Julia Jarman interviewed by Stephanie Nettell
As Julia Jarman kicks off her shoes, flings her arms wide and laughs at her own dramatic classroom performances (as a small girl escaping punishment or enlivening a dull day, as a 14-year-old Antony proclaiming from the top of a desk in fondly remembered Shakespeare lessons, as a visiting author reading aloud and urging kids to try writing themselves), you could be forgiven for seeing just carefree froth.
But, despite looking horrified when I mention the word ‘moral’, she is fast approaching the James Watson gold standard for unremitting commitment to pointing the young to a better world. I’d guess there is not one of her 100-plus books, from first readers to early-teen novels to the recent picture books, which is not whispering to its audience, ‘Be your own self and allow others to be different; be creative, positive, not destructive and negative – live life!’ The whispers, however, are softer than the exciting drumbeat of her plots, so even adolescents alert for subliminal lessons are unaware they have absorbed a ‘message’. Hangman is a harrowing account of psychological bullying on a school trip to Normandy, viewed through the turmoil of the victim’s erstwhile friend trapped by peer group pressure into joining the bullies. Openly moralistic, it culminates in an unadulterated lecture on fascism: she discovered when shortlisted for the Lancashire Book Award that some young readers did indeed think she was trying to teach them – French!
As the youngest of three children of parents whose formidable abilities had been thwarted by the working-class barriers of their time, commitment to a better world is in Julia Jarman’s blood. Her mother, a woman of tremendous drive who even as a great-grandmother sews glorious patchworks and re-created Josh’s blue and green Magic Backpack for Julia to take to schools, had been destined for service ‘with a good Catholic family’; her father, from ‘a pure Catherine Cookson childhood’, ex-Durham miner, atheist and left-wing, believed no one should have to go down a mine and therefore wanted his bright daughter to be a nuclear physicist. Both saw education as an escape route, a right and a privilege it would be sinful to waste. Although springing from love, the pressure on their children – not just to try but to succeed – was intense, and the resulting conflict in the sparky young Julia between rebellion and Being Good is reflected in many of her characters.
She was born in her grandmother’s riverbank cottage in the Fenland village of Deeping St James that holds some of her warmest childhood memories, but grew up in Walton, part of Peterborough, and is still in touch with her infant and primary schools. Her mother takes credit for her fanatical reading and addiction to libraries – visiting twice a day in holidays, to the point of being turned away – although even this book-revering family were less keen on her ‘telling stories’ and ducking out of ‘real work’. She would write to magazines and comics, and at eight even published a story about her pet pig Silky: in The Ghost of Tantony Pig, Laurie’s memory of the slithery birth of piglet after piglet is Julia’s own. Her idol was feisty Jo March (Good Wives had made her realise that stories came from writers), and at the County Grammar School the excitement of chemistry had to combat the lure of languages and drama.
Then at 16 her life changed. Her relationship with her father had been loving and proud on both sides, thriving on their debates and discussions, but now, out of a complex web of personal history and class traditions, his ambitions and fears for his daughters became over-protective and controlling, and, as is the way with teenagers, they rowed. So when he was killed in a car crash, Julia was left with the unbearable feeling that she had not loved him enough to keep him alive. Eighteen months later she was in a TB sanatorium where, at first, even reading was regarded as too strenuous. But after five months of little else but reading, when she knew she really was Jo not Beth March, she was en route to studying English and Drama at Manchester University.
‘I came through, and I like to show my readers that people do come through. I do believe those books helped me sort myself out – no bereavement counsellors in those days! – and that reading and writing can do this all our lives. Reading, trying out different characters, is like trying on clothes to see what suits you. That’s why it’s so important for the young: you lose yourself in a book in order to find yourself.’
There she met Peter, an engineer and ‘my opposite in every way’, and all her energy went into marriage and then children. ‘Manchester’s drama department was brilliant, but with so many students who went on to fame it rather dented my confidence as an actor, and anyway I’m hopelessly unco-ordinated,’ but when instead she became a teacher being a ‘thwarted thesp’ proved invaluable. ‘Once when a class was literally climbing the walls (in the gym!), in desperation I started telling Rumpelstiltskin, and amazingly they clustered round to listen – that’s the power of story.’ Now her teaching days make her fearless as an author in class or staffroom.
When her daughter Josie (Jo March again), sandwiched between Sam and Mary, was ten and, like her mother, bright and often naughty, she responded to a conciliatory story about one of Julia’s childhood scrapes with, ‘That’s the most interesting thing you’ve said in your whole life – why don’t you write it down?’ So, in 1983, When Polly Ran Away was conceived. Rejections followed, but also help: ‘The wonderful Miriam Hodgson wrote that if I “could bear to write it again”, with more description and background scenery, she would look at it again. I’m not naturally observant and it opened my eyes – to the blacksmith’s forge opposite, the farm next door, the local chequered brickwork – but back came a letter, “No, no, that’s far too much, sprinkle it around so it doesn’t hold up the action … and if you could bear to write it again…”’
That deal fell through, so the children laid all their books out to research a suitable publisher – it was eight-year-old Mary, reading Jeffy the Burglar’s Cat, by Ursula Moray Williams, who decided Andersen was the one. And, by 1985, it was. Jarman’s subsequent titles included 40-plus for Ginn’s All Aboard reading scheme and 33 Upstarts. ‘I’d returned to teaching, which at A level takes over your life; I negotiated a year off with Peter but he said, “Take ten and make it pay if you can!”, so I did feel I had to earn. Educational publishing, even with small advances, was supposed to keep you warm in your old age. Wrong.’ Other series have survived better: Jets’ Georgie, ace slayer of dragons and computer bugs (boys don’t even notice she’s a girl), The Magic Backpack in Flying Foxes, and the gentle but (ssh) very moral Tales from Whispery Wood in Young Hippo.
Her books are a patchwork of real life. Her ancient Bedfordshire village is the home of the Tantony Pig. Initially sceptical, she agreed to be patron of the local dyslexia association and in her search for information met the real Frankie; writing the history of the village school, where her children went, revealed such disturbing records it prompted his agonising story, Ghost Writer. ‘Sadly, there are dinosaur teachers like Pitbull still in the system.’
Her favourites, the duo of beautifully judged Jessame stories (to be reissued by Andersen next year), arose from a conflict with her reading-scheme editors over whether a West Indian grandad could have a motorbike and keep pigeons: ‘A black man couldn’t have a white working-class hobby; West Indians didn’t have pets.’ She confided in a young teacher, Vanessa Aduke Olusanya, who told her enchanting stories of her own Bethnal Green childhood and had had a parrot (‘If I’d done that they’d have talked of jungly, racist overtones’). By then close friends, Julia urged her to write a book, but eventually she begged Julia to do it and Vanessa became Jessame.
Much of Hangman really happened. She found the piece of elder, with its naturally contorted ‘carving’ that inspired Ollie and the Bogle, in her garden. Ka, the magnificent Time-Travelling Cat, is an amalgam of her own beloved cats (Mrs Gingerbits stars in her own right elsewhere). The Big Red Bath sits in glory upstairs: it and Kangaroo Cancan Café are exuberant expressions of her weekly grandson-sitting sessions. But only now, with Peace Weavers, has she confronted a father’s sudden death.
This ambitious, passionate, almost polemical novel employs her familiar technique of sliding between the past and, this time, very contemporary present. Teenage Hilde’s peace-campaigning mother has parked her children on an East Anglian US base with their separated father; war is looming and only Hilde knows her mother is protesting in Iraq itself. Through the excavation of a sixth-century grave on the base, Hilde finds a literal soul-mate in Maethilde, a Peace Weaver from across the North Sea whose word-skills brought peace between Engle and Mercian.
The book debates intertwining emotional and political themes, and excoriates modern government. ‘When Blair was elected I, with my family background, its terrific ambition but also concern for a fairer world, had believed he articulated that double vision. I felt duped.’
Peace Weavers is an inevitable development, essence-of-Jarman nigh undiluted. Born into that post-war generation called ‘peace babies’, she has been peace-weaving throughout her working life.
Stephanie Nettell is a critic, author and journalist on children’s books.
Photograph courtesy of Orchard Books.
Big Red Bath, ill. Adrian Reynolds, Orchard, 1 84362 406 0, £10.99 hbk
Georgie and the Computer Bugs, 0 00 675005 2, Georgie and the Dragon, 0 00 674137 1, Georgie and the Planet Raider, 0 00 674495 8, ill. Damon Burnard, Collins Jets, £3.99 each pbk
The Ghost of Tantony Pig, ill. Laszlo Acs, Andersen, 0 86264 795 9, £4.99 pbk
Ghost Writer, Andersen, 1 84270 109 6, £9.99 hbk, Hippo, 0 439 97854 8, £4.99 pbk
Hangman, Andersen, 0 86264 866 1, £9.99 hbk
Kangaroo Cancan Café, ill. Lynne Chapman, Orchard, 1 84362 354 4, £10.99 hbk
The Magic Backpack, ill. Adriano Gon, Red Fox, 0 09 941734 0, £3.99 pbk
Ollie and the Bogle, Andersen, 1 84270 039 1, £4.99 pbk
Peace Weavers, Andersen, 1 84270 295 5, £9.99 hbk
Tales from Whispery Wood series (Mole’s Useful Day, 0 439 99455 1, Flying Friends, 0 439 99454 3, Owl’s Big Mistake, 0 439 98103 4, Rabbit Helps Out, 0 439 97811 4), ill. Guy Parker-Rees, Young Hippo, £3.99 each pbk
The Jessame stories, due to be reissued by Andersen in autumn 2005, the Time-Travelling Cat books and When Poppy Ran Away are currently out of print.