A Writer and his World

Over the past year I have been getting very close to the works of Robert Westall, one of the 20th century's most important writers for children and young adults.  He's a writer I first encountered as a 12-year-old, picking a book in the school library, when I discovered The Wind Eye.  The opening pages of that particular book stayed with me from that day on; Westall is definitely an author who makes an impact with his openings. 
Back in 2007 I was working on an exhibition exploring Cheshire Writers who reflected the landscape of the county from the 14th century to the present day and this gave me occasion to revisit many of the works of Robert Westall.  Though he was born in North Shields on Tyneside and many of his works are set in that area, most notably The Machine Gunners, it was in Northwich, Cheshire, where his writing career began and lots of his novels and short stories are set in the Cheshire region.  But Westall was only one of many authors featured in that exhibition with limited space available and I felt that there was much more to be told.
Then a couple of years ago I came across a Westall novel which I'd never heard about before, Falling Into Glory, it contained the most convincing, and heartbreaking, depiction of a relationship I've ever read.  I couldn't believe it wasn't better known.  Westall was a high profile author in his day, and had twice won the Carnegie Medal, but this particular book was published a month or so after his death in 1993 and publishers seemingly found this tale of a teacher-student affair troublesome to promote, and less inclined to do so without the author himself to advertise it.  A small tragedy of timing, but a greater loss to the literary world.  Michael Morpurgo wrote "Westall was a writer of rare talent.  We shall miss him but he has left us such a wonderful legacy."
I discovered and read the other lesser known Westall novels, not quite realising the scale of the task at first.  He wrote 48 books in total and, unusually for such a prolific author, they are of a consistently high standard and span a wide range of genres from wartime adventures and bleak science fiction to unsettling ghost stories and tales of the struggles of young love. 
One of his greatest books is The Promise - a tale of honouring a vow even beyond death.  The opening chapter is a miniature masterpiece in itself, exploring our varied attitudes to death and the impact of stories on a young mind.  Within this is one of the most striking pieces of writing I've encountered in children's fiction;
"I only ever saw two dead creatures.  On a day out to a lighthouse up the Northumbrian coast, I saw a dead seagull; a pretty little thing, a kittiwake I think.  Somebody had made a nest for it, from seaweed on a ledge in the cliff.  Its eyes were shut, but every soft feather was in place.  I stroked them.
'It just looks asleep,' said my mother.
'It'll get a good rest now,' said my Dad.
The whole place seemed filled with love.
The other dead thing was the ginger cat in Billing's Mill.  Billing's Mill dominated our skyline, up on its hill.  All its sails gone, a squat empty milk-bottle of blackened stone.  A sort of castle keep, in which the tom-cat's body lay, a thing of terror and challenge to every boy in the district.  You went alone to see it .  You approached it, the flies rose in swarms.  You looked into the black fathomless sockets where the eyes had been, and then you walked quickly and stiff-backed to the gaping doorway and off out to pleasanter things, hugging inside yourself the bitter black wild magic of it, and the warm proof of your own courage.  Alive, that cat had been nothing; dead, it was a living god of power, our strongest thing.  Every time you saw the shape of the mill on the skyline, you went under the power of the cat."
As I started to find out more about Robert Westall, I realised just how talented a man he was outside his writing.  A skilled artist, he became Head of Art at Sir John Deane's Grammar School in Northwich in 1960, later also becoming Head of Careers there.  He always saw the best in his pupils, even those which fellow teachers had given up on, a colleague said of this, "All of Bob's geese are swans", a comment which he felt he'd like as his epitaph, which, paraphrased, it is.  He wrote to connect with his son, and his first novel, The Machine Gunners, which explored the sort of adventures he'd had in his own wartime childhood was published in 1975 winning the Carnegie Medal.  As well as fitting in writing his novels in the school holidays, Westall also wrote for the local press and regional magazines and founded the local branch of The Samaritans.  After retiring from teaching in 1985 he opened an antiques shop, which in itself proved an inspiration for several books and gave more time to writing and encouraging students.  Bob Westall died in 1993 aged 63.
I felt that his work deserved greater recognition and seeing so many links to the Northwich area, suggested that an exhibition be staged at Weaver Hall Museum in the town.  It was only in the preparation of that exhibition that I discovered Robert Westall was the person who saved the museum building, the old Northwich Union Workhouse, from demolition in 1969 in that iconoclastic era which sought to do away with anything of a previous age.  It was the perfect place to celebrate the achievements of such an important figure.  The exhibition has been on a good while now, and only has a couple of weeks left, ending on 14th September 2014.  Thereafter much of the archive material and original manuscripts will return to their home at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children's Books.  It's in Newcastle, just five miles from Westall's birthplace, where there is a Robert Westall gallery, and a project which was kickstarted with the donation of the funds of his estate.  It's a wonderful place, who do excellent work in developing literacy, inspiring creativity, and something with which Bob Westall would no doubt have been delighted to be associated.
The exhibition gave me opportunity to get to know the places of Westall's books, from childhood haunts of Tynemouth so vividly portrayed in his books to revisiting the Cheshire locations and folklore.  And I've picked up a few good stories to share too.

Green Grow the Rushes,O!

Today we went along to St Stephen's Church in Wildboarclough in Macclesfield Forest for the annual rushbearing ceremony.  St Stephen's is usually known as the Forest Chapel, and is pretty high up and remote, being 1282 feet above sea level.  Macclesfield Forest isn't a wooded space, rather a mix of moorland, peaks and valleys.  It's windswept, sparsely populated and you can easily see how ancient ceremonies survive.  The atmosphere of this landscape is masterly conjured in Alan Garner's powerful work Thursbitch. 
Arriving in driving rain, along twisting, climbing paths, you could be fooled into thinking few people would be there.  But the chapel was packed inside with many people gathering outside.
The ceremony of rushbearing goes back to medieval times when churches had beaten earth floors and would be strewn with freshly gathered rushes each August creating a lush and fragrant green carpet.
Rushbearing also still takes place in Cheshire at Tilston and is perhaps a little more common in Lancashire and Cumbria.  But the ceremony at the Forest Chapel is believed to be the oldest unbroken tradition, as distinct from a revival, stretching back to the 18th century in this location.
The church door is decorated with bunches of green rushes, freshly gathered from the surrounding valleys.
The altar and pulpit are also hung with garlands of rushes and flowers.
After a ceremony of hymns and readings the congregation made their way outside for a concluding sermon given this time by the Archdeacon of Macclesfield, standing on top of a table tomb.  At this point the winds grew stronger and rain lashed down, though the Archdeacon neatly dovetailed this into his words and it was all taken in good humour.
Then it was done.  Speaking with the Vicar afterwards it seems that the future for this tradition is safe for now, not so much as part of the church calendar, but instead in terms of the way it brings people together with a determination to keep an ancient gathering happening.

Medieval Merriment with the Minstrels

This post is rather belated, though I have shared these pictures elsewhere.  Anyway, this year's Minstrels' Court was another enormous success.  Sue and I (Pilgrims and Posies) organise it in conjunction with the local museum and St John's Church, but it only works due to the wonderful support of the very talented musicians who came from across the UK to help this very special event and enjoy a day of music together.  It is Britain's biggest gathering of medieval musicians and great fun for minstrels and visitors alike.
An informal session in the church porch as the day begins.
Tom telling the Musicians of Bremen story.
Visitors trying out some medieval board games.
Minstrels share news of their new instruments.
Tom Goodale tells a tale from King Arthur's Court
Demonstrating braiding.
A knight is armed.
The scribe is at work recording the events of the day.
Braiding and gossiping.
Minstrels processing up Bridge Street.
Minstrels playing at the Cross in the heart of Chester.
Minstrels at the East Gate of the city.
Heading back to the church.
A guard waits for the returning minstrels.
The gathered minstrels kneel in deference at the altar.
Rev David Chesters issues the licences to minstrels.
A troublesome musitioner is placed in the stocks.
The Time Bandits perform a mini-concert as the medieval musicians take a rest after processing.