David McKee Q&A: “People always say, ‘Don’t do it, David.’ I never take any notice”

The author talks Cézanne, Mr Benn and growing old. 

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David McKee was born in Tavistock in Devon in 1935. While studying at Plymouth College of Art, he began to sell his cartoons to newspapers. He is known for his children’s books “Elmer”, “Not Now, Bernard”, and the book-turned-TV series “Mr Benn”.

What’s your earliest memory?

I remember clearly my father leaving to go to war. My mother crying with my brother, Norman, a baby in her arms. I’d have been barely five years old. Not a jolly scene for an earliest memory.

Who was your childhood hero?

My father, and he still is. Honest, good-natured, innocent, a worker. He was simply the best man I’ve ever known.

What book last changed your thinking?

I can’t remember a book ever doing that. Perhaps I don’t read the right books. Perhaps I don’t think enough. What have I missed?

Which political figures do you look up to?

It must be very hard for political figures – who see themselves on TV, in newspapers and on the radio – not to think they are special. I don’t remember one I look up to.

What would be your Mastermind subject?

Mastermind, I suppose, is the programme on television. I haven’t really watched it so I don’t understand the question, but even had I watched it, I probably wouldn’t understand the question, which is why I would never be on Mastermind.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you most like to live?

If it can’t be here and now it could be any time. The future doesn’t excite me. The past has too many negatives. I’ve been lucky to have had the best, here and now.

What TV show could you not live without?

We go to the cinema a lot and watch old films on DVD. I’m not a great TV watcher. That way we don’t get all that advertising forcing us to rush out and buy something and so miss the rest of the programme.

Who would paint your portrait?

Cézanne. It would be a long process, and I’d have to be like an apple, but that would give us time to talk.

What’s your theme tune?

The theme from Mr Benn by the Duncan Lamont Big Band. Big band at its best.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

The best advice has always been the same, given to me many times by different people. “Don’t do it, David.” I’ve never taken any notice of it.

What’s currently bugging you?

Today the pollen count is high, red alert. My eyes and nose are running. But yes, I know, it could be worse.

What would make your life better?

To be without arthritis. To wake in the morning without pain. To be able to just walk with pleasure. I’m not the only one, it’s just a price of old age. If I can’t have that, some new socks would be nice.

When were you happiest?

It’s rare for me not to be happy. Happiest? That’s another thing. It was probably about five past three, or a little later.

In another life, what job would you have?

I not only write, I paint and draw and get involved with film, but that’s all part of the same package. So what else is there?

Are we all doomed?

That’s the scenario. I believe the script is written and we deserve it. For the world it’s a good idea: it would be better off without us. Maybe there’s time for a rewrite before they start shooting. 

The 30th anniversary edition of “Elmer” is published by Andersen Press. Elmer Day is 25 May

This article appears in the 24 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit earthquake

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