Jan Needle by Julia Jones

Jan Needle -
Baxter Ferret or Boddington Stoat?

* Reposted from 9 May 2014 *

In memory and appreciation of Jan Needle, 1943--2023

When I was making plans for a party to celebrate the new edition of Jan Needle's Wild Wood I began to fantasize about asking all the guests to arrive dressed as the character who most closely resembled their secret self.  The male guests would have had a generous choice: the Big Four from Wind in the Willows -- Rat, Mole, Badger and Toad ( and perhaps Otter for the more elusive spirits) and then Wild Wood's dour ideologue Boddington Stoat, flamboyant champagne socialist, O.B.Weasel, geriatric Harrison Ferret and any number of old sea rats and enthusiastic volunteers. I would be Wild Wood's Daisy Ferret, the tyrannical illogical mother, always ready to lash out with her ladle at any furry offspring within range while dimpling at O.B.Weasel's waistcoat and raising the kitchen stress-levels.

Off to the party
Francis Wheen & Simon Heffer
or Badger & Toad?
But what about the author? If Jan's left wing principles preclude his identification with Kenneth Grahame's Ratty, ("Believe me my young friend there is nothing, absolutely nothing so much worth doing as messing about in boats,")  then should we assume that his alter ego is Wild Wood's hero, the naive mechanic, Baxter Ferret?  Daisy memorably describes Baxter as being “dim as a dirty lampwick” and I've come to suspect my valued author of playing up to his own fiction. “You've got to understand, Julia,” he said recently, “That I'm really a bit dim.” Actually no, Jan, sorry, I'm not buying that one. I've trawled your AE blogs, read your delightful biography, enjoyed about ten of your amazingly varied novels AND we've been sailing together. 'Nuff said? 

James Albert Needle – our Jan – was born in Portsmouth in 1943. He blames his mother for his name. “She was a strong-minded lady and knew for certain that she was pregnant with another girl to join my sister Valerie. When I turned out male she simply called me James Albert to go with the Needle to make me Jan. That's what she'd always called the bump.” Now, we all know that a mother's place is in the wrong but, if Jan really wanted us to refer to him as James Albert – or J.A.Needle Esq (as per his business cards for his first job at the Portsmouth Evening News – or 'J.W.Urquhart' or 'Frank Kippax' (two discarded literary pseudonyms) or even as 'Pooch' (as he was nicknamed in the Portsmouth Sea Scouts) I expect that we'd oblige.

No such request has been received, however, and I have a suspicion that Jan enjoys disconcerting the people who expect him to be female. He quotes with some glee the reviewer of his third children's novel The Size Spies (1979) a comic romp which marked an abrupt change of direction from his uncompromisingly realistic Albeson and the Germans (1977) and My Mate Shofiq (1978).
“Mrs Needle has written two thoroughly unpleasant books. Now she is merely being silly.”
Skewered! (or Needled?) Perhaps the androgynous name suits his novelist's compulsion to look at life from an alternative viewpoint and his readiness to challenge assumptions. If that sounds pompous I'll simply point out that Jan likes to tease.

Jan was “a Portsmouth slum kid” – his words. When I read Albeson and the Germans, his comic and touching portrait of a child vandal, I wondered to what extent he was writing from experience. Yet Jan made it to the Grammar School and there was nothing stereotypical about his background. “My father was a strange one, a very clever man of nil education, of dubious parentage and race, an inventor and a writer of romantic short stories, and pretty well incapable of holding down a job.”

It was his father who published Jan's first fiction in the Portsmouth West Labour Party newssheet when Jan was seven years old and it was also his father who introduced him to sailing. It was his father, too, who played the mandolin-banjo with a friend on concertina, occasionally allowing Jan to join in on a triangle and calling themselves The Solent Minstrels. “The motors of my life,” says Jan, “are boats, music and work. The glory of being a writer is that none of these are mutually incompatible.” He wrote to his hero, Arthur Ransome, at age eleven (more testimony to the power of the Swallows and Amazons series to inspire children way beyond the yott-owning classes) and treasured the reply he received. He remains a nifty performer on the Ransomesque penny whistle.

Portsmouth Grammar School gave up on Jan in the sixth form and he went to work for the local paper. That was it, really. “Looking back on it now, a life of many children, many jobs, many disasters and a fair few triumphs (in my terms anyway) I can see that most of my brain activity went into scrawling on bits of paper.” So what has this scrawling consisted of – apart from the first class honours degree that Jan obtained from Manchester University in his mid-twenties? His first short stories had been published when he was still in his teens and he had moved to Manchester and joined the Daily Herald before he went to university. “When I studied drama I began to write it (essays being for too boring for my taste).” By the time he graduated he had had two radio plays produced and was working as a freelance journalist and sub-editor.

Wild Wood was his first novel. It was politically inspired “By a sudden vision of Mr Toad battening on the rural servant class. I'd never written a novel before so I started it the next day and finished it in about a month. Didn't know how difficult it was meant to be.” There were copyright problems with Methuen (then owner of the Wind in the Willows rights) which meant that Wild Wood remained unpublished until three more novels had been written and Methuen woke up to the fact that they could / should be making a deal for ££.

A glance at Jan's list of titles shows stories pouring out through the 1980s and into the early 1990s. In fact it's quite hard to compile a list. There's one at http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/n/jan-needle/ . It includes his critical work on Bertolt Brecht (dim? I don't think so!) but omits the adaptations which he made for Walker Books, especially Moby Dick, of which he is rightly proud. More seriously this list also ignores Jan's work as a TV script-writer on series such as Grange Hill, Brookside and Truckers (1987)

Jan's work was often controversial – he remembers “being rung up by the headmaster of a school in Peckham to cancel my invitation to appear as keynote speaker in a conference on “Realism in Children’s Literature.” The teachers had had a vote, he told me, and had banned me from his school. My brand of realism was too realistic for them, as their brand of democracy was possibly too weird for me.”

Mrs Thatcher tried to get A Game of Soldiers, Jan's 1983 play about the Falklands war cancelled but ITV refused. More recently an Army website mounted a campaign against Killing Time at Catterick (aka The Skinback Fusiliers) which was based on the actual testimony of teenage recruits. His writing is often gritty and he's not afraid of violence – I have to admit that when I read the first of his sea novels A Fine Boy for Killing (1996) it was too much for my gently Hornblower-nurtured tastes.

He can also be very funny and I fail to see why all the children who read and love Roald Dahl's The Twits, Fantastic Mr Fox (etc) – and are looking round for more – don't get Jan's Wagstaffe the Wind-up Boy (1987) thrust into their hands. Perhaps it's because book-buying adults can't cope with a story where the parents run away from their child? Barry Hutchison, successful author of the 'Invisible Fiends' series links his decision, aged 9, to become a writer with his reading of Wagstaffe.  “To nine-year-old me, this story of a robotic boy who can pee through his finger was just the bee's knees.” Jan came to stay with us when a stage version of Wagstaffe the Wind-up Boy was being performed at the Mercury Theatre and instantly won the hearts of our youngest children with his subversive approach to issues such as farting and teeth-cleaning.

Wagstaffe, poor lad, suffered a terrible accident on the M62 near Oldham and with the ghoulish imitativeness of life, so did Jan, five years later. He was writing “big dirty thrillers” for Harper Collins: he'd been commissioned to deliver six well-paid episodes for The Bill; he had five children and his domestic lives were good. It was a wild windy night (like the night Cedric Willoughby almost killed the elderly Baxter?), Jan's van was stationary and was hit by a truck. One of his young passengers was killed and Jan suffered serious brain damage.

This might have left him “dim as a dirty lampwick” for the rest of his life. In fact it lasted eight years. I think it was the later volumes of the William Bentley sea series that brought Jan's writing back into publishable form again but I might be mistaken. His recent writing includes political thrillers, more sea stories and Silver and Blood – a retelling of Treasure Island that's far livelier and more original than Andrew Motion's novel of the same name. I retain a special fondness for Jan's early children's books. The external circumstances of childhood may have changed in the thirty five years since Shofiq and Albeson were young but the pressure on children, their qualities of naivety and sweetness (even, perversely, when their behaviour seems appalling) remain heart-rendingly the same. Wild Wood, fortunately, is ageless. “Good God,” says Jan, “If I've had a wasted life, I've certainly had fun wasting it!”

Re-posted in memory and appreciation of Jan Needle, 1943--2023


Jan Needle said…
Well there you have it, sensation seekers. If I'm not as dim as I sometimes think I am, I can say truthfully that I could never have written something as cogent and well-structured - and generous - as that piece. Thank you Julia, very much indeed.

On a point of order, though, Mister Chairman, I was kicked out of Portsmouth Grammar School after two terms in the sixth form on the grounds that they didn't think I could pass any of my three proposed A levels, including English. When I sat English at Rochdale College aged 25 in the hope of getting off the newspapers into something more worthwhile (i.e. going to university to study drama), I managed to scrape by with an E. One of my father's more gnomic sayings (among many) was 'intelligence is more apparent than real.' Discuss.

Incidentally, working freelance shifts on the Mirror during my four year degree course - one year longer than normal because I had to work my way up from a general to an honours course, thank you A level English grade) not only kept my beer glass full, but persuaded me that even work you're fed up with can become fantastic when approached from a different angle. And some of the best people I've ever known are journalists.

As to whether I'm dim Baxter, dour Boddington, or slippery hedonist OB Weasel (the OB stands for Oldham Brewery, who brewed the best bitter I've ever tasted until the multis took them over, as they later did Boddingtons - now there's literary irony, Jul, never mind the M62) anybody's guess is as good as mine.

I always thought Ratty had a lot going for him. Couple of boats, couple of servants (as well-hidden by Grahame as they would have been ignored in life, but they are mentioned once if you look carefully) and basically he didn't give a stuff, however much he claimed to. But I suspect he would have drunk wine, rather than bitter. So bugger him.
Nick Green said…
I fondly remember reading The Size Spies at primary school. And yes, I assumed at the time that Jan was a woman. Who says boys don't read female authors?
Dennis Hamley said…
Lovely, Julia. Great account of a great man of whom I'm proud to be a friend. And wasn't Tuesday night at the Slightly Foxed a great occasion?
Bill Kirton said…
A lovely read about a fascinating lady. I've only 'met' her through this group (and some of her books) and, having been born and brought up in Portsmouth's south coast naval rival, Plymouth, I ought to feel wary of her. But when a lady has enough determination to achieve all she has, not to mention grow a formidable beard, all I can offer is unwavering admiration and respect.
Jan Needle said…
thank you mr kirton. do you recall the bearded stripper in round the horne? julian and sandy - her agents - said the act was most unusual. instead of taking off her clothes, she stood and shaved off her beard, which reached from her chin to the floor. the only problem was that she had to be booked well in advance, because it took two years for the hair to regrow after each performance.

just saying...
Chris Longmuir said…
What an impressive CV - and Bill, you'll have to introduce Jan and Mary, they might have a lot in common, particularly in the whiskers area.
CallyPhillips said…
There we have it - Jan Needle may not be a national treasure but he sure as hell is a national molotov cocktail ain't he? Glad to call him a friend. Just a year ago he was staying with us prior to removing the trusty Subaru, and enjoying traction engines at Banff marina... and now look what he's become! Glad you all had a great time at the various launches. Enjoyed reading Wild Wood (and his Brecht is excellent too btw!!!) Enjoy your new (re)found fame James Albert!
Jan Needle said…
who, in the name of all that's wonderful, is mary? another feller with a girl's name? or wutt!
Bill Kirton said…
Don't worry, Jan, he's no competition - just a petty officer in one of my oeuvres.

(Loving Wild Wood, BTW.)
Jan Needle said…
Aha - I have him now. Sorry. Brainwise it's been quite a busy week...
Susan Price said…
Great post, Julia - great subject. Wishing you and Jan the greatest of luck with Wild Wood.
I wrote a wonderfully witty post this morning (of course I did) - but Blogger ate it, and now I can't remember what it was.
Lydia Bennet said…
wow thank you Julia, I had no idea - and so fascinated to see a man using a female name (when I realised Jan was a he, I assumed it was a Scandinavian name or some such), when so many female authors feel they have to disguise their gender even today. Wild Wood is going to be as huge as Toad's ego, with a team like Jan and Julia behind it!

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