A Lecture I Delivered At The Curiosity Children’s Conference, Ironmongers Hall, Barbican, 2016

Look at you all! Look at this building! What a grand a curious place. It makes me feel a bit nervous though. Not because of you guys, but because of those guys.

Seriously.

I feel like their eyes are following me.

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I’m going to try to be brave though, because you have to be if you’re going to be curious. There’s a chance you’ll find something scary, isn’t there? There’s a chance you’ll DO something scary! Like stand up in a big hall hundreds of years old with hundreds of people and loads of dead blokes with beards and swords all staring at you and you’re like *gulp*, and you’re thinking ‘curiosity killed the cat, and now it’s about to kill me!

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Still, it’s kind of exciting too. In stories, which are the big problems that I spend my time sitting with (Einstein sat with the problem of space and time, I sit with the problem of how to make a flea into a superhero) – in these stories, curiosity is the key to the engine of change. And change is what drives a story. Makes it move.

Without curiosity, Lucy would never step into the wardrobe and find Narnia.

Without curiosity, Bilbo would never pick up that gold ring and slip it on his finger.

Without curiosity, I never would have thought the weird question of ‘what would your life be like if you were a talking flea this big?’

Stories, you see, have curiosity at their very heart. They are just one of the ways we makes sense of the world. If you were to peel away all the characters and places and words and pictures in a story, you would find a question at its centre.

Hercufleas is actually a very long answer to a sort of ‘what if’ question: what would your life be like if you were as big as a raisin?

Never stop asking questions, Never stop asking yourself to wonder. It’ll change you. It’ll lead you on marvellous adventures. It’ll make you do things you never believed were possible. Like this. Right here. Right now.

Because this is a curiosity conference, I thought I should try and be as curious as you guys. And so I wondered to myself: can I write something about curiosity? And I did. Now, it’s a poem – which is not something I usually do. I’m curious as to whether it’s going to work. It’s a risk. Can I do it? Here’s the answer…

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Curiosity killed the cat.

It should have just sat on the mat,

and stayed there where it’s square and flat.

Let’s all try to imagine that:

The cat,

the mat on which it sat,

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And every now and then a rat

scampers past this boring habitat,

big and juicy,

nice and fat.

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But does that cat move from that mat?

Or does he stay right where he’s at?

Like an aristocrat in ancient times,

upon his ziggurat reclines,

he doesn’t move,

he doesn’t range,

until one day there comes a change –

because our cat is feeling funny. . .

there comes a gurgling from its tummy. . .

and suddenly the rat looks

YUMMY.

He starts to wonder,

he starts to brood,

if that there rat the cat pursued,

perhaps it would be tasty chewed,

and with a honey glaze imbued,

it could be skewed,

or even stewed,

no, even better: barbecued!

With a change of mental attitude,

the kitty-witty gets unglued

to the longitude and latitude

of that there mat on which it sat,

and creeps as quiet as a cat

up behind that juicy rat,

his paw comes up and then goes

SPLAT –

and that’s the end of that combat.

The cat’s the winner,

the rat’s his dinner,

our kitty is a little less thinner.

He thinks: Oh what a fool I was

to stay on that mat, and all because

some stupid saying said I’d be

killed by curiosity!

What pomposity!

What dishonesty!

What monstrosity could have the animosity,

the ferocity,

the audacity,

the capacity,

or even the tenacity,

to challenge my furry feline ferocity?

He hops about like a crazy frog

having this inner monologue.

And here’s my poem’s epilogue:

he doesn’t see the enormous

dog.

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‘Hello,’ the dog says to the cat. ‘I think it’s time we had a chat.’

And that, you think, might be that:

the cat should have stayed put on his mat,

and never crept up on that rat.

But that’s not the moral that our cat draws

as he looks at the dog’s enormous jaws

because gobbling that rat, he discovered that his paws

were equipped with the

sharpest,

deadliest,

claws.

He flicks them out and loudly roars

and with one scratch the dog goes flying

he yells, ‘This kitty’s terrifying!’

‘That’s where you’re wrong,’ the cat says, sighing.

‘Your assumption needs some rectifying

A while ago, I’m not denying

I never would’ve been dog-defying.

But now I’m hereby notifying

you that I’m re-classifying.

I am no longer a fluffy kitty-witty:

curiosity has altered me!

I’m tough as steel! I’m hard an iron!

I’m not a cat, I am a lion!’

 

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… So you see? Curiosity doesn’t kill the cat at all. If anything, it kills the rat.

Curiosity changes the cat. Curiosity astounds the cat. Curiousity turns him into a lion.

I’ll leave you to present your curiosities with this thought: it took hunger to drive that cat from that mat. It takes a kind of hunger to wonder, too. Not tummy hunger, but brain hunger. I don’t know about you, but my imagination is starving!

So let’s sit.

Let’s feast.

Let’s fill up our heads with wonder.