Saturday, 11 April 2009

14. Robert Westall - 'The Making of Me' (1989)

I Hear an Old World

'The world goes forward to drugs and violence and fruit-machine addiction. I go backwards, to where I am truly free.'

(Robert Westall, The Best of Robert Westall Volume One: Demons and Shadows, Macmillan, 1998, p.87)

To conclude Week #2 and the library-sale stories is a understatedly moving piece, about the relationship between a young boy and his grandfather, and how this influenced the man that resulted.

It is notable that something as low-key and humble as this is placed within a 'Best of' volume of Westall shorts that promises 'Eleven haunting tales', 'astonishing tales from the dark side of the mind...'. It may not be representative, or else it is representative of how Westall haunts, as it were.

The chills here are in terms of human disengagement; the boy and his grandfather do not understand each other at all to begin with, and inflict moments of cruelty on each other - the grandfather strikes the boy and then the boy constructs a washing line of pots, pans and other such noisy implements to get his own back, as it were.

There is a sense in which this tit-for-tat results from a lack of understanding; our infantilised, tabloid culture (painting children as perfect dolls) would no doubt denounce the penitent grandfather as a child abuser, and not allow the chance for the reconciliation. Westall rather movingly paints a scenario where things manage to move beyond the Old Testament barbarism of the child's 'new world'*, into a more humanist resolution. At the very start the first-person narrator reflects upon a 'Sally Army' aunt, who clearly did not point the way forward, and then portrays his father as his main role-model at that stage: 'a great wizard' amid 'roaring furnaces and stamping carthorses, among great heaps of smoking slag and clouds of green gas, and who could start great steel dinosaurs of engines with one push of his small shoulder to an eight foot flywheel.' (p.81) A desire to emulate his father perhaps inadvertently leads to his tormenting of his grandfather, who suffered from shell-shock while serving in World War I (WW1), and continues to find even the banging of a kettle lid a source of great irritation.

Westall is, like Priest, somebody I have wanted to read for a while; his geographical proximity may be a factor, as may memories of The Machine Gunners being shown in junior school - more recently, watching the charming, doughty TV-adaptation of The Watch House (1988), and John Lennard stressing his qualities in his Of Modern Dragons (2007) e-book on critically neglected genre literature:

Westall is surely one of the finest chroniclers of the industrial north-east, setting much of his fiction in the North Shields / Tynemouth area he knew so well. The effect of indutrialisation and mechanisation is both terrible and defining in a more positive sense, as is made clearer as it progresses. This story evokes the early WW2 era (it is surely based on Westall's own childhood , who was born in 1929) and like Christopher Priest, the focus is on looking back; the main protagonist is made by the past and his family just as is Owsley in that strange tale. The difference here is that the narrator's burgeoning interest in the past, awakened by his grandfather's revealing of the stories behind various household objects, is productive, and indeed leads to his career.

This piece is a profound meditation on the intense meaning seemingly innocuous or unusual artefacts may hold for people; providing a tangible link to the past - in this particular case, to the grandfather's cherished memories of life, perhaps especially before the outbreak of WW1: of his courtship, for example. Musings on the Mauretania rub alongside those on Kitchener, Kaiser Bill, Marie Lloyd and Lloyd George. The old man also possesses the lens of the film projector which showed the first movie ever to shown in North Shields - at the Temperance Hall, with Fatty Arbuckle as its star. (p.84)

There is no avoiding the sense of there being such bleakness to life in the north-east, yet such warmth and lack of ceremony once people understand one another. The joke of the Shields lads in the trenches shows a deep rootedness inherent in the days when families and working-class solidarity held firm:

'The boy stood on the burning deck,
His feet were full o' blisters.
His father stood in Guthrie's Bar
Wi' the beer running down his whiskers'

Now that the depth of this man's past has been made clear to the young lad, he can now sympathise with his grandfather's silences; they now share a bond and are part of the same community, a tradition of remembrance: 'Now we were both silent, and it was all right. For I knew who was in the silence now. The good chums, every one.' (p.86)

As somebody so often fascinated by artefacts from the past myself, this story speaks directly to me more than most read so far; the only concern is to avoid becoming buried in the past, and hostile to everything that is current, as my chosen epigraph might suggest: it must rather be made to live for the present and future.

Westall's values seem to be classic Old Labour, the politics of togetherness, though not in the sense of being uniform; this impression is reinforced by what he said about his 1983 novel, Futuretrack Five, which I have and would like to read: 'It was a violent, angry book; every ounce of anger I felt as a careers teacher about what the Tory government was doing to my children went into it; it was a picture of the twenty-first century, of a Tory government gone beserk.' (Robert Westall, Lindy McKinnel, ed., The Making of Me: A writer's childhood, Catnip, 2006, p.195) I need not comment on the attendant ironies presented by what is happened in the intervening twenty-six years. Today, no doubt, Westall's fiction is neglected partly because Old Labour values are unfashionable - seen as defunct by those in politics, not even recognised by most under thirty. However, in the light of our current predicament, neo-liberalism is not even delivering on capitalism's own restricting terms. My feeling is that the provincial Westall's values will persist way longer than those of New Labour Islingtonites.

* The clattering line of implements, used by the child to gain control over and torment the grandfather, seems a twisted variant upon the improvised, more benevolent dictatorship of Joe Meek: 'It was like entering into a new world.' (p.82)


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