James Watson interviewed by Stephanie Nettell.
‘There is an intellectual struggle going on all the time, in culture, knowledge, history, to catch the dominant discourse, grab the ideological agenda – in the classroom or wherever ideas are alive and kicking.’
As an academic in media studies and author of teenage fiction that is blazingly committed to a universal fight for human rights, James Watson is in a unique position in any discussion of censorship or freedom.
In March last year BfK recommended his three novels – adventure thrillers set amid the Spanish Civil War (The Freedom Tree), the Chile of the ‘disappeared’ (Talking in Whispers), and a contemporary Britain where the Establishment closes ranks over nuclear secrecy (Where Nobody Sees) – for their exciting action, their passion and their challenge to debate. Since then Talking in Whispers has won the Buxtehuder Bulle prize in Germany, and the nine disquietingly sharp stories of Make Your Move were published in the autumn, portraying the sinister subtleties of human oppression as well as the strength of the human spirit that is the central force of his novels.
He is now working on an Angolan novel which he sees as a natural extension of the argument of Where Nobody Sees, that access to information is often in danger from invisible elements: he quotes a character in Where Nobody Sees, ‘If things go on the way they are at the moment the only free place will be inside your head.’
‘Angola, like Nicaragua, hasn’t been given a chance. Its history and events have been blatantly misreported. Television news talked about UNITA as if it were the legitimate government and of the “Marxist republic” as if it were the infiltrator in its own country. Reporters have told me how even quality newspapers don’t want some stories so they can continue to take a certain line. What interests me is the way information is used to disinform people, till it eventually leads to destabilisation, working right through the language itself.
‘Rival forces are battling to possess certain words – freedom democracy, courage, patriotism, and, lately, community and public – and one of the roles of writers is to hold on to definitions: innovators, yes, but also guardians. Everywhere the language is pulverised for various ends, not just in advertising but in what I call the soap press, in politics and the way even news on TV must have a JPM (jolts per minute) rating.
‘Totalitarian regimes put a censorship value on language, but perhaps if they simply allowed more and more soap it wouldn’t be necessary: who reads poets when you can watch pop JPM? With the coming developments in television we’ll have Sun TV and subscription funding: programmes of debate, programmes that query the government, will be censored away through privatisation and deregulation. Television has the power to unify, to promote discussion the following day, and that’s being removed – and this puts greater responsibility on the print media, from newspapers to novels.
‘In the past the intellectual class in Britain has scarcely been a threat to anyone. There was no real need for film censorship during the war because the natural “old boy” system had existed so strongly already – Love on the Dole, the first film to deal with capital and labour, was allowed through after the war started simply to mobilise the working class. There never was a serious threat to the order of things until television – The Boys from the Blackstuff, A Very British Coup, Death on the Rock.’
His soft, rather husky, voice recalls his Lancastrian origins – the Jarrow march of The Freedom Tree a lifelong emotional icon for him. He wistfully remembers the disillusion with university history at Nottingham after his school enthusiasm; while an army Education Officer during national service in Anglesey, he wrote his first book, The Sign of the Swallow, an historical novel long out of print, arising from the interest in history and Italian Renaissance art that has always curiously paralleled his politics.
A national service anecdote illustrates, he reckons, the different perceptions of censorship. He was hauled up before the chief officer at the Education Corps HQ, charged with talking politics in the officers’ mess. His defence was that everyone talked politics, but his was the only Labour view so only he was seen to be doing it. This was accepted, but shortly after he was sent to the Siberia of Anglesey where there were only gulls to influence.
He was briefly a journalist in Middlesbrough ‘getting the names of winning hens in the wrong order’, a supply teacher in London, and education officer for Dunlop producing educational booklets – which mostly entailed deleting the word ‘Dunlop’. He had enjoyed teaching so came to West Kent College of Further Education, where he started in Liberal Studies in the great period of the sixties and seventies, has continued with in-service teacher-training, and is now, over twenty years later, Senior Lecturer in Communication Studies and Education. He is co-author of A Dictionary of Communication and Media Studies, now in its second edition (Arnold).
He wrote an Amnesty education booklet on censorship and contributed to others, and, while work pressures have slackened his connection, his wife, a nurse, remains an Amnesty activist. ‘If Amnesty is seen as subversive – well, all education is subversive, teaching people to think is subversive!’
Of his three daughters, the eldest is a primary school teacher, sharing her profession’s daily blows to the morale (being switched to a classroom with no water), the middle one, her self-esteem having survived ‘the terrific blow of redundancy – an experience replicated throughout the country’, is assistant art director in a small advertising firm, and the youngest is a second-year student of Russian and Soviet Studies (the Watsons can hardly believe it) at Portsmouth. They are clearly a close, talkative family: Jim Watson not only writes for and teaches young people professionally, he is personally fiercely caring and protective of the young.
‘No generation since the war has had to face the problems of this one in terms of opportunities. What is it about authoritarianism that seems to pick on the young?’ Researching the YTS in Toxteth for Sussex University convinced him of the basic cynicism of its overall structure, ‘like a Bridge of Avignon that takes you out into the middle of the river and then just stops.
‘When I look at contemporary Britain the most vulnerable generation is the young. Everything possible has been done to make life difficult; all the schemes have a punishment element based on the fact that young people have to be controlled. This is in vivid contrast to the fashionable, with-it teenage image on television selling cash cards or whatever: everyone wants the teenager as consumer, no one wants the teenager with problems, aspirations, a desire for education. These guys, particularly on the education front, are coming along and they have no money in their pockets… In Chile or China they send troops against the young, here they cut back on education and dream up lunatic loan schemes.’
In a way, he does believe in censorship. ‘I’m interested in motives, and equally in what makes people want to speak freely.’ He quotes a study in Minnesota that concluded pornography was harmful and did damage women, which resulted in women taking pornographers to court; the pornographers, however, were saved by citing the First Amendment of free speech. And, from his belief that authors, journalists and editors have responsibilities, and should abide by ethical rules like not telling lies, he deduces he must believe in self-censorship.
‘But difficulties arise over what causes offence – and censors almost always miss the point. The worst thing is to be misunderstood, to be lambasted for something while what you’re actually saying is lost. The danger in censorship is in the resulting publicity, rather than the act itself; it’s in the nature of all control that it has the opposite effect from that intended by not treating readers like adults, as when a dull book like Spycatcher becomes a bestseller.’
Is it self-censorship that leads him to write for teens, rather than younger readers? ‘It isn’t theme that matters, but treatment. You can and should talk seriously to kids, but for younger ones I would have reconsidered the torture scenes in Talking in Whispers or the barbarities of war described in some detail in The Freedom Tree. But since ten-, eight-, five-year-olds are suffering under tyrannies throughout the world, enduring starvation, sickness, war, and we’re lucky in Britain to be avoiding such universal suffering, it’s fair to confront thirteens onwards, at least, with the reality of another’s situation.
‘But writing for me is a process of exploration – I like to express myself through description or dialogue in a searching way, at a level where I can have my protagonists in conversation pitched sufficiently high to get somewhere, a discovery through interaction of dialogue – and I would have to simplify that for younger readers.’
To a charge (amazingly never made) of propagandising only one side of a situation, he would first answer that there are artistic reasons for remaining at the level of experience of his chief characters. ‘Do I, like Zeus, know the full picture – would I be convincing? It’s hard enough, in 200 pages of a children’s book, to get inside the protagonist, far less everyone else, and maintain the necessary sharp focus.’ And secondly, he would retort, ‘Why pick on me? There are so many voices speaking on the other side, consistent, shrill, part of the mass communication set-up: mine is not a voice reinforced day in, day out, year in, year out, yet such a charge would be like accusing me of cheating while everyone else played fair, extremely unbiased, totally impartial…
‘If I were aiming at an in-depth analysis, like Thomas and the Spanish Civil War, then as a historian I would look for balance, but ultimately my first intention is to tell a good exciting story. The information side of my books is important, but if the story fails, so does everything else.
‘As a teacher of media studies I’m particularly interested in noting where an accusation of bias is used – it says as much about the accuser as the person accused. Most analytical research on the media has found there is no such thing as impartiality: the very perception of impartiality is so soaked in ideological notions that there is no way to be impartial. So why pretend to be? If I’m accused of bias in my books – tough! I am biased – biased for certain value systems.
‘If you spend so much time and energy on an inanimate object like a novel – bits of paper and a machine – you’ve got to be an optimist and believe what you’re writing may have some purpose. I’m upset by writers who say Art can’t change anything.
‘If I believed that, I’d stop tomorrow and do something to bring about change – just as my daughters tell me I should!’
Photographs by Richard Mewton.
(published in hardback by Gollancz and in paperback by Collins as Lions or Tracks)
The Freedom Tree, 0 575 03779 2, £7.95 hbk; 0 00 672640 2, £l .95 pbk
Talking in Whispers, 0 575 03272 3, £7.95 hbk; 0 00 672378 0, £2.25 pbk
Where Nobody Sees, 0 575 03977 9, £7.95 hbk; 0 00 672986 X, £2.50 pbk
Make Your Move, 0 575 04397 0, £8.95 hbk
Visit James Watson's website: www.Watsonworks.co.uk