“Not to write `politically’ would be to bury the values one cherishes.”
James Watson on making connections between the unique and the universal.
For me, writing is an interaction between author and reader, a sharing of things held close to heart and mind. To begin with, I wrote stories that would be sufficiently exciting to stir in the young reader something of my own fascination for history. I set quick-moving adventures in vivid historical settings such as the Florence of Leonardo, in Sign of the Swallow, or among the Minoan splendours of Knossos in The Bull Leapers. The aim was to thrill and at the same time sow a seed-trail in the reader’s imagination, ready to germinate when he or she looked into the past with a more searching eye.
That old triple alliance of objectives – to entertain, to inform and (possibly) to educate – forms a reasonable basis for communication over distance and between strangers. For the novel, however, it leaves out the crucial role of being in there: of being it. In my Spanish Civil War story, The Freedom Tree. the central characters, Will and Griff. find themselves in the cold, rat-infested trenches of the Aragon front. caught in a blazing cross-fire. Suddenly, in the pitch darkness, they are eyeball to eyeball with a youth of their own age from the enemy side, as terrified as they are.
What happens next, and how it affects the two friends, their relationship, their attitudes to the conflict and to death is unique to them and, I hope, to the reader. For a split second, if the illusion has been well enough staged, the reader is the experience: the mediation of the author, words and paper are forgotten in the same way that, with a film, the reality of celluloid, screen and light gives place to a reality of direct identification.
If that amounts to authorial power. then the irony is that the author rarely if ever knows what response there has been to that power. Yet the writer is not only talking to, sharing with, the reader, but is undergoing his or her own route to discovery. To be interested in history is but a small step to the altogether more dynamic condition of recognising – and perhaps developing – a sense of history.
Without a sense of history it is difficult, in my view, to make sense of the present.
Whoever believes that history does not repeat itself is absolutely right if he or she sticks to the pedantry of detail. Hitler was unique: Franco was unique: the bombing of Guernica was unique, and President Pinochet of Chile is unique. Tyranny, however, is not unique: nor are poverty. racialism, sexism or exploitation. That much we can learn from history, though the root causes of such phenomena are admittedly less the task of the novelist to explain than that of philosophers, historians, sociologists and political scientists.
It has often been a source of mild surprise to me to learn that while the study of politics in school is seen by many as unsuitable fare for education in a democracy, history is bread and butter to the curriculum. How history can be expected to be taught without reference to politics is beyond me. unless the underlying philosophy is that, because history is dead (or even bunk, as Henry Ford would have it) and indeed because it is chiefly about the assertion and dominance of hierarchies (or simply larger-than-life personalities such as Henry VIII and his dreadfully abused wives). connections with the way things are today need never be made. That, however, is bunk.
Of the many pernicious doctrines that have gathered like carrion on the rooftop of 1984, the one deserving the first dose of buckshot is TINA: the notion that There Is No Alternative may strictly relate to monetarist dogma, but the danger is that the attitude is contagious. Once we admit that ‘there is nothing we can do about anything’, we are done for – nothing we can do about the suffering of others, nothing we can do about arrest without trial, about torture, about death squads, about starvation. That is the sense of history some carry about with them: it was always like this, so carry on regardless.
These are days of pessimism, for TINA rules: yet what sustains my belief – as an individual and as a writer – that TINA need not be the measure of history or the order of the day, is a confidence in the staying-power of certain fundamental values. That staying-power lies with people who, through commitment that is as natural to them as breathing or through convictions forged by circumstance, sacrifice personal safety in the cause of human rights. The tenacity of such people in times of crisis, faced often by overwhelming odds, is the source of inspiration for The Freedom Tree and my latest book, Talking in Whispers.
In ‘Whispers’ 16-year-old Andres falls into the hands of the torturers. Partly through his courage, partly through fortuitous circumstance, the torturers fail to extract the information they require from him: but most importantly, they fail to destroy his spirit. One of the interrogators, the Hog, flings off all control: ‘He seized Andres. He roared not as the hog, not as the hyena but as the bull. He seized Andres as if suddenly he were all prisoners, as if he represented every wrong answer, every defiant spirit, every act of simple courage, every refusal to betray a loved one, every resistance to tyranny. He beat him. He dragged him. And yet it was his own cries which were the loudest, his own wailing: his boundless despair.’ That is arguably the testament of humanity’s faith in the triumph of good over evil.
Yet, it might be asked – for the young reader” If it were a universally observed right that children were protected from the realities of the adult world, privileged to escape the hardships suffered by their parents, then it would be perfectly acceptable to have a children’s literature wholly given over to the dreamland of messing about in boats on languid rivers and finding secret messages in bottles. Children, though, are and have always been among history’s prime victims. The children of El Salvador, Eritrea, Brazil. Indonesia etc. etc. know that well enough. Our own children have generally been more fortunate: all the more reason for them, I believe, to at least know of the plight of their peers: to sympathise, to empathise. Eventually to understand the connection between the happiness of some and the misery of others: to feel a sense of solidarity -if that is not too emotively political a term – with others.
It is that which makes The Freedom Tree and Talking in Whispers political. They are about uniqueness but they are concerned with universals: of justice and commonality. My fear is that in the age of TINA the young westerner might assume that because the persecuted have always been persecuted they can somehow tolerate persecution enough for a general fuss not to be made of it. Such an attitude is political,albeit by default or ignorance, and the end of that particular road – as a knowledge of history will graphically remind us – is the concentration camp and the gas chamber.
My Rubber Truncheon Award for the most disgraceful quotation of 1983 goes to Mr Norman Tebbit who justified his decision not to ban the British export of torture equipment on the grounds that if we didn’t sell the stuff, others would. In the context of that kind of public morality, not to write ‘politically’ would be to bury the values one cherishes. It would leave the stage clear for pragmatists. Only at the entrepreneur’s convenience would two and two make four.
In conclusion, a reminder to myself: to abandon, bypass or censor values as the bedrock of writerly motivation would be a calamity: one of equal severity would be to forget that novels are stories about people.not vehicles of rhetoric populated with cardboard cut-outs representing types or beliefs. If the pages don’t keep turning, the sharing is at an end. In competition with the easy flow of television narratives, the printed word remains the medium that cuts deeper and sticks longer – yet only if it is given a chance.
In Whispers, Andres witnesses the burning of his father’s and his own books. The flames lick indiscriminately at philosophical tomes and children’s books alike. Today’s writer is faced with the challenge of producing books riveting enough to hold attention in face of mass media competition. His or her aspiration might also be to write hooks good enough for burning.
James Watson’s Talking in Whispers (Gollancz, 0 575 03272 3, £5.95), set in contemporary Chile, was a winner of The Other Award in 1983. His previous novels for young readers have been Sign of the Swallow, The Bull Leapers, Legion of the White Tiger and The Freedom Tree. He has also written, and had broadcast by the BBC, four ‘adult’ radio plays.
A teacher in further education, he was for the past three years a member of the British Amnesty Education Project and produced one of the Project’s recently published units, on Censorship.He has latterly taken a working holiday from fiction to co-author A Dictionary of Communication & Media Studies to be published this year by Edward Arnold.
Talking in Whispers is due to appear in Fontana paperback in 1984 and is to be published in the US by Knopf-Pantheon.
Jan Needle on representing the world as he knows it.
“The classic English children’s book is political; mine are not.”
The classic English children’s book seems to me to be deeply political. It is written by a middle-class person, about middle-class people, for middle-class people. Its politics is hence unconscious, inevitable, and all-pervasive. And because most adults who are actively involved with the children’s book – as readers, publishers and critics – are very similar in background, culture and outlook to the people who write it, its politics are invisible.
You will note, I hope, that I referred to the `English’ children’s book, not the ‘British’. This, I think, makes my point. For not only do the great majority of British children’s books come from a tiny group of like-minded and like-cultured people, but they reflect an Englishness that is mind-bogglingly exclusive. Fashionable, now, to pop in the odd (often very odd!) black or Asian character – after all, one has to be seen to be ‘liberal’. But tokenism aside, the world of children’s books is still overwhelmingly the world of Ransome, de Selincourt, Brazil, Blyton, Old Auntie Thomasina Cobley and all. It is ghetto fiction in which the ghetto, peculiarly, has the power to dominate the population as a whole.
Question: Why is this ‘ghetto’ so powerful, when the mass of the readership are not ‘of it? Answer: Because not only does it have a virtual monopoly, but our system of education is traditionally (and probably totally unconsciously, by now) geared to the propagation of a set of values which are not ‘of’ the majority of those who receive it. Even those (many) teachers who crave sufficient alternative material, are operating an exam-oriented curriculum. And there aren’t any questions on Grange Hill on those papers!
Illustration: One of my books for younger children, Losers Weepers, was heavily criticised in the Sunday Times because the dialogue in it is rendered in a (rather generalised) Northern dialect. The reviewer thought it a pity, because it meant ‘most children would not be able to understand it’. Being originally from the South, I write about half my books in (equally generalised) Southern speech. No one’s told me off so far, surprise surprise.
By a similar process, I think, the books which tend to win ‘literary’ awards reflect a view of ‘literature’ which has nothing to do with the taste of their intended audience, but a great deal to do with the Victorian (and therefore, for us new-Elizabethans, a political) desire to ‘improve’ the young. If the dichotomy were not so sad, it would be funny: on the one hand concerned adults are trying to encourage children to read, and on the other they are actively disapproving of, if not actively suppressing, the very books which are enjoyed and chosen by kids. It’s a good job there is not an equally powerful coterie of mathematicians who disapprove of computers with some equally strange (but, to them, plausible) rationale.
The above is not, incidentally, sour grapes. I’ve come as close as a toucher to winning two of the big awards, as well as an Other.
But the point is this: the criteria by which these things are judged fit perfectly with the ground rules I laid out. The awards circus is a sub-section of the sub-section of society that some people look upon, and refer to, as the children’s book mafia. Working honestly, most of them, for what then perceive as the common good.
Having made this rather amazing claim that the classic (or even the average) English children’s book is political, let me raise the eyebrows of those who know and love (to categorise) my work even further by claiming that mine are not. I’m not talking about all my books (some are merely jolly, or adventures, or just plain daft), but just the ones that are often dubbed ‘social realistic’, like Albeson and the Germans, My Mate Shofiq, A Sense of Shame, Piggy in the Middle and the new one, A Pitiful Place. True, they deal with subjects like racism, police brutality, and the Falklands conflict, which might reasonably be seen to be the stuff of politics. But they offer no ‘line’, they have no discernible tendency, they are in absolutely no way didactic. Most of all (as at least one of my publishers would sadly say) they do not bestow upon the child reader an optimism that 1, as an adult, believe to be false. It is this false optimism that I hold to be the fundamental political act in the sort of book I have been talking about.
But if the false optimism of the ‘classic English children’s book’ is political, even if unconscious, how can I claim to be non-political by knowingly refusing to perpetuate the same lie – while deliberately choosing subjects which may be called the stuff of politics to boot? Simply like this: I know where I come from, and I know where I am. Within the (desperate) limitations of fiction-writing, I write about people and events which I know. There is no narrow or identifiable political tendency in my books because I do not have one. And I don’t write my kind of books as an antidote, I write because they represent the world as I believe in it.
I suspect many people may think I’m being disingenuous – or even mendacious: but I don’t think I am. Let me give you a final example. Kenneth Grahame wrote The Wind in the Willows (which is one of my favourite books; I love it). Grahame was not being political, but he mirrored his own world unconsciously: a world in which the very rich enjoyed themselves in absurdly selfish ways and the very poor were humiliated or suffered – and in any case misbehaved. I wrote Wild Wood, in which the antics of Toad and his friends are seen through the eyes of the stoats, the ferrets and the weasels – the starving rural poor. It is a book about politics, unlike Grahame’s, but it is still not a political book, God forbid. And even the Daily Telegraph ‘loved every word’!
We don’t need more politics in children’s literature, we need less. If there were more people like me writing more books like some of mine, they would cease to be ‘controversial’. Blow the trumpets: and let the ghetto walls come tumbling down.•
Jan Needle has written sixteen books, most of them for children, and many of them extremely controversial. But he vigorously rejects the idea of being a `political’ writer. This year has already seen Great Days at Grange Hill and Tucker’s Luck (novels for Fontana Lions based on the TV series) hit the bookstalls. This month they are joined by a joke-book, We Are the Champions, (Piccolo, 0 330 21843 7, 95p) and a volume of stories A Pitiful Place (Deutsch, 0 233 97560 8 £4.95) very much in the tradition of A Sense of Shame and Piggy in the Middle. Jan says the stories had a very stormy passage before publication; our advice is not to miss them if you care to offer young adults an unblinking and uncompromising view of some aspects of our current society, written with irony, compassion and anger.