On the evening of the 5th of February one of my favourite writers and a real hero of mine passed away. Brian Jacques wrote the Redwall series, among others, and was a noted broadcaster up here in the north. The Redwall books were made into films, cartoons, radio plays, translated into many languages and published in hundreds of countries. He was a witty, lively and enthusiastic writer who gave me one of the best pieces of advice anyone could ever give to another writer. Similar to the lionised J.K. Rowling, he didn’t try to be cool and cash in with trends, fads or modern technology, he realised more topical ‘issues’ were best left to other writers and instead wrote some of the best and most rollicking adventure novels in print. A true original, a one of a kind and a great talent.
Redwall was the first ‘proper’ book I read (i.e. A book without pictures and that was longer than 50 pages or so) at the age of about 5 or 6. I read quite a bit for my age and picked up what I could at the library but the other ‘Big Books’ I read were interminably dull and tedious. A friend of mine mentioned this book Redwall he had read and suggested I might like it too so I asked my Mum if she had heard of it. Oddly not only had she heard of it, she owned a copy that she told me she had read whilst pregnant with me. So that summer I sat down to read it and without a hint of hyperbole, my life changed. Inside I found Heroes, derring-do, sword fights, puzzles and riddles, songs, poems, adventure, fun, fantasy, quests, monsters, horror, gore, jokes, recipes and everything else anyone could want from a novel. I didn’t put it down for the next week. I remember waking up early on a Sunday just so I could carry on reading and find out what would happen to Matthias. I had never been gripped in quite the same way before (until later that summer I saw The Last Crusade at the Cinema and nearly died with joy at that too) and have rarely been since. Whenever I read Redwall now I am happily plunged back to being that little boy sitting in the baking hot sun in the garden of my old house absolutely gripped by these tales of heroic mice and villainous rats. There is no other book like it for me and there is only one man to thank for that…
I met Brian Jacques too, you know. When I was at secondary school. My Mum told me the day before the event that he was doing a signing in the Canterbury branch of Waterstone’s. It was fairly soon after school though so I wouldn’t have made it back home in time to change and grab a book to sign. So Mum said she would pick me up from school and drive me there from school. So the next day I took my Collector’s Edition of Redwall (I had got the previous Christmas from my sister as Mum’s copy was now rather dog-eared (I still have it)) with me to school, made absolutely certain it wouldn’t get nicked or flushed down the loo by fellow students (Jesus, I hated that school) and then got picked up by Mum. Traffic was awful but I made it just in time, I made it to the door just as the lady was locking it but she took pity on me, Mum gave me a tenner to get me home on the bus which was handy as the ticket for the signing was £7 to get in (that dates the story – I got home on the bus for £3, wouldn’t get me a single these days. *ahem*). Anyway I took a seat, still in my uniform, at the back of the room and listened happily to his little talk and as he answered questions including one from me. He came across as jolly and playful with a childlike sense of awe about everything and a real love for adventure that I shared. He suggested reading Homer which I then did and am eternally grateful for and as I say, gave me that great bit of advice. Then we all cued up to have him sign our books. Which he did. And I still have mine. And it is pride of place in my living room now. Nothing profound I know but it meant a great deal to me and still does, he is the man who got me started on good reading and most importantly, good writing, so meeting him was a real thrill and still is.
A few years later, I rented Salamandastron from my local library along with a book called The Dark Portal by Robin Jarvis. Dark Portal is similar to Redwall in that it is about anthropmorphised rodents but their tone and setting could not be more different; where Redwall is light and moralistic, Dark Portal is bleak, dark and unremitting in its atmosphere yet these two books pretty much summed up all my tastes from there on. Redwall showed me what I wanted to do and opened a whole world of literature up to me and Dark Portal showed me the type of content and atmosphere that – for better or worse – was, inherently, my own. I love these two books so much not just because of their impact on me but the fact they are really good books. And do you know how I got to read them? I got them from my local library.
Allow me a soapbox moment; Almost everyone I know has a story like the one I just told. Everyone has a book they love, everyone. Just as many have also used the library at some point, I have many fond memories of my library and I know so many people who have stories about going to the library as a kid. And my old library is irrefutably rubbish. Libraries are important parts of the community and foster a different kind of youthful vigour and interest. If you find a great book, young or old it makes you HAPPY! This should surely be encouraged? Not only all this they are FREE! Anyone can use them. The poorist to the richest have access to a vast world of knowledge and excitement in every town, how flippin’ cool is that?! Not only that, most good libraries have computers, the internet, DVDs, local archives, document storage, local information and community events held there and IT IS ALL FREE! Libraries aren’t elitist, racist, homophobic, jingoistic or any other negative -ist or -ic, they exist just so you can USE them. And what is happening? They are being closed. I have one response to this;
Fuck you David Cameron and your entire unelected cabinet.
Education, learning and just basic fucking Literacy is not a privilege for the rich. You take this away and this will come back and bite you so hard you’ll think you arse is in a pressure clamp.
Okay, enough of my vitriol.
My point is I love books and if I have my way I should get to write them for a living one day and the biggest reason I want to do that is down to Brian Jacques. The biggest reason I can do that is thanks to my local Library. Don’t let Libraries die quietly and unnoticed, we will be a MUCH poorer nation for it. Show your support by signing your local petition, writing to your MP, get tweeting or just BORROW A FLIPPIN’ BOOK from one. The written word is one of our oldest and best technologies and commodities, don’t let it become exclusive to the rich. I don’t want to end up missing Libraries.
I do miss Brian Jacques however. I need add nothing more to my previous comments. He was a great chap and a great writer. For many years after I should have ‘grown out’ of the Redwall series I was still bought his latest book for christmas by my sister every year. There won’t be anymore but he did leave behind a great collection of stories that I will happily pass on to my Nephew and Niece and hopefully they will read with as much fervent wonder as I did.
My mother pointed out by waving ‘bye-bye’ to Brian Jacques it seems I am waving ‘bye-bye’ to a large part of my childhood. I am inclined to agree. As a little boy I could often be found with a book under my arm and chances are it would normally be a Redwall book. I am hardly old but that little boy seems very far away these days and he seems further away than ever now that one of his heroes has left us.
Bye, bye Brian. And thank you. From me and that little boy.
Oh, and what was that piece of advice?…
“Paint pictures with words”