Interview with Norfolk-based writer Kevin Crossley-Holland
PUBLISHED: 11:50 06 March 2018 | UPDATED: 11:50 06 March 2018
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All his life, Kevin Crossley-Holland has loved the saltmarshes of north Norfolk, where land meets sea, and his work explores the borders between words and music, history and legend
He lives, moored on low hills left behind as glaciers retreated. Just a couple of miles north is a shape-shifting island and a coastline where land merges imperceptibly into sea.
Kevin Crossley-Holland is a writer whose words slip into poetry, music, art and film. From the light-flooded converted barn near Burnham Market, where he lives with his wife, there are views in almost every direction. And in his study there are windows not only on to the landscape he has been returning to since childhood, but also back through the centuries.
The books lining the walls of his study are about medieval history and legend, King Arthur, northern gods and giants, music, art, poetry.
He recites part of a saga in Anglo Saxon, a mellifluous flow of sound first learned at Oxford where he was taught by poet WH Auden and encouraged by JRR Tolkien.
Kevin began a career in publishing before becoming a writer himself. His children’s book Storm won the Carnegie Medal in 1985 and The Seeing Stone, the first in his series reimagining the King Arthur legends, sold more than a million copies, was translated into 25 languagues and created a world as solid, sensual and real as the present day for the legions of children (and adults) who read it.
He is a poet too, revealed in every line of lyrical, perfectly-pitched writing, and is full of anecdotes from his decades at the forefront of children’s literature. Invited to make up numbers (he says) when the Queen Mother was visiting a friend in Burnham Market, he was astonished that she greeted him by quoting from one of his poems about nearby Burnham Overy Staithe.
Kevin, now 76, has known the village all his life. His grandparents lived here and founded the sailing club, where an annual race is still named for them.
This month a film featuring him in some of his favourite places will be premiered at the Oxford Literary Festival.
A North Norfolk Man, by director David Cohen, films him in Burnham Overy, in the ruins of Creake Abbey and beneath the medieval carved angels which roost in the roof of South Creake and sparked his novel Waterslain Angels. The film explores how his writing, often about other places and times, is rooted in Norfolk.
“More and more I find myself working with composers, artists and now with a film maker,” said Kevin.
He is collaborating with artist and fellow Norfolk writer Chris Riddell on a new book of Arthurian legends, to be published next year, and is writing the lyrics for a National Children’s Choir project, telling the true story of the refugee Nujeen Mustafa, who escaped Syria by wheelchair. The Girl From Aleppo will be premiered later this year and Kevin’s collection of British Folk Tales, including several haunting stories of ancient East Anglia, is also reissued this year.
He has four grown-up children, two sons and two daughters, and a “burgeoning” family of grandchildren too,
Last autumn he suffered a stroke. “I opened my mouth to say good morning to my wife and couldn’t make a sound,” he says. He was rushed to hospital and is hugely grateful for the care he received at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, King’s Lynn, and for the speech therapy which helped the master wordsmith reconnect with language.
As we talk he keeps getting up to find a book, a piece of music, a picture, and marvels at the links across history and geography, between cultures, people, landscapes and legends. “There is this gossamer of associations and connections and sometimes the light shines on it, like the sun shining on a dew-covered spiderweb, and you see all he networks,” he said.
His latest book for children is set in the towering mountains and terrifying folklore of Scandinavia, where giants and gods were forged in a landscape of volcanoes, fjords and storms.
“Auden told me, ‘Look north; people look south to the Mediterranean when you and I are creatures of the northern lands,’” said Kevin. “Certainly in north Norfolk we are of a piece with people in north west Europe.”
He is a spiritual man, a church-goer, but his lifelong fascination with even more ancient stories now harmonises with modern concerns about our connection with, and separation from, the natural world.
“The Norse myths are more apocalyptic than I first thought,” he said. “ don’t believe Stephen Hawking is right when he says the world is going to come to an end in a century or so. Everything in me resists it. But that is the story of the myths.”
As one project reimagines the huge reach of an entire belief system, which began in prehistory and has become familiar today through film, television, fantasy fiction and computer games, his focus is also intensely local. “I said I would write a book about Norfolk but although I would live and die for Norfolk I don’t know enough about the different regions of this vast county,” he said. “I really don’t know the Broads at all. I have made lots of raids into the Brecks and the Fens and visited dozens of schools all over the county, but I am moored here.”
Norse Myths: Tales of Odin, Thor and Loki, by Kevin Crossley-Holland, illustrated by Jeffrey Alan Love, is published by Walker.
A North Norfolk Man, a 30-minute film, is premiered at the Oxford Literary Festival on March 21, followed by a discussion between Kevin, director David Cohen and Norfolk nature writer Richard Mabey.