Thursday, 6 December 2018

Jan Mark's Norfolk by Paul May

My daughter's paperback copy of
HANDLES, nicely battered.
It was because of Jan Mark that I became a children’s author. I didn’t realise it at the time but now, looking back thirty years, I can see that it is true.

HANDLES won the Carnegie medal in 1983. Jan had already won the Carnegie in 1977 with THUNDER AND LIGHTNINGS. These two books, along with a third, UNDER THE AUTUMN GARDEN (which was highly commended for the Carnegie) were set in the Norfolk countryside. I had lived in that Norfolk countryside for a dozen years by the time HANDLES was published, and I had known Norwich since childhood. But I had never seen anyone manage to recreate the Norfolk experience so vividly in print. 

Norfolk dialect is notoriously hard for any actor to reproduce on stage or screen if they are not a native, and equally hard to put into words. Jan Mark managed it, and in HANDLES she took it to a new level. 

I knew the people, too. Erica’s aunt, uncle and cousin, Robert, could easily have been our next-door neighbours. Most people who lived near us got their TVs second-hand from Chris in the next village. He got them from the local tip. Jan Mark describes those televisions perfectly:

 ‘. . .old, huge and primitive . . . It was never serviced and now functioned on two colours only, yellow and purple.  People glared out of the screen, their faces a dreadful acid lemon colour, with deep lilac shadows under their eyes and chins . . . while mysterious figures in the background swam and struggled through a thick violet syrup.’

Chris would have shrugged and said, ‘a lot of people don't mind if the colour’s wrong.’  He sold us a VCR once that didn’t record.  We took it back and he swapped it for another one. It recorded but didn’t play back properly.  I took that one back and he said, ‘some people only want them for the clock.’

My daughter and I wrote to Jan Mark to tell her how much we loved HANDLES.  I’d worked out that ‘Polthorpe’ in the book was really Stalham, and I figured out that ‘Calstead’ must be Ingham.  I found a Mark listed in the phone book in Ingham and posted off the letter.  Jan was no longer living there, but the letter was forwarded, by her daughter I think, and we received this lovely reply:

And so the idea entered my head that it was possible to write books for children set in Norfolk and I started work on a story that eventually became my third novel GREEN FINGERS. In the course of writing it I kept realising that I had accidentally stolen ideas from Jan Mark. I thought I had removed all traces, but later realised that Rain, in my book of the same name, is a young girl who is mechanically gifted, just like Erica in HANDLES.

I told Jan all this when I eventually met her, complete with fag and glass of wine, at some party somewhere. She laughed and said that it’s just the way things are. It happens to everybody. It’s a good thing. I told her we’d written to her all those years before. She looked alarmed.  ‘I did write back, didn’t I?’ she asked me.
Original cover by David Parkins
Chapter head illustrations for HANDLES were by David Parkins, who also provided the cover for the hardback first edition. He also illustrated NOTHING TO BE AFRAID OF, Jan Mark's book of short stories which was highly commended for the Carnegie in 1980. David Parkins went on to draw The Three Bears and Billy Whizz for the Beano, and Desperate Dan for the Dandy.  

Chapter heading by David Parkins from HANDLES
I love the wonderful, unsentimental characterisation in those Norfolk books. At a first reading it may seem that the native Norfolk people in HANDLES are harshly treated. Certainly, Erica takes a poor view of her country-dwelling relatives. Here’s a short extract. Erica has tried to recover her uncle’s jump leads from motorcycle mechanic, Elsie:

            Uncle Peter dried his hands. ‘Best we keep going in relays until he do find them. He’ve been promising me them leads since May.’
            ‘Perhaps we should all go together,’ Erica said, ‘so that he’d notice.’
            ‘He’d not notice if we went in with a tank. (. . .) He’ve got that much on his mind that take him a week to see what’s under his nose. I don’t know why someone so slow-thinking as Elsie took to motor bikes in the first place, them being so fast.’
            Erica thought it was a cheek for someone as slow-speaking as Uncle Peter to talk about Elsie being slow. Auntie Joan said, ‘Elsie hent slow, he’s just always thinking about something else. Never what you want him to think about.’
            ‘You want him to think about something,' Robert said, shoving his oar in, ‘you got to give him a week’s notice. Time you get back, he’ve started to think about that.’ He grinned, as if he’d come up with something clever. Erica withered him privately.

Jan Mark’s genius is to let us both sympathise with Erica’s impatience with her country relatives, and at the same time see the humour (and perceptiveness) in their conversation. All is not quite as it seems in the adult world that Erica is keen to join.  Her relatives’ battles with the peacock that ravages their vegetable garden are comical, but the family rely on the money they make from selling the vegetables. Elsie, the affable, absent-minded motorcycle mechanic, has an unhappy wife and an unhappy daughter.  

Behind the nicknames and the jokes, real life is lurking. Erica’s stay a small Norfolk village is as revealing and transformative as any visit to a foreign country. 

HANDLES is a wonderful book, and I wish I had written it.

Jan Mark's obituary in the Guardian
David Parkins website
HANDLES is currently out of print.

Paul May's website
Paul May's own books set in Norfolk are GREEN FINGERS and RAIN (Corgi Yearling)


Ann Turnbull said...

What a lovely blog! Thanks, Paul. I think Handles must be the only book of Jan Mark's that I've never read. I remember the others so well and loved them, but this one sounds unfamiliar. I must get a copy - off to search for it now...

Penny Dolan said...

Thank you for this, Paul. I was lucky enough, many years ago, to be tutored by Jan Mark on a writing course. It was an incredible & influential experience.

Paul May said...

Thanks, Ann. Let me know if you can't find a copy. I have a spare! And, Penny, I too feel lucky to have met her.

Ann Turnbull said...

Thanks, Paul - it seems to be out of print, but I found a secondhand one on Amazon.

Sue Purkiss said...

I'm shamed to say I've read hardly anything by Jan Mark. What would you recommend to start off with?

Paul May said...

I would start with her first book Thunder and Lightnings (still in print). I was in the children's bookshop in Muswell Hill today and they didn't have a single one of her books. The short stories in Nothing to be Afraid Of are classics too. And Handles of course. I did enjoy The Eclipse of the Century too. Very different.