Monday, 15 November 2010

The craft of Robert Westall: Visiting Lindy McKinnel



Bob Westall with cat at home in Lymm
It's always a thrill to speak to writers about their craft, particularly if it's somebody you admire.

Sadly, I never got the chance to meet Robert Westall, one of my favourite children's authors.

He died in 1993 at the age of 63. He was at the height of his creative powers, but he left a wonderful legacy of storytelling.

The next best thing to an encounter with Mr Westall, however, is to meet Lindy McKinnel, with whom he spent the last six years of his life.

She was one of the earliest readers of his work and the person who encouraged him to send off The Machine Gunners to a publisher.

Without her, he would not have seen this marvellous story published nor would he have won the Carnegie Medal. So we owe her a debt of gratitude.

I first spoke to her three years ago for a magazine article to promote the launch of The Making of Me, a collection of autobiographical pieces Mr Westall wrote.

But as I've said in an earlier posting, I always felt I'd only scratched the surface.

So I was thrilled when she agreed to let me visit her recently at her home in Lymm, Cheshire, to talk about this fine author's work.

This was the home he shared with her for the last six years of his life. It was here that he wrote at the kitchen table - one of his beloved clocks (he was a keen antiques and clock collector) is still on the wall over that table.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Robert Atkinson Westall was born on October 7, 1929, at 7 Vicarage Street, North Shields. An only child, Bob - as he was generally known - was nine when the Second World War broke out. The relentless air raids on the North East coloured his outlook on life and provided the thrilling background to his first book.

In The Making of Me, Bob described himself as a “bad writer” from an early age. Drawing and painting were more suitable pursuits for his talents early in his life.

Indeed, it was art he studied at Durham University and, later, at the Slade School of Art, before he became an art teacher at Sir John Deane’s Grammar School in Northwich where he was head of art and head of careers.

He married his wife, Jean, and they had a son, Christopher, who was to provide that initial inspiration for his breakthrough as a writer.

Westall the author, however, was slow in emerging. He had a few pieces published by local newspapers early on. Later he sharpened his writing style as a freelance journalist (fitted in around his day job at the school), writing art reviews for his local newspaper in Northwich.

But while his journalism was crisp and to the point, he felt the novels he was writing were the work of a “complete idiot”, riddled with clich├ęs.


Bob Westall with his son, Christopher
It wasn’t until 1973 when he was 44 that he began writing in earnest. He wanted to describe to his young son, Christopher, what it was like growing up in the North East during the Second World War.

That desire impelled him to write The Machine Gunners.

Lindy McKinnel’s twin daughters were in the same class at school as Christopher Westall and it was in the 1960s that she first encountered Bob Westall.

She took an interest in his writing, his architectural articles and illustrations in Cheshire Life mostly. But she also read some of his early attempts at fiction.

She says: “He used to give me all these things - they were very mixed. The articles I liked, but the stories he was writing were too long and about things that were historical, about Anglo Saxon princesses, that sort of thing.”

But when she read The Machine Gunners she felt this was something different. He’d scribbled the story in school exercise books. It was written purely for his son as a way of recreating his own childhood in the North East during the Second World War.

“It was terrific,” she says. “I encouraged him to send it off. It was turned down by Collins but was published by Macmillan.”

It won him his first Carnegie Medal (he was the first author to win that prestigious award twice; The Scarecrows earned him his second medal).

“He was stunned when he won,” she says.

Bob was well into his forties and it was like the creative floodgates had finally opened, as stories and novels began to pour out.

But tragedy was around the corner. In 1978 when he was 18, Chris Westall was killed in a motorbike accident. Bob and Jean Westall were devastated. Sadly their marriage would not survive.

By this time, Lindy McKinnel had moved from Little Leigh, near Northwich, to live in Lymm with her four children following the death of her husband.

In the late 1980s, Bob Westall went to live with her.

“Bob began writing full time. He’d retired from teaching and from his antiques shop. I used to go out to work and leave him at home writing.”

Having a world-famous and award-winning children’s author living under her roof was one thing; having all his papers, antiques and clocks cluttering the house was quite another.

So he bought a cottage around the corner, to which he would disappear each day to work on his writing. The cottage became available after a scene that was almost like something out of one of his stories - a gas explosion destroyed the two neighbouring cottages, which had to be rebuilt.


The cottage in Lymm where Robert Westall wrote
 It was at this cottage that late masterpieces such as Blitzcat were produced.

These were busy years for Bob. Although he is known as a children's author, Mrs McKinnel says this was the early pigeonhole he was put in because of The Machine Gunners. But many of his other books are distinctly adult, yet marketed as for young people. "It was a problem not just for Bob but also for his publishers," she says.

So what about Robert Westall's craft?

“He wrote short stories when they occurred to him and the novels during the summer holidays,” says Mrs McKinnel, describing the years when Bob was working as a teacher.

“The difficult thing was getting the idea for the book. Once he had the germ of an idea he could always think of the rest. When he was writing he didn’t talk much. It was intense and it didn’t take long. He would sit and write solidly for five or six hours. A draft was done within a month. He would give it to me to see what I thought.”

His stories tended to fall into three distinct categories - those about the Second World War (The Machine Gunners; Blitzcat), cats (Yaxley’s Cat; The Christmas Cat) and the supernatural (The Wind Eye; The Scarecrows; The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral).

His ghost stories were heavily influenced by M R James and their simple use of suggested horror are reminiscent of the great Edwardian writer.

Bob Westall died in April 1993. His ashes were buried in the cemetery at Northwich alongside his son, Christopher, and wife Jean.

A special memorial service was held for Robert Westall a few months after his death at All Saints' Church, Thelwall, a village close to Westall's Lymm home. In attendance was Michael Morpurgo, who gave a reading.

(I’ve only recently discovered this. Coincidentally, this was the church where I was married in 1995. Bob Westall had a particular fascination for Thelwall and had thought about writing a book about it.)

“Bob had made a bit of money by the time he died. I wanted to set up something in his memory. That’s what led to the Seven Stories project.

“I’d heard there was a lady working at Waterstone’s in Newcastle who wanted to set up an archive of children’s writers’ and illustrators’ manuscripts.

“It seemed very apt.”

So The Robert Westall Charitable Trust was formed and £100,000 was given to Elizabeth Hammill to kickstart her dream project, Seven Stories, the Centre for Children’s Books in the Ouseburn Valley in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

That initial donation by Mrs McKinnel acted as seed money, as Elizabeth needed to raise £7 million to get it off the ground. It took 10 years and Seven Stories finally opened in 2005.

Bob’s archive was originally on permanent loan there, but within the past few weeks Mrs McKinnel has given it to the centre to keep. Within the fascinating building (comprising seven storeys, giving the name a double meaning) is a Robert Westall Gallery.

For more information about Seven Stories, visit its website, http://www.sevenstories.org.uk/ or call 0845 271 0777.

Further information about Robert Westall can be found at http://www.westallswar.org/.

* Thanks to Lindy McKinnel for her help in relation to this blog post.