Heathrow Nights

Heathrow Nights is a YA novel, published in 2000 as a paperback original on Hodder Children’s Books’ ‘Signature’ list, then in a 2002 hardback edition in Heinemann’s ‘New Windmills’ series for the educational market.

Lindsey Fraser reviewed the novel in the Guardian (03/04/01):

When he’s not being benignly heedless, Russell ponders the parallels between Hamlet and himself, both of them outraged stepsons. His insightful questioning of the play is woven through a plot that finds him wandering around Heathrow to escape punishment for a childish prank. This is an excellent parallel text for those reading Hamlet – humane, often witty, and stimulating. Its perspective should endear it to teachers tackling the play for the umpteenth time with a new set of puzzled faces, offering fresh angles from which to view that tragic hero alongside a perceptive depiction of the rougher edges of grief.’

In the author note prefacing the Hodder edition, Jan wrote:

‘Quite by chance, a large part of my life has been lived under flight paths; Norwich Airport, where the weekly vanguard from Amsterdam was on the same resonant frequency as the television aerials and set the whole street humming; RAF Coltishall, where the Lightning fighters, taking off two hundred feet above the roof gave me the material for my first book, and an attic in Putney where the aircraft descending to Heathrow passed directly over the skylight.

‘Fortunately I always loved aeroplanes, but I was past forty before I flew anywhere. Since then I have travelled all over the world by air, nearly always leaving and returning through Heathrow. I wouldn’t say that I’ve come to love the place, but there is something intriguingly improbable about it, a landlocked island, an area the size of a small town, where no one lives. On the other hand, I thought, passing through on the way to Toronto, you could live here …’

The novel is dedicated to writer and musician, Simon Puttock, who was a good friend of Jan’s. In this wonderful account – which conveys both Jan’s characteristic autonomy and her eagerness to collaborate with friends and readers – he talks about his connection with Jan and the origins of Heathrow Nights:

Mid-nineties

I met Jan for the first time when she came up to the bookshop where I worked to do a couple of author sessions and be interviewed by a group of teenagers for their book review magazine, In Brief. (I am not in the habit of envying the pubescent – but yes, I envied that lot. I briefly greeted Jan, slightly hosted; they had over an hour to ask her about her work.) I had by then been reading Jan’s books for three or four years and was (still am, of course) a besotted Markian reader – probably the best way to describe our first encounter is this: I lurked a little, and somewhat adoringly.

A couple of years later

Driven by the abysmal absence of anything of the sort, I was touting an idea for a collection of original gay and lesbian (we hadn’t got round to LGBTQI+ in those days) themed stories for teenagers (we hadn’t gotten round to YA in those days, either) to London publishers. The brilliant Miriam Hodgson at Mammoth – which is Egmont these day – saw the point at once. (This was during the wintry grip of Clause 28; all the more remarkable for Miriam to not think twice). I had other authors in mind of course, but Jan didn’t know that for me she was non-negotiable; in the parlance of hitmen (or grifters) I had my – cough, cough – mark.

I managed to get hold of Jan’s telephone number (one can make the historical distinction these days). She remembered meeting me (!!!!). I explained the mission; Jan asked me to let her think about it: not in the let-me-decide-whether-to, but in the I’ll-need-to-think-about-what-to-write sense. I breathed again.

A few weeks later, she rang back; she had two possible story ideas: one, the idea we went with (inspired, in part by the funeral of her friend, the author David Rees); the other, something more Shakespearean. I badly wanted to go Shakespeare, but after some discussion we both decided that might be stretching things a little given the collection’s already leftfield context … But, Jan being Jan, she announced there and then that if she ever did work up the Shakespeare idea, the dedication of it would be mine. What an if to nurture in one’s bosom!

Of course Jan, being thrifty and no slouch, did it, and did.

Coda

After the story for the collection was done, the editing over, we met properly; in London for an afternoon – me down from Newcastle, her up from Oxford. We wandered around the South Bank, spoke of Hamlet and homelessness; these things figure in Heathrow Nights. I expect this is purely coincidental, but on a personal level, it creates cross currents and ripple patterns in my reading of the book that re-forms in beautiful ways.

(We talked of others things, of course, and a friendship began which, despite the small inconvenience of Jan being dead, I cannot say is over.)