Imagination taking power

Michael Rosen on the ingredients of an imaginative childhood

Michael Rosen is a writer of books, for children and adults, is a broadcaster on Radio 4 and elsewhere, and is a performer, who goes to schools performing his poems and telling his stories.  We met one lunchtime in a crowded busy cafe just round the corner from the BBC in London.

So Michael, what is imagination?

I’m always a bit cautious about these words because they’ve got a long history.  For me, because I studied English Literature, the first thing that happens when I hear the word imagination is I rush to the Romantic poets.

There’s a corridor between me and thinking about what the Romantic poets meant by imagination, because imagination for them was something subversive.  It was a reply to the Enlightenment and reason.  They thought utopia could come about just simply by human beings being reasonable and through reasoning.

In itself we can’t necessarily take exception to that, but the problem was that they didn’t actually leave room for what the Romantics meant by imagination, which was thinking up new stuff, particularly for them in the arts.  They saw around them what they thought was the devastation that had come about as the consequence of the Enlightenment, namely the Industrial Revolution.  And war.  So they blamed that on the Enlightenment, which is not entirely fair, but it’s understandable in the circumstances.  Classically you can see it in William Blake’s poem Jerusalem where he’s talking about “dark satanic mills” and posing instead nature and that we could conjure up ideas and so on.

So Blake, though he’s to one side of the Romantics, is an example of that.  Basically, when we use the word, we tend to be in the shadow of the Romantics, even today.  That’s both a good and a bad thing.  It’s a good thing because it reminds us that we get so much pleasure in thinking up stuff and living in a world amongst others who are thinking up stuff, and living in a world amongst people who have thought up stuff.  In other words going to concerts, plays, writing poems, going to art galleries, all these sorts of things.  That’s the upside.

The downside is that it’s very easy for people who regard themselves as down to earth and realist, to sat that it’s all a bit airy fairy.  That it’s not necessary.

Here we are, sitting in a café.  Everything around us – the windows, the food that I’ve just eaten, this tray, this tape recorder, this bottle that I’m drinking from, this present you’ve just given me, all relied on what you might call imagination.  We might call it creativity, we might call it planning, we might call it invention, inventiveness.  But essentially, people had to sit somewhere, or stand somewhere and think ahead.  They had to envision.

They had to have a picture in their mind of what they would do with the materials that they had.  This plastic fork – someone had to work out that you could extrude bits of plastic in a shape that resembled these things that we’ve eaten with for two or three thousand years.  Someone had to think you could do that, and that required imagination.

Now you would think nothing could be further from Keats and Wordsworth than a plastic fork.  That’s what I would say about imagination, that it’s essential, it’s inevitable, it’s what we all do.  It’s what we see a child do almost from the time they’re born.  It’s what we do when we’re planning what we’re going to do today, or what we envision and that requires the mind to think of something other than what it immediately is perceiving.

It’s like all these words we’ve got, like ‘forward planning’ and even horrible management phrases like ‘going forward’, that’s actually all imagination.  People say, “well, how is that going to work out going forward?” they say in their business.  That’s actually imagination.  Again, what a far cry from Ode to a Nightingale.  But in actual fact it’s not.  That’s what we are as human beings.  We are very capable of envisioning, of thinking ahead, of coming up with images, and it’s necessary for us to make a better world.  I mean it is our only hope in fact.

What would you say were the ingredients for an imaginative childhood?

Ideally it’s the space and time to play, and to participate in the arts.  So play in the sense of monkeying around with other people, whoever they are, in your family grouping, or with your mates, or people younger than you, or whatever.  So time for that.  But also time in whatever respect to work with materials in a trial and error way, finding out whether things work or not, and with language.  Our ability to think up new stuff.

If children have a lot of that, then their attitude to the world is such that the world is changeable, and also that I can participate in that change.  It isn’t just something where I go in, and I have no power.  I have no rights to operate change on this world or the environment, and my job is just to take orders.

So people who have had the opportunity to question and play and try things out and experiment, all of these part of imaginative behaviours, at least have a sense in themselves that the world is malleable.  That they are part of a world that changes and they can be part of change.  It’s not just simply whether politicians tell you you can now vote on something.

What would you say where the factors in your own life that have led to you having a very active imagination?

My parents, really, at the end of the day.  My parents fundamentally believed in our rights as children, me and my brother, to participate in decisions and to have a life.  We weren’t just on the receiving end of orders.  A tremendous belief in the power of language and that language belonged to us.

It didn’t belong to other people.  That you could critique and analyse language itself, so language was up for grabs.  It wasn’t this single, “You will do it and obey.”  So you know, if you think of in the Bible, the 10 Commandments, it’s as if these commandments exist in the environment and my parents would be the kind of people who say, “Oh, well, I wonder why it says ‘shalt not’?”  And graven images, “I wonder where these graven images come from?”

Do you see what I mean?  Now you could say Jesuits are like that, they question everything, well indeed they were quite Jesuitical in that way.  So there’s that aspect, but also great belief in the arts.  We were always going to the theatre, to galleries, and they themselves were both teachers and they took us to see the things they did with the children, the students they taught.  So I think there would never be a week go by where I wasn’t involved in some way or another in either the results of other people’s imaginations, at the artistic end of things, or being invited to do some stuff myself.  And at the same time, this constant questioning going on.

I mean it was kind of relentless.  Friends used to come over to the house and they couldn’t believe it, the extent to which my parents questioned everything.  The telly would be on, or the radio, and my parents would be doing a running commentary on what was on the radio.  My mates would go, “Why does he keep saying, no, rubbish?” and all that sort of thing.  “Why are there so many books in the house?  Have they read all these books?”  That was the kind of home, yeah, very questioning and hoping that we would make things and do things, of all kinds.

In our culture, we have the people who imagine on our behalf, the ‘professional imaginers’, and then the rest of us.  How do you see that distinction?

It’s interesting isn’t it?  The French have a word ‘animateur’.  An animateur is not an ‘animator’ in our sense, it’s a workshop leader.  It’s someone who would take the people in this room and say, “Let’s do a conga, if necessary, or on the other hand, let’s put funny masks on and all pretend we’re chimpanzees” or something.  But that’s an animateur.  Or “let’s a make a pot”.

Of course, not all artists are animateurs and not all animateurs are necessarily people who make and do primary art themselves.  The fundamental basis of my work is that I should try and make it available to the widest number of people.  I’m not going to pretend it always is, but I’m in that direction.

I mostly try to avoid being esoteric and arcane and obscure, and so there’s a fundamental belief in the democracy of what it is I’m trying to do, and part of that must be to encourage people to make and do themselves.  Because that actually benefits everybody, at the primary level of artistic making.

The more people that have had a go at painting, then when you go to an art gallery, you go, “Oh my God, I tried splodging on a bit of canvas.  It didn’t come out like that at all, and look at Monet, look at what he did!”  It provides you with a critical apparatus.

We usually think of criticism as long words to describe paintings or poems or something but actually putting splodges on a piece of paper and trying to be an impressionist, and then going to an impressionist exhibition, that’s critical as well.  And so I’m interested in all that.  I can accept some artists aren’t interested particularly in helping others, if they’re too busy…  They’re too involved in what they’re doing to have time, really.  But in my case I have always been interested in being both an artist and an animateur.


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© Rob Hopkins 2017