Obituary: Peter Carter

Elizabeth Hodgkin
Monday 23 August 1999 23:02

PETER CARTER was a children's-book writer of brilliance and depth. His books won several prizes (the Guardian Award; the Young Observer Fiction Award, twice; the German Preis der Leseratten); were shortlisted for many more; and were translated into at least six languages, from Japanese to Portuguese. Nevertheless, he remained comparatively little known in England, though in Germany, where four of his last books had been translated, his publishers, Verlag Freies Geistesleben, were preparing to celebrate his 70th birthday and made him the first in their new series of booklets featuring children's writers.

Peter Carter came from a family of six brothers and two sisters from Cheetham in Manchester. His mother was Irish, his father, a stoker from Carlisle, was sometimes unemployed during the 1930s and Peter left school at 14 to work as a decorator's boy. He read widely as a teenager, helped in Unity Theatre, took evening classes at the Manchester School of Art and, in the 1950s, attended Workers' Educational Association classes in Philosophy.

He was encouraged by Harold Sykes, a lecturer and drinking companion in Manchester, to go further and in 1959 he gained a place as a mature student at Wadham College, Oxford, to read English Literature under John Bamborough - for whom he maintained, all his life, a profound love and respect. Coming from digging in the parks to Oxford, Carter enjoyed to the full all that the university had to offer, although during this period his first wife, Lois Wilkinson, died suddenly of asthma after only a year of marriage.

After Oxford he went to Birmingham, where he taught in various state schools between 1963 and 1976 - a primary school, a girls' grammar school and, finally, an immigrant reception centre where he was deputy head. Work, pub and church should be in walking distance from his home - which was the answer he gave when asked why an Oxford graduate was teaching in a rough primary school.

He started writing for children around 1971 with Madatan, the story of a boy from the Western Isles captured by Norsemen in the eighth century. He often said that he chose to write for children as a way of putting complex ideas in simple language. In Madatan Madaah is shipwrecked in northern England, and educated by the Church but then, feeling betrayed by the Church's compromise with immoral secular power, becomes an outlaw, destructive of all around, before being physically and psychologically saved by a hermit.

A powerful book, it is, perhaps, the most autobiographical of his books - for the Church read the Communist Party - but it was turned down by several publishers. Only when Oxford University Press accepted his second book, The Black Lamp, published in 1973, centred on the Peterloo massacre of 1819 and vividly describing weavers' lives in his beloved Peak District, did they look again at Madatan, which was published, with The Gates of Paradise, in 1974. These three books set out some of the fundamental themes which were to recur throughout his writing - that of the young individual maturing through periods of profound historical change. Carter travelled in Europe, North America, Japan, the Middle East and across the Sahara and preferred, on the whole, to evoke the universality of problems of growing up and facing the complexities of life through writing about the past and about different countries.

In Under Goliath (1977), his only novel set in contemporary times (in Belfast), another recurrent theme emerges: the growth of understanding between people of different cultures caught up in great historical events.

He left Birmingham in 1976 to live with his wife, Ulrike Willige, in Hamburg and to become a full-time writer, but was too rooted in his own culture to remain in Germany, though (after divorce in 1980) he remarried Ulrike and returned to visit his wife and stepson frequently after 1993. However, he spent the rest of his life, from 1977, as a full-time writer, living frugally (his main necessities of life cigarettes, alcohol and television) in places in England whose main criteria were that they were quiet, close to nature (but, until the last few years, not too far from a pub) and offered cheaply or for nothing.

Carter remained faithful to OUP, although he made only a bare living from his books, and OUP remained faithful to him, although his books became increasingly long and complex. They also won prizes, and were translated into many languages. The Sentinels (1980), which won the Guardian children's fiction award of 1981, tells the story of a young midshipman on an anti- slave patrol in the 1840s shipwrecked with a Yoruba ex-slave. Children of the Book (1982) describes the siege of Vienna of 1682 through the eyes of a janizary, a Polish youth, and the daughter of a burgher of Vienna; it is a powerful novel, anti-war, showing subtly the decline of the warring regimes, Polish knights and Ottoman janizaries, and the survival of the burgher.

Bury the Dead (1986), which, like Children of the Book, won the Young Observer Fiction Award, describes life in East Berlin before the wall fell; the evil of the Nazi past rises to haunt and destroy the life of Erika - whose sporting career is vividly described - and her family. His final published novels were a superbly drawn picture of the American West of 1871 seen through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy, Leaving Cheyenne (1990, published in the US as Borderlands), and The Hunted (1993) the story, set in 1943, of an Italian soldier who escapes from German France with a Jewish boy.

During his writing career he also translated a number of books for younger readers and adapted, for OUP, a selection of tales from Grimm. His only non-fiction book was Mao, a life of Mao Tse-tung, published in 1976.

Peter Carter was a brilliant and often impossible man, with a delight in arguing for the opposite opinion of any others present, a frequent unwillingness to listen to others, and a readiness, on occasion, to continue a vendetta long after a friend wished it forgotten. This was combined with a constant interest and a joy in those he met, of all - and particularly of all - nationalities, and an ability to make and, not withstanding quarrels, to keep friends. He was erudite, a walking encyclopaedia; an enormous and profound reader and (without ever, over about the last 20 years, going to the cinema or possessing a video) a fantastic connoisseur of practically every film made. He telephoned, corresponded with and loved talking to and about his friends and his publishers, German, Japanese, US and UK.

In his last years he lived in Ilmington in the Cotswolds in great happiness, watching the birds which flocked to the bird-table outside, drinking on occasion, smoking incessantly, telephoning or welcoming friends who came to him but hardly ever himself leaving the house. In his apparent health he seemed to defy nature. However, with only a few pages left to write of what might have been his best novel, the tale of two youths, black and white, working men from Massachusetts, closely interwoven with the history of the American Civil War, and in the middle of a sentence on his 1960s Olympia portable, he fell with an abdominal haemorrhage and died, the same day.

Peter Carter, writer: born Manchester 13 August 1929; four times married (one stepson); died Warwick 21 July 1999.

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