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.

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.’

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.’

Jan expanded on this in an article written by Jan for Puffin Post magazine, from which I’ve extracted the following. (Thanks to Colin West for sending it to me!) Jan often spoke of her dedication to research – you can read a little more about it in the entry for Enough Is Too Much Already.

‘When I started writing Man in Motion, my son was mad about American football. We watched it regularly on Channel 4, and with a fanatic at my side I learned fast. However, I wasn’t only learning about American football. Alex (the son) was also, only slightly less, mad about every other sport on offer and he kindly shared the excitement with me. He swam, threw the javelin, cycled, sprinted, played hockey. In  the end he took up playing bass guitar in a blues/rock band and sport became a thing of the past, but by that time the book was finished.

‘When I wrote my first novel, Thunder and Lightnings, we had just moved from city to village. Both books deal with the difficulty of starting over again, going to a new school, exploring new territory, making new friends. In that situation you tend to make friends quickly, and these friendships are often short, leading on to others that endure, when you’ve had time to know and understand people better. Lloyd, in Man in Motion, finds that he has a different friend for every sport. None of them shows the slightest interest in what the others are doing and it takes Lloyd a little while to realize that although he liked them, and they like him, they don’t much like each other; is it simply a clash of personalities, or something more sinister and dangerous? This, of course, has got nothing to do with American football (or cricket, cycling or badminton) and if you read the book you’ll find out that it isn’t just about American football anyway, although without the football there would be no book.

‘In Thunder and Lightnings, the Lightnings are aircraft, but the book isn’t about flying. Most of Handles takes place in a motor-cycle repair shop and Trouble Half-Way in a lorry, but they aren’t solely about bikes or trucking. The subject that interests me as a writer is people, but people have to do things, and if people are doing things I have to know how they are done. I’ve forgotten a lot of what I learned about aircraft, motor bikes, lorries – and American football, but I haven’t lost interest. Writing a book is a way of learning things as I never wanted to learn them at school. And I have to learn a great deal more than I write down.

‘I didn’t learn about American football just so that I could write a book. I wrote the book about American football because I enjoyed watching it and still do.’

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.