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.
I was born in Nigeria and grew up there; I married and came over to Britain in 1982. I knew it was going to be cold, but no-one had prepared me for the winter. Because it was all dead, no leaves, I thought, ‘scientists, they’ve killed the trees’. I couldn’t understand why everyone walking around didn’t seem to care that the trees were dying. Then spring came along and I realised that everything was coming alive, being reborn. I kept saying to my friend, ‘look at those beautiful flowers’, and jumping up and down as if I’d won the lottery. At last she said, ‘you should get a camera, and stop bothering us. So I said I’d see if there were adult education classes in photography. She thought I was mad, but something had connected deep down. I enrolled in a photographic training centre in Earls Court; it was expensive and full of rich foreign students. When I finished I hadn’t decided what to do, but I went on a visit to Nigeria and took some photos when I was there. When I came back, everyone said, ‘oh, they’re beautiful!’ So that’s how it started. I gave up the business management course I was doing, because I knew I was home with the photography. I began by taking photos for newspapers, then in 1991 I began to write as well. I’d always written things down, but I’d hidden what I called my scribbles because I had an uncle in Nigeria who was a very well-known and I hadn’t wanted to compete in his arena.
I want to tread lightly, not to do damage. I try and use my work in a positive way as far as my career has gone. I suppose I’ve chosen the less wealthy path in that I’ve worked for charities like Greenpeace and Oxfam and not used my skills to promote car manufacturers, oil companies and things like that. I’ve been lucky, to some extent I haven’t even often had to make that the decision not to work for someone, because most of people who’ve come to me for work have been people that I’ve been more than happy to say yes to. I haven’t been approached by the sort of companies I would say no to. A lady who had a card company once approached me. She commissioned a library of images and she then sold them to charity, or to companies; I would have had no control over who they were sold to. I just said no, because I couldn’t bear the thought of my images being used as greeting cards for British Nuclear Fuel for example.
I find it difficult to label myself. I’ve done a lot of things. If I have to sum myself up in one word, I either say ‘astronomer’ or ‘writer’. Astronomy was something I wanted to do from a very early age, 7 or 8. I’ve always regarded it as not so much a job or a profession as a calling. I remember being quite small, outside at night in the dark, looking at the stars. One of books I still have in the bookcase is my treasured first book about stars, the Giant Golden Book of Astronomy, which my parents bought for me at that time, a real luxury in the post-war years. I still get most delight out of seeing a completely black night sky, so dark that you can see every possible star – most of us have never seen the sky with no other lights. Built up environments and the light pollution they make lessen our awareness; our ancestors’ experience of the sky was totally different.
‘After discovering this I could never fall into such darkness again. I’d had my ‘conversion experience’! It was now my task to put my shoulder to the wheel of the great adventure of Life’.
Life is full. There’s so much to do. You can’t do it all at once but I’ve always believed that with luck, good timing and persistence most of your dreams can come true.
I remember when I was quite young thinking that I didn’t have any opinions, and wondering where people got them from. I could see both sides of every case, and I wondered how people acquired convictions. Now I’m a hotbed of convictions. Injustice gets me fired up, whether it’s at a tiny level, like a parking ticket for an offence not committed, or a global scale. It makes me a good children’s writer, because children always say, ‘it’s not fair’; it really gets their goat if they’re accused of something they didn’t do. I like right to triumph. I like there to be a definite ending, not necessarily happy, but satisfying.
I was the third of eight children from an Irish Catholic family. Because there were so many of us there wasn’t a huge amount of emotional or educational support, but the result was that from an early age I became very observant, noticing details of my surroundings and of people and I have kept vivid memories of what it was like to be a child which have been invaluable in my career as a children’s illustrator.
None of us are prisoners. We can make choices and ultimately we have the freedom to do what we like. I know this from experience. My father spent a lifetime doing work he didn’t enjoy out of a sense of obligation. But I made a conscious decision to take risks and follow my heart and I’m a happier man than he was. I had always wanted to be an artist, and eventually I gave up my job and devoted myself to writing and illustrating. It wasn’t an easy journey, in fact it was painfully difficult in the early years, but at least I was in control of my destiny.