has been a fertile base. I love working with and talking to children, you can never predict their responses. Most of the children I meet have no world weariness, and it means that for my younger books I can have my audience very much in my head.

If children are wrapped around in stories, they can put themselves in other people’s shoes; they learn that from listening to stories. I worry that the way teaching is going at the moment denies them stories, or only gives them tiny bits of them; analyzing a single paragraph to spot similes is fairly pointless. Not everyone can be a writer, but they can be a listener or reader.

The power of the imagination is so strong; it’s very interesting to reflect on why we have imagination, what it is in our brain that creates it. I would never want to take drugs to alter my perceptions; I still laugh about a boyfriend who claimed that after taking acid he had a vision the whole of life contained in a potato. I think my imagination is powerful enough. I write stories for illustrators such as Sophy Williams, Nilesh Mistry, Jackie Morris, Bridget MacKeith and Cliff Wright. It’s such a treat to send off a story and have it returned with marvellous pictures or to receive and amazing cover from David Wyatt.

I can feel at home in almost any kind of company, even with people I’m not very like. But I felt very isolated when we moved out of London, before we settled in Derbyshire. We lived temporarily on a new estate in what had been a very closed community, and we used to get nasty letters put through the letter box; I think they thought we were London snobbies, though neither of us are from London. I’m from Yorkshire! I was staying at home with our first baby and I felt there was nobody like me around; I missed all the friends I’d made in London. I spent hours out with the push-chair, walking in the hills, visiting the library. I did get friendly with an Italian woman next door (another outsider) and one or two other people. But it was a relief to move to the country in Derbyshire– although we lived a long way from anyone, lots of people came to see us; I never felt isolated there.

I can find common ground with most people - except for people who are hostile to animals and living creatures. I’ve always had animals in the house, I had a lot in my own childhood, and my own kids had a lot. I’d feel uneasy with someone who didn’t like animals. I don’t understand fox-hunting or hare-coursing, or fishing, for that matter. I feel that if people can be that unimaginative about animals then they can be the same about people. There is a lot of cruelty in Nature, but that’s a matter of survival; we don’t have to add to it.

We’re vegetarian, which many people see as a protest against authority, or being deliberately awkward. They don’t realise it’s something we believe in. We try to be green, but we’re certainly not dark green.

Because I’m an ex-smoker, I don’t like people smoking next to me. And I’m intolerant of flashy driving, and dropping litter, and dumping. And bullying and gang intimidation. Groups are part of human experience, but I’m very suspicious of the way they have to justify themselves by pushing other people out, being unkind. You see much of the opposite to that – people being generous, trying to include other people. We’re still quite tribal, I think. Sometimes I think religion is a kind of tribe.

Caroline Pitcher: 3

Of course I sympathise with the homeless, but I don’t do much more than send dosh somewhere. I’ll give them a handout, but I haven’t invited them into my house to live. A house next door to us once was squatted and there was dealing there. I didn’t like that. It was too close to home, and my small children. They used to ask to go through my house to get to theirs, and I was very uneasy about that.

I’m more sympathetic than I used to be about the differences between the sexes, I see things as less black and white. It should be liberation for everyone. I think women are more conservative with a small c. Take technology and cars – my husband and son both know a lot about both those things and would be happy to teach me, but I don’t really want to know. I ought to, if I was going to be genuinely liberated. But I’m a bit bolshy, I don’t do what I don’t want to do. My daughter is much better at driving than I am, but she always expected to drive (fast!) and she has more common sense. I’m lucky in that none of my family (except the dog) is strongly stuck in a gender role, but a lot of people still are. I know women who’ve chosen to go out to work but do everything else as well. I think sometimes women are a bit naughty in wanting to keep control, not letting other people in on the cooking etc. On the other hand it’s pleasurable to do things for people, to care for them.

Caroline Pitcher: 4

Women are often the best at thinking ahead. I’m in the habit of knowing who will need what washed when, for example; (high level stuff!) My son does all this music, and he’ll suddenly need a particular shirt. But what do you do if you’re a female brain surgeon with small children? Do you say, I’m going to stay at home with my children and take away my expertise from other people? I’m lucky that I haven’t had to make such choices. The good side of my so-called job is that I can work at home, so I’m the person who puts the washing machine on and so on.

Friendships are enormously important; I’ve got lots of different types of friends. I love meeting people. We’ve moved around, but I do keep in touch. My main friend from school is now in America, but she visits me here; and another school friend lives in Boroughbridge; she writes and illustrates. And I still keep in touch with the old lady who was born in our house in London; I write letters when I can. My oldest friend was someone I’ve known since I was two. She now lives in Edinburgh, and I regard her as my sister; we find the friendship enormously reassuring because of its constancy, we go right back. She is the only person who remembers my brother and I can remember her adoptive parents with love. We’re similar in outlook. I’ve also got friends I taught with, and people we’ve met on holiday –that’s a time when you have space to talk, to get to know people really well. And when you’re away from home you do tend to see things objectively, define who you are.

Caroline Pitcher: 5

The trouble with moving about is that the numbers of friends become bigger and bigger, and giving a party for them all seems daunting. And a lot of my friends are getting married for the second time, which adds even more. That can sometimes mean losing friends; you can end up keeping up with only one of them.

I’d like to be able to talk in another language, in particular to speak Greek well enough to be able to talk to Greek friends in the same way that I can talk to my English friends. I started learning, but I had to stop last autumn because I was ill again and was not allowed to drive. I’m hoping to start again. I love it, especially the physical process of writing the script.

I’d also like more musical friends. I’ve tried to write about music and it’s very hard. My son can explain some technical things to me, why certain bits of music have the effect they do, and I’d love to know more about that, and to talk to musicians. But then I think, they’re doing all they want through their music. They don’t need words.

Love is always unexpected. You never know where it is going to blossom. When we were young, we only thought about romantic love, or sexual love, but the new generation are much more loving in terms of kissing and putting their arms round their friends, more physical with members of their own sex.

It’s always a shock to realise how much you love a baby. My `sister-friend’ and I went to York recently, and a young woman called across the street and asked me to hold her baby while she put her push chair up. I was quite overcome; I hadn’t held a tiny baby for ages. This little niddy-noddy presence – it made my day. Love for babies, your children, is a protective thing, quite unconditional. The hard thing is to know when to let go, when you’re not needed. I remember the first time my daughter, aged two, went to spend a day with a friend, and I felt bittersweet, the first time of many she would leave.

You can also feel love for a total stranger, a moment of complete understanding, which is a form of love. That has to be what saves us, surely, what’ll pull us out of all these awful things that happen, the kind of love you can have for all different sorts of people. It doesn’t follow a pattern; it doesn’t have to be love for people you agree with. You may not understand someone’s ideas, but you can still feel love for them, an enjoyment of difference. That’s a thing that I hope will happen more and more. I found living in London, in Hackney really enriching, I just loved people’s differences. But people can feel differences as threats.

I’m fortunate in having a partner who earns the real money. I don’t know what I’d be doing if I didn’t have that. It would be great to have a best-seller and earn a load of money, and I know the charities I’d use it for, but then there would be all the hassle of finding someone to administer it, making sure it got to the right places. And apart from the fact I’d like my husband not to have to work so hard, I can’t think of anything we really need – apart from more holidays in Greece, and new places, perhaps more saxophones and shoes for my daughter! The only thing I’d really like is an outlook of good, safe health and that’s a thing money can’t buy.

I’m very lazy about money in that I ignore looking up to see if I’ve got any; I don’t like looking at statements. We don’t budget, we just wait until it goes into the red and realise that we’ve spent it all. I love spending on books, and on music and musical instruments, and I am very weak-willed in garden centres and plant nurseries. When we occasionally decide we need something like a sofa bed, I like actually buying it, but I don’t spend weeks looking for the right one. As for those TV makeovers, with people refitting a room completely, I couldn’t be bothered with that. I’d love more money to spend on things like art. Sometimes I see beautiful sculptures or paintings, and I’d like to be able to own them.

I do have fears. They’ve changed over time. At one time I was frightened of being alone, especially after the loss of my brother. And later when, though I had a lot of friends, I didn’t have the right lover. And I still have fears about war and nuclear stuff. I worry about things becoming too homogenous, everybody having to think or like the same thing; I feel we’re being too controlled. When I was younger, death was a great fear, but I’m not frightened of that now, I’m more frightened of being very ill, or severely disabled, because of the effect of that on my family; someone would have to look after me. My biggest fear would be losing members of my family.

If I think about what most pleases my senses, scents and tastes come first. Dianthus flowers – their peppery, clovey smell. Coffee beans – both their smell and their taste. And vanilla and cinnamon. Properly-made vanilla custard – the coldness of it. Olives: the taste, feel and smell of them. Food comes into my books a lot; I see it as a great comfort. When Cloud Cat was launched in a Derby school, we had lots of the sort of cakes Dimitri and Katherine would have made in their bakery, and for Sky Shifter my friend Martha, the Arts in Education Co-ordinator, made thirty-five lemon butterfly cakes.

I love the sound of running water, there are so many notes in it. And the wind in the trees, the way it sounds like the sea. I like the way certain elements suggest other elements and merge. Birdsong – except for the raucous screeching of crows. Laughter; such a weird noise, a really silly noise, but wonderful. The sound of words: I love poetry, the joy of writing a picture book is that it’s very like writing a poem. I listen to a lot of music: Mozart, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Bach and so on. And jazz – I’ve been taught to love that by my son. I love the sound of the saxophone, there are so many different styles of playing jazz sax, and the double bass, especially when one of his friends is playing it in the house.

I love the feel of skin, and of dog fur, and shells. And the different shapes of things like flowers, and varied colours, preferably blue: the different blues of the Aegean Sea.

I like the idea of travelling, but I try to bear my illness in mind and avoid altitude sickness etc.. We’re going on holiday to Greece soon, just the two of us, for the first time for years, which will be kind of strange, though very nice. We have dreams of living in Greece, but I’m not sure. I worry about living somewhere for short periods, without contributing. I think you should do it all or not at all.

My life has been very varied. I can’t regard anything as a waste of time. Everything I’ve done has been my own choice. That’s important; I wasn’t pushed into things I didn’t like and I removed myself from situations that would have been a waste of time. I met all sorts of extraordinary people I wouldn’t have done in the art gallery – you’d have to push yourself to make them up. I loved university, and teaching.

I don’t think that my priorities have changed very much over the years; I think perhaps you move away from them, but then you come back. That’s certainly what’s happened with me. Maybe that’s because I’m a children’s writer; that sort of writing is very liberating. In a sense you don’t just write `for’ children, you write for yourself too and it’s delightful when adults contact you saying they have enjoyed the stories too.

I love my work – all the stages. Perhaps the best is writing the story in the first place, when you’ve started something, and it’s like a wonderful journey. I have a vague idea of where I’m going, but not altogether. It’s important not to get stuck rewriting the first couple of pages again and again, though. Then there’s the rewriting, the editing, and tidying and chucking out all the dead words. That gives me great satisfaction. But I also find it really joyful to communicate with my audience. With kids, it’s so special, to see their little faces. The power of story is so strong. I would write no matter what, whether I needed money or not. I like doing different kinds of writing – comic books, poetry, picture books, novels; I’d like to diversify even more. I can’t imagine ever stopping writing; it’s like living life twice. And you can live the lives you haven’t led by writing about them. In terms of material things, in the western world, most of us don’t really need more than we have. I’m comfortable with my place in the world. Being ill concentrates your mind; you think about what really matters.