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Interview: Brian Sibley, writer and broadcaster

29 November 2019

‘It sounds unlikely, but I chair the council of the Magic Circle’


Asking which of my books is my favourite is like asking a father to choose between his children. Some have been easy going, others hard work, and one or two have severely tried my patience. Right now, Joseph and the Three Gifts is the chief recipient of my affections.

On a Christmas holiday in Venice, while I was trying to write a book about that city, the idea for Joseph came into my head, unbidden and fully formed. I’d been thinking about why Joseph is only ever in the margins of the Christmas story, and why no one asks what it was like for an ordinary man to become foster-father to an extraordinary child.

And what became of the Magi’s three gifts? These and other puzzlements became a story that demanded to be written down, then and there. It sounds fanciful, but it’s how it happened.

I’m probably fondest of my two serialisations — separated by several years — of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels; but I’m proud that the BBC’s radio version of The Lord of the Rings, made 40 years ago, still ranks so highly in people’s affections. Although it makes me feel incredibly old, I love hearing stories of how folk used to listen over Sunday lunch, or while driving to their gran’s. The series is how I’ll be remembered, but I hope one or two other projects might survive, such as my dramatisation of The Fox at the Manger, by Mary Poppins’s creator, P. L. Travers.

I discovered The Fox by chance — a small volume with decorations by Thomas Bewick — and thought it might make a Christmas play for radio. Alec McCowen played the fox, and Wendy Hiller narrated.

Pamela Travers, who became a friend, fascinated me: a Christian open to the spirituality of Gurdjieff and Krishnamurti. We’d discuss them over tea, along with the Irish poets she’d known, such as W. B. Yeats, James Stephens, and George Russell. The Fox certainly played a part in inspiring my own Christmas story.

Being made redundant from an office job in 1978 gave me the courage to try earning a living as a freelance writer. Christian friends in the media and the Arts Centre Group gave me opportunities, and I found myself co-presenting LBC’s God-slot, Sunday Supplement, with Cindy Kent — now a Rev. and an MBE. That led to weekly programmes like Radio 4’s Kaleidoscope and Talking Pictures. I rather miss sitting alone in a room talking to millions of people.

C. S. Lewis influenced me profoundly. I adapted his Chronicles of Narnia for radio, and wrote a book about him, Shadowlands. I read the Narnia books as a kid, and tried to get through the back of my parent’s wardrobe. The now-tattered paperbacks of Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters that my mother bought me from the church bookstall informed my growing faith.

Lewis intrigues me: a razor-sharp intellect coupled with journalistic virtuosity. He seemed to me, when I was a young man, to answer every question I needed to ask. Now, I find some of those answers more clever than useful; but he had a knack for explaining difficult concepts while speaking as an Everyman. My idea of heaven constantly changes, but Lewis captured its essence for me in the powerful image of Aslan waiting at the door and all the Narnians having to approach him with either love and surrender or hatred and fear.

I became friends with the Revd Wilbert Awdry, author of the famous Railway
Series, as a result of writing his biography, The Thomas the Tank Engine Man. He was in failing health; so for several months I spent mornings sitting in his study reading his diaries; then we’d lunch together and I’d interview him for hours at a time. He lost his elder brother in the Great War, and was a pacifist. He had a difficult time in his first curacy, working for an unsympathetic priest; so he went to Kings Norton, Birmingham, where he witnessed some of the worst civilian bombing of the Second World War.

I’ve always loved fantasy fiction. C. S. Lewis described Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as being “like lightning from a clear sky”. That’s how the best fantasy fiction impacts our lives. The American science-fantasy writer Ray Bradbury, with whom I had a 30-year friendship, taught me much about the power of the fantastic. Sometimes looking at the familiar through unfamiliar eyes — even unlikely eyes — can offer new insights. I think of fantasy as magic glasses that can realign your vision.

It sounds unlikely, but I chair the council of the Magic Circle: a job I’ve done for several years without quite understanding the sleight-of-hand by which I got elected. Magic is about wonderment: allowing us to enjoy a soul-delighting sense of the marvellous that we rarely experience in our hard-edged modern times. I don’t perform magic, apart from the odd party trick. My interest is in the history of magic, which is long and rich. However, a radio critic once called me “a magician of the airwaves”, which I like.

As an only — and rather sickly — child of loving parents, I became a voracious reader with an insatiable curiosity. Although a mere secondary-modern schoolboy, I was blessed with teachers who fostered my passions and encouraged me to write.

I was taught, from my earliest years, to say my prayers, and was very fond of a pop-up book of Bible stories — especially the picture of Jonah and the whale; but it was only when I was five, and we began attending church as a family, that my religious awareness began to grow. Then, much later, on a day in June 1967, while walking in the woods near my home, I heard what I believe was God’s voice speaking directly to me.

Some years ago, I dramatised The Pilgrim’s Progress for radio. I intensely identify with the trials and tribulations of Bunyan’s Christian: wrong roads chosen, tumbles into the Slough of Despond, imprisonments in Doubting Castle. . . Today, I journey hopefully — some of the time.

The hardest thing in my life was the struggle to reconcile my faith with my sexuality. It was a long and deeply painful process, but, nowadays, mostly only a sad memory. I’m aware that, for many, it’s still not a pain-free road to travel, even in these seemingly more tolerant times. I’ve been with my life partner, husband, David, for almost 30 years, and I hope our openness about being gay — though not always understood or accepted by fellow Christians — is, in some small way, a witness to the inclusivity of God’s love.

I’m currently editing a book of Walt Disney’s letters. His films were a seminal influence on my childhood, and, over the years, I’ve written a lot about them and his studio. Now, I’m enjoying discovering more about the man behind Mickey Mouse through his personal correspondence.

I would also like to finish that book on Venice that got interrupted last Christmas.

Prejudice and intolerance make me angry, especially when I glimpse them in the mirror.

I’m happiest being deep inside a book.

My favourite sound is the sea: whether pounding rocks or gently lapping on a beach. For me, it’s the sound of eternity.

What gives me hope is the centuries-long survival of the human imagination.

I mostly pray for greater tolerance and patience with others . . . but, chiefly, with myself. Then there are apologies for numerous blunders, thanks for friendships, and, always, a hopeful plea that, when the time comes, I and those whom I love will be granted a gentle departure.

If I could be locked in a church with anyone at all, I’d be tempted to choose St Joseph, but that might not go too well; so may I book a time-slot with Professor Lewis? I’ve a lot of unanswered questions.

Brian Sibley was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Joseph and the Three Gifts: An angel’s story is published by DLT at £9.99 (CTbookshop £9).

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