Warmth and wit

29th September 2006 at 01:00
The late Robert Westall celebrates childhood and family life in the North East through his children's novels, and in a collection of autobiographical writing published next month. An extract from The Making of Me outlines Westall's secrets of survival as a fat, shortsighted schoolboy, while Elaine Williams previews an exhibition that traces his fiction back to its source

Anybody who has spent part of their early years in a yard full of wet washing and billowing sheets will probably never forget the enveloping damp and the savour of soap. But few evoke such memories with the clarity of Robert Westall, or express childhood's rites of passage with such frankness, zest and wit. Westall, who grew up in North Shields, brought a remarkable sense of place and people to his writing (48 children's books, 12 published since his death in 1993), much of it set in the North-East and drawing on the characters and vignettes of his upbringing.

This upbringing is now being brought to life. Alongside the launch of The Making of Me (a series of autobiographical sketches edited by his surviving partner and literary executor, Lindy McKinnel), an exhibition, Westall's Kingdom, opens next month at Seven Stories, the Centre for the Children's Book in Newcastle upon Tyne, just 10 miles from Westall's birthplace.

Westall's appeal to young readers lies in the honesty and vivid immediacy of his writing. His portrayals are never sanitised. When, in The Making of Me, he recalls his Nana's washdays when the "snowy wet bellies" of her bedlinen would enfold him like "clammy ghosts" he also recalls breaking through the sheets "at the point of being smothered to death" and seeing his beloved paternal grandmother chopping up a rabbit with a meat cleaver for dinner.

Westall's characters leap off the page, quick with life, confirming his masterful observation and consummate understanding of how children think and feel. An art teacher for 30 years (in Birmingham and Cheshire) he died aged 67, having won the Carnegie Medal for children's authors twice, first for The Machine Gunners, a story of children's gangs during the Blitz on Tyneside. His only son, Christopher, for whom he wrote The Machine Gunners, died in a motorcycle accident aged 18 and his wife, Jean, suffered mental health problems and committed suicide. Yet Lindy McKinnel recalls how he remained warm and humane to those around him, particularly young people.

The exhibition reflects the huge scope of his life and work. Westall's childhood pram and a line of white washing stand at the exhibition entrance. Beyond are backcloths of his beloved Northumberland landscape and a wealth of archive material reflecting interests from the supernatural to bikes to cats. At the centre stands a reconstruction of "Fortress Caparetto", the famous den of "The Machine Gunners", complete with a model of the coveted Heinkel machine gun.

Westall's Kingdom: a writer's life, is at Seven Stories in Newcastle from October 19 until summer 2007. See www.sevenstories.org.uk or call 0845 271 0777

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