Last month marked the 40th anniversary of the publication of The Machine Gunners and today would have been Robert Westall's 86th birthday.  To commemorate the occasion we thought we'd share a post from one of our volunteers.  Grace created a brilliant online resource for the Westall Collections which explores his connection to the North East. 

The first page of the first draft of Robert Westall's The Machine Gunners. Published 40 years ago, Westall won the 1975 Carnegie Prize for Machine Gunners.
I have been uncovering Robert Westall’s intriguing archive for a project with Newcastle University. This project’s aim was to highlight the archive and make it even more accessible through a digital platform. Each member of the project simply had to pick an archive to publish online. As a student at Newcastle University studying an MLitt specialising in children’s literature, as well as a volunteer at Seven Stories archives, I knew where I would look for material…

I chose to work with Robert Westall’s archive, the first archive to call Seven Stories home, not only because visually it is very aesthetic (gorgeous handwriting, entertaining notes and doodles…) but because I felt his unpublished personal writing was, quite frankly, stunning. He wrote in large sketchbooks about his home county, Northumberland, in such an honest and poetic manner that I felt it was a resource worth making more accessible to the public. His children’s books often feature the North East, The Machine Gunners (1975) is set in Garmouth (a fictional town based upon Tyneside) and The Kingdom by the Sea (1990) follows a young boy as he travels up the coast too. In his published works the North East is a solid setting, it creates the backdrop to his dramatic tales and it defines the dialects of the characters. However, in his unpublished works, we see the North East as Westall saw it, with pride of place as the focus of his writing.

Westall wrote;

If you attempt to drive up the coast of Northumberland, something goes wrong after Seaton Sluice; twist and turn as you will, you get caught in a maze of spoil heaps, and roads cracked and patched after mining subsidence’.

He takes you on a journey through the seaside towns and villages, discussing the fishing traditions, the tourism trade and the mining past. His love of the North East is at times at odds with his sadness over the changes that are taking over and changing his childhood landscape.

Selection of notes about the North East of England in the Robert Westall Collection

I photographed the sketchbooks and created a website to display each page separately. If you click on one of the items, scroll past the item information, you can click on the selected page and zoom in on each one individually, reading every word he has written. Whilst it is not quite as fun as trooping to Newcastle and digging into the Seven Stories Archive yourself, it is not a bad way of accessing a quietly, fascinating collection. Westall recalls his childhood home, a landscape which despite causing him grief through the inevitable changes happening to the traditions of the communities, was also given a significant presence in children’s literature due to his work.

- Grace Owens

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