He’s one of the best-known figures in children’s literature—but Michael Rosen’s latest book is for adults. He spoke to Reader's Digest about politics, underpants and the secret life of his hero.

Michael Rosen is giving me a vocabulary lesson. I’m trying to pronounce “Émile Zola”, but in my blunt English accent it’ll only come out as “Em-eel Zo-lah”. Not satisfied with simply helping me to pronounce it in French—“Emeel Zowla”—he has moved onto the Italian, “Emill Zzola”.

Spending time with the former children’s laureate has the nostalgic air of a private lesson with your favourite teacher. When he’s finished his perfect pronunciation, Michael quips, “Of course, my Italian’s not very good—except for saying, ‘With mushrooms, please’.”

I try again. With a small sigh he concedes, “Well, in English we can just say, ‘Emil Zowlah’. ”

Despite looking exactly like the Quentin Blake characters that populate many of his children’s stories (of which there are more than 100), in the flesh Michael is far less animated than you might imagine. He quietly takes a seat opposite me, gathering up his sprawling limbs until he looks the very image of Rodin’s The Thinker.

Known the world over for his beloved children’s book, We’re Going On a Bear Hunt—which hasn’t been out of print since its first publication 27 years ago—Michael’s latest project is something of a departure from his usual style.

Written for adults, The Disappearance of Émile Zola is the riveting true account of a lost period in the life of one of France’s most famous writers. Émile Zola was the pioneer of naturalism and author of Germinal and La Bête Humaine. Michael follows the years in which Zola fled his homeland and sought refuge in South London, having spoken out against a case of anti-Semitic injustice that went to the core of the French government.

 

 

"I think art does have something to say to politics, about politics. Artists have an ear to the pulse of humanity"

 

 

“I knew his novels, I’d seen the films and I was reading on the internet when I realised that he’d come to England. I thought, Really? Zola in England? That seems so incongruous. This is the novelist of the lower classes and miners and steamy affairs—and here he was trogging about in South London. I suddenly thought, This is an extraordinary story.”

It’s one made all the more fascinating through its parallels with the present day. Before Zola leaves France, crowds gather to chant, “Go back to Venice. Go back to the Jews.” In the wake of migration, Brexit and reports of racism on the rise in Britain, it’s clear that Zola’s world wasn’t too far removed from our own.

“You only have to listen to the news each morning!” Michael exclaims, arms gesturing fervidly. “Today we have the Casey Report [an independent review for the government written by Dame Louise Casey, which looked into integration] accusing one group [Britain’s Muslim population] of being segregated at a time when we have many segregations in society. Casey could just have easily raised financial inequality, but she didn’t. I feel very uneasy when that sort of thing goes on.”

Politics has been a lifelong passion for Michael, and one that’s landed him in trouble more than once. Fired and blacklisted by the BBC back in 1972 because of his outspoken Marxist views, he’s no stranger to the kind of political discrimination faced by Émile Zola over a century ago.

“I think art has something to say to politics, about politics. And it’s not a bad idea to listen, because quite often artists have an ear to the pulse of humanity, rather than, say, the bureaucratic needs of how we can marshal different groups of people.”

michael rosen
Michael Rosen reads from We're Going on a Bear Hunt. Image via Seven Stories

Of course, no Michael Rosen project would be complete without a little silliness—this is the author of such titles as Fluff the Farting Fish after all. Even in this ostensibly depressing tale, there are moments of laugh-out-loud comedy.

“He didn’t have any underpants!” Michael cries as we discuss Zola’s first days in England. Having arrived with nothing more than a nightshirt, he went from store to store miming his way to a new wardrobe.

“He was able to mime for socks, and does exactly what my mum used to do, which is put your fist down and measure round it. Somehow or other, perhaps he was just self conscious, he couldn’t point to his…underneath.” Michael pauses to gesture downward, clearly as self-conscious as Zola.

It’s obvious as we’re talking just how much research this project required. At 70, Michael is still a prolific worker. It’s a rare day when he doesn’t have at least one novel or poetry collection on the go.

Add to that his Radio 4 show, Word of Mouth, his YouTube channel, his blog, his position as Professor of Children’s Literature at Goldsmiths and his family (Rosen lives in North London with his third wife, producer Emma-Louise Williams, and is father to five children and two step-children, the youngest of whom are still preteens), and you have to wonder how on earth he finds the time.

“I must say this project was one of the hardest. Every time I started a new chapter, it opened up another avenue. I made time because I was just so absorbed by the story.”

This dedication is typical, as much of Michael’s work is intensely personal. Sad Book, for example, explores Michael’s grief over his son Eddie, who died suddenly of meningitis in 1999, when he was just 18. Does he ever find it odd, to think that strangers know such intimate details of his life?

 

 

“My dad was an English teacher, and he taught me, ‘Always start with a personal story'"

 

 

"At school, I was constantly set essays with dull titles such as ‘Trees’. The worst opening line you could ever write was, ‘There are many kinds of tree.’ My dad said, ‘You can say oaks are like this and elms are like that later, but for goodness’ sake, start with the personal.’ Ever since then I have, so I don’t mind. Whether my family do is another matter…”

The personal nature of his work caused Michael no end of bother when the video-sharing website YouTube first arrived on the scene. A group calling themselves “Poopers” began chopping up his poetry to create humorous montage videos they dubbed “Poops”. These fan clips were mostly innocent fun, but occasionally took an X-rated turn.

“The thing that bothered me most was the idea that six-year-olds would happen upon them,” he sighs. “But then the Poopers came back with a legitimate reply. They asked, ‘Would you let your kids wander around the Red Light District alone? No? Then why do parents let their kids wander around the internet alone? More fool the parents! Stick the filters on and 99 per cent won’t get through.’ ”

“Do I mind now? Absolutely not. When I was 15, I had the record of Beyond the Fringe and there’s nothing I’d have liked more than to take Alan Bennett saying, ‘Is there a little bit of sardine in the corner of your life?’ [sic] and change it to, ‘Is there a bit of baked bean in the corner of your life?’. ”

When he talks about the Poopers, Michael visibly softens. It’s as though they’re a gang of his own children, rather than the anonymous trolls I first imagined. It’s a softening that’s echoed when I ask him whether Émile Zola was the namesake for his youngest son, Emile.

“Indeed. It is, as you would say in French, après Zola. Yes.”

And with a wry smile and that final flurry of French, class is dismissed.

 

Michael’s The Disappearance of Émile Zola (Faber & Faber, £16.99) is out now

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