Children's books: On the side of the noble warrior

9th May 1997 at 01:00
All over Liverpool, the rosy glow of sandstone appears where you least expect it. Redwall Abbey, "founded" by Brian Jacques to be the centre of his fictional universe, has a bit of Childwall Abbey and a bit of Stanley Park. But Brian's other chief edifice, the badger warlords' mountain fortress of Salamandastron, is down to his own imagination - there aren't many extinct volcanoes on Merseyside.

The other legacy of the city where the author has spent his life is the racket. Nobody in Liverpool or Redwall keeps their mouth shut for long and Brian, as might be expected from a playwright, radio presenter and former stand-up comic, has created a clamour of voices for the raucous but peace-loving community of woodland creatures - and its enemies.

His mouthy fraternity of shrews are, he admits, directly inspired by the Liverpool dockers while the stoats are more East End barrow boy. The trusty bucolic moles reflect the Somerset locals he met in another of his past lives, as a lorry driver; the pukka hares of his forthcoming novel, The Long Patrol, are modelled on a retired Army captain he once worked for.

With his enthusiasm for wordplay, he gives his various tribes unique languages. "Nofeed lazymouths" says the pigmy shrews' queen in Martin the Warrior; "ganna aitcha" warns the marsh dipper. These and recurring poems, songs and riddles make the Redwall novels rewarding for sophisticated readers, although nine-year-olds upwards enjoy them.

The Long Patrol, to be published in July, is the tenth since 1984 when Brian wrote Redwall for children at the Royal Wavertree School for the Blind (hence the voices). Hutchinson, the publishers, are celebrating 10 years of the paperback series with a special edition, also due in July.

The Long Patrol, which follows an idealistic recruit's career in the band of crack warriors who defend Salamandastron against the greatrats and other nasties, is firmly in the tradition of Redwall tales. A rhyming picture book, The Great Redwall Feast, appeared last year to satisfy younger children who have clamoured for a seat at the Jacques table.

Feasting and comfort eating are revered arts at the Abbey. No tale is complete without its vegetarian banquet, honey-laden afternoon tea or picnic. In Brian's hierarchy of the species, the baddies - inevitably the reptiles and the less cuddly mammals such as ferrets, rats and weasels - scratch around for grubs while the goodies (led by the mouse dynasty of Redwall) get the goodies: the deeper'n'ever turnip'n'tater'n'beetroot pie and the meadowcream trifle. While the children (especially those in the United States, who queue all day to have books signed) demand Redwall birthday teas, adult readers of the more evocative cookbooks savour the Abbey kitchen scenes, which give new meaning to the term "Aga saga".

Brian's woodland creatures are all obsessed with food but it represents more than fodder. That they are always either starving or stuffed at the banquet reflects the parallels between the life of a minor beast and the state of childhood: all immediate predicaments and extreme sensations.

Over a modest lunch (a small portion of scampi and no pudding) the creator of the feasts explains how he deliberately casts the smallest creatures - squirrels, moles and watervoles - in heroic roles with accompanying tests and challenges. "They are in the position of the child. They have the potential to be heroic, but not through magic. There's no magic in the books. They do it all through their own initiative."

The novels embrace potentially difficult topics such as violence, war and death. Martin the Warrior in particular puts the cycle of oppression and war-mongering and "the burning hate that drives you on to slay enemies" in context. The definition of a good warrior is one of Brian's preoccupations."A warrior does not have to be Arnold Schwarzenegger or have a black belt. It's someone who is not a bully, someone who would try to help weaker creatures, who is trusted by friends."

Many of his previous jobs - policeman, docker, front man in a folk band complete the list - have shown him how groups operate with and without strong leaders. The rebel squirrels in Martin the Warrior, he says, are "basically a bunch of scallys with no one in charge".

His characters are psychologically complex, but the moral lines are clear "You can't have sympathetic baddies and schizophrenic goodies. But Tramun Clogg [the hapless pirate chief in Martin the Warrior] is a villain you can laugh at."

For last year's novel, The Pearls of Lutra, he created his most stylish villain yet in Ulboz, a designer ratfink who wears nail polish and silk smoking jackets. Pleasantly scary, certainly creepy, but not the stuff of nightmares. "The baddies are only allowed to kill each other," says Brian.

Another note of reassurance: there will be at least one Redwall book a year for the foreseeable future. Good news if you can stand the heat in the kitchen, not to mention the din.

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