ROBERT WESTALL'S OBITUARY IN 'THE GUARDIAN' Wednesday, April 21 1993
The children's novelist Robert Westall, who has died aged 63, was 45 before he published a book, but was soon clocking up three or more each year. Young readers devoured him; critics were sometimes divided, but united to salute at least two of his titles – The Machine Gunners and The Kingdom by the Sea – as lasting classics of children's literature.
His writing was gutsy and energetic, grippingly plotted and, at its finest, inspiringly moral and compassionate. Blunt words delivered with a faint Geordie accent concealed a Samaritan worker and an affectionate, humorous man who, when a painful hip prevented school visits, conscientiously replied to every child who wrote to him.
He hit the jackpot straight away: The Machine Gunners, published in 1975, won the Carnegie Medal. It shared its setting with several other Westall stories: the bombing of Tyneside during the last war. This was where he grew up, a grammar-school lad from a cosily safe but claustrophobic and prudish working-class community, which he deeply loved but from which he was desperate to escape. The conflict was a dominant force in his life, and a familiar theme in much of his writing, especially The Kingdom by the Sea, which won the Guardian Children's Fiction Award in 1990.
A 1956 student protester, he evolved into what he liked to describe as a Floating Tory Wet. He became the centre of a controversy when writer and critic David Rees attacked a short story about 'how the swinging seventies were tough on boys who, as late developers, wondered if they were gay.' At that time Westall regarded being gay as an illness, a position he later viewed with remorse after corresponding with a reproachful Celia Kitzinger. But for a while his was a macho, black-leather-and-bike image which enraged many critics.
He took two degrees in fine Art, at Durham University and London's Slade School, interrupted by National Service with the Royal Signals in Egypt. He became an art teacher – 'not only untrained but colour blind, but there's not a lot to do with a degree in Sculpture' – and for the next 28 years was a department head in Birmingham, Yorkshire and Cheshire, finishing at a sixth-form college in Northwich, not far from his last home in Lymm.
Westall sharpened his writing skills as a freelance journalist – he was grateful to the Chester Chronicle for getting him to explain the sculptor Henry Moore in 500 words – and in 1972 was the northern art critic for the Guardian. When he left teaching he was briefly an antique dealer: more than 30 clocks crowded his small study, along with dozens of buddhas and his beloved cats.
He published nearly 40 books, gathered several more major awards, including another Carnegie for The Scarecrows (1981) and the overall Smarties Prize for Blitzcat (1989) while stories like The Watch House and The Machine Gunners became TV serials.
He wrote for adults – a collection of ghost stories, Antique Dust (1989), and The Children of the Blitz, an anthology of childhood memories which grew from letters he received after The Machine Gunners – but preferred the hungry eagerness of children. 'There's a weary sophistication about adult readers that falls like a pall across my spirit.'
Westall married in 1958 but separated in 1987; he wrote The Machine Gunners to share something of his childhood with his son Chris, who became his most trusted critic. In 1978, when he was 18, Chris died in a crash on his motorbike, but passionate about bikes and filling the house with their jargon, he remained a lasting presence in his father's life, the familiar daredevil figure of so much of his work and the power behind his ghost stories.
Westall taught for seven more years and every child became Chris, so that he never refused a demand. There was never again a free period or lunch break. It wrecked him, but he never regretted it. A darting spark, 'a merriment I couldn't generate, more real than everyday reality' would say to him, 'Well done, Dad.' Chris stayed with him, encouraging, brisk, until they could make sparks of merriment together.