THE LIFE OF ROBERT WESTALL 1929-1993
A short biography of the award- winning writer by LINDY McKINNEL
Copyright Lindy McKinnel 2011
Robert Atkinson Westall was born on 7 October 1929 at 7 Vicarage Street, North Shields, Northumberland. His father, also called Robert, was a foreman fitter at the nearby gasworks and his mother, Maggie, had worked in a draper's shop until her marriage in 1926. Bob, as he was always called, was an only child and he became the focus of a loving family. His father too was an only child and Bob adored his paternal grandmother. Granda and Nana, as they were called, lived close by and were very much a part of his young life. His maternal grandmother was a widow, her husband having died three years before Bob was born. Grandfather Leggett had been a prosperous Norfolk master builder and a great freemason. As Master of his provincial lodge it was said that he had wined and dined King Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales. But George Leggett had guaranteed a loan to a friend for a great deal of money, and this false friend failed and fled and George became bankrupt. Despite his popularity he couldn't face the shame and he fled up the east coast of England to Tyneside, a hundred miles away, where he became a humble carpenter. After his death his widow found life hard, coping with the double burden of social downfall and bereavement, and she spent her time going from one daughter's house to the next. She lived to be ninety and can be seen in photographs always wearing black buttoned shoes, a black fur-collared coat down to her ankles and a black hat, even indoors: the Edwardian dress of a widow.
When Bob was three years old the little family moved out to Balkwell Green, an area surrounded by green fields at that time, but still part of North Shields. At five he was sent to Collingwood Infants' School and on to Chirton Junior School at eight. But Bob had a great advantage when he started school: he could already read. This happened by accident because his father used to take him on his knee and read to him when he was about four. His father had only had an elementary education, leaving school at twelve, and he used to run his finger along the line of words as he read aloud. One day, he found that Bob was reading on ahead of him all by himself, and this was considered a miracle by his parents. He acquired a reputation as a wonder child and his confidence grew in line with his stature. He could also draw, his father having taught him that too, and this skill soon became as natural as breathing. In class he became the first to finish and the hardest to keep occupied. This led to him being told 'Go and find yourself something to do' and so he became, in his own words, 'a tiny scholar', self-feeding, from whatever books and information that were available.
The second World War broke out in 1939, just before Bob was ten, and Tyneside became the target for German bombers. The war was of great importance to him and he followed the news avidly. It was, on the whole, an exciting time to be a youngster. The Westall family acquired, like everyone else, an Anderson air-raid shelter which was erected in the back garden. Many hours were spent in this shelter, day and night, winter and summer, and Bob's father became an air-raid Warden in addition to his day job. Bob learned to ride a bicycle and soon knew his way around nearby Tynemouth, a seaside resort, many of whose landmarks like the Castle, the ruined Priory, Admiral Collingwood's monument and the Tynemouth Life Brigade's Watch House, were subsequently to appear in his books. In September 1941, at the age of eleven, Bob went on to Tynemouth High School as a scholarship boy. He later described this as 'the Kingdom of Heaven'. At school he was in his element and, as he grew taller and heavier, enjoyed rugby and tennis. To a couple of his teachers he has acknowledged a great debt and one of them appears as a character in 'The Machine Gunners', his first published novel.
In 1948 Bob left school and went up to King's College, Durham University to study for a degree in Fine Art. At that time King's was situated in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, not far from his home. In 1953 he graduated with a first-class honours degree and was undoubtedly the first of the Westall family to go to university.
In the United Kingdom between 1947 and 1963 a compulsory two-year period of conscription operated for young men. It was called National Service. So Bob joined the Army for two years, became a lance-corporal in the Royal Corps of Signals and saw service in Egypt. In 1955 he was a awarded a sculpture scholarship at The Slade School of Art, University of London, and he studied for a further two years for a post-graduate degree in Fine Art. During this period of his life the Russians invaded Hungary and Bob took part in a peaceful protest which marched to the Russian embassy in London. He wrote an article about the experience and sent it off to his home newspaper, the Newcastle Journal and, much to his surprise, it was published in full.
Bob gained his second degree in Fine Art and decided to become a school teacher. His first job as an Art master was at Erdington Hall Secondary Modern School in Birmingham. It was during this time that he met Jean Underhill and they married in the summer holiday of 1958. That autumn he took up his second post as Art master at Keighley Boys' Grammar School in Yorkshire, and in May 1960 Jean gave birth to Christopher, who was to be their only child. When Christopher was three months old, Bob moved again, for the last time, to become Head of Art at Sir John Deane's Grammar School in Northwich, Cheshire where he was to remain for the next twenty-five years.
Bob had always been interested in writing. When he went to Tynemouth High School he lost many of his friends from Chirton School when they went to the local secondary modern school, and his new friends lived many miles away. To relieve the boredom of the first long summer holiday he wrote a book called 'The Mystery of Dead Man's Bay'. It was execrable. In the loneliness of the summer holidays that followed he wrote four more novels of increasing length and comprised of hopeless cliches borrowed from cowboy novels and bad war movies. And then, when he was sixteen, he discovered tennis. He bought a second-hand racquet, and with his bicycle, suddenly acquired a social life. As this social life increased his life as a writer vanished to the point where even handing in school essays became a chore.
In 1963 Bob went to an art exhibition in Northwich's public library. The pictures were good and very cheap. On an impulse he walked into the local newspaper office and asked the editor to give the artist a break with some publicity. The Editor told him that nobody in his office knew anything about art and said 'You're an art teacher, you write about it.' Bob received two guineas for his article and it was well received. The artist sold half his pictures and the Editor asked Bob to write a regular art review. As the years went by he found he enjoyed journalism and, in his spare time, wrote articles on new public buildings, and then architectural profiles of small Cheshire towns as well as antiques and the odd human interest in-depth profile. As a journalist he learnt to write crisply, interestingly and amusingly. In 1970 he also became Head of Careers at school.
When Christopher was twelve he became part of a gang and Bob decided to write down, in the form of a novel, an account of how life had been for him, at the same age, on Tyneside during World War Two. He wanted to share childhoods with his son. He wrote in longhand, in school exercise books and the story was only intended for reading to Christopher. If Christopher's attention wandered Bob soon learned to edit his work. The book was not written with any thought of publication but when I was given it to read I immediately suggested that it be sent to a publisher, Collins, who turned it down. Undeterred, Bob sent it to Macmillan who did not make the same mistake and it has now been in print for over thirty-five years.
With the publication of 'The Machine Gunners' in 1975 Bob's secondary career, writing, suddenly took off. He would write short stories as and when they occurred to him but he would always write his full-length novels in the long summer holiday. 'The Machine Gunners' won him The Library Association's prestigious Carnegie Medal and the publication in 1981 of 'The Scarecrows' brought him a second, the first writer to win the award twice. There were two strands to Bob's writing: realistic, earthy stories, often about World War Two, and 'spooky' stories dealing with the supernatural. He was also a great Dracula fan and when he was awarded 'The Children of the Night' prize by the Dracula Society for his book 'The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral' he couldn't have been more delighted.
However, in the summer holidays of 1978 Christopher, now eighteen, was killed in an accident whilst riding his motor bike. This tragedy proved devastating for Bob and Jean. Christopher had been the inspiration behind much of Bob's writing and the loss of his only son was an irreparable blow. Jean became mentally unstable, occasionally having to be hospitalised for her own safety. After some years on medication she became very ill and nearly died, only making a difficult and partial recovery, both her speech and mobility being affected on a permanent basis. During the winter of 1984/5 both Bob's parents died and he became ill as a result of the stresses of the previous seven years. He applied for early retirement and at the age of fifty-five he left Sir John Deane's after twenty-five years teaching. When he felt better he opened a small antique shop but continued all the time to write.
By 1987 his marriage had finally broken down and he decided to make a new life in Lymm, with me, so that he could devote himself to his writing. Life in Lymm seemed to suit him: while I was out at work registering births, marriages and deaths, Bob wrote. Books poured out of him. Literary awards flowed in. He had brought a beloved cat with him called Jeoffrey who, luckily, settled down happily with my two cats. Cat stories were written. The quality of his work varied but he seemed to have so much that he wanted to say and, perceptively in retrospect, not a great deal of time in which to say it.
However, Bob had been a heavy smoker all his life and his chest was undoubtedly 'wheezy'. Doctors didn't figure in his lifestyle despite my best efforts. In April 1993 he contracted a viral infection that so rapidly turned to pneumonia that he suffered a respiratory arrest. With a doctor on the way to my house I suddenly found myself attempting to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by instruction on the telephone from the ambulance service. He never regained consciousness and died in Warrington hospital on 15 April. I felt completely shattered. Several books were in various stages of publication and fan mail poured daily through the letter-box together with all the many requests that his work engendered, and there was no-one to deal with it except me. Somehow I coped but my workload was huge. I arranged the funeral and, later, a memorial service. Bob's ashes are buried in Northwich cemetery, according to his wishes, together with those of his beloved Christopher, and Jean who, tragically, had taken her own life in 1990.
In 1994 North Tyneside Library Services decided to inaugurate The Westall Trail, a walk of some three or four miles along the north bank of the river Tyne, visiting many of the locations which appear in Bob's books. A blue plaque was erected on the house in Vicarage Street where he was born and it is still possible today for groups to be guided along the Trail by knowledgeable volunteer guides. There are also roads called after him in North Shields.
About a year after Bob's death I decided to set up the Robert Westall Charitable Trust with money from his estate. I wanted to ensure that he and his work would not be forgotten and that something of lasting value be created that Bob himself would have appreciated. I did not know what this would be. Strangely, I did not have long to wait. I soon learned from one of Bob's editors that Elizabeth Hammill, an American lady working in Waterstone's bookshop in Newcastle-on-Tyne, had a project in mind. It was a pipe-dream because she had no funds. She wanted to found a Centre for Children's Books where the manuscripts and illustrations of British children's writers and illustrators might be housed, and their work celebrated, there not being anywhere else in Britain for this purpose. It seemed to me to be a very reprehensible state of affairs that our country did not value these documents, many of which were being sold abroad. I told Elizabeth that I would back her with the £100,000 in the Trust and this action kick-started the long fund-raising process. This eventually culminated, in August 2005, in the opening of Seven Stories, the Centre for Children's Books in the Ouseburn Valley in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, not more than ten miles away from where Bob had been born in 1929. One of the galleries bears his name and I have donated his Archive to Seven Stories.
Bob's work was, in 1994, the subject of a long and fascinating assessment by Peter Hollindale, who was at that time a Senior Lecturer in English and Educational Studies at York University. I would like, with his permission, to quote him briefly:
'Few writers could match the eruption of creative vitality that Westall displayed. He published a new book every year marking out the double territory of what he called 'realistic, earthy, comical books' and 'spooky' books, two categories of his work that he claimed had no relation to each other. After his retirement, this production accelerated until he was writing four, five or even six books every year. Their quality inevitably varied and sometimes the idea excelled the execution, but they were never routine performances, and never lapsed into formula. He was always trying something new and resisting attempts to classify and pigeonhole him. Alas, it was too late. He was pigeonholed by adult readers almost from the start. For many professional critics and indeed for many children, the essential Westall is defined by 'The Machine Gunners'. This book was something new in 1975 and not written with any thought of publication. The periodical 'Signal' was representative in it's praise: 'No children's book about the War so vividly depicts the truth of that time as this one. Westall has it all: the inner and outer tensions, the pressures and the acts of courage and comradeship.' On the other hand, there were those who disliked the book for its violence and profanity and, as other sensitivities grew sharper in the years that followed, it was attacked for its sexism and racism. Westall's response to such criticism was always that his job as a writer was to tell the truth and that 'The Machine Gunners' is a truthful record of Tyneside at war. Later, he wrote: 'It is evil to rewrite history. The demands of anti-racism and anti-sexism are great upon me, but the demand of truth is greater than either. How can we know how far we have come, if we can't look back and see truly where we have been?' This principle holds good for all of Westall's work. He held invincibly to his belief that the truth should never be ideologically pasteurised for children. He was the most concerned of novelists, the most 'teacherly' in his sense of artistic vocation. Looking at the world around him and at his Cheshire pupils who were entering it, he saw their need for fiction which would serve them not as a sanitised politico-moral rule-book but as a survival kit. 'How do I tell them the truth' he asked, 'without destroying hope?' His books, like his teaching, are his answer to that question. Unfashionably clear-eyed, they accept the need to be competitive, undismayed by challenge, on your guard, because a rough world demands these things; but they also celebrate the zestful pleasure of cultivating your own personal strength, not only physical but intellectual and moral, and not only selfishly but on behalf of the victimised and the weak.'