Corrections or additions?

Author: Pat Summers. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January 12,

2000. All rights reserved.

Brian Jacques’ Aural Feast

With a voice like his, you would want Brian Jacques

to record your phone message or read aloud to your children —

or you. Happily for those of us who have long counted on Sean Connery

for a softly broguey voice, Jacques (pronounced "Jakes") has

recorded many of his dozen or so books. "I do the best moles in

the world," he says, in yet another voice. When you hear it you

believe it.

Let him extol Liverpool, his native English city — "one of

the huge, great seaports of the world!" — or describe "Wet

Nellies," his favorite wartime-childhood treat: "a Nelson

cake, the cheapest to be bought. The baker put day-old products into

a mixer with treacle and made a sticky brown pastry that was cut up

into squares. They were wonderful sweets" at a time when candy

was not to be had. Or maybe he will just lovingly describe

"Teddy,"

his white West Highland Terrier puppy at home.

The subject doesn’t matter. Very quickly, you will succumb to that

voice, that telephone persona, coming liltingly to you from New York’s

Waldorf Astoria Hotel. After arriving just the day before, and still

hoping to be reunited with his missing luggage, Jacques is ready to

kick off a two-month book tour for his 12th volume in the popular

"Redwall" series for children, "The Legend of Luke"

(Philomel Books; 384 pages. $22.95). On Saturday, January 15, at noon

he will talk and read at Crackerjacks Toy Store, Montgomery Shopping

Center. Then at 3:30 p.m. he proceeds to a reading at Micawber Books

at 114 Nassau Street. Expect a feast for the ears.

Set in England and peopled by woodland creatures like mice, moles,

hedgehogs, and squirrels, the Redwall books are both explicitly

adventurous

and implicitly instructive. They are targeted at children, whom

Jacques

regards as among the most helpless people in the world, and they

illustrate

values and "warrior" behavior that kids can adopt to become

true heroes, not the overblown movie-star variety. Deep in Mossflower

Wood, Redwall Abbey is a big redstone building — "a place

of safety and cheer for good beasts to live in, with walls that’d

stand the worst any vermin foes could think of."

Somewhat preachy when they’re not just plain precious, the Redwall

books are suffused with dialogue, and dialect, like this:

"Always take a mole’s advice, Gonff. Remember, Dinny

didn’t get to be Foremole by being hasty and foolish."

Their friend’s homely face crinkled into a deep smile. "Oi

thankee furr ee koind wurds, Marthen. Moi ole granfer used t’say oi

was wise, even when oi was but a h’infant!"

Or this:

Trimp looked up from the dough she was kneading for lunch.

"Was it not? Who do you think was responsible, then?"

"Dinny’s singin’, of course. It drove the rats wild an’ they

attacked us just to stop the ‘orrible noise, missie."

"Hurr, you’m turrible crool, zurr Gonffen. Moi ole granmum

allus said oi ‘ad a voice loik ee lark at furst loight."

Cloying on the page, perhaps, but in Brian Jacques’ varied

voices,

doubtless much more tolerable.

In the latest book, officially published this month, Martin, the

warrior

mouse, goes on a quest, accompanied by his friends Trimp, "the

hedgehog maid," Gonff, "the Prince of Mousethieves," and

Dinny, "the Foremole." In returning to his birthplace to seek

the story of his parents, Luke, the Warrior, and his mother, Sayna,

Martin confronts baddies of all kinds, ultimately returning to Redwall

Abbey a changed and strengthened "person."

Although he has always been a writer, Jacques moved

through a series of other careers before his first Redwall book was

published in 1987, when he was around 50. His first brush with

literary

fame was not the ideal motivator: So well did the 10-year-old Jacques

write a story about animals that his teacher insisted he had copied

it, and caned him for denying that was so. The drill with that teacher

at St. John’s School, Liverpool, went this way, "You, boy, will

end up on the gallows. Where will you end?" To which Jacques

replied,

"Upon the gallows, sir." Despite this treatment, or maybe

because of it, he wrote on: newspaper columns, folk songs, seven books

of monologues, stage, radio, and television plays.

The middle of three sons, Jacques has one surviving brother, Jim,

"a great fisherman," among many other things. His late brother

Tony was, for starters, "a great carpenter." Neither parent

was artistic, Jacques says, although he may have had a distant

relative

who gave piano lessons. Marc, one of his two grown sons, is a builder

who also played Matthias in Redwall recordings; David is an art

teacher

and muralist.

Quitting school at age 15, Jacques went to sea. Then when the life

of a sailor palled, he worked as a longshoreman, a long-distance truck

driver, a bus driver, a boxer, a bobby (police constable), a stand-up

comic — writing all the while. "You’re too much of a bloody

rough diamond," he was told by Alan Durband, a retired teacher

(whose pupils had included the Beatle Paul McCartney), who encouraged

his playwriting and secretly showed his first Redwall manuscript to

a publisher. With its publication, Durband said, "I know what

you are now. You’re an author — you’re a children’s author!"

Until that anointing, Jacques says, he had been, at most, "a

writer"

because the two qualifications he had deduced for being "an

author"

were "you had to be dead and have a long name."

Why animal characters instead of humans? "Stories about animals

that stood up and talked go way back in history," Jacques says.

And, "A kid is not physically big, and neither is a mouse. So

kids can identify with a mouse." Besides, "Animals are better

people, you know. A dog won’t fool you about what it wants to do.

Animals won’t tell lies."

While working as a truck driver, Jacques delivered milk to a school

for the blind, where he volunteered to read to the students. That

experience reportedly influenced how he writes for all kids: he

consciously

paints pictures with words so they can "see" the action in

their imagination. Stressing how to become an author, rather than

why, he enjoys telling how he teaches the school children he visits

to write in pictures: "As I walked into the dark room, I was

scared."

Starting with this seemingly descriptive sentence, he works with kids

to add color and specificity to the wording: "I could barely lift

my feet to walk into the pitch-dark room, I was so (horrified, or

terrified, or petrified) . . ." and so on.

The publicity touts "Mariel of Redwall" as Jacques’ first

book with "a female heroine (sic)" — and he scoffs at

that. "All the books have heroines! There’s too much blarney talk,

too much political correctness with everything these days." For

example, he says, in hopes of cutting sweets-consumption, parents

try selling their children on carrot sticks, but the kids see through

it — "These taste like crap. Give us some proper candy."

And the media comes in for criticism too; sometimes it seems to

Jacques,

who calls himself "old-fashioned," that the media can get

away with anything. One example: "Boy George, running around in

a frock. Kids were admiring him because the media hyped him. But no

regular kid would get away with that. Same thing with clothes: kids

have to have the right label on the bum of their jeans."

The Redwall books are not slim volumes. "Luke," for example,

runs to nearly 400 pages. Even so, Jacques emphatically does not write

while on book tours, preferring to sit in his garden at home and write

longhand. And just how is Liverpool in January? By the time he gets

home in mid-March, "the weather will soften, you know." After

hand-writing, he prepares his manuscripts on an old manual typewriter.

"I have no time for technology — I’m a Luddite!" he

exclaims,

adding that he could happily go around with a hammer and break up

all the computers. Working on the Redwall series without an overall

outline or grand scheme of things, he says he usually gets an idea

for the next book mid-way through the current one. "So I say to

myself, `that will be good,’ and I store the idea in my computer .

. . between my ears!"

Jacques is aware of the three Harry Potter books — also the work

of a Brit who aims to empower kids, and whose plots feature the

ongoing

battle between good and evil. As with J. K. Rowling’s books, some

of his own have made it onto the New York Times best seller list.

He knows the Potter books are "very popular," he says, though

he hasn’t had time to read them, and, afraid it will affect his style,

he usually doesn’t read children’s fiction anyway. He chuckles at

the lock British authors seem to have on the children’s book market

right now, then mentions his and Rowling’s predecessor, Roald Dahl

("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "James and the

Giant Peach") for good measure.

Ah, but look out, Rowling, Dahl, and all other aspirants: This guy

could imbue a dictionary with charm if he read it aloud.

— Pat Summers

Brian Jacques, Crackerjacks, Montgomery Center,

Route 206, Skillman, 609-683-4646. Free. Saturday, January 15,

noon.

Brian Jacques, Micawber Books, 114 Nassau Street,

609-921-8454. Free. Saturday, January 15, 3:30 p.m.


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