Man in Motion

Man in Motion was a novel for early teens, with cover and chapter heads illustrated by Jeff Cummins, published in hardback by Viking Kestrel in 1989 and in Puffin paperback in 1991. In an interview shortly after completing the book, Jan told the Australian Puffin Club magazine Puffinalia:

It’s actually based on my son and his friends … the fact that there seems to be a different friend for every sport and they haven’t actually got much in common outside it.

The Independent offered this acclaim: ‘A model of how a book can be light without being lightweight.’ Deborah Singmaster in the TES wrote: ‘Readers who enjoy Mark’s ear for adolescent argot will not be disappointed … The schoolboy wit jabs relentlessly on every page, occasionally scoring a palpable hit. if you said you were an atheist the teacher got ratty and said you were too young to know … Nobody ever tells you you’re too young to know if you’re a Christian.’

The following appreciation is written by Ben Harris, a teacher and writer just for this website. You should look out for Ben on Twitter at @one_to_read.

Man in Motion tells the story of Lloyd, a teenage boy, new to the area, new to the school, trying to find his own track in all kinds of ways. It’s only a snapshot of his adolescence but a telling one, where he learns about his place in life amid the chaotic social microcosm that is school and the whirlwind ups and downs of home.

Overall, the lasting feeling is of a story told by Mark with love and care for her plot and characters. By the end, there’s a true sense of knowing what Lloyd will do next, at least in part, with the rest of his life. That particular story though doesn’t need to be written, it’s simply known – maybe as when you leave school-friends behind when you start a new school or college, and you half drop out of touch.

Whilst the story deals with the to-ing and fro-ing of Lloyd’s attempts to manage his love of sport and his school life, the characters’ lives all weave in and out of each other: sometimes their weft crosses the warp-threads of Lloyd’s experiences, such as a meal, or homework routines; at other times, they are left hanging to their own devices. These are not cardboard cutouts: their lives really do go on outside of the novel.

The plot’s development attends meticulously to the characters too – it’s an important flavour of the storytelling. Keith at first seems a nice enough lad, for example, but soon his casual then explicit racism leads Lloyd to detach himself from such ugliness. This happens subtly – not in any big dramatic way – just as it can in life. It tells us more about Lloyd than any grand gesture would.

Then there’s Lloyd’s mum, Ingrid, a rather bohemian matriarch figure who spends much of her time hammering away at her typewriter in a fug of cigarette smoke and loose written drafts, but who clearly knows what she’s doing to support and cajole her family accordingly: could this even be a fictional portrayal of Jan herself?

And perhaps we are even afforded surreptitious glimpses of her writing process, too. Whilst the world goes on around her – the boy becomes the man, the mother gently lets go of her son – Ingrid/Jan unfailingly continues to type, looking up from time to time:

The raw materials are there in personal experience and her scrupulous observation of the world around her and these elements are transformed by her interest in ‘looking at a relationship’ at the point when it’s beginning to develop.

(Neil Philip, Books for Keeps interview, 1983)

Scrupulous observation’… ‘her interest in ‘looking at a relationship’ – yes, a perfect description of Man in Motion, quite perfect indeed.