Bridging the great divide

21st March 1997 at 00:00
Scottish children's book author Joan Lingard grew up in Northern Ireland, the setting for her most popular novels. Here she tells Raymond Ross what prompted her to write about the Troubles

Award-winning author Joan Lingard is one of the most popular children's writers of today, particularly famed for the Maggie quartet and the Kevin and Sadie quintet. There is unlikely to be a Scottish secondary pupil over the last two decades who is not familiar with The Twelfth Day of July or - the most famous of the Kevin and Sadie quartet - Across the Barricades. Lingard has visited countless schools from Scotland to Australia, where her books about the Troubles are met with great enthusiasm.

"Most kids relate to them because there is the eternal Romeo and Juliet theme," she says. "Every country has got something that divides, whether it's Jew and Gentile, black and white or Catholic and Protestant, or even class divisions. Kids can relate to that situation where a boy meets a girl but their parents are totally against it."

Born in Edinburgh (where she now lives) - but brought up a Christian Scientist in post-war Belfast, between the ages of two and 18 - Lingard felt she could write objectively about the Northern Irish "divide" because she belonged to neither camp.

"I was always very conscious of the divide," she says, "probably because I didn't fit in. I was regarded as odd myself and therefore very aware of the two camps."

Lingard was brought up in a predominantly Protestant street which had only two Catholic families in it. "My mother was very friendly with one of them, because she was from Edinburgh and she didn't have the same feeling of the division, " she says. "The street was called Holland Gardens - a link through to King Billy - and I passed a gable end mural of King Billy on my way to school every morning."

She began to write "a la Enid Blyton" around the age of 11, but was to publish six adult novels before moving into children's fiction. "The last of those was called The Lord on Our Side, set in Belfast, and I took some strands out of that to begin the Kevin and Sadie story.

"It was the beginning of the troubles in 1969 and a friend of mine came over to visit me with her new husband, who turned out to be an Orangeman. My kids were all under five and he taught them this wee jingle about King Billy being the 'good man' and the Pope being the 'bad man'.

"You could see this could be the beginning of brainwashing, though he laughed it off as a joke. But it was a joke with serious intent underneath. That was the point that I decided to write The Twelfth Day of July, because I could just see how easily prejudice starts and how early children could be brainwashed. "

Lingard agrees that these books do have a strong moral import, but argues that "you have to start with characters that engage and have a good story for young people. And in a way, then, they should see what comes out of it. I don't want to preach to children. I want to make them think. The three things in writing for children are to entertain, to stimulate their imaginations and to stretch their minds. Of course, you don't always succeed with a reader on all three levels."

What she has found is that the second book, Across the Barricades, is the one that has stayed with people right through to adulthood. She still meets adults who say they've kept their copies of the book and she regularly receives letters from all round the world, particularly from adolescents, saying how important the book is to them, all of which makes her feel "very humble".

The Maggie books also grew out of real events, as Lingard and her family (a husband and three daughters) knew an old lady who was dispossessed when her cottage was burned down. Not surprisingly, dispossession and displacement are themes which run throughout her fiction. "Adolescence is a kind of displacement from the safe haven of the home," she says.

In the 1970s, she wrote a lot for television, starting on a soap called High Living, which taught her to write "in a tight, economic way". She penned a series of half-hour dramas and a Play for Today, as well as writing part of BBC Scotland's Square Mile of Murder. She wrote 19 television episodes of Maggie, and has 50 TV credits to her name. At present she is busy writing a six-part teenage drama serial for BBC Northern Ireland. Set in contemporary Belfast, it is not directly about the Troubles, "though inevitably they impinge. The theme is about reconciliation," she says. She is also writing a book to go with the series.

Although Lingard is a very successful writer today, she recalls a time when her books were not always welcome in schools. "In 1970 I was being introduced to an adult audience at a literary society, by a woman who was a teacher and she said, 'I didn't know until today that Joan Lingard wrote children's books. I opened up my book box and I saw this book The Twelfth Day of July and I have to tell you I put it back in the box, because I don't want the children in my class read-ing books about conflicts and fighting.' "She thought it was quite unsuitable material for children, never mind that on the television at night you could see people who'd been shot lying in the street. I had a few things to say when I got up to speak!

"But that's how much it's changed. Nowadays, if anything, people are looking too much for books about issues. I don't like to think in terms of issues and I actually don't when I write."

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