Adèle Geras was a good friend and colleague of Jan’s – a writer who worked across all age groups and over several genres. (And another non-driver, adept as negotiating the railways for school visits and workshops.) Like Jan, her first title was published in 1976 and since then she has written 100 books, including Troy, Happy Ever After and for adults, Love, Or Nearest Offer. Visit Adèle’s website at adelegerasbooks.com
I think the first time I met Jan Mark was in the mid-80s on a wonderful course called Teachers as Writers.
This ran for several years in the Good Old Days when children’s writer Dennis Hamley was the English Advisor – was that his title? I can’t really remember – for Hertfordshire. Teachers in the county came together for a couple of days of Creative Writing workshops with five or six tutors. John Mole, John Cotton and Chris Wiseman were the poets. Andrew Davies (of TV adaptations fame) Dennis himself and Jan Mark were the prose writers. Then I joined them. What we mostly did was enjoy ourselves and with hindsight Jan was right at the heart of all that fun.
I’d read several of her amazing books before meeting her and was a bit in awe of her at first. Her appearance was so striking that the first sight of that wild cloud of dark reddish hair, that penetrating gaze out of deep-set eyes underscored by mauve circles made me feel a little nervous. But she was witty and funny and once she saw that we found the same things amusing, we got on very well. Jan was moody – there’s no getting away from that fact, and she could sometimes spread the mood around her till silence came down over everything but a joke of some sort could often cut through and her mood would lift.
I realised after I’d got to know her better that in spite of her great success and the acclaim she received, under the wit and the sharpness she was unsure of herself in many ways. She knew more about everything than anyone I’ve met before or since, yet was painfully aware of never having been to university. A conversation I had with Jan before she moved to Oxford stays with me. I said something like:
‘You’ll have a great time in Oxford – so many terrific writers to get to know and chat to …’
To which her reply was: ‘Oh God, no. They won’t want to talk to me.’
Me, bemused: ‘Why not? Of course they will!’
Jan: ‘I’ve never been to a university.’
I told her she was deluded and that any of them would be only too happy etc., etc., but that was what she felt: less well-educated. Not like them.
One of my happiest memories of Jan was teaching a course with her at Ty Newydd, the creative writing centre in Criccieth, Wales. The house we were in used to be the home of Lloyd George. It was a wonderful course, during the summer. I can remember walking by the sea with Jan as she told me all about the Cadwallader family who made the local ice cream we were eating … as I said earlier, Jan knew everything.
Another anecdote. We were going back to London from Hitchin after a Teachers as Writers course and standing on the station platform waiting for our train. Jan had her back to the line as another train roared past. Without turning her head to look, she said, ‘That’s the 7.45 from Edinburgh to King’s Cross.’
I expressed some astonishment at this knowledge and then she told me that she knew most of the huge British Rail timetable handbook that came out each year by heart. She studied it. She studied everything.
Jan Mark was one of the very best of writers. Her range, and her flair in so many different genres was quite extraordinary. She understood emotion. She knew about plot. She had the ear of a poet. She loved words and used them with delight in their possibilities. She brought all kinds of landscapes to life. She allowed us to inhabit many alternate universes. She took us on trips into the past. She wrote always in the best possible way for the story she was telling.
I’m sad that she died far too early. Her work abides.