Profile - The funny and peculiar world of the cleaner turned comic sensation

1st January 2010 at 00:00
Roald Dahl Funny Prize winner Philip Ardagh tells Helen Ward about his long road to success as a children's author

"Just nice. Nice, nice, nice. Nice, nice," says Philip Ardagh when asked how life has been since being officially crowned the funniest children's author in Britain. "So many people have said nice things. It's the gift that keeps on giving."

Mr Ardagh was awarded the Roald Dahl Funny Prize for his book, Stinking Rich and Just Plain Stinky, the first in his series of Grubtown Tales at the end of last year. The #163;2,500 prize, run by Book Trust, was shared with illustrator Jim Paillot and the book was praised by former children's laureate Michael Rosen as having a "cast of characters crazy enough to wake Spike Milligan from his home on the Ning Nang Nong".

Following the media circus that pursued him after picking up the gong Mr Ardagh, 48, is now back home in Tunbridge Wells, where he lives with his wife and six-year-old son. And the job of writing has resumed.

In one sense, it would be hard for any award to make Mr Ardagh more recognisable - he is already 6ft 7in with an impressive beard - but since winning, people have stopped him in the street to offer congratulations. By people, Mr Ardagh means adults. Children, he said, are not so bothered about the award - they just like his books.

As one fan explained on Amazon: "My dad bought it (Ardagh's Awful End - the first of the Eddie Dickens series) for my brother. But I got a hold of it first and it was so brilliant that my dad read it next. So my brother has not got his hands on it yet."

Awful End introduced Eddie Dickens, a boy whose parents catch a disease that makes them turn yellow and smell of hot water bottles. His adventures start when he is sent to live with dreadful relatives. Published in 2000, it was the book that made Philip Ardagh's name and has been translated into 34 languages. But he was no overnight success.

Mr Ardagh says: "I think I was always writing, even before I could read, which meant I couldn't write words, just squiggles. I didn't just want to read, I wanted to immerse myself in the whole idea of books.

"Once a week, my father would read me a chapter of one of the Narnia books. We would sit in the drawing room, not a room I was allowed in on my own - it was a very special moment. It's probably terribly unfair because I'm sure my mother must have read me numerous books and stories, but because it was an everyday occurrence I have no memory of it.

"My first published story was in the school magazine. It was about Mrs Brown, who goes to the seaside and sees a cave. In the cave there is a pool, the pool is dark with green seawater. She swims in it and gets swallowed by a seaweed monster, then he burps her up and she says she is never going swimming there again."

Mr Ardagh won't say which school it was. He went to five - one of which he admits was the King's School in Canterbury, which boasts alumni who include Christopher Marlowe, Somerset Maugham and fellow children's author Michael Morpurgo.

School is clearly a touchy subject. Mr Ardagh has previously described himself a victim of private education in that he was not competitive, felt homesick and said his teachers were "generally an unpleasant bunch".

There were some exceptions, however, such as Mrs Ewbank, an English teacher in the third school he went to and "a complete an utter inspiration".

"In my mind, she was an old lady, though now I suspect she was about 40. She was so engaging, so fantastic. She gave us the opportunity to get up and talk about anything - for example, I gave a talk about the ethnic origins of the Wombles.

"I spoke and people laughed and it was fantastic that they were laughing with me. To reading and writing, she added the dimension of performing, which is a significant aspect of what I do."

He didn't go on to university after school, instead attending Watford College to train as an advertising copywriter. But after a stint in advertising he became a hospital cleaner because it freed him up to write. After that he became a library assistant, working for Lewisham library services, and continued to write in his spare time.

Mr Ardagh believes his professionalism threatened to undermine writing career. As a hospital cleaner he wanted to be a good hospital cleaner and so did overtime and, later, after cuts were made to the library service and qualified staff, he realised he was rapidly becoming the best unqualified library assistant around. "I should have been just doing it as a job," he says.

His writing career began with non-fiction titles but when his nephew Ben went to boarding school, Mr Ardagh began writing to him and it was those letters that became the basis of the Eddie Dickens books.

There can be little doubt that these are no ordinary kids' books. They challenge what children perceive as reality. For example in the Eddie Dickens series, Eddie's dad is aware that he is a character created by Philip Ardagh. And in the Grubtown Tales, the author appears as Beardy Ardagh and has continuing arguments with the publisher, Paltry Feedback. Reading The Grubtown Herald newspaper on Mr Ardagh's website, it is reported that the characters were quite indignant to hear Michael Rosen believed they were made up ... and crazy.

"I am spectacularly useless. That's why I am such a prolific writer, because I'm useless at anything else," Mr Ardagh states. "When people ask about tips on writing, I hear other authors say read, read, read. I would echo that but I would also add, write. It doesn't matter if you only put in an hour a week in the evening, make it your time and in that time write because the more you do something the better you get."


Illustrator Jim Paillot, who lives in Arizona, shared the Roald Dahl prize for the Grubtown books with Philip Ardagh. The books are not currently on sale in the US.

"I got sent the manuscript and after I read it was so excited to be a part of the project," he says. "I juggle up to a dozen projects at a time but it is so very rare that I can work on a book or project that is just plain belly-laugh funny.

"The grubby, awkward and seedy (but charming) town and its odd collection of residents appealed to me very much from the get go.

"Every illustrator waits for the chance to draw a ghostly bag of frozen peas. Those opportunities do not come by every day so I was quick to recognise that. If you like your stories to be full of wholesome people who eat sensibly and observe good hygiene habits then you should run away from this book.

"To celebrate getting the prize I took a day off and sat quietly inside my personal sensory deprivation tank. It's filled with deli meats and wet carpet remnants. I find that relaxing."


An extract from Stinking Rich and Just Plain Stinky

Manual Org was repulsive. How repulsive? I'll tell you how repulsive Manual Org was. He once entered a competition to find the 'Most Repulsive Person in the Area at the Time' and he was disqualified ... for being too repulsive. Would I lie to you? (Except for money.)

You know how people go on about greasy hair? Well, Manual Org's hair was so greasy that it was more grease than it was hair, so it would be more accurate to have called it hairy grease than greasy hair. You'd probably go "Yerch!" and run away from him as fast as your little legs - or wheels - would carry you. It's hard to imagine anyone having such hairy grease on top of their head. And what a head.

Have you ever seen a really rotten potato? One that's been forgotten about and left to do its own thing?

You have?

What an exciting life you must lead. Do write and tell me about it.

(On second thoughts, DON'T. I don't want you to. If you do, I'll simply look at your letter, sneer at it like I do a worthless piece of cheese, then put it in a pile marked: 'IGNORE IT AND HOPE THAT IT MIGHT GO AWAY SOONER RATHER THAN LATER'.)

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