Obituary: Robert Westall
Wednesday 21 April 1993
ROBERT WESTALL's first book, The Machine-Gunners (1978), had the distinction of winning the Library Association's Carnegie Medal, a most unusual achievement for a first novel.
It was well-deserved recognition for a writer who managed to combine literary excellence with an immense talent for capturing the imagination and interest of child and, in particular, young adult readers. In The Machine- Gunners and in subsequent titles such as Fathom Five (1980) and The Kingdom by the Sea (1991), Westall used his knowledge of Tyneside during the Second World War to provide the background to his forcefully dramatic stories. His understanding of how the war affected ordinary people and especially children enabled him to give a vivid picture of an important 'historical' episode to contemporary readers. His child characters have active roles in plots which are strong on excitement and action but he also considers moral dilemmas and the ways in which, especially in wartime, children make choices about what is right and wrong.
But Westall explored other areas, too. He won a second Carnegie Medal (another rare achievement) in 1982 for The Scarecrows which is one of the most searing and haunting child-eyed views of divorce yet to have been written. He wrote stories where children in the present are affected by 'forces' from past times - the power and potential of the supernatural lies at the centre of The Wind Eye (1983); he wrote fantasies; and he wrote, largely pessimistically, about the future as in Futuretrack 5 (1983). He also wrote extensively about cats in various stories, most notably The Cats of Seroster (1984) and Blitzcat (1989), which won the Smarties Award in 1989.
In the late 1970s Westall was accused of being a macho writer. True, he wrote mostly about boys and his appeal is stronger to male than female readers, but his stories are firmly in the tradition of adventure fiction, dependent on action but not violence. He was first inspired to write as a result of telling stories about the war to his son, Chris. One boy's account of his experiences passed on to another. Tragically, Chris was killed in a motorbike accident in 1978. Westall paid direct tribute to Chris in his account of a biker's funeral in The Haunting of Chas McGill (1983). In the years after Chris's death, Westall's writing continued to be inspired by Chris but the 'macho' elements of his stories, most evident in the Devil on the Road (1979), began to wane. Of the accusation Westall said, 'My heroes are macho because I write about the real world, where about 98 per cent of men are macho, in spite of the feminists' best efforts. I admire the feminist movement very much, and hope it takes over the world, but meanwhile I will write about things the way they are.'
Westall was much more than a recorder of the way things are. Before his career as a writer he had taught for almost 30 years and he had an interest in and understanding of young adults. He claimed to like writing for young adults because they have open minds and within his books he was always provocative, hoping to 'take readers by the scruff of the neck and shake them and scare them and make them think for themselves'. He attracted a loyal readership who were absorbed in the stories that he propelled along at such pace. He became increasingly prolific in the last few years but maintained his own high standards, even though some of his books were written in a matter of weeks. His ability to satisfy and impress adult critics and child readers equally is best reflected in Gulf which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Award as well as for the Federation of Children's Book Groups Children's Book Award in 1992.
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