Simon Mayo: Talking 'Itchcraft' with the broadcaster and children's author
PUBLISHED: 13:22 10 October 2014 | UPDATED: 13:22 10 October 2014
Simon Mayo has been one of the nation's favourite broadcasters since his first Radio 1 job nearly three decades ago. Now the presenter of Radio 2's Drivetime, he's embarked on a parallel career as a best-selling author, as Katie Jarvis discovered ahead of his appearance at Bath Children's Literature Festival
I meet Simon Mayo in a café not far from Broadcasting House, where – in case you like to know these things - he orders green tea and fizzy water. (NB: I love people who say ‘fizzy’ and not ‘sparkling’). It’s a modest amount for a lunchtime tryst, even though I’ve insisted the bill’s on me; but I can’t persuade him to eat anything.
We’re here to talk about Itchcraft; the third book in his amazing ‘Itch’ series, which deals with the adventures of a teenaged element hunter. Yes, yes, you do know what an element hunter is – remember all those dry things you learned in chemistry about the periodic table? Well, it turns out they’re not dry at all. You can collect these elements and then – even though your chemistry teacher failed to explain this properly – use them to knock people out, blow them up, and generally escape from baddies.
Personally, the only chemistry lesson I ever enjoyed was where we made (once only, for obvious reasons) pure ethanol and then – when the teacher’s back was turned – all drank it. So when Simon Mayo’s ‘children’s’ books turn up in the post for me to read, I groan, grit my teeth, and wish I had a double tot of ethanol to hand.
But then, to my astonishment – absolutely truthfully – I bond to these books like a hydrogen atom to oxygen. They’re like James Bond, but only as he would appear in one of Professor Brian Cox’s dreams. Madly exciting; full of flashes and bangs; and scientifically accurate to boot. At one point, I have to put the second book – Itch Rocks – down for a couple of hours because I’m becoming too stressed. Technically, they’re for children aged nine-plus, but only in the sense that the Large Hadron Collider is really a giant Meccano set for scientists who miss playing with the real thing.
Like me, Simon Mayo also spent 40 years thinking he hated science until, one day, his youngest child came home from school saying it was the only lesson that really grabbed him.
“So I started writing the Itch books for Joe, who was 10 at the time.” (He’s now 14 and an element hunter himself.) “But I very soon started writing for myself,” Simon admits.
Unsurprisingly, Joe loved these thrillers, where a schoolboy’s hobby leads him to find a new element that everyone – from Government scientists to money-grabbing baddies - wants to get their hands on. As a result, the young Itchingham Lofte – Itch to his friends - spends his time racing dangerously across the pages, aided by his best friend and cousin Jack (a girl), his sister, Chloe, and school-friend and fellow chemistry enthusiast Lucy.
“I decided I wanted Itch’s element collection to be the thing that gets him into trouble and the thing that gets him out of trouble,” Simon explains. “For me, that’s one of the best parts of the writing – working out how Itch will get himself out of difficult situations.”
Thus (slight spoiler-alert, but it’s got to be said), after a false start in which he nearly poisons his entire class with arsenic gas, Itch uses such ruses as nitric acid to get himself out of a handcuff situation, and xenon gas – because that’s the kind of thing element hunters carry in their rucksacks - to escape kidnap, after he’s bundled into a car by the nastily-psychotic and beautifully-misnomered Dr Nathaniel Flowerdew.
If you’re not yet convinced that xenon gas is an exciting game-changer, you haven’t heard Simon Mayo speak. “When I discovered that xenon is an anaesthetic, it was just the most exciting thing: Yes! Yes! Yes! So then I had to find an anaesthetist to ask how much I needed to release in a car to knock out these people!”
(NB: Please don’t try these things at home.)
It’s hardly surprising that the acknowledgements at the back of the book – aside from tributes to his wife, Hilary, and children (particularly Joe) – are people such as Paddy Regan, Professor of Nuclear Physics at Surrey University; Andrea Sella, Professor of Chemistry at UCL; and the whole of the STFC Rutherford Laboratory at Harwell, just outside Didcot, which is the setting for one of the most breathless of all the scenes. (Don’t you just love the idea of these experts using their accumulated knowledge to outwit a demonic chemistry teacher, alongside all the workaday saving-the-real-world-stuff they’re normally forced to tackle.)
“I believe in research, whether I’m doing an interview or a book,” Simon explains. “And Anthony Horowitz always says that kids can tell whether you’re just winging it or whether you’ve actually done the prep.”
He laughs. “The point is, these stories are the first thing I think of in the morning and the last thing I think of before I go to sleep.”
So how does that work alongside his day-job, broadcasting on prime-time to a devoted Radio 2 audience.
“I’m sure they’ll tell me if I get the balance wrong,” he says. “But writing takes up all the head-space it possibly can. My favourite movie is Amadeus and there’s a scene in it where there’s an argument between Amadeus, his wife, Constanze, and Mozart’s father Leopold. If I remember this right, we cut to Mozart; the argument between Constanze and his father fades; and he picks up a ball or an orange or something and walks into another room because all his head is full of is music, and he needs to write the music down. And I find myself…” he stops and laughs again. “I’m not comparing myself to Mozart. But sometimes I need to…”
He trails off, but he’s not being conceited – just trying to explain a surprise obsession. He’s not even comparing himself to Philip Pullman (“I’d like to be but I’m not”), though teachers (and his family is stuffed with them) are cheering the fact that Itch is igniting a love of science in kids. And delighted parents are writing in in droves saying, “My child would never read before they discovered Itch.”
He’s had some flak, mind you: “One of my friends, who has a very forceful personality, asked why I’d written Itch as a boy; to which the answer is, because I wrote it for Joe”. And the American publishers wanted him to tone down the fairly-graphic injuries various characters sustain. “But I don’t think it’s a problem for the kids: it’s one of the fine lines that you tread. Hunger Games was a game-changer. It managed to address a topic where children are killing children but keep its moral compass and it be a thrilling adventure.”
So can he see Itch as a film? In fact, given his love of the medium, has he already cast it? “Oh, don’t joke!” he jokes. “I cast the book when I was writing it – it’s part of the vanity.” (And just so you know, it’s Michael Sheen as the chief baddy, with a supporting cast of Jason Isaacs, Dave Morrissey, and Russell Brand.) (And, yes, the book is now optioned, though uncast as yet.)
It’s funny that it’s taken him so long to put pen to paper. During my research, I came across judges’ comments when he won Sony’s Speech Broadcaster of the Year, describing him as “a master of light and shade, handling serious and lighter issues with aplomb” and with an ability to “paint colourful pictures of location and event”. Errm… That sounds like a writer, doesn’t it?
“I have wondered whether I could have started earlier; but, the fact of the matter is, I had to wait for a whole number of things to happen. I had to work at Five Live [which he was doing before he joined Radio 2]; I had to get interested in science, which happened at Five Live. I had to leave Five Live because I wouldn’t have had the time to write - and playing records is like a part-time job, let’s be honest. So I can write in the mornings and do the radio in the afternoons.”
And there is an overlap. “Yeah,” he grins, “there are some jokes in there for the adults.” Such as his passing reference to one of his famous Confessions - the slot on his show where he invites listeners to admit to a shady episode they’ve never before revealed. (If you haven’t already guessed, it’s the goat classic: a hilariously tragic tale about a group of inebriated campers, an attempt to calculate the depth of a Cornish mineshaft in a farmer’s field, and an astonished flying goat tethered to a heavy-but-useful railway sleeper.)
His Bath literature festival audience will, he acknowledges, be as full of Radio 2 listeners as it will young readers, “Though the parents will ask one set of questions and the children will ask another.”
Which reminds me of my own final question – where on earth did he get the name for his teenage hero, Itchingham Lofte?
“Oh,” he smiles. “About five years ago, I was being shown round a church called Holy Trinity Blythburgh, Suffolk, and there’s a plaque on the wall of all the priests, going back hundreds of years. In 1617, the priest was Itchingham Lofte, and he was replaced in 1652 by ‘Nathaniel Flowerdew (intruder)’. That’s why I noticed it – the word ‘intruder’. I think it’s a reference to the English Civil War.”
So even that’s meticulously researched…
Simon Mayo nods. “Actually, someone wrote that the most unbelievable section of the book is the fact that the children use public transport and that Itch lives with both his parents. Because that just doesn’t tend to happen nowadays.”
• Simon Mayo will introduce his new book, Itchcraft, at The Telegraph Bath “I believe in research, whether I’m doing an interview or a book,” Simon explains. “And Anthony Horowitz always says that kids can tell whether you’re just winging it or whether you’ve actually done the prep.”Children’s Literature Festival on Saturday, October 4, 11.45am–12.30pm, Guildhall, £6, Age 9-plus; bathfestivals.org.uk, or call the box office on 01225 463362
• Itchcraft, The explosive adventures of the element hunter, by Simon Mayo, is published as a Doubleday Hardback, priced £12.99
This article by Katie Jarvis is from the October 2014 issue of Cotswold Life.
For more from Katie, follow her on Twitter: @katiejarvis