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Julian Clary: “Writing Is A Great Contrast To My Other Life”

Julian Clary wasn’t sure at first that children’s writing would be a good fit for him – but it’s turned out to be a surprisingly satisfying experience...

  • Julian Clary: “Writing Is A Great Contrast To My Other Life”

I couldn’t read or write well for quite a long time; I was a slow beginner in that respect. But then, around the age of nine, I suddenly got the hang of both – and I was off.

In fact, I ended up passing the 11+, despite my mother being told by a very well-meaning teacher fairly early on that such a thing would be beyond me.

I had a difficult time at secondary school, but primary was lovely – the teachers were mostly kind, and I have fond memories. I went to Sacred Heart, a Catholic school in Teddington.

We lived right opposite, at number 39; you could hear the school bell from our front room, and I’d be there in seconds.

My sister is a primary teacher, so I know a little about the level of paperwork, targets and inspections that schools face these days – but although I was ‘behind’ for the first few years, I don’t remember any particular horror or pressure.

Someone did come in to help me with my reading, I think, but I was able to get there in my own time. And once I could read, I just loved it. I was voracious.

Enid Blyton was standard children’s fare at the time, but I didn’t take to her much – I didn’t like her world, or believe in it; something about her writing didn’t appeal to me.

Swallows and Amazons, though, was marvellous. It involved similarly idyllic childhood scenes, and adventures, but Arthur Ransome seemed to make it all more exciting, more intrepid – and more real.

My mother had a lot of books, and from the age of 11 or 12, I started picking things off the shelves at home. That was when I first read DH Lawrence – probably at much too early an age, really.

I remember once at secondary school, they wanted us to study The Rainbow, and we were asked who had read any DH Lawrence and which titles.

The teacher – a monk – was horrified when I told him I’d read them all (“...even Sons and Lovers!”). I enjoyed Thomas Hardy, too, moving on to Muriel Spark and Fay Weldon when I was 14 or so.

Perhaps they were odd choices for a child, but there was such an absence of alternatives for children of my age at the time. And given that I had no friends to speak of, I was happy to lose myself in a book – the longer and denser, the better.

Writing was a pleasure, too, as soon as I’d learnt the basics. From quite an early age I’d produce stories, poems, diaries – they’re all still in a trunk somewhere.

The first novels I wrote were for adults, which was great, but they took me such a long time, and had a tendency to sink without trace quite quickly, so my agent suggested I try to write a children’s book.

She knew, which I didn’t, just how vibrant and exciting the world of children’s publishing is. My first reaction was much the same as everyone else’s – wouldn’t that be a bit incongruous? But it turned out to be absolutely right for me.

I enjoy writing for children much more than I ever imagined I would. It’s such a lovely world to immerse myself in, and I become a child again myself in the process.

The age group I’m writing for – 5-10 year olds – is so uncynical and responsive; their imaginations just go wherever you lead them. It’s charming.

I’ve spent 30 years making adults laugh, and still love doing it; but there’s something special for a performer about children’s laughter, because it’s so completely genuine – at book events, for example, they don’t know who I am, so their response isn’t based on preconceptions, or humouring me.

I go into schools with the books (I’ll go anywhere there’s an audience, basically), and it’s something I like doing very much. The illustrator, David Roberts, comes with me, and he draws while I read.

We do interactive stuff, too, like designing a hat for Mrs Bold, and asking the children to suggest what it might be made of (someone suggested ‘the sea’, recently, which was quite a challenge for David) – it’s inspiring to see their creativity being sparked by a story.

Writing is a great contrast to my other life – which essentially involves being on stage and talking filth. After six months of working on a book, I start to feel that I really want to go on tour and get all the attention; but after a couple of months of that, I can’t wait to get back to writing quietly.

The two elements of what I do at the moment complement each other rather well, I find.

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