The Shelf Life series running at the Story Museum is a fantastic opportunity to get up close and personal with some of our favourite household names. It's an intimate evening, hosted by Nicolette Jones (Sunday Times children's literary editor), who gently probes each guest to share their relationship and experiences with literature, from the books they grew up with to those they may be famous for writing themselves. You may not think David Baddiel a man of letters, but as well as being 'that comedian off the telly,' Baddiel holds a double first in English from Cambridge, has written three literary novels for adults, and more recently three children's novels that are giving the phenomenally successful David Walliams a run for his money.
I was a big Baddiel fan in the 1990s when he and Robert Newman became the first rock'n'roll comedians, selling out stadiums and being swooned over by young ladies up and down the country. Baddiel was always seen as the grumpy one, which seems crazy after this evening's event in which he came across as really quite cheerful, chatty, engaging and someone who takes delight in the mundane details of everyday life, or at least likes reading about them. He explained his love for American novelist John Updike's books, for example, comes from the fact that they take the humdrum comings and goings of existence and morphs them into something extraordinary. Baddiel frequently referred back to his own unexciting background, growing up in North London to parents not the least bit bothered about art. His father was a scientist working for Unilever and protested at Baddiel's decision to study English over maths and science. Baddiel remains surprised at the contrast between his 'dull' background and his more unusual life in the public eye today.
This contrast between the 'boring' and the 'magical' is a recurring theme for Baddiel in terms of the books that have inspired him and those he has written. His earliest experience of reading came from his mother's somewhat odd insistence that he get into Charles Hamilton's Billy Bunter books which were desperately outmoded at the time and yet offered Baddiel a glimpse of a life bigger than his own, touched by perhaps not magic in the way that the Harry Potter books are, but a sense that life can be magical. Baddiel proffered that perhaps children need the alternative universes that fiction can bring because they are painfully aware of how uninteresting their own worlds are. Personally, while I do recall being bored as a child, I also really did believe my world was filled with magic – I had no doubt that the Easter Bunny, Father Christmas and Tooth Fairy were real, but then again my parents worked hard to maintain the 'mystery'; I get the impression Baddiel's did not.
Baddiel also discussed how baffled he was that most men read non-fiction (women account for 70% of fiction sales), and even asked the men in the audience to explain why this might be. For him, no matter how interesting or compelling the facts, it is the story that matters. The man loves his fiction, and this is why he is a little bitter. Baddiel is clearly a phenomenally talented storyteller, and yet his work as writer of adult literary fiction has never been recognised and therefore has not attracted very many readers. Baddiel believes that this is solely because he is a popular television figure (a 'celebrity'), and therefore not taken seriously. In contrast, his children's books have sold exceptionally well. These readers do not judge him on who he is, but what kind of a story he has to tell. His move into this market was not calculated - his son, who was nine at the time, gave Baddiel an idea for his first title, and it just so happened that the story was most suitable for children - but the transition has meant that at last, he is being read widely and without prejudice.
It seems most writers today hold a grudge of sorts with the publishing industry in some form or another. It appears everyone is getting in each other's way, and forgetting the thing that matters – the story. I think Baddiel has every right to be annoyed, but I'm glad he isn't grumpy anymore.