Robert and Christoper Westall

Christopher Westall in Trafalgar Square

Robert Westall at 11 or 12

The life and times of 'The Machine Gunners' by Robert Westall

This account is written by Lindy McKinnel, Robert Westall's friend and partner.

When Robert Westall's only son, Christopher, reached his 12th birthday in 1972, his father decided to write a special story for him. Chris had recently become a member of a local gang. The boys in this gang weren't troublemakers; they just liked to hang out together in the neighbourhood, making dens and doing the things that boys like to do.

However, Robert Westall saw less of his son as a consequence and he began to consider the time in 1942, during World War Two, when he was twelve. A lot of his memories started to surface and he wrote them down, deciding that the best way to explain to Chris about his wartime boyhood would be in the form of a story. So he found some school exercise books (he was a schoolteacher) and wrote the first chapter and read it to Chris one wet Sunday afternoon. Chris was interested and wanted more: his Dad had lived on Tyneside during a time when bombs were falling, and frightening things were happening, but it seemed to Chris to be an exciting time to be alive. If Chris got bored during the reading his father would alter the story, cutting out long boring bits of description. He made it pacey and humorous and when the story, which he called The Machine Gunners, was finished (and Chris loved it) his father, having no thought of publication, put it into a drawer and nearly forgot about it.

However, I was Robert Westall's friend for many, many years and he used to show me articles that he had written for newspapers and periodicals. But he had never written a book before, though he had tried. He told me about The Machine Gunners and lent it to me to read. I thought that it was excellent. I, too, had been a wartime child, very much aware of what was happening in the world through radio broadcasts and adults' talk. So I suggested to Robert that he should try for publication. He sent the manuscript to Collins, who promptly turned it down. Robert was disappointed but philosophical, knowing that trying to get a book published is never easy. I thought that Collins had made a big mistake. However, Robert tried again, sending it to Macmillan, with more luck this time. The Machine Gunners was published in 1975.

And so it came about that a story written for one twelve year-old boy came to be a best-seller, read by millions of children over a period, so far, of some thirty-five years. What is more, it won for Robert Westall the most important children's literary prize that there is: the Carnegie Medal. It didn't end there either. After publication a lot of adults read The Machine Gunners and it made them all think about what they had got up to as children during World War Two. So many of them wrote to Robert Westall that he was able to compile a whole new book that he called 'Children of the Blitz: stories of wartime childhood', which was published in 1985.

People also wrote asking permission to turn the book into a play. The BBC made a six-episode television drama and two Tynesiders were inspired to turn it into a musical which was put on at The Customs House Theatre in South Shields in 1998, travelling afterwards to the Edinburgh Festival with it's cast of further education students. This musical was revived in 2010, playing again at The Customs House theatre in South Shields. A much earlier musical version had also been staged in Bristol.

People in other countries wanted to read The Machine Gunners and it was translated into many different languages and published in countries all over the world, winning more important prizes. In 2007 The Machine Gunners was voted into the Top Ten Carnegie Winners of the previous seventy years. Tragically Chris was killed in a motor cycle accident in 1978 and Robert too died at the early age of 63 in 1993. But The Machine Gunners has a life of its own, still continuing to be read and enjoyed by each new generation of children who all want to know what it was like to be a twelve year-old in World War Two.

Because The Machine Gunners featured on the national curriculum Robert Westall used to receive hundreds of letters from children, asking him all kinds of questions about his book. He wrote down his thoughts about why he wrote the book and often sent a copy out with his replies. You may read these thoughts under the heading 'About the Machine Gunners'.