Stephanie Nettell recommends James Watson
James Watson is committed to the fight for human rights. ‘There is anger at injustice, but no bitterness, in all my books. I don’t suffer from depression – but I suffer from a smarting indignation so profound it helps me write.’
His passionate novel, The Freedom Tree (1976), the story of a Jarrow boy caught up in the heroic tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, is a memorial to two great events that have haunted him, as a Lancastrian and an historian, from childhood. ‘The hunger march is an icon that still has the power to arouse one’s instincts.’ Bitterly, he tells how he and his wife went to welcome the second Jarrow march as it entered Hyde Park, and there, just as he had described in his book, were the National Front – still there after 50 years. Secondly, as someone committed to the principles of democracy, he has always wondered if, had he been of volunteer age at the time of the Civil War, he would have shown the selflessness of those young people who laid down their lives for an international cause?
The Freedom Tree is told at full tilt, suffused with almost unbearable emotion. It is a war story, an adventure story, in many ways a love story, and it stirs feelings in the reader that are naked and raw; it speaks of vivacious humour and gallantry, of excitement and triumph, but also of brutality, fear and death without glamour. Starting with the hunger march and ending with the horror of Guernica, it could not be otherwise, though its message is one of hope and example.
Talking in Whispers, Watson’s second novel (1983), is bleaker, angrier, fuelled by the pain of being a contemporary witness. A winner of the Other Award, it is the story of Andres, son of a folk-music hero, and a brother-and-sister puppeteer team, teenagers facing torture and savage oppression in a Chile of secret prisons and the ‘disappeared’. But it, too, is lit by heroism and hope: it is an enormously moving book which, while describing the daily realities of living in a police state and the terror of its gaols, still thrills its young readers with action and adventure.
In contrast to these, his latest novel, the political thriller Where Nobody Sees (1987), is almost light-hearted, though its air of menace in today’s Britain (‘it was high time I wrote about my own country’) and its repeated waves of suspense make it a gripping read. It is set in a town below moors and forest that suddenly finds its own countryside behind barbed wire and bunkered security guards, and surrounded by a disingenuously bland silence from the authorities. It is also a love story between Petra, youngest member of a women’s street theatre group (and whose high spirits and toughness – she it is who takes the initiative that threatens their lives – are typical of Watson’s heroines), and Luke, gentle-natured son of the local ‘red’ vicar and an absentee mother, protesting far away at Greenham Common.
Essentially the book is not just about the dumping of nuclear waste in our hills without permission and at great profit, but about access, and what can the young do when it is denied’? Not only access to places, but to information and channels of protest. Watson offers no simple solution -just as there was none in Spain or Chile – but aims to provoke interest and debate, to fire a commitment to justice until his readers want to do something. Chilean Andres speaks for all his characters: ‘It is no good waiting for others. There must be an end to whispering.’
The problem, admits Watson, about writing for and about the young is that to put them too far in control over a situation dominated by adults and enormous forces would he fantasy. ‘To be alone in your commitment is difficult, but there are a lot of people with the spirit of Petra and Luke, and such courage does succeed when there is some assembly and union of interest.’
In Where Nobody Sees, his mercenary security chief, foiled of his prey, reflects for a brief moment: ‘It’s because there are people like us that there’ll always be people like him, and his girl … We make the cash, but they make the hope.’ Watson’s novels may be ferocious, but, he insists, ‘you must believe that change is possible, that people have the right and duty to advance the community and sacrifice even their lives.’
That the young should learn that ‘human rights don’t come with the milk’ powers all his work, with characters whose energy, humour and stubbornness make them fighters. ‘Human rights are not divisible – there is no difference between having a roof over your head and writing a letter to Gorbachev – and they can disappear quite quickly if you’re not careful. One of the most profoundly disturbing public experiences is to be in a democracy one day and the opposite the next-as in Turkey, where people I knew had to hide books overnight.
‘Only hindsight will tell us if it’s a conspiracy, but certainly the British people today are being tested over how much they’re willing to give up, how much they’ll accept. Education (which brings the ability to analyse and question) and the arts (artists must always challenge the dominant discourse) are among the few bulwarks against a phalanx of forces. There’s now a worrying tactic of vicious assault on the freedom to debate, so that objectivity becomes an impossibility.
“‘Economising with the truth” has become a symbol of our time.’
The Freedom Tree, Gollancz, 0 575 03779 2, £6.95; Fontana Lions, 0 00 672640 2, £1.95 pbk
Talking in Whispers, Gollancz, 0 575 03272 3, £6.95; Fontana Lions, 0 00 672378 0, £l .95 pbk
Where Nobody Sees, Gollancz, 0 575 03977 9, £7.95
Stephanie Nettell is Children’s Book Editor of the Guardian.