Alan Gibbons, as well as being a prolific and controversial author, is a primary schoolteacher. In preparing for this authorgraph I visited him at Prescot County Primary School in the Borough of Knowsley on Merseyside. Perusers of educational statistics will know that this is one of the toughest areas of the country in which to teach, but the two story writing lessons I observed went superbly. Gibbons is a confident and a confidence-building teacher. During the lessons he authoritatively demonstrated the choices the writer makes in the creative process, while inspiring the upper junior classes with references to film, song, myth, details of the local urban environment and the narratives of popular culture. The mood of creative enjoyment in the classroom was impressive. ‘Teaching has taught me all I know about writing,’ he said afterwards. ‘I couldn’t do it unless I’d been a teacher. It’ll always be a part of my life.’
Gibbons was born in Warrington and spent his early childhood in the Cheshire countryside, where his father was a labourer. When he was eight a traumatic event occurred which brought him into sudden contact with the harshness of urban life. ‘My father had a terrible industrial injury which took him out of our lives for months. It meant he couldn’t work outside again, so we had to move to Crewe where he could get a factory job. I went from a school where there were 20-odd kids on the whole role to one where there were twice that many in a single class. I was a shy outsider, and I was bullied. The physical stuff was bad enough, but the teasing I really couldn’t stand.’
During these years he read adventure stories voraciously, usually under the bedclothes while listening to Radio Caroline. ‘Dad was macho, so I was breaking two taboos at once, against reading and against rock and roll. Being subversive at that age welds you to the activity for life.’
After taking a degree, Gibbons did the traditional pre-authorial round of jobs, including working in factories making tea, furniture and toilets. In his mid-thirties, seeing his first child growing up, he decided to become a teacher. It was the mid 80s, the golden age of the picture book and the influx of authentic children’s literature into classrooms. Gibbons was inspired by this to start telling his own stories to the class and submitting them to publishers, encouraged by a tutor who saw in him the beginnings of a significant writer. After his 23rd rejection slip he began to get acceptances for short picture book texts, but it was revisiting the trauma of bullying through the suffering of some of the children he taught that led to his first novel. ‘I’d been working at a school in Liverpool 8, and generally you don’t see racism in multicultural primary schools like that when the kids are playing together. But then I moved to a school in St Helens where it was almost 100% white. You do get a lot of racist remarks in those circumstances, and in this school the handful of black and Asian kids were getting some real stick. You need anti-racist literature more than ever in those environments. So I wanted to write a novel that would give the kids a gripping story with a dead straight anti-racist message.’
The result was Whose Side Are You On?, a time slip novel in which a boy running away from a confrontation with the racist bullies who have been persecuting his Asian friend is transported to an 18th-century Caribbean plantation on the brink of a slave revolt. The title broaches the theme of social conflict and the moral choices it demands which has been a feature of all of Gibbons’ work since.
Subsequent novels (Chicken, Ganging Up, Dagger in the Sky, Street of Tall People) continued in this high-impact style, combining themes of danger, loyalty, conflict and conscience. His daily contact with young readers enabled him to test ideas for relevance and appeal and he found an exhausting but synergistic way of combining both of his vocations. ‘It wasn’t just teaching I had to do. I’ve got four kids of my own and I was active in the NUT as well. So I developed this routine where I’d get to school by seven, do all my preparations by half-eight so I could have half an hour to chill out with the Guardian before the kids arrived, then straight into teaching, home to read and so on with my own kids, then from seven till nine it was strictly writing, with a rigid target of 2000 words in those two hours. It was tiring, but I found when I sat down and started typing, the weariness just fell away.’
His novels carry a strong sense of place: the post-industrial north west where strife and deprivation coexist with a zestful sense of community and comradeship. They frequently centre on a youth struggling to cope with aggression and desire from within and without. Football, fighting, popular culture and the agonies of adolescent romance are constant themes.
‘I write fluently, but that can make it too easy to be complacent, to produce a story and to say it’s finished when you’ve not really explored the depths of it. I got into the habit of thinking that I’d never be an award winner with my fiction. Then, very surprisingly, I started ending up on short lists, and even more surprisingly, I won one.’ This was the ‘Book I Couldn’t Put Down’ category of the 2000 Blue Peter Award, won by Shadow of the Minotaur. Gibbons is particularly proud that it was child judges who chose the winner, and his account of how the news was received by his own pupils indicates the warm relationship between his writing and teaching. ‘I went onto the playground the morning the winner was announced and all the year four and five kids gave me a standing ovation. It was a fantastic atmosphere. The kids have lived my writing career with me.’
Shadow of the Minotaur is a headlong adventure tale about a boy called Phoenix who gets dragged into a virtual reality game, designed by his geek of a father for a mysterious cyber-entrepreneur. In spite of the paraphernalia of monsters and labyrinths, Gibbons insists that it is not a fantasy. ‘I wasn’t trying to invent some new self-consistent universe, but to get back to the raw, primal, visceral reality of myth, the stuff that all of our stories are made of, and to forge links between that and how we live now.’ Shadow of the Minotaur is a denser and more ambitious book than Gibbons’ earlier titles, and its success has given him the confidence to experiment with style and to take on even more challenging subject-matter.
In The Edge, a story told largely through stream-of-consciousness monologues from its cast list, Danny, a mixed race boy, flees with his single mother from her psychopathic lover who has been beating them up regularly. They exchange the multicultural metropolis of London for the eponymous, monochrome housing development where the mother was brought up. Here, the bleak insularity of the older residents has hardened into fascism amongst its youth, and Danny has to resist violence from both the pursuing domestic abuser and the racists next door.
Caught in the Crossfire, Gibbons’ latest novel, returns to the themes of racism and loyalty. In the wake of the September 11 atrocities, a charismatic fascist leader travels to a Lancashire town to exploit the resentments between its Moslem and white working-class communities. The effects of his machinations, which eventually lead to the type of street violence which racked many northern towns last year, are explored through the eyes of youths from both communities, including an idealistic white boy and a Moslem girl who initiate a perilous romance. Gibbons complicates what might have been a simplistic good versus evil story by exposing tensions in the motives of actors from both sides of the conflict. There is tragedy at the climax of the story, but also a message that people can change, that ignorance and hatred can be defeated. The avoidance of a glib happy ending is typical. ‘I try to depict the forest as it is, but I also try to represent the seeds of a better future that are lying on the ground, and hope that other people will notice and appreciate them.’
But he is convinced that a better future will only arrive after the fascists and oppressors have been quashed by whatever means are necessary. In many of his books, victims retaliate brutally against brutality. Sometimes this has the futile outcome typical of traditional children’s literature, where the implication is that violence cannot be justified. But the message of the showdowns that climax many of Gibbons’ books is that the hard-line racists, the wife-beaters and determined thugs eventually have to be confronted and defeated. ‘I wish I could live in a world where I could be a pacifist, just as I’d love to teach in a classroom where I’d never have to raise my voice, but that kind of world is not going to come easily.’
Gibbons plans to stick with the tough issues in his future writing, perhaps exploring next what he sees as an increasingly aggressive macho sub-culture amongst girls. Negotiations with the exceptionally creative management at Prescot Primary have enabled him to devote three days to teaching, one of them spent on a programme of visits to every primary and secondary school in Knowsley, and two to the creation and promotion of fiction.
‘This last year has been the best of my life. I’m in touch with kids in an enormous variety of schools, and I’ve been able to fold the techniques and themes I’m teaching into my own fiction. I’m determined not to waste time on anything that doesn’t break new ground. I’m enjoying my writing more than ever, and I feel liberated.’
(published in paperback by Orion Children’s Books)
Caught in the Crossfire, 1 84255 096 9, £4.99
Chicken, 1 85881 051 5, £4.99
Dagger in the Sky, 1 85881 052 3, £4.50
The Edge, 1 84255 094 2, £4.99
Ganging Up, 1 85881 194 5, £4.99
Julie and Me… and Michael Owen Makes Three, 1 84255 048 9, £4.99
Julie and Me: Treble Trouble, 1 84255 077 2, £4.99
Not Yeti, 1 85881 068 X, £3.99
Playing With Fire, 1 85881 385 9, £4.99 (reissue May ’03)
Shadow of the Minotaur, 1 85881 721 8, £4.99
Street of Tall People, 1 85881 193 7, £3.99
Vampyr Legion, 1 85881 835 4, £4.99
Warriors of the Raven, 1 84255 001 2, £4.99
Whose Side Are You On? 1 85881 053 1, £4.99
Photograph courtesy of Orion Children’s Books.
George Hunt is lecturer in Education at the University of Edinburgh.