Cambridge Literary Festival: Ben Miller interview
What kids these days need is a bit of black hole therapy, according to actor Ben Miller who has turned his own son into the star of his new book, The Boy Who Made the World Disappear.
The former Death in Paradise star has set out to write a story for each of his children where they are the main character.
This time it’s his son Harrison’s turn, and it starts out with him being handed a black hole on a string instead of a balloon at the end of a birthday party after he’s lost his temper in a rather spectacular way.
“Harrison loves science and he was really interested in black holes and he also had quite a temper when he was growing up – anger management is the modern word isn’t it? He basically couldn’t control his temper,” says Ben. “The boy in the story is very much him and I learned a lot about him writing it. All the things in the book are things that Harrison has really said to me. My favourite one was: ‘I want a new family’,” he laughs.
“What I learnt through writing the book and talking to Harrison is that when he loses his temper like that, it is often because he is anxious or worried about something and it spills over into something else. I also learnt a lot about anger because I started thinking ‘if you deal with someone who has got a temper, you look at it as a bad thing but anger isn’t a bad thing’. I realised it’s just an emotion and it’s what you do with it that counts. If you can use it to drive you, to do something positive, it can be really good.”
He continued: “In a way, losing your rag at a children’s party is sort of forgivable, if it’s your party – I mean the times I have been really embarrassed is when my children have lost their rag at other children’s parties, that’s the moment when I have just felt so awkward and that’s how the book starts out, with Harrison really losing it at a friend’s birthday party and as a result instead of a balloon he gets given a black hole on a piece of string.”
Soon he’s pushing into the black hole everything that makes him cross – from broccoli to the school swimming pool.
But when it’s not just things he hates that are disappearing into the black hole but things he loves, too, Harrison starts to realise that sometimes you should be careful what you wish for.
“It’s sort of black hole therapy isn’t it?” says Ben. “First of all it is just fun, he can put anything he likes in there. Once he puts his parents in he does think maybe he has gone a bit too far, but what the black hole has given him is a way of dealing with his anger which doesn’t involve losing his temper and it has given him just enough breathing space to start to deal with his anger in a different way, and I think he also learns anger is not a bad thing, it’s what you do with it that counts.”
In the story, Harrison is afraid of the school bully, Hector, who stings children’s legs by flicking an elastic band at them. Is he someone from Harrison’s school?
“That’s someone from my past,” says Ben. “There was a boy at my school who used to do exactly that and my sons said it’s still common, which is to have a really nasty strong elastic band that you use to inflict searing pain on your fellow children. There was a kid like that who used to terrify me when I was sitting next to him. I would be wearing shorts and you would know sooner or later that thing would be used on you and you would be in agony.”
The book has a very strong moral theme running throughout, and Ben explained that he did think children should learn life lessons from stories.
“Without sounding too pretentious, I want to do some good in the world for children and I think about that with every story,” he says. “I would really love them to learn something, to come away a little bit wiser and also to answer some sort of moral question. I want the books to be not just really entertaining, but I want there to be a point; I want them to help children in their lives.”
Does he think lots of children struggle to control their temper?
“I have anecdotal evidence from other friends also having trouble with their kids – not always with boys, sometimes with girls – controlling their anger. But particularly at the ages five, six and seven because you expect the terrible twos and you expect the f’ing fours, as they call it, but it’s more problematic as children become more rational around the age of seven or eight. I feel like I’m not alone as a parent in having experienced this.”
A personal black hole does sound sort of tempting. Is there anything Ben would put in his own personal black hole?
“I have a really terrifying long list of things I would like to put in a black hole, one of the things that really gets me down is friends of friends – I love my friends but I’m not particularly interested in their friends. It’s just a funny thing like when you go to visit a friend for the weekend and they say ‘oh yes, my other friend Chris is here’ and you think I would rather just spend the weekend with you. Your friend Chris, I don’t really know from Adam... I have a long list.
“Also, people who don’t walk in a straight line on the pavement. I think people misuse pavements. I think if you are intending to browse you need to stay on the inside lane or maybe the outside lane and leave the middle lane of the pavement for people with things to do. Do not weave left and right around the pavement. And use hand signals when you want to change lanes.”
Ben’s first children’s book, The Night I met Father Christmas, was for his oldest son Jackson and a new idea is brewing for his daughter, Lana.
“I want to investigate the sort of fairy tales I used to have read to me growing up, which children don’t hear anymore. I think fairy tales have a really great way of children working out their anxieties and fears but it has to be the original kind of fairy tales, the scary kind. I’m thinking of the Brothers Grimm-type. Less Frozen, more Rumplestiltskin.”
- Ben Miller will be in conversation with Rowan Pelling at the Cambridge Literary Festival on December 1 at 1pm. Tickets £7. From age eight upwards. Box office: cambridgeliteraryfestival.com.