What kind of poems and stories do you write?
I enjoy writing different kinds of things so it isn't just prose and verse, it's also long and short, it's happy and sad, books with letters in them, books with holes in them. It entertains me to try and make a different book each time. I don't always succeed, but that's what interests me.
When did you start writing poems?
When I was really quite young, when I was twelve, I enjoyed writing when I was at school. My handwriting was poor, my spelling was awful, I didn't punctuate very well so I didn't get very good marks, but I enjoyed writing and I did write the odd poem then. But I guess more effectively I began writing poems twenty-odd years after that in my thirties and I began to find things happening in schools that interested me and I found instead of writing stories I found that what I had to say turned into a little poem or verse.
Where do you get your ideas from?
Many of the poems I've written about school life were from things I saw and heard in schools, things that children told me or things that I remembered when I was a child in school. But it's also true that things just pop into your head or that you make things up that never happened, they can be part of poems and verses as well. Finally I would say that in a way I don't actually want to know where I get my ideas from. It worries me sometimes that I'd be a bit like a man who's got a watch and he says, "I wonder how this watch works?" and he takes it to bits, puts all the bits on the table, has a good look and then tries to put them back together again and can't, so he can no longer tell the time, and I think if I analyse too closely what I do I may not be able to do it, so I just get on with it by instinct and see what happens.
How important is the look of a poem on the page?
I think the way poems and stories are printed and made into books, the way they appear on the page matters a great deal to me really. Most of the books of verse that I've done have been illustrated and when I'm lucky enough to get an illustrator like Fritz Wegner, for example, it matters hugely that not only is there a poem on the page, but there is a delightful picture that Fritz has produced. But then of course it's not just the page, but the sequence of pages, the way, of course with a book you turn from one page to the next, the whole book, from cover to cover, the actual look of the cover, the end papers if there are any. I'm actually a book maker I think, consequently the whole making of the book interests me. I start with writing something, but the job isn't finished until there's actually a book on a shelf, preferably in a shop or in someone's hand after they've bought it.
When you finish writing a book of poems, what happens next?
Often an important decision is what is the type-face and that controls the whole look of the book, and then of course you're involved in collaborating not only with an illustrator, but a designer. I've been lucky to work with a designer who's also a friend of mine, Douglas Martin. Douglas chose the type and designed the pages for a book of poems I did called The Mighty Slide. I like the look of the pages in that book very much. Unfortunately not too many other people seemed to like the poems themselves, so you may not have heard of it. The Mighty Slide - see if you can find it.
How long does it take you to write a poem?
Yes a common question, how long does it take to write a poem? The easy answer is of course, "How long is a piece of string?" Some poems have only four lines some poems go on for ten pages in my case. I write stories in verse at times. So I think the quickest would be five or ten minutes and you never have to change it. It all comes out in one single bit. In other cases I've had to keep poems for years because I had three quarters of a poem, but I couldn't find the ending or there was a bit that wasn't any good. I remember when my daughter Jessica was six going to a school assembly, which was about time and I stood at the back of the hall with other parents watching the little children do a show about time, digital watches, calendars, the phases of the moon and they did a little play with a six-year-old little old grandma, hurrying her family through the day and I made notes at the back and the notes that I made effectively was a poem called 'The Infants Do an Assembly about Time' so that poem took me the time it took to write those notes which was perhaps ten minutes.
Where do you write?
Most writers like to find a place to work which is away from the house they live in and mostly through my life I've had sheds down in the garden and I have one now in this house that we've moved to in the last year or two. I like the idea of leaving the house and going somewhere else, quite small, a little room where I can make a cup of coffee and gaze out of the window, think of various things and occasionally write the odd word, but it always needs to be away from the house. I sometimes write on trains when I'm travelling around. I rarely write anywhere else with good results unless it's in the particular little shed or room away from the house that I have sorted.
Does music play a part in your writing?
I think music does have a part in the poems and verses I try to write, because quite often, what I'm writing is a sort of song. Some of the poems in my books are actually called songs and some of them are set to tunes, either traditional tunes that everybody knows, or the occasional Broadway tune even, or old folk song, but also a tune or a rhythm that's in my mind to start with and I'm fitting the words to the tune, so yes, music - melody and rhythm - has a part in some of the verses that I've written.
Do you write with a particular reader in mind?
In one sense I do write for a particular audience, which is what I guess most writers do, I write for myself. I like the possibility of an idea and I pursue it and try to finish it. And generally then other people will decide whether this is a piece of work which entertains babies or twelve-year-olds. You can have a book that can be enjoyed by all sorts of children. In a way it could be that you have a book that's a bit like an onion: initially the baby might enjoy the book but when the baby becomes three or four he or she could enjoy the book all over again in a different way because there are other things in the book. The book still might be enjoyable when the baby has grown into a child, a ten-year-old. Adults too can find things in picture books that appear to be for the little child but can contain things for the parents, luckily because the parents may have to read the book to the child thirty times in a fortnight and be sick of it.
I'd like to be a writer, what should I do?
If you feel like becoming some sort of a writer you have to find a way of getting the words down on paper in some form or other, preferably regularly in a place that you go to, a door that you close, with a note on the door saying "Do not disturb, writer at work" and keep doing it and fail and do it again and fail and hope that at some point you get good enough at it to satisfy yourself and then maybe somebody else.
What's your favourite of the poems you've written?
There are many that I could pick - obviously at the time I wrote them I liked them all immensely. I like some of the longer ones rather a lot. There's a poem about a football match called the 'The Match (c. 1950)'. There are many other longer poems - I think I prefer the longer ones to the shorter. There's a poem which I'll read a little of to you now which is called 'The Goals of Bingo Boot'. I can't read it all, I would love to read it all, but it would take too long. It's simply a rich, I think, complex narrative about a little boy who becomes an astonishing footballer and a great many things happen to him.
The Goals of Bingo Boot
The fans in the stands are silent
You could hear the fall of a pin
For the fabulous game just ended
And the tale that's about to begin.
In nineteen hundred and twenty-two
A little boy was born
His baby cot was second-hand
His baby shawl was torn.
He had no teeth or teddy bear
His hair was incomplete
But he was the possessor of
The most amazing feet.
When Bingo Boot was two years old
He chewed his little crust
His poor old dad was on the dole
His poor old pram was bust.
Yet Bingo wasn't worried
Though his baby feet would itch
And he could hardly wait till
He could stroll - out on the pitch.
In school young Bingo languished
At the bottom of the class
His ball control was good
It was exams he couldn't pass.
His little pals all shouted, 'Foul!'
And tended to agree
If only teachers tested feet
He'd get a PhD.
And all the while in streets and parks
On pitches large or small
Without a proper pair of boots
Sometimes without a ball!
With tin cans in the clattering yard
In weather cold or hot
Young Bingo shimmied left and right
And scored with every shot.
His poor old mum scrubbed off his floors
His poor old gran did too
The pantry was an empty place
The rent was overdue.
Then Bingo had a brainwave
Shall I tell you what he did?
He sold himself to the Arsenal
For thirteen thousand quid.
The first game that he ever played
At the tender age of ten
Young Bingo just ran rings round
Eleven baffled men.
The fans of course went crazy
The fans went, 'Ooh!' and 'Ah!'
While Bingo took the match ball home
And bought his dad a car.
Well the story goes on a good deal further than that, right up in fact to the end of Bingo's life, and even beyond it. But to hear the rest you'll probably have to go somewhere, a library perhaps or a bookshop even and get hold of the book.
from Friendly Matches (Penguin, 2001), copyright © Allan Ahlberg 2001, used by permission of the author and the publisher.
Collected Poems, Puffin 2008
Everybody was a baby once, Walker Books 2010
Friendly Matches, Penguin, 2001Buy
The Mysteries of Zigomar, London, Walker, 1997Buy
Heard it in the Playground, Penguin, 1989Buy
The Mighty Slide, Penguin, 1988
Please Mrs Butler, Penguin Books, 2003Buy
Cops and Robbers, London, Heinemann/Penguin, 1978