Robert Westall Biography

Born: 7 Vicarage Street, North Shields, England

 

 

Robert WestallBorn: October 7, 1929
Where: No 7 Vicarage Street, North Shields, England
Career: After degrees from Durham University and the University of London he became an art teacher at Sir John Deane’s College in Northwich (Cheshire). Leaving in 1985 he became briefly an antique dealer before turning his attention to writing. ‘The Machine Gunners’ (1975), Westall’s first published book won the prestigious Carnegie Medal
Died: April 15, 1993

About Robert Westall
Robert Westall may have left the North East in his early twenties, but he returned to it time and again in his writing, whose roots lay in his childhood and young adult experiences in wartime Tyneside. Indeed, it was his desire to share that experience with his 12 year old son Chris that inspired his celebrated first novel The Machine Gunners.

“I wanted to share childhoods with my son… (and) began my own journey in memory back to the time when I was twelve in World War 11 … Memories began to surface. A friend said ‘Why does the smell of burning kerosene make me feel safe?’ and that carried me back to the air-raid shelters of my youth. Another time, after a particularly violent TV war movie, I went to sleep and dreamt, and wakening, said to my wife ‘My war wasn’t fought with tanks and planes and guns – my war was fought by old men and women and kids’….

And then, suddenly, the whole time that I was twelve came back to me in one great surge of memory. The smells, the fears, what we ate – total recall. And I began to write…. only it wasn’t a literary activity, it was a social activity. I wrote it in long hand, in school exercise books, and only intended to read it to my son. It was my gift to him at the age he had reached…

He had shown me how life was for him at twelve and I suddenly felt the need to show him how life had been for me at twelve. I wanted to invite him back into my world and let the two generations, just for a moment, stand side by side in time.”

The Machine Gunners
… Tynemouth .. has been transformed into the ‘Garmouth’ of the book. I changed the name to ‘Garmouth’ because the geography of the book is not exactly the same as Tynemouth’s, and I didn’t want clever devils writing in to tell me so. Nearly all the characters in the book are real; the parents are based on my parents, the grandparents on my grandparents; Stan Liddle really was my English teacher, and really was a Captain in Tynemouth’s Home Guard. I went to primary school with Audrey Martin, who became Audrey Parton in the book. Cem, Nicky and Fatty Hardy are based on real people (Fatty Hardy was my Biology Teacher, of whom I was not fond). Clogger was a boy who I knew much later, when I was a teacher. Chas was a mixture of me at twelve and my son Christopher. The rest are inventions. Most things in the books are real, except that my gang did not find a crashed bomber, or steal a machine-gun, or build a fortress…..

For Westall, realism was “crucial” and it is precisely the uncompromising nature of his realism – his attention to physical, social and emotional detail – in The Machine Gunners, its sequel Fathom Five and subsequent titles such as The Kingdom by the Sea, The Promise, and Falling into Glory that make his “historical” North Eastern backgrounds so vivid that the gap between then and now vanishes.

For Westall, “looking back – seeing where you’ve come from – allows you guess where you’re going – where your characters are going. And certain aspects of growing up are timeless – so many of memories of youth … are valid today, too.” For him, looking back could be achieved naturalistically or through ghost or time slip stories, such as The Wind Eye.

“There is a freedom in Ghostliness. You break the surface of life and let the underside come out. If even life is a flat plane, the ghastliness gives depth and height. It’s a new dimension. It’s also a way of bringing in time … On the whole children don’t read historical novels anymore. They don’t want to know what the seventeenth century said to the seventeenth, but they become quite interested in what the twentieth century might have to say to the seventeenth. I feel able, with research, to let the twentieth century talk to the seventeeth, and to see the seventeenth as an observer.”

Of course, Westall was much more than a chronicler of the way things were or are. His writing ranges across genre, time and setting. His characters are often confronted with difficult moral dilemmas. His books may be fast paced and gripping, but they often pose uncomfortable questions. But underlying all his work, still inspired by Chris who died tragically in a motorbike accident in 1978, was Westall’s ongoing fascination with generations and time, with reconnecting people to the past. How fortunate, then, for the North East that he grew up on Tyneside and celebrated that wartime childhood in a fine and distinguished body of work that has revealed our heritage to ourselves and to the wider world.

above text courtesy of Norham Community Technology College website