The winners of the second Young Observer/Rank Organisation Fiction Prize were announced in November. The judges awarded two first prizes to
Mary Melwood for The Watcher Bee
(Deutsch , 0 233 97432 6, £4.50)
and Jan Mark for Aquarius
(Kestrel, 0 7226 5793 5, £5.95)
The Watcher Bee is the story of Kate, growing up in a Midland village in the thirties. “Nothing much happens” said one of the judges “but one is rivetted. It’s full of fascinatingly detailed observations of character, place and behaviour and it’s utterly convincing. Kate displays all the gawkiness of growing up but it’s done completely without self-pity or self-consciousness”.
Mary Melwood reveals that The Watcher Bee is partly autobiographical. She tells here of how she came to write it.
I am already beginning to forget how I felt and what it was which made me begin The Watcher Bee, but I do remember how the first lines suddenly came into my head when I was busy doing something else and I rushed to a pen and paper and wrote them before I forgot them.
That was over three years ago, in October 1979. I don’t think I had any clear idea at first of what was going to happen to the two children mentioned in the first lines although usually I `feel’ my characters for a long time, sometimes months, even years before they create themselves on paper.
As the background for my stories – plays too- because I have written more plays than stories – I always `see’ the landscape I knew as a child though it changes – a wood moves here or there, or a river puts in an appearance, and so on. On the whole I haven’t consciously used definite events and people but with the Watcher Bee, more than with anything else written before that, I deliberately cast my mind back to childhood events and feeling. It was surprising how much I remembered of what I had thought forgotten for ever. Somewhere mixed up in the strange moods and sensations which come to a writer, there was the desire to recapture, however faintly, some of the delight I used to feel in being alive. There was such a joy in Nature – woods, orchards and fields – There was so much space.
Aquarius recounts the fortunes of Viner, a water diviner as he travels from a land of floods where his skill is not needed to a land of drought where his craft assumes the character of a mystery and the King becomes his friend. The appeal of the book for one judge lies “in the powerful evocation of a land that has never been and a time no-one has ever known. It has bleakness but also warmth and humanity. Viner, its strange anti-hero is compelling. He draws you along through the story.”
Jan Mark, who confesses to much pain and agony during the writing of Aquarius reflects here on her creation, Viner.
The hero of a book is normally the main character. The villain may be, and often is, more interesting, but it is usually possible to tell which is which, even if the reader has serious reservations about the hero’s conduct or secretly admires the villain. In Aquarius I tried to present a leading character who was not defined one way or the other, leaving the reader to form his own conclusions. Viner may appear to be a hero at the outset, because his behaviour is largely unexceptionable, but as the story progresses his moral attitudes degenerate to the point where I would have thought it impossible to condone what he is doing. I myself disapprove strongly of his actions, being unable to find anything attractive or admirable in a man who is ready to destroy another in order to gratify his own ambition, and I am intrigued by people who try and excuse him on various grounds, one of these being the dubious assertion that the results of his actions are not quite as catastrophic as he would be prepared to allow.
Viner’s progressive disregard for everyone’s advancement but his own seems to me to overshadow any other qualities he may have. He possesses courage of a sort, but he is also ruthless, dishonest and brutal: and his tenuous sympathy evaporates when he discovers that it does not pay the expected interest on his investment.
When Jane Austen wrote Emma she stated that she was introducing a heroine that no one but herself would much like. I seem to have gone entirely in the other direction by creating a hero whom everyone likes very much better than I do.
The Earth Witch
Louise Lawrence, Collins, 0 00 184205 6, £5.25
Owen is bewitched by the mysterious Bronwen Davis, caught up in mystical and natural forces which threaten to overpower him. A powerful fantasy set in the Welsh hills.
The Hollow Lane
Jane Gardam, Julia MacRae, 0 86203 023 4, £5.25
Nine linked stories tell a mini-saga of two families. A celebration of the Cumbrian landscape and people, rich in character, incident and humour.
Dance on My Grave
Aidan Chambers, Bodley Head, 0 370 30366 0, £4.25
Technically innovative and uncompromising in its exploration of the relationships between Hal and Barry, and Hal and himself.
A Tide Flowing
Joan Phipson, Methuen 0 416 21470 3, £4.95
Paul, grief stricken at his mother’s death by drowning finds solace and consolation in a friendship with a handicapped girl.
The Fortunate Few
Tim Kennemore, Faber, 0 571 11732 5, £3.95
A witty, cynical look at sport and life in the not too distant future with anti-heroine Jodie Bell more than a match for the corruption and ruthlessness of competitive league gymnastics.
Gabriel Alington, Heinemann, 0 434 926736 6, £4.95
The story of Hester training to be a ballet dancer, growing up in the forties, coping with family, friends, success and failure.
Jacqueline Wilson, Oxford, 0 19 271463 5, £5.95
Sandra, growing up in conflict with her mother and step father is determined to trace her real father with the help of a new boyfriend.
Norman Smith, Trinity Arts (516 Coventry Road, Small Heath, Birmingham B10 0UN), £2
The life, loves and friendship of a group of black teenagers on the dole in Birmingham. Told in West Indian dialect, this interested and impressed the judges.
Pat Triggs talks to Janet Crumbie about the competition
The aim of the prize, says the press release, is to ‘encourage writers and publishers to provide a wider range of reading material for the teenage market’. I asked Janet Crumbie, editor of the Young Observer and one of the four judges, what sort of teenager she had in mind when she was reading the entries. “I started the competition last year very much with the readers of the Young Observer in mind: ten to sixteen year olds who are moving away from children’s books but can’t find books to read which are for them, which speak to them as teenagers. All they seem to be offered is Agatha Christie or Somerset Maugham.”
None of this year’s winners or shortlist could really be called an easy read. How did she think the ten to sixteen year-olds she had in mind would cope? “They are all very bright. The entries we get for our competitions, the letters they write show that. I don’t think they’d be put off by something demanding that challenged them. We were looking for a good story, one that gripped and held you. A story you could return to again and again and find pleasure in it.”
For this year’s judges (Leon Garfield, Anne Schlee and Frank Delaney were the other three) part of that pleasure seems to have been associated with length: several of the shortlist are well on the way to 300 pages. And two of the shorter novels Nobody’s Perfect and The Fortunate Few while highly praised were thought to be too ‘slight’ to merit first prize. The return read also helped to sort the winners from the rest. ‘Powerful’ was a word frequently used to describe the immediate impact of a novel but a reread of, for instance, Dance on My Grave (which provoked much discussion among the judges) revealed flaws in form and content, which kept it from first place.
In the end the standard was so high and agreement so impossible to reach that two first prizes were awarded and the Rank Organisation who usually give £500 to the winner upped the prize money so each could receive £400.
I asked Janet Crumbie whether she felt the competition was indeed stimulating publishers to fill a gap in the market. ‘We certainly had more entries this year. 56 novels from 24 publishers, a big increase over last year. And I think it’s fair to say that many of the books on the shortlist this year would have won in the previous year.’ Is publishing reacting? Or is the competition getting established and attracting books that would have been published anyway? Who knows? Being shortlisted might mean a safe library sale or paperback publication (though two are in ‘paperback’ already). How else are all those Young Observer readers going to get to these titles – even affluent middle-class pocket money stops short at hardbacks doesn’t it?
If you are wondering how the needs of all the non-Observer reading teenagers are going to be met if these titles are setting the trend for teenage publishing – you’re not the only one. Turn Over.
him chop for karate chop and broken plank for smashed table.