How Philip Pullman came to be the Connell Guides Essay Prize Judge

By Zoë Stebbing

zoe headshotHaving worked for Connell Guides for a year in marketing and PR we were discussing who could be a suitable judge to follow William Boyd after the inaugural Connell Guides essay prize.  I knew that award-winning novelist Philip Pullman had given a quote to The Connell Guide to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, so I thought he would be ideal and might be willing to support us.  Not only is he a world-renowned children’s author, but he was also formerly a schoolteacher. In fact he was my teacher, so I knew him well many years ago!

From the age of nine to thirteen I was a pupil at the now non-existent Bishop Kirk Middle School in Oxford where Philip was the Head of English. One always remembers good teachers who made an impact, but there were few as magical and inspiring as Philip.  For instance, he was more than happy to replace one of our weekly English lessons with Greek mythology, definitely not in the syllabus! You can imagine the incredible treat we had as young pupils while Philip, (not yet even a published author), stood at the front of the class and almost hypnotized us with epic tales of Leda and the Swan, or led us into the underworld of Hades inhabited by Pluto and Persephone. These classes were so gripping we would sit in awe, loving every minute of his story telling, willing that the end of lesson bell would never ring.

I remember the annual school plays, which he wrote and directed. In particular, The Elephant of Siam. Every year there would be a new creation, a fairy tale kingdom in which we all played a part. Of course we had no idea at the time where his career would go, but we all felt lucky to be part of his world. In fact many of these school plays became the basis for his future novels and short stories.

So I wrote to him and asked if he would be our judge, terrified he might not be able to take this on, or worse, not remember me, so I was delighted that he responded so positively. I recounted a line from the play he had written, my first ‘real role’, it is so vivid, even today, some thirty years later – “I’m from Broadstairs darling!”

I was deeply touched he had indeed remembered me, in part, ironically because I had entered a writing competition during that year, encouraged by him. We had to write a biography about someone we knew. My best friend and I wrote each other’s. Penelope Lively judged the contest. I wish I had kept it, but at least Philip remembered it, and wrote back, agreeing to judge, and said,  “I remember those biographies not only because Penelope Lively liked them so much but because of the truthfulness and feeling you both put into them”. He made my day. And we are thrilled to have Philip Pullman to judge our second essay prize.

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