Over the past year I have been getting very close to the works of Robert Westall, one of the 20th century's most important writers for children and young adults. He's a writer I first encountered as a 12-year-old, picking a book in the school library, when I discovered The Wind Eye. The opening pages of that particular book stayed with me from that day on; Westall is definitely an author who makes an impact with his openings.
Back in 2007 I was working on an exhibition exploring Cheshire Writers who reflected the landscape of the county from the 14th century to the present day and this gave me occasion to revisit many of the works of Robert Westall. Though he was born in North Shields on Tyneside and many of his works are set in that area, most notably The Machine Gunners, it was in Northwich, Cheshire, where his writing career began and lots of his novels and short stories are set in the Cheshire region. But Westall was only one of many authors featured in that exhibition with limited space available and I felt that there was much more to be told.
Then a couple of years ago I came across a Westall novel which I'd never heard about before, Falling Into Glory, it contained the most convincing, and heartbreaking, depiction of a relationship I've ever read. I couldn't believe it wasn't better known. Westall was a high profile author in his day, and had twice won the Carnegie Medal, but this particular book was published a month or so after his death in 1993 and publishers seemingly found this tale of a teacher-student affair troublesome to promote, and less inclined to do so without the author himself to advertise it. A small tragedy of timing, but a greater loss to the literary world. Michael Morpurgo wrote "Westall was a writer of rare talent. We shall miss him but he has left us such a wonderful legacy."
I discovered and read the other lesser known Westall novels, not quite realising the scale of the task at first. He wrote 48 books in total and, unusually for such a prolific author, they are of a consistently high standard and span a wide range of genres from wartime adventures and bleak science fiction to unsettling ghost stories and tales of the struggles of young love.
One of his greatest books is The Promise - a tale of honouring a vow even beyond death. The opening chapter is a miniature masterpiece in itself, exploring our varied attitudes to death and the impact of stories on a young mind. Within this is one of the most striking pieces of writing I've encountered in children's fiction;
"I only ever saw two dead creatures. On a day out to a lighthouse up the Northumbrian coast, I saw a dead seagull; a pretty little thing, a kittiwake I think. Somebody had made a nest for it, from seaweed on a ledge in the cliff. Its eyes were shut, but every soft feather was in place. I stroked them.
'It just looks asleep,' said my mother.
'It'll get a good rest now,' said my Dad.
The whole place seemed filled with love.
The other dead thing was the ginger cat in Billing's Mill. Billing's Mill dominated our skyline, up on its hill. All its sails gone, a squat empty milk-bottle of blackened stone. A sort of castle keep, in which the tom-cat's body lay, a thing of terror and challenge to every boy in the district. You went alone to see it . You approached it, the flies rose in swarms. You looked into the black fathomless sockets where the eyes had been, and then you walked quickly and stiff-backed to the gaping doorway and off out to pleasanter things, hugging inside yourself the bitter black wild magic of it, and the warm proof of your own courage. Alive, that cat had been nothing; dead, it was a living god of power, our strongest thing. Every time you saw the shape of the mill on the skyline, you went under the power of the cat."
As I started to find out more about Robert Westall, I realised just how talented a man he was outside his writing. A skilled artist, he became Head of Art at Sir John Deane's Grammar School in Northwich in 1960, later also becoming Head of Careers there. He always saw the best in his pupils, even those which fellow teachers had given up on, a colleague said of this, "All of Bob's geese are swans", a comment which he felt he'd like as his epitaph, which, paraphrased, it is. He wrote to connect with his son, and his first novel, The Machine Gunners, which explored the sort of adventures he'd had in his own wartime childhood was published in 1975 winning the Carnegie Medal. As well as fitting in writing his novels in the school holidays, Westall also wrote for the local press and regional magazines and founded the local branch of The Samaritans. After retiring from teaching in 1985 he opened an antiques shop, which in itself proved an inspiration for several books and gave more time to writing and encouraging students. Bob Westall died in 1993 aged 63.
I felt that his work deserved greater recognition and seeing so many links to the Northwich area, suggested that an exhibition be staged at Weaver Hall Museum in the town. It was only in the preparation of that exhibition that I discovered Robert Westall was the person who saved the museum building, the old Northwich Union Workhouse, from demolition in 1969 in that iconoclastic era which sought to do away with anything of a previous age. It was the perfect place to celebrate the achievements of such an important figure. The exhibition has been on a good while now, and only has a couple of weeks left, ending on 14th September 2014. Thereafter much of the archive material and original manuscripts will return to their home at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children's Books. It's in Newcastle, just five miles from Westall's birthplace, where there is a Robert Westall gallery, and a project which was kickstarted with the donation of the funds of his estate. It's a wonderful place, who do excellent work in developing literacy, inspiring creativity, and something with which Bob Westall would no doubt have been delighted to be associated.
The exhibition gave me opportunity to get to know the places of Westall's books, from childhood haunts of Tynemouth so vividly portrayed in his books to revisiting the Cheshire locations and folklore. And I've picked up a few good stories to share too.