After the fire;Children's Literature;Books;Reviews;Features amp; arts

5th November 1999 at 00:00
SWEET CLARINET. By James Riordan. Oxford University Press. pound;5.99

Winner: Children's Book Award

James Riordan, collector and reteller of folk-tales for some 30 years, pauses over lunch several times to explain how pleased he is that his first novel, Sweet Clarinet, has been so positively received.

Winning the NASENEPC award is a particular pleasure, he says - better than being shortlisted for the Whitbread Children's Book of the Year, as he was last year.

The novel tells the story of Billy, orphaned and badly burned in a bombing raid during the Second World War - how he comes to terms with facial disfigurement, and finds fulfilment in playing the clarinet.

The jacket says the book is based on the author's own wartime memories, but Riordan, in his sixties and recently retired from academic life, is tall and fit, with the unblemished good looks of a dashing foreign correspondent or film star. So what made him write about a boy made ugly by a bomb?

First, there was the Bradford City football ground fire in May 1985. Bradford City was then his local team. "It was the last game of the season. A lovely day. They were playing Lincoln City in the nice old crumbling end-of-19th-century stadium called Valley Parade in a town where almost every week saw a mill burned down."

Having got in a muddle with the fixture list, Riordan was giving a talk at Chester College on the day of the fire, but watched the TV coverage the next day. "It had a deep effect on me," he says. He later did some work with the victims - chatting to them, telling them stories.

"The second influence was the autobiographies of Simon Weston (the severely disfigured Falklands War veteran). I was enormously inspired by that man, and by the way in which, after a period of hating the world and alienation, he's become a very tolerant, very understanding, very articulate man." Another of the titles on the award shortlist - Face by Benjamin Zephaniah - is also about facial disfigurement, and similarly inspired, in part, by Simon Weston.

The third influence was music. Riordan has played the piano, guitar and double-bass, but he wanted an instrument that would help his hero's damaged lungs, and his granddaughter was learning the clarinet.

One of the book's strengths is its conciseness. It has the integrity of a piece of music that is just the right length. "OUP would have preferred something of about 170 pages," he says. (Sweet Clarinet is 131.) "My editor, Ron Heapy, who's roughly my age and had a narrow escape in the war, had some difficulty persuading younger members of the team to publish it."

Riordan has always shown his manuscripts to his youngest daughter, Catherine, to whom the novel is dedicated (he works in ballpoint and then moves to an electric typewriter, not a computer). She is responsible for one of the most vivid scenes in the book, when Billy climbs to the top of a rope in the gym and then slides back down, tearing the delicately reconstructed palms of his hands to shreds. "She felt it was flagging so I put that in. I wanted a bit of sport as well and my granddaughter said I must get some basketball in."

Brought up in the Portsmouth household of his chimney-sweep father, Riordan never dreamed he would be a writer. National service and the chance to learn Russian opened unexpected doors. At university he was invited to go on a British-Russian friendship trip. After a night downing vodka and black bread, he had to take to his bed for three days. The local headmistress and some of her pupils sat with him and told him stories. On his return, he began gathering similar tales for his first book, a collection of short stories, Mistress of the Copper Mountain.

Riordan was at Bradford University for 18 years, working his way up to professor of Russian studies, and then became head of department at Surrey. An acknowledged expert on sport in the eastern bloc, he has several academic titles to his credit, as well as numerous folk-tale collections and picture books. He jokes that it took him until he got his bus pass to have the confidence to write a novel. Now he can't stop. He is on his fifth, and OUP can't keep up: number two, The Prisoner, has just been published.

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