Memories of Peter (3)

Peter’s eldest son, John, shared the following memories of Peter’s blossoming career as a writer at the memorial on 6 Jan 2016:

Now, for this next piece I need you to imagine that I’m voicing over the sound of a typewriter. It’s coming from up a stairway or behind a study door, and it sounds like this:

Chack-chack-chack-chak. (Pause for thought.) Chackchackchackchackchackchack… Peter typing

Peter typing 1970s

Peter did not have typist’s hands. He said his fingers were like a sculptors, thick and stubby. He typed from the elbow, two fingers, hitting the keys so hard that he could break in ways that the repair people had never seen before.

He wrote books, but not only books. He wrote scripts for plays: amateur productions that we performed with our friends the Stuart-Smiths at their house at Serge Hill; and for the highly-talented children’s opera group who performed in St James’ Church in London W11. He wrote a screenplay for a TV series called Mandog, and drove our little Morris Minor as an extra in one of the chase scenes.

‘Like This, Like That’ W11 Children’s Opera

And he wrote poems. When he was re-roofing our large and leaky house at Bramdean, he wrote poems about it on slates and hid them under the tiles for future generations to find. He wrote a clutch of painful little poems after the tragic death of Mary Rose in 1988, and more when Robin crossed the Atlantic to join her life with his. Many of these are in his collection The Weir.

But his books were the main thing. He would write two a year, one adult mystery, one children’s fiction, like a farmer rotating the crop in his field. Often he’d start with just an idea, and no notion of where it would take him. He said he could write a third of a murder novel without knowing who had killed whom or why.

Peter at a Puffin event for ‘The Changes’

His imagination was bold, far-reaching and quirky. He would follow a story set in a Scottish Loch with one in sixth century Byzantium. He wrote about the near future and also about the dawn of humanity. He did light romance in the General Strike and science fiction in an apartheid Britain where skins were green. He loved to set his stories in country houses like this one. And if when you’re looking around you see a drop of fresh oil on a weapon in a display case – that’s the clue!

His characters were complex, his prose rhythmic, his ideas tantalising. He would do nothing obvious or cheap. For him, all worthwhile moral questions were complex and ambivalent. But he did not want to lecture his readers. He took them round the byways, through the wild woods of imagination, and if they came to ask themselves the sort of questions that he was asking – as it were, by accident – that was all he could hope for.

Peter’s ‘Puffin Passport’

He kept it up, for over sixty novels. That’s a gravity-defying career by all standards. They’re all still available – just go to, or find his website. Some of them won prizes. Tulku and City of Gold won the Carnegie in consecutive years. Others did not, but his quality was always high. Have you tried The Last Houseparty? Ah, you should.

Carnegie Medal 2001 shortlist for ‘The Ropemaker’ with authors Eva Ibbotson and Elizabeth Laird (also Marion Lloyd and Alyx Price from Macmillan)

Phil and Polly remember accompanying him to Crime Writers’ Association dinners and rubbing shoulders with the greats like Harry Keating and Dick Francis. James and I remember our excitement when he fell into a correspondence with Richard Adams (I think Peter was less than excited about this, actually). He served as Chair of the Society of Authors. He went on lecture tours, he was awarded the O.B.E. for services to literature. But he was no highbrow.

He won prizes, he said, because his books were the sort that adults thought children ought to read. He was ambivalent about that. He told an Exeter conference in 1970 that the danger of living in a golden age of children’s literature was that “not enough rubbish is being produced.”

And he added:

“Nobody who has not spent a whole sunny afternoon under his bed rereading
a pile of comics left over from the previous holidays has any real idea of
the meaning of intellectual freedom.”

Back then that was fighting talk, and he had to defend it. Which he did. It wasn’t in his commercial interest, but it was what he believed.

Peter author tour 1970s

So we thought we’d give you a bit of Peter’ essay “A Defence of Rubbish”. Here he is, the writer’s writer, the librarian’s favourite, up and fighting for children to be allowed what the hell they liked, even if, to the adult eye, it contained no value either aesthetic or educational.

John’s son, George, Peter’s grandson, then read the following passage from A Defence of Rubbish…

“…Third, I am convinced of the importance of children discovering things
for themselves. However tactfully an adult may push them towards
discoveries in literature, these do not have quite the treasure trove
value of the books picked up wholly by accident. This can only be done by
random sampling on the part of the children, and it is inevitable that a
high proportion of what they read will be rubbish, by any standard. But in
the process they will learn the art of comparison.

Fourth comes a psychological point. Children have a very varying need of
security, but almost all children feel the need of security and
reassurance some time. One can often tell how happy or insecure a child is
feeling simply by what she is reading. And sometimes she may need to reread
something well known but which makes absolutely no intellectual or
emotional demand. Rubbish has this negative virtue, and I would be very
chary of interfering with a child who felt an obvious need of rubbish.

My fifth point is more nebulous. There is no proof, or even arguing about
it. But I am fairly sure in my own mind that a diet of plums is bad for
you, and that any rational reading system needs to include a considerable
amount of pap or roughage—call it what you will. I know very few adults
who do not have some secret cultural vice, and they are all the better for
it. I would instantly suspect an adult all of whose cultural activities
were high, remote and perfect.”

I have to take the podium again to make my confession here. I spent a fair amount of my childhood re-reading football comics. I was probably aware that I was being allowed to get away with it. I had no idea at all that I owed it to his faith in intellectual freedom.

Books, Peter said, are like leaves. They fall from the tree that made them and for a little while they lie golden on the ground. But very soon they are buried by the next layer of books, which of course are doomed to be buried in their turn. It’s a melancholy but realistic reflection on how much of a monument a writer can expect from his own works.

But of course, the monument is not really in the book at all. It’s in the readers who found that treasure trove and were touched by what was in it. Even if they can no longer remember the title or the author’s name. And sometimes they do. A few years ago I met a young writer who said: ‘Peter Dickinson? We had one of his books in the school library when I was twelve. It was called The Gift. I loved it.’

The Gift. Ah yes. Thank you, Peter. For that one too.

Now we are going to ask his wife and fellow writer Robin to take us into the home and tell us a bit more of the man himself.