First draft written longhand in school exercise books
Bob and Jean Westall, Christopher's parents
Christopher Westall with his grand parents
The cover that Robert Westall liked most
The cover that Robert Westall liked the least.
I wrote 'The Machine Gunners' between October and December 1973. It was written in longhand, in school exercise books. It was written solely for my son, Christopher, when he was 12, to show him how things had been for me when I was 12, in WWII. I had no thought of publication at that point; the books lay in a drawer gathering dust for a year, after I had finished reading them out to him loud, after Sunday tea. He was an excellent critic; if a piece I was reading bored him, he would pick up 'The Radio Times' and read that instead. If the book has a brisk pace, it is due to Christopher pointing out the boring bits.
I submitted the book first to Collins, who rejected it, but with a friendly letter saying that if I persisted I should certainly find a publisher for it. The second publisher I sent it to, Macmillan, accepted it, and it was published in September 1975. It won the Carnegie Prize for 1975.
The book is based on my own wartime experiences as a boy of nine to fifteen. I spent the war on Tyneside, in Tynemouth, which 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 Liddell 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 12, and my son Christopher. The rest are inventions. Most things in the book are real, except that my gang did not find a crashed bomber, or steal a machine gun, or build a fortress. However, one real-life wartime gang did exactly these things – the church choir of Withernsea, Humberside (see my non-fiction book 'The Children of the Blitz'). These people only came to my notice three years after I wrote 'The Machine Gunners' when they crossly asked me how I had found out about their adventures. This disposes of any idea that the novel is 'far-fetched' or unlikely.
Rudi did not die at the end of 'The Machine Gunners'. If he had been meant to die, I would have killed him off in the book. If I ever get a good new plot he, like Chas and the others, may reappear. Rudi was based on a German prisoner-of-war I met while doing wartime farmwork in Cumberland. He was much respected by the farmers. (See again 'The Children of the Blitz').
The heart of the book is the machine gun itself – the only thing I had to do research on (in The Imperial War Museum). It is the battle to possess the gun that drives the whole action. I got the idea from a copy of 'The Manchester Guardian' in the sixties. The Dutch had been draining the Zuyder Zee, and this draining exposed the wrecks of many Allied bombers which had crashed there during the War. According to the newspaper article, a gang of Dutch teenagers found a Lancaster, removed the four-gun rear turret from it, dragged it to their base, cleaned and oiled it and were about to fire it when the Dutch police (thank heavens) caught up with them.
There is a sequel to 'The Machine Gunners'. It is called 'Fathom Five' and follows the further adventures of Chas, Cem (and Audrey) in 1943, when they are in the Sixth Form, and are looking for a spy. The book looks towards the sea war, rather than the air war, and is based on the river. Unfortunately, I was unable to bring back Nicky, Clogger or Rudi. The book is published by Puffin.
I quite approve of the TV serial made from 'The Machine Gunners'. The script writer was William Corlett, who also writes children's novels. He loved the book very much – perhaps too much, for he could not bear to leave many incidents out, and at times (as in the Mrs. Spalding incident with her knickers), things got a little rushed and blurred. The fault lies with the BBC producers, who did not allow more than six episodes. It takes about ten episodes to do justice even to a children's book, and they just don't seem to have the nerve to allow this many episodes.
My only other book to be televised was 'The Watch House' in a three-part serial on BBC in 1988. Alas, it had the same fault; the first two episodes were pleasing, but the last was hopelessly rushed. But the female lead was played by the star of 'Aspects of Love'. At present, the BBC has an option on 'The Wind Eye'.
I have had a lot of bother over the years because 'The Machine Gunners' contains swearing. But I am quite unrepentant. Children do swear a lot and that's a fact. I wanted the book to be realistic.
My favourite bits of the book are the discovery of the machine gun and the last fight with Boddser Brown.
The book has had several book jackets and I have not always been very pleased with them. The one I liked best was the first, which showed Chas and Cem pulling the guy over a bomb-site in an air-raid – very spectacular. The one I liked least was the TV link-up one, with Chas and a swastika of German planes.
My favourite characters were Chas, of course, and Rudi.
I cannot speak German myself. I had to have help from the Head of German at my school.
The book was, of course, meant for one boy in the beginning. Since then, many girls seem to have enjoyed it. I am sorry there weren't more girls in the gang, but I'm glad that I put Audrey in. It is rather a male chauvinist book, but it was written seventeen years ago, about events fifty years ago, at which time Women's Lib had never been heard of. Think of 'The Machine Gunners' as a historical novel, written by somebody who was there at the time.
The only other help I had with the book was from my editor who corrected my spelling and punctuation, and cut out more boring bits.
'The Machine Gunners' was the first book I had published but not the first I wrote. The first children's book I wrote was 'The Cats of Seroster' which was not published until several years later.
Several schools have made the book into a play, and one version (by a school in Bridport, Dorset) has been published and is sometimes performed. At the moment, two young Geordie playwrights and a composer are trying to turn it into a musical.
The book is aimed at age 12 – 13 but has been enjoyed by some 8 year-olds, and by at least one granny of 73 who went through the Blitz.
'The Machine Gunners' has sold over a million copies over the years – it must be the slowest best-seller of all time.
A schoolboy once wrote to me asking permission to turn it into a video-game. I gave permission but never heard anything more from him.
I enjoyed being in the War. It seemed to us (children) a very great adventure, with every British person fighting together for the common cause (which they have never done since). But then our town was not severely bombed (though we had a lot of air raids).
Other war books for young people I have enjoyed were 'Spitfire Summer' and 'Dolphin Crossing' and 'Fireweed' by Jill Paton Walsh. I also enjoyed a book about evacuees called 'Goodnight Mr. Tom' by Michelle Magorian, and 'Carrie's War' by Nina Bawden. My favourite adult war books are 'Fighter' and 'Bomber' and 'Goodbye Mickey Mouse' by Len Deighton.