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
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
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
and implicitly instructive. They are targeted at children, whom
regards as among the most helpless people in the world, and they
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:
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!"
"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."
doubtless much more tolerable.
In the latest book, officially published this month, Martin, the
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
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
"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
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
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
because the two qualifications he had deduced for being "an
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
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
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
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
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
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
Route 206, Skillman, 609-683-4646. Free. Saturday, January 15,
609-921-8454. Free. Saturday, January 15, 3:30 p.m.
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