Do you hike tenors, Julia? Do you hike them? I’ve got one of the biggest collections in the North West.’ And the large, powerful and totally silent car is filled with the tenor on the tape backed by Brian Jacques’ almost equally powerful personal rendition as we cruise past the astonishing bulk of Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, through Toxteth to New Lau’s Chinese restaurant in an imposingly hideous Victorian mansion overlooking Sefton Park.
Here, Brian knows the owner who greets him warmly. Over china tea and through the smoke of a great many cigarettes, Brian talks. And a great talker he is, too. In conversation, every bit as much as in his writing, he is enormously fluent and has the ability to hold his audience, grabbing attention with a combination of sincerity and pathos – though without a hint of self pity.
And rightly so. For though things were once hard for Brian, for a long time now he has found success in a variety of creative roles culminating in the hugely popular Redwall books which are just celebrating their tenth anniversary.
With over 3.3 million Redwall titles sold world wide and with favourable comparisons being made between him and Roald Dahl as a writer who gets children to take books off the shelf, Brian has made a significant contribution to children’s reading over the last ten years. `I feel very responsible writing for children,’ he says. `I know how important reading is when you’re a kid. I think my books are popular because I write an old fashioned book. Librarians and teachers say they’re great stories and they are written properly.’
Though the Redwall books were his first published tithes, Brian says ‘I have considered myself a writer since I was 10. 1 wrote stories and poems. When I went up to the secondary school we had to write a story. The teacher called me up to his desk and asked me where I’d copied mine from. I told him I hadn’t copied it, I’d made it up. He called me a cheat and a liar but it was my own writing. At my little Catholic school there were no books but I went to the public library a hot. I read all the time. Authors with those long names hike Edgar Rice Burroughs, Rider Haggard, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I read all the real stories in the comics, too. You could tell the readers from how they read the comics. The Rover and Wizard , things hike that. Some people only read the strips with pictures but I read every word.’
But it was not only the written word that shaped Brian’s imagination so deeply. `The movies were a great influence on me. For twopence you could go to the Garrick and you were in a magic world. The Spanish Main, the North West passage, the Wild West. For me that was the beginning of Once upon a time, far away and long ago …’ The very thing that most drives his Redwall writing.
Brian grew up in Liverpool, has spent all of his life there and is passionate about the place but hates to be thought of as ‘a professional Scouser’. His family lived behind the docks. All the men went to sea, joining the merchant navy just as soon as they were able. Brian himself heft school at fifteen and ran away to sea. From his Irish Catholic background come two powerful influences, the patriotic Irish folk songs, and the church Latin and litany which he can still spout at breakneck speed. `I was an altar boy. You don’t ever forget it.’ It is not only the language that has survived. `Catholic is in the genes,’ he says. `It’s the guilt. You can’t ever leave it.’
Returning from the sea he worker variously as a lorry driver and a docker He also did folk singing in the Irish pubs which led to the beginnings of performing career in the 1960s which rode on the back of the beginning of the Liverpool beat movement. ‘I was part of this group, The Liverpool Fishermen, playing in the pubs and people used to come down from the University to hear us because we were real Liverpool.’ Driving a lorry by day and singing in clubs and doing stand up turns, mixing with people like Alan Bleasdale, Roger McGough, Willie Rushton, Brian was in part ‘a Liverpool voice’ but also supporting a wife and two small sons. His performing break came in the 1970s when he was given a slot on Radio Merseyside. Called Jakestown his programme was an eclectic mixture of ‘opera, church music, Mexican music – anything I consider to be music. It also had interviews with local people, quips – all sorts.’ Very much from the community and for it, the programme and Brian himself adopted The Royal School for the Blind, a charity run home for the blind on the edge of Liverpool. Brian became closely involved with the school and it was from his experience of reading to the blind children that he thought of writing down his own stories.
‘I’d written plays, radio plays, music – all sorts. I never used the phrase “I couldn’t do that”. I keep going by that old thing that my gran used to say: “Never mind, son. As one door closes another opens.” I had no aspirations as a young man and no money but I always had my imagination. I could see whole stories and hear the music that went with them.’ It was this imagination, prompted by his childhood reading – and especially by the influence of Homer whose Odyssey and Iliad he had read in adolescence – and film going that powered the book. It took seven months to write, in long hand which is how he still writes.
‘When I sat down to write, my first thought was what don’t I want to write? I knew I didn’t want to write about teenage angst, traffic and all those sort of things. I wanted to write “Once upon a time, far away and long ago”. I wanted to be heroic.’
Heroic Redwall and its sequels certainly are, and Brian’s story telling skills seem to touch his child readers in a quite remarkable way. He showed me a letter from the mother of a nine-year boy who, dying of cancer, had longed only to have time to read The Pearls of Lutra . He, and there have been many others, clearly felt an affinity with the characters and their emotions. Brian believes this is because he writes good, old fashioned stuff with villainous baddies and glorious goodies. As someone who sees the world very much in terms of what he thinks is right and wrong, this clear almost didactic approach makes perfect sense.
But there is another side to Brian which also features strongly in the writing and which maybe part of why his books have such appeal, especially to boys many of whom seem to have found Redwall when they had abandoned all other reading. Pointing to his face, with its less than straight nose, he says, ‘I was violent. If I’d been in here and heard someone effing in front of ladies I would have taken him out into the car park. Not now, but it does mean that I can write about violence.’ Not pulling his punches when it comes to fighting certainly gives his stories vigour and energy.
The success of Redwall is enormous and it has completely changed Brian’ s life. The high spots of the last five years include winning the Lancashire Children’s Book Award and the Australian Children’s Book Award; being so big in the US that he has to go on tour every year just to satisfy the insatiable demand – he has just returned from an exhausting nine-week tour there; having the money to give to his family and favourite causes, including The Royal School for the Blind; and, above all, his contact with children. He is emotionally generous to all his readers and is more than willing to respond to the demands put on him by the huge crowds that come to his signing sessions and readings.
Luckily for his millions of readers, Brian shows no signs of tiring of Redwall . The books are flowing easily. ‘I dream Redwall . I can take it to bed with me. I get a basic idea for the plot – it usually comes to me part way through the book I’m working on – then I take the dog for a walk and I find I know exactly how it will go.’ When Brian is writing, which is only for about four months of the year, he writes all day either out in the garden which is what he likes best, or in an extension to the house that his son built for him. In between writing, he cooks. ‘I love cooking – I make the greatest spaghetti in the world. They queue round the block for it. When my sons hear I’m cooking spaghetti they ask if they can come over.’
Brian’s relationship with his two adult sons is something he refers to again and again. ‘My two sons are the greatest thing in my life. I brought them up as pals.’ As we arrived at Liverpool station he proudly pointed out his son’s mural which adorns the back of the cinema.
Them apart, good food, good wine and music which, ‘I couldn’t live without’ Brian lists as the most important things in his life but ends gleefully with the best thing of all ‘being able to make it. There’s nothing like it.’
Brian Jacques’- books are published by Random House:
Redwall , 0 09 951200 9, £4.9,9 pbk, 1 85656 296 4, £7.99.tape cassette..
Mossflower , 0 09 172160 1, £12.99 hbk, 0 09 955400. 3, £4.99 pbk, 1 85656 342 1, £7.99 tape cassette
Mattimeo , 0 09 967540 4, £4.99 pbk
Mariel of Redwall , 0 09 176405 X, £12.99 hbk, 0 09 992960 0, £4.99, pbk
Salamandastron , 0 09 914361 5, £4.99 pbk
Martin the Warrior , 0 09 928171 6, £4.99 pbk
The Bellmaker , 0 09 176622 2, £12.99 hbk, 0 09 943331 1, £4.99 pbk
Outcast of Redwall ; 0 09 176721 0, £12.99 hbk, 0 09 96009I 9 £4.99 pbk
The Pearls of Lutra , 0 09 176536 6, £12.99 hbk, 0 09 963871 1, £4.99 pbk, 1 85656 378 2, £8:99 tape cassette
The Long Patrol , ill. Allan Curless, 0 09 176546 3, £12.99 hbk, 1 85656 384 7, £8.99 tape cassette
Redwall Gift Edition ,, ill. Fangorn, 0 09 951200 9, £16,99 hbk
The Great Redwall Feast , with Christopher Denise, -0 09 972501 0, £12.99 hbk
Redwall Collectors’ Map , ill. Fangorn, 0 09 925611 8, £3.99 pbk
Seven Strange and Ghostly Tales , 0 09 I7364 9, £7.99 hbk, 0 09 987970 0, £2.99 pbk
Julia Eccleshare is a critic, author and broadcaster on children’s books.