Michael Rosen’s Glasses by Elli Woollard
‘Oh yes’, I said, taking out my pen and breezily signing a thousand copies of my latest best-selling book to my adoring fans. ‘Always wanted to be a writer. Always. In fact’, and here I lowered my voice, ‘I wanted to be a writer right from the time I was in the womb. That’s what real writers do, you know’.
Except I didn’t. It’s not that I never considered the possibility of being a writer. I learnt to read and write early, and by the age of four I was writing little stories (full of highly unusual spellings), illustrating them, and stapling them together to form books. A large number of these featured my best friend, who was very sporty and much more daring than I was, except in my stories our roles are reversed, so that I am the brave one and she is the wimp. Even at this young age, I apparently realised that stories hold out the possibility of reinvention. Stories, I was learning, are socially sanctioned lies.
Throughout my childhood I continued to write. ‘Write a story’, my teacher would say. ‘Two pages long’. Only my story would always be ten times that length. It’s probably a good thing that seven year-olds don’t have editors. And yes, I wanted to be a writer. But only in the same way that I wanted to be a nurse (until I remembered I couldn’t stand the sight of blood), a vet (ditto, plus there were suffering animals involved), a teacher (until I realised I’d have to deal with actual children), a research scientist (not sure what happened to that one), ‘something to do with music’ (I played the piano very seriously, but never well enough to be a concert pianist) and, extremely bizarrely, an MP.
And maybe I would have pursued being a writer further, if authors hadn’t been surrounded by a certain mystique. I didn’t know any authors. None of my friends’ parents were authors. If any authors ever came to my school, I don’t remember it. Someone must have told me once that it was incredibly difficult to get published, and after that the thought of being an author was only a very distant dream. I might as well have said I wanted to be an astronaut. Authors were other people, not me.
As an adult I vaguely started several books, but they never came to anything. ‘You know you’re a writer’, I read somewhere, ‘if you can’t stop writing’. My problem was that I could, and did.
And then one day, back in 2011, I took my children to see Michael Rosen perform his poems (including ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’). I’d never seen anything quite so wonderful. Even my easily-distracted third child (aged four at the time) was engaged. And that might have been that. I might have left that performance thinking how brilliant Michael Rosen was, and never thought about writing again.
But then, towards the end of the show, something truly terrible happened. My youngest son, just coming up to his second birthday, decided that sitting still on the floor for an hour was torture, and so he wandered off my lap. He wasn’t the only toddler doing so, and I decided that allowing him to roam was better than having him sit still and scream.
He wandered. Past the chairs where all the parents were sitting, round the legs of the children on the floor, and up to the front of the room, where Michael Rosen was performing. And there, on the floor, were Michael Rosen’s glasses.
My youngest son didn’t go over them. He didn’t go under them. He had to go through them. Craaaaaack snap craaaack snap.
Oops. Naturally I was mortified, and offered to pay for the broken specs, an offer that Michael Rosen very kindly declined. But then something almost magical happened. On the way home, the first line of a poem popped into my head. I didn’t have to think about it – it was just there, where it hadn’t been before. Without meaning to, I was writing a poem!
Maybe the best way to pay Michael Rosen back, I thought, would be to send him some poems, to show him what an inspiration he’d been. And so I wrote some more, and some more, and some more. Whatever the broken glasses had unleashed, I couldn’t stop writing.
Writing picture books, getting an agent, and getting publishing deals all came later. But after my son broke Michael Rosen’s glasses I knew exactly what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a writer.
At the age of four Elli wrote her first picture book, involving her best friend, a tricycle accident, blood everywhere, and the author emerging as the hero. Several years later she completed an MA in social anthropology, moved out to Thailand, taught herself the language, and has since worked variously as a Thai to English translator, a copywriter for a domestic appliance insurance firm (about as interesting as it sounds) and an assistant editor in academic publishing. She now lives in London where she combines writing with freelance translation work, looking after her four children, butchering nice music on the piano and being dictated to by her deranged cat.