Robert Swindells hates fantasy stories and excludes them from his favourite reading, yet he goes through the wardrobe into ‘Narnia’ every morning to write his regular two pages or so a day!
The Wardrobe, an MDF affair, has its identical twin at the other end of the short wall in the Swindells’ spare bedroom. Open its door and a shaft-like space is revealed with a precipitous ladder leading to ‘Narnia’ under the eaves, where Bob writes his award-winning stories for younger and older readers. Here the set-up is almost obsessively orderly: the computer, shelves of reference books arranged in very tidy rows and pictures of his family ship-shape on the beams. Pride of place on the wall is his T-shirt from his ‘brilliant time’ with the anti Poll tax unions.
Now aged 61, Bob didn’t begin writing until he was in his final year of teacher training, which he began at the age of 29 after a succession of jobs, including a spell in the RAF. He asked to write a children’s novel for his dissertation and was given a reluctant go-ahead. Looking around for an idea his researches found a reference to some archaeological work at a dried-up lake near Scarborough. For ten years an ancient people had visited the lake at winter time and set up camp there on a raft of birch boughs. On the eleventh year they did not return. Why? He added to this his knowledge gained from his great-grandfather, an amateur palaeontologist, and the plot for A Candle in the Dark was born. The impressed external examiner suggested he try to get his work published, with a warning that it would be difficult. The first publisher approached snapped it up and it came out in 1974!
Three more historically based books followed; then some space-fiction stories and the big breakthrough was made with the award winner, Brother in the Land. Robert Swindells had found a way to voice his strongly held political convictions through his writing, which has been his trademark ever since.
He likes the joke that a friend once characterised him as being a member of the ‘Save the Gay, Green Whale Campaign’.
His involvement in The Peace Movement, Greenpeace and anti-nuclear campaigns inspired the post-nuclear bomb theme of Brother in the Land, which he considers as potent an issue today as ever; the Cold War might be over but the weapons are still available in the world, many in the grip of unstable regimes.
Child abuse (Abomination), exploitation of child workers (Dosh), extreme Right Wing political groups (Smash!) and famously the plight of homeless teenagers in Stone Cold, these are among the issues that he has been willing to explore and take on. This former member of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party acknowledges that the novels are unlikely to bring about the socialist changes to society he has actively espoused all his life.
Bob Swindells now feels too old to be an activist. But in the past he and his wife have been enthusiastically involved in ‘Sit-ins, die-ins, teach-ins and demos and stuff’. And of the issues of greatest interest, socialism, anti-nuclear and anti poll tax, the former seems to have lost out, there are no demos for the middle one and the latter is over and done with.
Still, he believes and knows that his books can make a difference for the better, no matter how small. Adult readers of Stone Cold have told Bob that nowadays they cannot pass teenage beggars by without giving. One reader told how her determined teenage son admitted to having made up his mind to run away to London, but knew it would be madness after he read the book. Daz 4 Zoe, a teenage love story set in a class divided Britain, has acquired the status of GCSE recommended set text, which provides gratification to its author. Unlike many novelists he’s pleased if any of his books are used in schools. The fact there is a ‘York Notes’ on it causes him great amusement.
His nine years of primary school teaching make him sympathetic to any strategy to put books in the hands of young readers but he prefers them to want to read rather than being made to read. To this end he writes books in the way that he used to like them: ‘When you’re competing with video and computer games you have to realise that what kids want nowadays is to get into the story, so you’ve got to keep it moving.’ Short chapters, a variety of type faces, alternative voices, minimum descriptions, a briskly paced plot with plenty of variety of style are the order of the day to avoid reader boredom. He abhors the idea of his readers wanting to skip bits! No holds are barred on the realism of the language if he can get it past his editor. He thinks that it is the adults who have the problems with the details of his chosen themes, not the teenagers for whom the books are written: ‘There isn’t much young teenagers can’t handle nowadays. It’s grandma and granddad who can’t handle it. My aim is to get as close as possible to total authenticity in people’s speech. Nothing ruins a book more than stilted attempted working class language by middle class people.’
To keep his work authentic and up to the minute he seeks the advice of grandchildren, their friends and the teenage children of his friends. For Stone Cold he spent three nights interviewing youngsters sleeping rough in London’s Camden High Street, without which he feels he would have got the book hopelessly wrong. A young Asian friend of Bob’s brother was enlisted to check the finer details of Muslim life for Smash!, his hard-hitting novel about racism. He has stopped doing them now, but Bob was very active in author visits to schools and libraries and took plenty of advice and up-to-the-minute ideas from his young audiences.
When asked where his ideas come from, Bob Swindells claims that they are to be found in the air during his daily walks on the moors in Brontë country around his slightly gentrified West Yorkshire mill worker’s cottage. In the middle of a row, tucked below the road with a reservoir at the back, the cottage is in the same general area where he has lived all his life. ‘Where the sun only shines about eleven days a year.’
One of five (three brothers and a sister), he was the odd one out. He could read before he was five and knew he was different from the others. He says he was useless at everything, enjoying reading above sport, except cricket, but good at writing stories and walking the moors day-dreaming. His father didn’t like his son’s pre-occupations and their relationship was a brittle one. His relationship with his mother was closer. He still remembers with some emotion when he was six and saw the film of Bambi and the death of Bambi’s mother. The realisation that your mother could die affected him deeply. His mother’s photo is enlarged and on the beams in ‘Narnia’ along with pictures of the rest of his family.
An 11+ failure, he left school at 15. He received little encouragement to be anything other than an unskilled worker. In fact his father discouraged reading. He did not understand why his son aspired to the impossible dream of being a fighter pilot, hence the RAF enlistment for three years. After more drifting from job to job, it was an insurance collector who had just been accepted for teacher training, who spurred Bob to take steps towards the same career and to do what he’d secretly always wanted, but rejected as unrealistic – become a teacher. His ambition was never to be a headmaster, which he claims would have been impossible anyway, because he is an atheist and couldn’t bring himself to conduct an act of worship.
After eight years Bob retired to write full time. But when you are married to a teacher you get dragged back in. So Bob found himself at Whitby, accompanying a group of his wife’s youngsters on a week’s study/holiday. The kids were fascinated and excited about the Bram Stoker connection to Whitby and developed the theme of a mysterious room in their hotel, where Dracula lay in his coffin. This room only existed at night. So there was born his personal favourite book for younger readers, Room 13, which at the end of the week one child suggested Mr Swindells might like to write. Bob sees Invisible!, Hydra, Inside the Worm, Nightmare Stairs and tales like these as his stories purely for spooky entertainment: ‘I couldn’t find a way to write issue stories for kids of that age group and, being a primary school teacher, I cottoned on to the fact that kids of eight and nine are fascinated by vampires, ghosts, dinosaurs and scary, shivery things like that.’
However, this said, Bob is careful always to suggest peace, co-operation and consideration for others. He draws on his experience of real kids, the way they act and talk to make his characters plausible to his audience, and claims that never having grown up himself he has no problems with knowing what is real to his readers and what they want to read. Of his 54 books, published in several languages, some have been for series, including the ‘Outfit Series’ for Scholastic, which were not a success. All of them were books he wanted to write, he says. He would not have taken them on otherwise.
The next project is an ‘issue book’ about teenagers and alcohol. Wrecked is another heartfelt issue that has found itself a story: ‘It’s about young people and alcohol because the media and politicians concentrate far too much on young people and drugs. The people who supply narcotics go to jail and the ones who get them hooked on alcohol get knighthoods. Far more youngsters get their lives ruined by alcohol than drugs.’
He might be in semi-retirement but Bob says that his future plan is to keep on writing until he falls over. Hopefully that will not be on his daily two or three mile ‘walking to live for ever’ as he seeks ‘the ideas that are blowing about out there on the moors that the Brontës didn’t get’. He hints there’s an issue lurking in the wings, waiting for a story on the wind to give it the Swindells treatment – Beware Sats and League tables!
David Bennett is Senior Teacher and Head of the English Faculty at George Spencer School, Nottinghamshire.
The Books mentioned in the article
Abomination, Corgi, 0 440 86362 7, £3.99 pbk
Brother in the Land, Oxford 0 19 271785 5, £5.99, Puffin, 0 14 037300 4, £4.99 pbk
A Candle in the Dark, Hodder, 0 340 32098 2, £3.50 pbk
Daz 4 Zoe, Puffin, 0 14 037264 4, £4.99 pbk
Dosh, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 13936 8, £10.99 hbk, Puffin, 0 14 130023 X, £4.99 pbk
Hydra, Corgi, 0 440 86313 9, £3.99 pbk
Inside the Worm, Corgi, 0 440 86300 7, £3.99 pbk (reissued October 2000)
Invisible!, Doubleday, 0 385 40855 2, £10.99 hbk, Corgi, 0 440 86363 5, £3.99 pbk
Nightmare Stairs, Corgi, 0 440 86330 9, £3.99 pbk
Room 13, Corgi, 0 440 86227 2, £3.99 pbk (reissued October 2000)
Smash!, Puffin, 0 14 038280 1, £4.99 pbk
Stone Cold, Puffin, 0 14 036251 7, £4.99 pbk
Wrecked is due to be published by Puffin in October 2001.