Author Nick Halliday on children’s books, Buddhism and life on a narrowboat in Berkhamstead
PUBLISHED: 10:51 25 August 2020 | UPDATED: 11:12 25 August 2020
Author Nick Halliday discusses tackling big issues for children aboard his narrowboat near Berkhamsted
‘The best books are some of the most beautiful things humans create. What makes a great children’s book is something that touches a child in some way by the imagery created from the text. National Book Lovers Day [on 9 August] is a touchpoint which reminds us of the best of humanity.’
My afternoon with children’s author Nick Halliday begins with the topic of literature but, on one of the warmest days of the summer, sitting on the back of his narrowboat a few miles from Berkhamsted, talk flows into his holistic approach to life. Shaded by tarpaulin – sewn and fitted by Nick – he reflects on his first children’s book, which encapsulates his beliefs.
‘The Lonely Tree is about the cycle of life. Along with loss and renewal, these are perennial, almost karmic, themes recurring in what I do. I’ve always loved trees and wood. Being able to work with good quality English oak is a huge privilege.’
He’s referring to the window frames he’s made for his boat, named Nv d pa. The name in Pali breaks down to Nv (boat) and D pa (sanctuary or refuge). ‘The name was given to me by my friend, Ajahn Sucitto, ex-abbot of Chithurst – the first of the Buddhist monasteries I oversee as Amaravati Publications’ creative director. The second, Amaravati, is nearby in Great Gaddesden.’
Amid this oasis of calm a slight breeze rustles surrounding trees and a distant lock is just visible. A couple of swans paddle by as we discuss the origins, and success, of The Lonely Tree.
‘I really wrote it for my daughter, Lily, who at the time was just shy of four, but this is a children’s book for all ages – at book signings adults often buy copies for themselves. It’s simply a look at life, death and renewal. However you view life and death, death is not final in terms of the cycle. Without death we cannot have birth; death is the sacrifice to life, to the future. I sometimes feel the search for the meaning of life is fruitless because the meaning is life.’
There’s an endearing pragmatism about this author. His Buddhist inclinations and creative sensitivity project reassurance. He seems genuinely surprised at the book’s success despite glowing endorsements from Stephen Fry and Joanna Lumley, and its translation into eight languages.
He says he ‘naturally’ leans towards subjects which are outside of the mainstream (‘I’m shy at heart and was bullied at school’), which perhaps explains his current projects. Aimed at younger readers, the subjects of his latest books are a child growing up with a disability told through the story of a one-wheeled horse; the perceived loss of a friend, and a gentle tale of a child questioning gender.
The 55-year-old is also creating a trilogy of novels for young adults which focus on the extremes of dark and light in human nature. The main characters are twin girls born on opposite sides of parallel universes.
Being an author, however, is only one aspect of his life. As a designer his commissions include corporate identity, packaging and graphic design, as well as covers for The Philosopher magazine. Then there’s his occasionally-indulged love of acting. For the Netflix British royal drama, The Crown, he was ‘part of the lunch club with Matt Smith’, and was cast as ‘a posh English gent’ in the 2019 Tim Burton directed Disney film Dumbo.
‘It was an honour to act in the company of Michael Keaton, Colin Farrell, Eva Green and Danny DeVito. I played directly beside Danny for a few days and found him charming, professional and quietly playful. Tim Burton was full of energy and always focussed. Much of the time he carried a vintage back scratcher as a swagger stick which he employed as an extension of his own directorial personality.’
As Nick replenishes my water, the glass placed on a bamboo coaster he bought while travelling in Thailand with the former abbott of Chithurst, he tells me more about the resurrection of Nv d pa. ‘When I bought it in 2017 it was a 50-year-old rusty tube of metal that had been in a boatyard for a decade, almost at the point of scrap. What really appealed were the big windows and large outside area. I took on something that was almost dead and brought it back to life.’
Having peeked inside at the elegant contemporary style, I suggest the boat’s restoration is complete. Not quite. ‘I don’t use the F word – the boat is never Finished.’ It is, rather, something of a canvas for this graduate in graphic design and illustration, who also has a degree in furniture design. Has the project given him new skills? ‘Mainly patience,’ he laughs. ‘And I overflow with optimism that everything will work out.’
As I head back to my car to drive home on the busy A41, I find I’m rather envious of Nick’s lifestyle. On the Grand Union Canal he has seclusion and independence, plus a rather appealing ‘lack of tether’. The perfect environment, I’d say, for creativity.
For more on Nick Halliday’s work, go to hallidaybooks.com