Love him or hate him, you certainly can’t ignore Robert Westall. When his first children’s book – The Machine Gunners – was published in 1975, reactions were pretty well polarised. There were those who were shocked by its uncompromising realism, its strong language and its firm delineation of the British class system from the inside. And there were those who loved it, among them thousands of kids.
Not a bad debut (especially considering it won the Carnegie Medal) for a man who was 46 at the time. But then you can’t keep a good Geordie down, as readers of The Machine Gunners will know, and in many ways, Robert Westall is a Geordie from his boot straps upwards. He’s like that wonderful first novel of his, too – meeting him, even briefly, is like reading his book; an experience not to be missed.
Of course, he’s gone from strength to strength in the eight years since, with novels like Fathom Five (a sequel to The Machine Gunners), The Devil on the Road, The Watch House, The Wind Eye, and The Scarecrows for which he was awarded the Carnegie again in 1982. But he’s still got a soft spot for his first book, and that for a number of reasons, one of the main ones being that it’s “unashamedly autobiographical”.
He grew up in Tynemouth, near Newcastle in the heart of Geordie-land, during the 1930s. “I had a bloody happy childhood, and Tynemouth didn’t suffer as badly as parts of the north-east in the Depression because it was based on fish and coal, although it was still pretty tough. But Jarrow was only three miles up the road, and there were plenty of kids there without enough food or shoes on their feet.”
It’s hardly surprising then that he grew up to be the socialist he still is. “I got my socialism from my Dad, and I painted as true a picture of him in The Machine Gunners as I could.” But Robert Westall was a bright lad, and used the traditional escape route from the working classes – education. Grammar school, Fine Art at Durham and a spell at The Slade School of Art in London were his entree into the middle classes. He worked as a teacher and a freelance journalist (with two separate spells as northern art critic of The Guardian, in 1970 and again in 1980) before settling on what he does now. He teaches art in a Cheshire sixth form college and also does careers work with his pupils. In a sense, his wheel has come full circle’ – he’s now at the sharp end of the business of trying to find work for youngsters in the worst depression since his childhood. Unemployment is currently running at 14.5 per cent in his area. And of course, he writes books.
His relationship with children obviously plays a great part in his writing. “I didn’t actually sit down to write a work of literature when I wrote The Machine Gunners. It was a family book, for my son Chris, who was 12 at the time.” The book is set in the winter of 1940-41, when the young Robert Westall was around the same age.
“In a sense I wanted to stand beside him as another 12-year-old. It’s like in the old Viking sagas; the main occupation of Dads in those is to go round with their sons and hold their coats when the trouble starts, or give them advice, and one of the greatest honours is to be allowed to go off a-Viking with your son.
“Anyway, Chris decided to let me into the gang he was in at the time, and it was absolutely fascinating. The other kids were a bit like hostile natives at first, but then they started to talk. They’d built their own little place out of scraps, and that’s where I got the idea of this little tribe, nicking bricks, sand, sacks and so on.
“The experience I’d had as a teacher helped in the writing, too. It’s great having to explain Henry Moore to a roomful of sceptics in 500 words. It helps you keep things brief, and to the point. I read Chris what I’d written every Sunday at tea time, and he was great. If he got bored he’d wander off or start reading the Radio Times. Then I knew that I had to change that bit. It hurt, but it was very good for me. I think more authors should be made to read their work aloud, locked in a room with children – especially blunt children. In fact I don’t see how you can write for kids unless you’re a parent or a teacher, unless you know kids.”
He feels that Chris’s direct criticism and help gave The Machine Gunners its pace and readability. But the subject matter gave it plenty of zip, too, and that came direct from his own experiences. “The war was terrific fun for children like me – all those guns and aircraft and enough danger to make you feel like a man but not scare the wits out of you all the time. Chas McGill is Chris, physically – but he’s me emotionally.”
Sadly, Chris – who was Robert’s only son – died in a motorbike accident four years ago when he was 18. “What can I say, but that he died the way he wanted and that he’d had a good life. I still write for him, although after Fathom Five the books got more “literary”. He never read any of the others all the way through like The Machine Gunners. He reckoned I was going off. The Machine Gunners was the easiest of my books to write; the more you learn, the harder it gets, I’m over the grief now, but I still miss him badly.”
Chris and his motorbike played a part in the writing of The Devil on the Road, a novel where the main character – John Webster – rides off on his motorbike into the Suffolk countryside and finds himself entangled in the witch hunts and Puritanism of the seventeenth century. “Chris really genned me up on all the motorbike terminology for the book – and John Webster is him.”
The Devil on the Road is one of several Westall novels to deal with the occult, magic – and relationships between men and women, all of which are connected in his mind. “I haven’t ever seen a ghost, but I’ve had a couple of strange encounters. I’m very sensitive to the atmosphere of rooms and buildings – I’ve done a fair amount of writing about architecture – and I feel there’s a lot in the theory that ghosts are like tape recordings, that violent events linger on in the atmosphere of places where they’ve happened.
“But as a writer I see ghosts more as a device for going into the depths of a character in an interesting way. In The Scarecrows, for example, the scarecrows themselves are a device for dealing with the main character’s feelings. If you went into a whole load of philosophy you’d be boring, you’d lose the kids. The ghosts are a way of exploring someone’s inner reality. Writing’s about resolving tensions, anyway. We write novels because we have tensions we dissolve when we write. All the power of my books comes from the crinkling in my personality when two parts of me move towards each other, like two parts of the Earth’s surface moving together to form a mountain range.”
The female principle also plays a large part in The Devil on the Road; “I suppose that book was my approach to The Female. I think women possess three quarters of the power in the human race – that’s why men oppress them. They’re magical, but dangerous, a little like those bombers in the war – they’re a danger you want to play with, the magic sex; and magic is good.”
When he talks about children, the words “magic”, “primeval”, “tribal”, “instinctive” are often on his lips. “Kids are like that, you could see it in the war. I’m doing a non-fiction book about children during the Blitz, and I’m getting my material from interviews with people who are in their 40s and 50s now. Some of the stories of kids stealing rifles from armouries or machine guns from crashed planes are even more incredible than in The Machine Gunners. It was tribal, in a way; their Dads were off fighting, so they were learning to fight, too.”
He also believes that it’s vital to tackle important subjects in children’s books. “Children are realists. They want to tackle the big subjects like sex, death, decay, war. They want realism, and on the subject of language I can’t do any more than quote a kid who said to me that a child who doesn’t swear today must be a “bloody Martian zombie.
“I see myself as being in direct competition with the stuff kids see and read that their parents don’t want them to. I’m endlessly at war against trash, the sort of stuff which means to titillate, exploit, sell. I want to integrate kids’ interests, make them think, whereas trash disorganises their thoughts. Enid Blyton won’t make them think, and neither will the childhood memoirs of some upper middle class spinster lady.
“I’d like to write a book so compulsive, so powerful, that a kid would turn off The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on the family video to read it. If you want to do that you’ve got to be just as bloody powerful and just as bloody compulsive as the trash kids are getting and which keeps them hooked.”
Being in education – and especially in careers work – Robert Westall has some fairly strong opinions on what our schools, and our society are doing (or not doing) for today’s kids.
“I always remember what Michael Duane said in Leila Berg’s Risinghill. The ruling classes train the vast bulk of kids to be hewers of wood and drawers of water, but skim off the top 20 per cent of bright -children. I feel I was skimmed off, I was one of the bright workers who was brought into the middle class and given enough to make me want to hold on to it. In that way the ruling classes form a protective ring around themselves, a ring around the inner circle which is never really seen but where the power is.
“What worries me is what happens to the rest, that vast bulk who are just getting tossed on the scrap heap at the moment. It’s like a super saturated solution; you put more and more into it, and suddenly the crystals are going – to appear before you know it. It could go a lot of ways – it could go super-Toxteth, super-suicidal, super-drug. And the buggers can’t see it! They can’t see that if you gave people status and meaning in life they wouldn’t be worried about money. We don’t need to spend money on things, just people. I’ve written to The Times about it, but they don’t even acknowledge your letter – so what can you do?”
One thing he’s doing at the moment is writing a novel called Future Track 5 which is set in 2010, when unemployment for the vast mass of the population has become a fact of life. Society is divided into three levels, with the “Unems” being the lowest and herded into ghettoes. The ruling classes’ final solution is simple – mass slaughter of the innocents.
It might sound very gloomy, and it’s certain that Robert Westall himself isn’t too optimistic about the near future. But he’s still enough of a Geordie to laugh as he’s preaching doom, and although he bears a striking resemblance to Captain Ahab or an Old Testament prophet, he’s still got plenty of laugh lines just above his iron-grey beard. And one thing he’s sure of; the inevitability of a sticky moment on Judgement Day.
“When that last trump goes I know I’m not only going to have to face my Maker – I’m also going to have to face Chris. And I know which one will be hardest to please.’
The Machine Gunners Macmillan, 0 333 18644 3, £4.95 Puffin; 0 14 03 0973 X, 95p
Fathom Five Macmillan, 0 333 27385 0, £4.95 Puffin, 0 14 03 1353 2, £1.25
The Watch House Macmillan, 0 333 23237 2, £4.95 Puffin, 0 14 03 1285 4, 95p
The Wind Eye Macmillan, 0 333 21187 1, £4.95 Puffin Plus, 0 14 03 1374 5, £1.10
Devil on the Road Macmillan, (out of print) Puffin Plus, 0 14 03 1358 3, £1.15
The Scarecrows Chatto and Windus, 0 7011 2556 X, £5.50
Break of Dark Chatto and Windus, 0 7011 2614 0, £5.50