Jan Needle

First things first. I’m not a Scot, and I’ve only been to Edinburgh once (it rained) and through it twice, driving from Manchester to Aberdeen to work on a trawler. When I drove through heading north it was raining, when I drove through heading south I was so exhausted I did not even notice the city, although I remember that the sun was shining. I was so tired, in fact, that I only made it as far back south as Cumbria, where I pulled into a wood a half-mile from the motorway and slept for eight and a half hours slumped in the front seat.

However, I did live in Glasgow for three years, and one of my many sons is now at university there, studying ‘something scientific’. He won’t tell me what it is because he says I wouldn’t understand it, let alone be able to spell it, which is almost certainly correct. When I asked him if the science bit meant he’d be able to get a job at the end of it he merely laughed. I have five children, all of them improbably well qualified. Only the daughter has a job. That’s not what made me a bit of a leftie git, however – that came much, much earlier. It’s probably on a data base somewhere. My sons will probably never get a job.

Let’s start again. So I’m not a Scot, that is established. My maternal grandfather was, however, and went south as a young man to work in Portsmouth Dockyard. He was not a ‘dockyard matie’ though – he was a cut above. He drove cranes on ‘coal island’ and smoked Weights, not Woodbines, as befitted his station. He was a very proud man, drank a pint of senna pod tea before bedtime every night (as regular as clockwork), and fathered two sons and three daughters, one of whom became my mother. His pride was such that when my mother fell pregnant with my sister at the age of 19, he took her and her intended to court to prevent them getting hitched. My father was a rather feckless chap, who drove a motor bike and wasn’t good at keeping jobs. After the wedding – sanctioned by the magistrates – they drove to Bala in North Wales in the midst of January snows. The marriage lasted, as did the parental animosity. His last motorbike was a Lambretta 125 that I gave him when my provisional ran out. I hated motorbikes, but at eighteen, as a reporter on the Portsmouth Evening News, I could afford one. My father, being feckless, had been without for years.

The other thing Edinburgh gave me was the desire to be a writer. That was because the man who wrote the greatest novel in the language (and I’ll fight anyone who disagrees) was an Edinburghian (if that’s the word). I first had Treasure Island read to me by my ma – a constant out-loud reader of the classics, although she never could pronounce Dartagnan – and by the time I was about eleven knew tons of it by heart. I’d also read it in French and German, started it in Welsh, and decided Robert Newton was the finest actor in the land. His John Silver, for me, is still the only one who ever achieved the magic Stevenson did in the writing – to portray a murderous, filthy thug as a man impossible not to fall in love with.

Two other factoids clinched it for me. When I discovered that a sleeping RLS – wrapped up in brown paper so that nobody would know – had once been abandoned on a shelf in an Edinburgh bar by his nanny, who had been forbidden to take the baby from the house because of her slight drinks problem, and when I discovered that Robert Newton was such a famous lush that extreme drunkenness in his native Cornwall was generally known as being ‘as pissed as a Newton’. I had to be a writer, too, and as a journalist, was inevitably well on the way to being a drinker. Thank you Barbara Castle. You saved my life when you brought in the breathalyser. Fond of liquor I may be, but I have never, ever driven above the limit. Weird, innit?

So I became a writer thanks (let’s say) to Edinburgh and her sickly brown-paper-wrapped son. I also have a desperate love of lighthouses, so thanks to his family for that, and believe passionately that it’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive, although I’ve never tried a donkey. But although my early fiction writing was for adults, by the time I was thirtyish I’d headed into children’s lit in rather a big way. And Treasure Island, and Blind Pew, and Israel Hands, and the mighty shadow of Long John, Barbecue, that evil bastard charmer Silver who Stevenson loved so much he had to let him get away, hung there in the background like a shadow. One day, I knew, I had to revisit it. To try and understand.

First though, was a need to look at kid-books through my own rather jaundiced eyes. I was a slum kid who went to grammar school (I did terribly in the entrance exam but made them laugh like drains at the interview when I told them – trying and failing to follow parental instructions – that I wanted to be a barrister) and much as I loved the current children’s writers like Richmal Crompton and Arthur Ransome and Aubrey de Selincourt, I did increasingly feel the need to read about scruffy prats like me and my mates. I also wanted to read about children who weren’t always saved at the last moment by their elders. I knew enough kids in Landport to know that most weren’t going to get saved at all.

First up was Albeson and the Germans which is set in Portsmouth and is extremely similar in parts to my own life there. It was highly praised and highly denigrated by whichever side of the social realism divide the critics were. This was followed by My Mate Shofiq  set in Oldham, because I’d moved north at the age of twenty, and loved it immediately and irrevocably. This book was runner up for the Guardian award, and caused me years of pain and pleasure. Some people called it racist, because I insisted on calling a spade a spade (reverse irony there, you’ll notice), while many Asians hailed it (and still do) as a long-awaited breakthrough. Needle, it seemed, was to be a name of controversy. And it’s never really changed.

However, another characteristic of my personality came out next, which has done its best to keep me poor. Everybody with half a brain knows that successful writers write either in genres, or – ideally – the same book over and over again with different names. As my reputation began to grow as a controversial realist I wrote a long naval historical book called A Fine Boy for Killing, and followed it up with an absurd children’s comic romp called The Size Spies. Then another serious, then short stories, then a picture book. Bloody hell, a flibbertigibbet. I even co-wrote an academic study of Bertolt Brecht. (Compare the crime of robbing a bank with the crime of founding a bank. Discuss.)

Fun though. Never let anyone tell you that writing isn’t fun. Over the years I’ve done novels, picture books, radio and stage plays, soap operas (Brookside, no less!), The Bill, a few songs here and there. Happy is the man, as the man once said, who can make a living out of his hobby.

And still have time to sail his boats and play his music and see his friends. Since I dipped my toe in the waters of ebook production a few months ago the fun has expanded exponentially. I made a lot of friends in ‘real’ publishing (more than forty published books, for Godsake) and I got involved with a lot of organisations I wouldn’t trust to take a kid across a road.

Treasure Island. A case in point. A few years ago I finally set out on a book called Silver and Blood – Return to Treasure Island. Not a sequel, I’d seen a few too many of them, and not an attempt to improve on Long John Silver, the un-improveable. Oh, the alarums and excursions! Oh the publishing deals torn up! Oh the blood and snot all down the walls! And shortly after I’d put it up on Kindle – out comes another version, by the former poet laureate Andrew Motion. The title? Silver – A Return to Treasure Island.

Well! What larks, Pip old chap! Ebook publishing has opened up a whole new area of joy, and I can’t get enough of it!

Visit Jan’s Festival Page and his Amazon Author Page (buying links)