Walk & Talk: Michael Rosen

Interview by Rebecca Swirsky  

Did you have an outdoorsy upbringing?  

We were constantly in youth hostels or camping. I occasionally still use my yellow PVC overcoat and trousers, which cost me £20 in 1960. My parents, who were very left wing, enjoyed that I'd worked to buy them. Somewhere, among the annals of Karl Marx, they ardently believed it was written: 'You must go walking.' Along with: 'Where it rains a lot.' They chose camping places where it consistently poured, like the Welsh borders and the North York Moors. My father would emerge from his tent, shouting: 'It's clearing from the east.' It never was. We once got dysentery because of the rain. I've occasionally read Karl Marx but I've never yet found the bit where he says: 'Go walking!'  


Did your parents inspire you to walk?  

When my parents were courting, my father lived behind the Royal London Hospital in Nelson Street, Whitechapel, east London. My mother lived on nearby Globe Road, Bethnal Green. My father would decry if theatrically, as if it were Outer Mongolia: 'Oh, I had to visit your mother all the way in Bethnal Green!' It made us laugh, but there's a serious aspect. Fascists would hang around on street corners. Even if they weren't violent, they loved shouting and sneering when Jews went past. So, while that walk isn't stunningly picturesque, it has a place in my heart.  


Do you use walks for creative ideas, or to decompress?  

Walking is fantastic. I walk a lot around Alexandra Park in north London. You find a problem in your writing by rehearsing it in your mind, which you then fix. Then you run your story again, find a new problem, fix that, rerun it again. It's repetitious but brilliant. This applies not only to creative stuff. You could be thinking, while walking: 'Why is there a leak in the front room? Does it come from the gutter? Does it come from the shower? Daughter says it's not from there. But where?' And so on.  


Your book Sticky McStickstick is the story of how you learned to walk again after being in an induced coma for around 40 days with Covid, in 2020. Tell us about that.  

I'd hoped the book would be funny - or curious - about an older person learning to walk, and I've had some very nice comments from children around its theme of challenge. I'm proud of how hard I worked. I'd initially lapsed into a teacher-pupil role with the physios and occupational therapists: 'Now what do I do? I throw a balloon. How do I throw the balloon?' They were clever at indicating: 'Well, that's something for you to practise.' I had to want to do it. No one was going to make me. That's something I'm hoping the book's young readers pick up on about learning.  

My walking journey saw me migrate from a double-decker Zimmer frame, to a wheelchair, to bicycle machines, then the stick, which I liked immensely and named Sticky McStickstick. It was frightening when I had to put it aside. My wife visited me in the hospital gym because I wanted to show her that I could walk its length. When I lost confidence and said: 'I've got to stop,' I nearly cried, because I felt ashamed I wasn't working hard enough.  

The next challenge became walking around my garden, then the block, then up Muswell Hill. After I'd visited my son, his wife and daughter at the bottom of the hill, he suggested driving me home. I said: 'No, I'm going to try walking up.' I got home in about half an hour, at 6.30pm. At 11pm, I texted my son: 'Just got home.' For half a moment, he believed it had taken me five hours!  


Four years on from contracting Covid, how are you still affected?  

It's quite drastic really - about two years' worth of memory has been completely wiped. There was a lovely party for the 30th anniversary of We're Going on a Bear Hunt at London's Southbank Centre, in 2019. I've seen photographs. There was a big cake decorated with characters from the book, and I gave a speech. But I can't recall any of it.  


Bear Hunt has inspired generations of family rambles. Did you get a sense that it was going to be so iconic?  

I honestly had no idea. I thought people would go: 'Oh, Michael's adapted that old summer-camp song about a lion.' The extraordinary paintings by Helen [Oxenbury, the book's illustrator] turned a simple story into this gigantic, epic family struggle, battling with nature and the world. Her powerful pictures possess such huge drama, even for the baby and the dog. The family seem to be driven by something, but you're not quite sure what. Why not just go home, guys? I mean, you're getting cold and wet? Yet, nonetheless, on the family go. Then, when they 'arrive', they immediately dash off again, which seems to rather upset the bear. Helen's final painting shows the bear on its own, looking extremely sad. Some children stare at that picture and cry.  

Very beautifully, teachers create 'environments' for young children to go through inspired by the book, either in school, in the playground, or while out walking, which they post on Twitter and Facebook and I re-share. It's lovely for the story to have a second (or third - from my own initial retelling) life. It's powerful to say to a child: 'You can't go over it, you can't go under it, you've got to go through it.' Those simple words are a powerful philosophy for us all.  


Have walking and nature helped you come to terms with your son Eddie's untimely death? 

Eddie was 18 when he died [of meningitis]. He was working as crew in the Lyric Theatre. He enjoyed strolling about the West End, Soho, Fitzrovia. I'd wait for him, then we'd have chips at Ed's Easy Diner, which we joked was named for him. Today, if! see the Lyric's stage door, part of me waits for Eddie to see me. Of course, he doesn't come out. But in a funny way, I'm comforted by these places. He enjoyed them when he was alive, and they are nourishing to me today. I actually have a book on the stocks called Where is Eddie? - a sort of folktale with meaning for everyone. A cat tells me to go and look for Eddie. When I return, the cat reminds me that Eddie used to like stroking the cat.  

A child's death obviously contains a very cruel twist, because so much hope is invested in their future. But, whether we live to 110, or just a few minutes, we get our run. Eddie had his life. The birds, the bees, even a 1,000-year-old tree has an end point. Nothing is there forever.  


Is it important for children to connect with nature?  

I'm torn by this. I've made efforts with my children, but they were pretty perfunctory. They've been appalled by the notion of walking. Of course, it's possible to live in cities and believe that milk comes out of a machine, but we can't survive without the natural world. Agriculture and nature are inextricably interlinked. If wild bees aren't fertilizing, cows can't exist. The danger is that if we sit back and relax, we let harmful things happen. Everything is circular, connected.  

Michael is author of over 200 books, including Sticky McStickstick (£7.99, Walker Books) and We're Going on a Bear Hunt (£7.99, Walker Books).  










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