Monday 20 March 2017

Will Britain, grant Mal Peet, novelist for young adults and passionate believer in the power of reading, a posthumous Carnegie Medal for his last book ?

Mal died two years ago at the age of 67 after a career as a children’s author and especially for teenagers, which he had started fifteen years before. He was suspicious of books that targeted teenagers, on the grounds that “such books usually give off a strong whiff of condescension, although there are, of course, very honourable exceptions.” Now he has been considered for a posthumous Carnegie Medal, after making the shortlist with his co-author Meg Rosoff who finished, published and submitted his novel 'Beck', his coming-of-age tale about a mixed-race boy in America during, the first chapter of which, started and ended with Mal writing :

'His Mother met his father in Liverpool on a frigid night in 1907. She was not a prostitute but in times of need, short of other forms of employment, she would sell herself to men. She never spent the proceeds frivolously, Every last farthing of the five shillings she charged would be spent on rent and on food for her family, which consisted of frail parents, who were addicted to patent medicines, and an older brother who was wrong in his head.
A month before Beck’s eleventh birthday, his great-grandparents and his mother and his daft kindly uncle all died in the flu epidemic. Anne (his Mother) was the last to go.
Just before the fever stilled her heart she tightened her clasp on the boy’s hand and whispered, “There’s three pound seven shillin’ put away. It’s in …”

He was an odd-looking kid with his mother’s green-flecked hazel eyes and a deep shade of his father’s colouring and hair that stuck out all ways. He was taken to the Catholic orphanage run by the methodically cruel Sisters of Mercy. The shame of his mixed race meant that he was also victimised by other orphans. He lived in that dire and loveless establishment for three and a half years; at the end of that time he had become a little hard bastard who had learned to cry silently and dry-eyed. Christian names were not used in the orphanage and eventually Beck forgot that he had one.'

Mal's own story began unpropitiously when he was born Malcolm C Peet, a post-Second World War baby boomer in the autumn of 1947 and brought up in the small town of North Walsham, Norfolk, where his father, an ex-sergeant-major from the War worked in Caley's Norwich Chocolate Works and his mother, Grace, was a part-time bookkeeper for a number of Walsham traders. He lived in a small house on the new Millfield Council Estate with his parents, younger brother and sister and grandmother.

An early reader, he quickly consumed the book collection at Millfield Primary School and was then, at the age of eight, was given special dispensation to join the town library. It was just one room in a basement off a narrow alleyway, but it seemed to him like a subterranean treasure house. He recalled :"I'm not sure that, when I read Treasure Island for the first time when I was about ten, I understood all the words or what was doing on, but that didn't stop me reading it and I certainly didn't forget it."

In addition to this he recalled : "My parents got me a book a month from a mail-order company; my best memories are of new books arriving; unwrapping the parcel; studying the pictures on the cover; smelling the book, they smell different; putting off starting to read until I couldn’t bear it any longer" and "I had a serious addiction to comics. When I had a newspaper round, I used to sit in a bus shelter and read all the comics before I delivered them, which got me into trouble more than once and made me late for school."

When he later reflected on his early reading he said that he : "didn't quite know why, because we weren't, by any means, a literary household, but I just got the hang of it quite young and then I devoured books because, I think it was escapism, because books were my way out. I lived in a very crowded and slightly, more than slightly, argumentatively household. Getting you own space was difficult and books were my window, they were my hiding place and my mode of transport. I went to Treasure Island and I went to Outer Space and fought the First World War with Biggles and it was another world, simply that."

"One of the places I had to read was a tall tree at the end of our garden that had the top lopped off it and I used to climb up it with a book and a sandwich and spend the afternoon perched on the top of this tree with a book. Nobody could get me. Even if it was time for homework my Mum couldn't climb trees, so she couldn't get me down from there."

Although he once described his childhood as "impoverished, miserable and colourless"when he looked back, it wasn't unremittingly grim : "We had very little money and there was no culture, but now I realise that I did have an amazing amount of freedom. We would go off on our bikes all day into the woods and no-one would worry."

After passing the 11-plus exam he went to the Paston School in town, an old-fashioned boys' grammar and recalled that  : "It was pretty dreadful; the kind of place where the masters, it was an entirely male place, went around in black gowns like daylight vampires and the Head kept a display of canes on his study wall and used them not infrequently." Fifty-four years later he had the school in mind in his semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age novel aimed at the 14 plus, 'Life : An Exploded Diagram.' in which young Clem attends Newgate Grammar School where he endures humiliation, bullying, sacracasm, violent games, caning, snobbery and 'ferocious patriotism.'

His passion for and ability in soccer, led him to play for his school, his town and his county and needless to say, at that same school : "and this is a familiar story, I suppose – there was one teacher who inspired and encouraged me to write. Although I still really wanted to draw cartoon strips" and he often handed in school history essays as cartoon strips. His passion for kids comics expressed itself forty-five years later, when he originally envisioned his award-winning first novel for young adults, 'Keeper', as a graphic novel.

Mal's childhood clearly left him with an indelible sense of 'place' which infused 'An Exploded Diagram' : "North Norfolk is where I grew up; I’ve cycled most of the roads on that map. The locations named in the novel are barely-disguised real places; sometimes I didn’t even change the names. But for several reasons it’s the perfect setting. North Norfolk is – was – pretty remote. In post World War Two Britain, great social and cultural shiftings were gathering momentum, but their vibration didn’t quite reach us up there. We lived a little apart from the historical flow; we were, as Clem observes, still recognisably feudal. In some of my earlier books, I devoted a great deal of energy to creating an imaginary country: its history, landscapes, society, all of that. Writing out of memory was just a little bit easier."

Mal was 15 when the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the USA and USSR and the world to the brink of nuclear war and he was aware that : "East Anglia was home to a number of British and American bases for nuclear-capable bombers, and we would have been a prime target for Soviet missiles" and he "was incandescent with outrage at the thought that the Yanks and Russians might convert me to ash before I’d got my hands on the prematurely voluptuous Avril Samms at number 64. Now, the whole episode seems like a weird dream, an interruption of normal service. We’d sit and watch the terrifying news on the telly, then get comfy for ‘Dixon of Dock Green’."

At the age of 17, he resisted his parent's idea that he should go to 'Art School' and, encouraged by his English teacher, applied for and gained a place to read English and American Studies at the new University of Warwick and in 1965 “escaped Norfolk” and that "very dull town which I managed to survive by means of football, bikes and books."

At Warwick he began drawing cartoons in earnest, first for his friends and then for the university newspaper and having graduated in 1968 and unsure as to what to do next, he decided to try his hand at academia, stayed in Warwickshire for another two years, got a Masters degree and then, at the age of 23, moved to Devon. It wasn't long before he was lured into teaching by the luxury of a regular salary, but, afflicted by a low boredom threshold and “a very low tolerance for routine” he quit his college job in Exeter after a few years and tried to scratch a living as an illustratorwhich failed, along with his first marriage.

In his late twenties, he now worked variously : in a hospital mortuary where he "didn’t much like the night shifts;" "hung out with a bunch of gypsies who did dodgy tarmac. Once we did an abattoir; what with the heat and the carnage it was an authentic vision of Hell;"as a plumber and a builder and even, for a time, worked on a road-building crew in Canada,"consisting of mad Newfoundlanders, North American Indians, Black Americans and exiled Irishmen. I met a love-sick man in Ontario who wanted someone to share the drive to Vancouver where his girlfriend was. That week-long drive across Canada was one of the best and worst things I have ever done."

It was now that he met his future wife, Elspeth Graham, who persuaded him that in spite of his having no formal training in art, he ought to use his talent for caricature and cartooning to become an illustrator. In this phase of his life the two of them made their living writing school texts and literacy books for children and young adults including "rather academic text-books about poetry."

Not unsurprisingly, given his love of literature, he supported the work of England's 'National Literacy Trust', for whom 'he was a 'Reading Champion.' 

The political events of the 1980s, when he was in his thirties, clearly had a bid impact on him and in his Carnegie Medal Acceptance Speech in 2006 for his historical novel 'Tamar', he lamented what he saw as "Disconnection or alienation from the past" which he thought had "political consequences" and cited : "A clear example is the popularity of Margaret Thatcher's mutilation of the trade unions in the 1980s. Many of those who supported her in this seemed to have forgotten or not known that they owed the social benefits they enjoyed - health, education, social security - to the trade union movement. Now I do not think that there is a single young person of my acquaintance who has any knowledge of the social history of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries."

Mal confessed that : 'Like many people, I suspect, I had no real interest in children’s literature until I had children of my own. It'll sound a bit evangelical, I suppose, but I truly believe that there are few things more important, useful and protective than sharing stories with your children. After their bath, heaped into a big, deep chair, doing the voices, discussing the pictures, softening your voice as the rhythm of their breathing deepens... You start to understand why certain books work and others don't.'

It was when Mal had more than a hundred Easy Reader books behind him and had declared himself to be "bored stiff" by them, that Elspeth encouraged him to write his first novel. 'Keeper', published in 2003, which won the 'Branford Boase Award.' It had been inspired some years before by the Senior Fiction Editor at Walker Books, Sally Christie, who told him that if he ever wanted to write a book, she was looking for stories about death and stories about football and to which he replied : "Well, maybe I should try writing a story about a dead footballer.

 'Keeper,' a tale of soccer and the supernatural, lent itself to the National Learning Trust's 'Reading the Game Project' to get boys reading and Mal gave readings from the book at schools and soccer grounds all over the country. In his work to promote a love of reading in children he was steadfast in his belief that the most important thing is to cultivate a desire to read, not to impose it.

Initially he imagined the book as a graphic novel but found that : "No-one would publish it as a graphic, too expensive, not a big market for graphic novels in Britain, etc., etc. So I sulked for about a year." The the Easy Readers intervened and kept him busy for about four years while the book "lurked half-forgotten in a drawer." He was then persuaded to write it in straight prose in a process, where, he recalled : "What I did was imagine the novel as a series of pictures, as in a graphic novel, and describe what I saw."

His second novel, 'Tamar', published in 2005, a powerful love story about Special Operations Executive agents parachuted into Nazi-occupied Holland to work with the Dutch resistance in the Second World War, demonstrated that he was comfortable writing for older teens and avoided him being pigeon-holed as a ‘football writer.’ His research took him on drives around the Dutch countryside on what he called “location shoots”, giving fuel to the intensely visual imagination that now informed his writing process which he expressed as : “I have to make little movies, I have to sit and film.”

He followed this with 'The Penalty' in 2006, which again starred Paul Fustino, the footballing journalist in 'Keeper' and which was shortlisted for the 2007 'Book Trust Teenage Prize'. Paul appeared again in 'Exposure' in 2008, which was an up-to-date version of Othello set in South America, with contemporary celebrities succumbing to the tricks of Shakespeare’s original and which won the 'Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.'

In 2006 Mal felt very strongly about the the Tony Blair and George Bush war on religious fundamentalism and said in his Carnegie Medal Acceptance Speech that : "Fundamentalism - of any variety - is a form of illiteracy, in that it asserts that it is necessary to read only one book. It is unbelievably stupid to imagine that this kind of illiteracy can be combated with bombs and bullets. And terribly scary that the U.S. and Britain are being led by men who do not, or cannot, read. Three hundred years ago, Jonathan Swift wrote a satire called The Battle of the Books; it would be great if Bush and Blair could be helped to read it. It has a great deal to say about the "collateral damage" that is incurred when violence is used in a battle over the printed word.  They might also discover that when it comes to struggling with fundamentalism, there are arsenals packed with weapons of mass education in all our towns and cities. They are called 'libraries' "

Mal was 64 years old when he made a figurative return to the Norfolk of his youth and wrote his semi-autobiographical 'Life: An Exploded Diagram' in 2011, with the proviso that : "My Gran, although churchy and prayerful, was nothing like as harsh, or bonkers, as Win. I altered my family’s personalities not out of love or deference, or revenge, but in order for the dynamics of the story to work. Newgate is a pretty accurate, if sour, portrayal of my old school. The bike rides, the strawberry fields, the fearsome mystique of sex and the non-availability of condoms are all ingredients of my youth. Sadly, however, there was never a real Frankie. I had to make her up."
He later said that in this coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the Cold War and events leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis : "My own feelings are expressed not by Clem but by Goz, in his outburst in the school bogs. And by Frankie when she says ‘I absolutely refuse to die a virgin. It would just be too awful.’ "

It was only with 'The Murdstone Trilogy' in 2014, his dig at fantasy novels and at the world of celebrity writers which he both loved and was terrified by, that Mal was first published as an 'author for adults', although he said : “It’s definitely not my attempt to break out of the YA bracket, because if I were to say I’m breaking out of it, I’d have to recognise it, as a genre. I can’t really claim it doesn’t exist and simultaneously break out of it.”

Now, two years after Mal's death, he may be set to win a 'Carnegie Medal', after making the shortlist with his co-author Meg Rosoff who finished his novel 'Beck.' She said that : “He was such an astonishing writer. Any attention that he can still get, even after he’s dead – not that he would care now – it is really important, because I’m not sure his books were ever read enough,”
If  Mal wins the Carnegie, which celebrates outstanding writing for children and teenagers, it will be the second posthumous win in the Prize’s history,

Meg said at the time of his death :  "Nobody wrote like Mal. His humour was leavened with blackness, his gimlet eye with kindness, his substantial talent with modesty."

Mal said of books, when he was a boy reader up that tall tree,sixty years ago, in the garden of his house on a Norfolk Council Housing Estate :
"For me they are windows they are transport, they are hiding places. Places of safety."

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