Eulogy – written and delivered by Julia Eccleshare

(C) Claire McNamee

This eulogy was delivered at the memorial service held for Jan at St James’s Church, Piccadilly, in London, on 27 April 2006.

As the weeks go by since Jan’s death, I find I am missing her more and more. This is partly because the judging for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize is under way and with every book I read I hear Jan’s pertinent comments as well as those derogatory critical noises in the background. I can’t help feeling that Jan will let me know if we make a mistake about what we choose.

But it is not really because I’m frightened of her disapproval.

It’s because I miss her wisdom, humour, insight and knowledge.

She was my sounding board about every serious book that came my way. Her reading was astonishing. The quantity and quality of what she absorbed was remarkable.

Travelling everywhere by train, except when coming to London on the bus, may have helped. Meeting Jan at a party, Liz Attenborough once commented on the enormous bag of reading Jan had with her to which Jan replied by pulling out the fattest of all saying, ‘This is the one that lives with me all the time,’ as she held up the National Rail Timetable. But in between planning her school visits and her considerable writing output Jan read the increasingly vast output of children’s books.

One of the best moves I’ve ever made was to make Jan one of our stable of reviewers when the Guardian launched the Saturday Review. It wasn’t rocket science to choose Jan. She’d been reviewing widely, most notable in the Times Educational Supplement, for years but it was nonetheless a very smart move.

Initially, of course, it was scary. We were very polite to one another but I knew that Jan didn’t suffer fools gladly and I was terrified of her derision if I chose a book which she thought unworthy. I’d put off phoning Jan with a new suggestion and always did so tentatively, and with some trepidation. The silence that followed a suggestion could be alarming.

As we got used to working together, I stopped being frightened and looked forward to our phone conversations, though I silently cursed her for her stubborn resistance to having anything to do with modern technology.

Oh, how much easier it is to flick a ‘thank you’ email to a contributor than to ring up and say thanks for a printed review. (How much, easier, too, just to forward the review to the Guardian, than to laboriously feed three pages through the fax …) Luckily, I was very well trained to acknowledge copy but even so I could be caught out by not being fast enough.

Woebetide me if I did not get on to the case right away. Jan would be on the phone. ‘Did you get my review?’ Me, breathless, wrong-footed: ‘Yes … I was just about to ring you …’ Jan always claimed that she rang because she was worried about the success rate of the post and she certainly had a ferocious distrust of the Oxford postal system which – she gave the impression – had been designed especially to thwart her at every opportunity.

Gradually, I realised that in addition to any genuine worries she had, she was also wanting to know whether I liked what she’d written and, to some extent, whether I agreed with her.

Once we’d established a comfortable working relationship, most weeks began with a conversation with Jan. Standing in front of my packed shelves, I’d ring Jan, now sure of the pleasure of a terrific discussion of the books in front of me. I’d get that gruff, quickfire voice – ‘Oxford, 727702’ – and then the warmth when she knew it was. She always gave me the impression that she had time to talk though I often felt that I must be interrupting her prodigious writing output.

Luckily we agreed about much. Her dislike of anything in which you just waved a wand and anything is possible is well known. As is her ferocious condemnation of fantasy writers who make up complicated rules and then break them with abandon. She wasn’t wild about ‘those boys who write’ – meaning the ‘boys for boys’ books, either. And she could happily spit in the eye of various publishers – especially those who’d put her books out of print or even those who published their authors badly.

This is the kind of thing she’d say – and write – about publishers:

Why the publisher has chosen to issue it as a contender for the year’s drabbest-looking paperback is beyond one’s power of conjecture.

But it wasn’t just the back chat that I enjoyed. It was that Jan was simply a brilliant reader. She read fast – an increasingly useful attribute as children’s books get longer – but more importantly, she read toughly.

The children’s book world is a notoriously cosy corner but Jan was never constrained by that. She refused to be cowed by books for which a big advance had been paid or by authors who had other notable successes or claims to fame. She simply read what was in front of her and, using all her skill and knowledge as a writer herself, she considered what it had taken the author to achieve the effect s/he had intended and whether it worked for the reader. It sounds so simple and obvious but Jan honed these judgements to razor-sharp points.

Jan rarely sought to review the starry titles. What she liked best was to find the books that others weren’t noticing. Mal Peet’s Keeper was one. Jan’s disdain of anything laddish was as familiar as her scorn for weak fantasy so it show just how much she read that she was even looking at a title like Keeper.

Here’s what she wrote:

Many clubs have learning support centres, working with schools and libraries to unite young fans with books through the medium of the beautiful game. The beauties of the game may be lost on some of us sometimes, but many children will read about football when they will read about nothing else, not for realism or glamour but for romance. Unfortunately, as Mal Peet observes, ‘Most football stories are as dull as mud.’ Pedestrian writing sells those ardent romantics seriously short.

Peet and his novel have raised the standard to an impressive and challenging level. ‘Football commentators often use the word “magic”,’ he writes. ‘Keeper is an attempt to write magically about football.’ It is rather more than an attempt.’

She then goes on to describe the book and ends:

We get all this alongside the sweaty tension and excitement of the game, the agony and the ecstasy, culminating in a terrific analysis of a penalty shoot-out. The book has something for every reader, not least those who revel in excellent writing.’

 Jan was also interested in anything by a new author. She was a curious mixture of passionately supportive – she liked the very idea of newcomers beginning to write – and a little bit jealous of the over-promotion of raw and unformed talent.

Actually, she genuinely worried about the effect this kind of over-promotion could have on young authors knowing that to write a book that is over-praised and not know how or be able to repeat it might be crushing. She believed childish scribbling should go unpublished and that authors should be nurtured with as much editorial support as possible.

She always tried to be encouraging but sometimes honesty forbade it. Of a recent, very highly regarded first novel – after some kinder words – she wrote:

However, the proceedings are anything but breakneck. The author is a hugely talented writer of tireless invention and vivid prose. Her scenarios are wonderfully realised, as is the cod history which is not always as hilarious as it first appears, but it is this undisciplined talent which gets in the way of the action. Every incident and description is so embellished with similes and dependent clauses that the narrative is left hanging about like a disconsolate bloke in Miss Selfridge, abandoned outside the fitting rooms while the style lingers to admire itself in the mirror.

She then added a more general sideswipe at the state of children’s books succinctly expressing a sentiment which many of us share:

At best the author’s writing puts her up there with Joan Aiken and Leon Garfield in the recreation of an England that never was, but these writers peaked at a time when it was believed that children were not equal to the demands of long books. Now it has been established beyond doubt that they are, it need not be forgotten that they can still appreciate short ones.

She could be succinct herself. In these few words, she summed up another first novel:

Richardson plants his intriguing supernatural seed firmly in urban grot. Watch it blossom.

I do hope the author fully appreciated that kind of praise from Jan.

And it wasn’t just what first-time novelists were doing that interested her. She was genuinely fascinated by what could be done in writing and she was hugely admiring of all those who, in her opinion, could do it. Sonya Hartnett, Henning Mankell, John Dickinson and most recently, Kate Thompson, are just a few of those whom Jan admired and whom I enjoyed discussing with her, learning so much about what it takes to create as I did so.

But I might never have had the chance to enjoy all of that.

I’ve known Jan for a very long time. Because I’ve been around for so long, I remember her winning the Guardian/Kestrel Prize in 1975.

It wasn’t the Guardian Award as we now know it, as Jan always pointed out when people thought that she’d won that, too. It was a one-off prize specifically devised to find a new children’s author at a time when there was a marked drought of them.

Those were dustier days for children’s books and the event was held at lunchtime at the cramped Puffin offices in Grosvenor Gardens. I remember how diffident Jan was, hiding behind her hair and shifting from foot to foot.

Everyone who read it knew that Thunder and Lightnings had something special about it. As ever in the discovery of a new author, it was the voice. Jan’s remarkable way of telling things. Her language, her understanding of the realities that children face and the way they handle them.

It’s a talent that’s best described in Jan’s entry in The Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books in English:

Never patronising or underestimating her readers, Mark demonstrates a serious concern for the way in which language is used; stylistically, her work has been likened to that of William Mayne. The integrity of her writing is matched by the integrity of her depiction of the realities of life, and readers respond to the truthfulness of the worlds she creates. Mark reflects on the real concerns of childhood with perceptive accuracy and wry humour; scrupulous observation and penetrating analysis of human nature characterise her writing.’

And how right the prize-givers were. Thunder and Lightnings went on to win Jan the first of her two richly deserved Carnegie Medals.

After that first meeting for Thunder and Lightnings, the path of Jan and my relationship did not run smooth.

For years, we hardly met. As a reader I was never as comfortable with The Ennead or Divide and Rule, and just longed for more like Handles and then, when it came along, Man in Motion which I still adore. When we did meet, things deteriorated rapidly …

In the summer of 1985 there was a conference at Westminster College, Oxford. One of the organisers was a then little-known children’s author and lecturer at the college, Philip Pullman. My job was to chair a conversation with Jan Mark.

Late August is not a great time to find yourself going to a conference and I came straight from a long summer holiday in the north of Scotland. I knew when I had to arrive and what I had to do. I’d found some appropriate clothes, offloaded the children – one of them just a couple of months old. Was I Superwoman or not?

NOT, as it turned out. I was met by a FURIOUS Jan who felt slighted that I hadn’t rung her beforehand to discuss what was going to happen, to say how pleased I was to be doing it, and the rest. I was startled at the time and felt bad – probably even worse than she intended me to as I don’t think Jan often considered the effect on others she was having.

Even now, I’m still somewhat baffled by the ferocity of her attack. Many people are happy just to fix things at the time – but then, maybe I should have known she wouldn’t have been …

We never discussed it. Maybe she never remembered it, even.

And things didn’t immediately get better.

A few years later, at a conference at the RSA, I found myself face to face with Jan again. (I had been skulking in corners before that whenever she was around, you understand.)

We were walking up the stairs and I thought I better make pretty conversation.

I launched into a long and ridiculous story about how well I remembered being told the story of The Eight Days of Luke by the editor Marnie Hodgkin long before it was published and how it had always, in my mind, been a better story in the telling than when I got around to reading it.

It was a dumb story anyway, showing distinct signs of nervousness on my part even to have thought of it. No author wants to hear that someone else can tell their story better than they’ve written it.

Jan listened politely. Without flicking a muscle she said, ‘I didn’t write The Eight Days of Luke.

We never mentioned that conversation, either.

So, for me to be here today, speaking for Jan is not only surprising, it is ASTONISHING. I like to think it speaks volumes for both of us.

Luckily, I remember the next time we met – just as well, probably – as gradually, we began talking again.

There was an excellent conversation about The Archers. Jan couldn’t bear all the young characters: ‘Who wants to hear about their snivelling lives?’ she said. I also remember that she told me how the story was told by present characters relaying it to those who were absent, and how unlike real life that is. I’ve never been able to listen to The Archers with the same pleasure since …

And so we continued. Meeting Jan at a party was always the opportunity for a real conversation. I don’t think she did small talk, anyway.

My last conversation with Jan was on the Friday before she died. I needed her advice about a book which we’d discussed before but I’d forgotten the exact phrase she’d used about it. She sounded terrible and admitted she was in pain but rallied and her comment on the book in question was as pithy as usual and as stimulating to my own thinking as ever.

As writer, reader, scourge of bad publishing and good, good friend, Jan will be missed by us all. After all, who will write …

It is a demanding experience but it can hardly be called a crossover book. Adults who unblushingly read Harry Potter in public would never be able to cope with it.

© Julia Eccleshare, 2006

Julia Eccleshare has had a long and distinguished career in the children’s book world. Currently director of the children’s programme at the Hay Festival, she was for many years the Guardian children’s books editor, a post she once held for the TLS. She has been a book publisher and a director at CLPE. In 2000 she won the Eleanor Farjeon Award in recognition of her outstanding contribution to children’s books.

FOOTNOTE: As Julia explained, Jan was an early champion of Mal Peet’s writing. (Sadly, he’s another writer who died too young.) Mal reviewed Jan’s final book, Turbulence, for the Guardian and it feels appropriate to share the review along with Julia’s address.