The news that Brian Jacques has died deserves more of a pause for thought than the inevitable ‘mice and swords’ obituaries will likely inspire.
Jacques body of work did, indeed, make much reference to mice, badgers, hares and various other rodents fighting one another – usually in the kingdom of Mossflower or within the grounds of Redwall Abbey.
This is all very easy to sneer at – indeed, looking through Redwall recently led to a snort of laughter at reading of how an attack on Redwall left ‘three mice dead and a mole stunned’ – but we don’t tend to sneer at Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, which are every bit as ridiculous, if not more.
Because while Jacques’ books are written directly for children, their backgrounds lie in believable interpersonal relationships: how people react in different situations; what drives people to cruelty, tyranny, decency or bravery; how working together can defeat even the most fearsome of enemies.
These are not socialist parables dressed up as fantasy, but there’s the steady and admirable message that friendship, honour, resolve, skill and teamwork are worth striving for.
For adults – for I re-read several Redwall novels recently – there are more rewarding tropes. It’s hard not to imagine dogmatic, argumentative trades unionists when reading of the various shrew tribes on Redwall, sporting various names like the Guerilla Union of Shrews in Mossflower. It’s a satire, but it’s – necessarily – rather gentle.
Moreover it’s easy to recognise Gonff, a smart-arsed but genial mouse trickster, as being based on a large proportion all of the scousers you’ll ever meet. Jacques said the character was on himself as youngster, running the Liverpool docks up in the North End.
Jacques himself had spent many years as merchant sailor but worked a number of jobs in and around Liverpool, including driving a truck, at which point he started writing plays for the Everyman, and then stories for the children at the Royal Wavertree School for the Blind in Liverpool.
Alan Durband passed some of Jacques’ stories onto a publisher and the rest is history. From 1986 onwards, Jacques thundered through books at a rate of at least one a year and branching out into other series, without straying too far from the lengthy Redwall novels.
I think Brian Jacques – and other writers like him – show us the value of telling stories to children. Jacques himself spoke fondly of the teachers and family who introduced him to books and telling yarns. There’s an undeniable value there that I recognise too.
Without my teachers and family who patiently read to me; without people like Terrance Dicks, Kenneth Grahame and Jacques to write intelligent childrens’ stories; without the encouragement of others to simply read a book for pleasure, I would never be where I am now.
How many more could say the same thing. And how many more will recognise a special kind of Northern British life – Liverpool life – in Brian Jacques’ books? A friend of mine recently met Jacques and – knowing I loved his books – kindly fetched back an autographed bookmark for me.
I’d planned to meet him myself, to drop him a line, to arrange that SevenStreets interview that I’d planned from the start. But I never got around to it.
It’s sad, but we’ll always have Brian Jacques’ books – millions of copies in dozens of countries and languages and speaking of things without borders like friendship, hardship and fellowship.
Univerals that we can all relate to – mouse or no.