Lindy McKinnel has recently discovered Robert Westall's acceptance speech that he made when he was presented with the Carnegie Medal for his book The Machine Gunners.
In it he contrasts boys' gangs in the 1970's as opposed to boys' gangs in the 1940's. In view of the time lapse since it was written (some 35 years ago) it is an interesting speech made by a schoolmaster which illustrates only too well the social changes that have taken place during the last seventy years with regard to boys' gangs and the use of violence.
Below: various covers of The Machine Gunners (including a French version)
French version cover
"When one receives a medal from an august body, there are two possible reactions.
Either one can paraphrase the fat lady at the end of the Morecambe and Wise Show, and simply say 'If my little book has made anybody happy then it's all been worthwhile'. Or you can try to explain to the august body why you wrote the blessed thing in the first place. Since my charms are less than ample, I propose to take the latter course.
'The Machine Gunners' is not to me a children's book. It is a teenage novel. I make this distinction because such a distinction may be increasingly important in the years to come.
The function of children's books you know already, better than I can tell you: stimulation of the imagination, widening of vocabulary, the simple making of reading into a worthwhile and lasting habit. Sometimes a children's book transcends these noble-enough aims. Maurice Sendak's 'Where the Wild Things Are' may be the finest children's book ever written. It's message is Jungian; the single greatest lesson Carl Jung ever taught. Do not be afraid of anything inside yourself, no matter what Church or State, or any repressive adult says. Come to terms with everything inside yourself. The hero, Max, in his wolf suit, will live to take his place alongside Hercules and Brer Rabbit. As a Samaritan, I find he helps distressed adults. As a Samaritan, I find he has helped me.
But the teenage novel must answer a different purpose. A teenage novel is rescue-expedition into a near vacuum. I will not use the outmoded phrase 'generation gap'. I will say 'generation vacuum'. The young today live inside a near vacuum which we, the middle-aged, have created. What do I mean by a vacuum? Let me tell you about the daughter of a friend of mine, whom I will call Jane Short. Jane is fourteen, a friendly pretty girl, warmly attached to her parents. But socially timid, especially for the Surrey commuter belt Comprehensive school she attends. The school runs an evening youth club. There was going to be a disco. A friend finally persuaded Jane to attend.
In the first half hour she was standing in a corner of the hall when, to her horror, she heard the DJ announce that Jane Short had requested a record to be played for a particular boy. She was horrified because she hardly knew the boy. Did not even like him. Everyone was staring at her, thinking her a pushy type. Some unknown had played a very dirty trick on her. Worse was to follow. The boy's girlfriend crossed the hall, beside herself with rage and jealousy. She would wait outside to get Jane. She would get her next day at school as well, and all the days to come. Not just the girlfriend, but the girlfriend's girlfriends too. Worse still, not one of Jane's friends stood by her, not even the dubious character who had asked her to the disco in the first place.
Jane got herself home with dignity. She screwed up her courage and got herself to school the next day after massive support. But she hasn't been to the Youth Club since. She had sampled the vacuum where the young now live; where there are no longer any rules.
To see the extent of the vacuum, think of how Jane's grandmother must have gone to her first dance. She would have been not fourteen, but a mature seventeen. The hall would have been half-full of authoritarian supportive adults. The worst that could have happened to Jane's grandmother is that she might have sat out the dance as a 'wallflower'. Humiliating – but not so bad as having your whole social world blow up in your face, leaving a landscape as bleak and threatening as midnight Manhattan. This is the generation-vacuum, left by a retreat of the middle-aged. A vacuum without rules. I see this landscape daily in school.
Thirty years ago, as a schoolboy, I found the rules clear enough.
You never split on another boy to a teacher. Or you got thumped, and you knew you deserved to get thumped. Today, children split on each other for a cheap laugh. In my day, if a teacher picked on a boy unfairly, the whole class would gang up against the teacher. Not with violence, but with a sullen incompetent stupidity that ruined a teacher's lessons. Until the point had been made. Now, if a boy is picked on, the class just has one more sick laugh. In my day, you belonged to a gang: you obeyed the gang-leader. The gang protected you. Today, you stand up for no-one, and no-one stands up for you. It is a bully's paradise.
In my day, if boys fought, they fought one to one. If one boy was knocked down, and chose to stay down, that was the end of the matter. Now, it is more likely to be five, or ten boys against one. And if the one gets knocked down, it is likely that the five or ten will put the boot in while he is on the ground. The worst feeling in school today is one of social chaos, in which no child knows where it is. Schoolboy honour is never talked about now. Because schoolboy honour was simply the laws of schoolboy gangs.
I hate the way 'gang' has become a condemnatory word, denoting vandalism, hooliganism. Gangs are simply the social structure that the young build for themselves when allowed to. We no longer allow them to. Before gangs can form you need stability. The kind of stability given by boys living together in a form, in a recognised form-room, in charge of a recognised form master, having most of their lessons together as a form. A boy knew where he was. But in a fine flush of educational liberalism, we have abolished the form as a unit. Now we have unstreaming, banding, setting in every subject. Children hardly spend two adjoining periods with the same companions. How can they form a structure, a friendship, and a gang? And so you get the situation where a boy can be punched in the stomach in the school corridor, and lie there till he recovers, while hundreds pass by uncaring. Why should they care? He is not their friend. He is not one of their gang. At home, my son has a gang, friends. At school, no gang, no friends. Last year, he did not have a single lesson in common with the rest of his form.
In such an atmosphere, the vacuum grows. As schoolboys, we loved a good hot debating lesson. Now I find boys will not open their mouths. Not from fear of the teacher, but from fear of what their companions will make of any rash statement afterwards. A schoolfellow of my son's, in the first year, let out that his mother wasn't married to the man she was living with. Now he is in the Sixth but it is still used as a stick to beat him with.
At home too, the vacuum grows. The older I get, the more I realise that my world-view was built up in the adolescent years, by pretending to read a book and listening to my parents talking to each other. Such a world-view had it's faults. It was very narrow. But what is narrow and solid can be built on to later. At least my parents' world-view was all of a piece, presented over many evenings of what we would now think of as boredom.
Now, we have the 'goggle-box'. And to me the worst thing about the 'goggle-box' is that it presents a series of disconnected fragments which can never hang together. How can any child, unaided, put together a world-view from a Kojak episode, a nature film about the wild dogs of Africa, and a documentary about prostitutes in Hong Kong. It takes an adult all his time to fit those bits together after an evening's viewing. One of the best things I do with my son is to view telly with him, and exchange heated commentary while the programmes are going on (much to the annoyance of my wife). But what about the children who view alone? Do they despair of ever making a world-view that fits together to make sense? Do they despair, and settle to expect a life made up of eternally disconnected and therefore meaningless fragments?
This, then is the arena which the teenage novelist enters. Petra, a Dutch teenager writes:
'At home they never understand anything. People only care for external appearances – whether you passed your exams, or get enough sleep. You rarely find anyone fundamentally interested in others. I am alone. Suddenly you are supposed to solve all your own problems; to face what only a grown-up can face. I don't belong anywhere. I am frightened to see all these things that are going on in the world. Now all these problems fall on me. I feel I ought to do something – since the adults won't. But I am helpless. I don't know how to start. I feel like an animal, just vegetating, and then it seems that my life and life itself is without meaning.'
This is the trackless vacuum into which he mounts his rescue-expedition. If I might allow myself one generalisation about today's teenagers, it is that they desperately lonely, and rather lost. My Petra is called Christopher. 'The Machine Gunners' was an offering to him. I read it chapter by chapter, as I wrote it. If it has virtue, it lies in that fact. What virtue? First, perhaps, historical truth. 'The Machine Gunners' is an historical novel, straight from the horse's mouth. As if Sir Francis Drake had resurrected and told us he lost that game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe because he was suffering from an ingrowing toenail. If anything will overcome the glittering telly and catch the young, it is a strong dose of 'horse's mouth'. Secondly, I wrote it to say 'This is how I was at your age. Perhaps it will help you to grasp this is where you started out from'. A Pole Star behind a navigator's back is better than a totally cloudy sky. But, more important, it says to him 'I am human too.' I may be bigger, fatter, greyer and much more wrinkled but, as St. Augustine once said 'The child that I was is within me, for where else would he have gone?' It puts my son and I side-by-side, which is the only position from which meaningful dialogue can flow. Another has done this better than I. The finest thing for me in Jill Paton Walsh's fine teenage novel 'Unleaving' is when, by a sleight of hand, she turns a teenage girl into a grandmother. And that is a great thing to do in an age when doctors and social workers are starting to call old people 'moggies'. It is an appalling trick. 'Moggies', I suppose, makes them not as other men. More comical. Their pains and problems somehow less serious and painful. I am grateful to Jill for reminding children, and me, that there is a 'moggy' waiting too inside us all.
But I am straying now on to the second kind of truth that teenage novels should contain. The mythical truth that is greater than the historical truth. If I had my fondest wish, then I would like Chas, the hero of 'The Machine Gunners', to become a myth, like Brer Rabbit, or El-Ahrairah in 'Watership Down', or Max in his wolf-suit or, best of all, a kind of mini-Ulysses. (I mean the Greek and not the James Joyce variety). A boy already in the vacuum that starts the day you start protecting your parents against the cruel facts of life. A boy too sharp to believe everything that self-seeking adults will tell him. But a boy who recognises that not every part of every adult is self-seeking. A boy often knocked down, but never knocked out. Who will go away and brood and ponder and come again. Above all, a boy who leads his readers into moral dilemmas to which there is no easy answer. Dilemmas they must solve for themselves. The best moment in the reading of 'The Machine Gunners' to Christopher was the moment when he shouted 'Chas is a fool – I would have done this. I would have done that in the situation.' He was morally involved. And as Stephen Vincenzy, author of that fine book 'In Praise of Older women' has said, the worthwhile book is not the one full of moral teaching, but the book that leads its readers into one moral dilemma after another. For them to solve for themselves.
To ensure this, the teenagers in any worthwhile teenage novel must have power. Power to change their own lives; power to ruin the lives of others, even adults. This is not an unrealistic claim. In the course of my Samaritan work I came across several children who had succeeded in breaking up their parents' marriages. We want no more teenage-heroes or heroines who are mere helpless spectators. No more 'I was Kaiser Bill's Batman'. Or Richard III's page-boy. Or the kid who fastens King Alfred's shield on before the Battle of Ethandun. Alfred Duggan made this genre popular in that fine book 'The Cunning of the Dove'. But that was a book for adults. To teach children, even by implication, that they are helpless victims, that their actions do not matter, is to be a liar of the worst kind."