The interesting thing about a novel is, that like the Tardis, it’s much bigger on the inside than on the outside. Books look linear, and we are often tricked, as readers and writers, into making them linear. Novels muck about with time, and time is never as straightforward as it appears. Currently there looks to be great and feverish excitement among readers and others about iPads and Kindles and other plastic American toys, and what they might mean for books and reading and so on. I have just been given a Kindle and it doesn’t exactly scream ‘Revolution!’ to me. Personally I wonder, late into the night when I’ve run out of things to worry about, dreams to have, things to read and my pen is out of ink, what a real revolution in the format of reading might mean and what that might look like for the novel, say. The novel is a very big and weird thing and keeps trying to morph into other things – but is continually hammered back into the shape of The Novel – and whether we have come to the end of the novel or not, I doubt if we have come to the end of storytelling and meaning-making. Well not yet, anyway.
The state of being unpublished has perhaps been understated and undervalued. Who would write a novel, one might think, and not seek to have it published? Once one is published, one cannot become unpublished. Like having a child it could be a state that then begins to haunt you; a state that can’t be undone, that inscribes things about you and within you you’d rather not have known or remembered. Which perhaps explains why families are so adept at rewriting their children’s histories. And makes me wonder why more novelists don’t go back and rewrite their own published novels.
And to this end, a story, possibly untrue in parts, about time, and reading and writing. If you’re sitting comfortably, we’ll begin.
In 1979, the English writer, Robert Westall – a writer much concerned with time and childhood – published his second novel Fathom Five, a book set in the north-east of England during the Second World War. It chronicles the misadventures of working-class schoolboy Chas McGill, the rebellious hero of Westall’s Carnegie Medal-winning first novel, The Machine Gunners. Sometime before my daughter was born, years ago, I lost my copy of Fathom Five, and only found another copy sometime later, when she was five or six, a tattered second-hand first edition published in England by Macmillan. However, when I began to read it again, I discovered that the character of Chas McGill had been completely erased and another schoolboy, Jack Stokoe, substituted in his place. Several other events in the book had been subtly altered to accommodate the change of name. As the 1979 hardback was a first edition, the interpolation of Jack Stokoe was not some strange afterthought on the part of Westall. Yet all the literary histories of Westall’s books I have managed to locate refer to the protagonist as Chas McGill, and of the many editions of Fathom Five I have now seen, my copy is the only one that references Jack Stokoe.
Westall died in 1993 at the age of sixty-four. While trying to research the history of Fathom Five, I discovered that a decade or so after Westall’s death the great Japanese animator, Hayao Miyazaki – an admirer of Westall’s work and the creator of such wonderful films as Porco Rosso and My Neighbour Totoro – journeyed to Westall’s home town Tynemouth in Yorkshire. He wanted to gain firsthand experience of the landscape where so much of Westall’s work is set for a project he had in mind illustrating Westall’s short story Blackham’s Wimpey, about a Wellington bomber haunted by the screams of a dying German airman. In the resulting manga, an illustrated essay A Trip to Tynemouth, in which he depicts himself as a pig, like his animated hero Porco Rosso, Miyazaki describes meeting with Westall, who he portrays as a Scottish terrier. But this is a meeting that could not possibly have taken place, as Westall was dead.
However, shortly after publishing A Trip To Tynemouth in 2006, Miyazaki illustrated a Japanese edition of Fathom Five, which I have unfortunately not yet been able to acquire. The curious nature of this series of events is uncannily like the plot of one of Westall’s novels, with their frequent time-slips and descriptions of the many ways in which the linear nature of time is shown to be a fabrication, indicated by some small disruptive event in daily life that can easily be dismissed as a hallucination, but which is actually evidence of an existing rupture in our lives and in reality. Westall’s writing of two Fathom Fives was odd enough, but the weird and unexpected appearance of Miyazaki in the narrative, whose films take the mysterious and inexplicable in their stride, give this tale an even more uncanny and unsettling aura.
At a mundane level, the problem of Westall’s two Fathom Fives is one that an academic critic might seek to answer while pursuing a PhD on Westall’s work. On the other hand, if we take a more radical and also more sympathetic approach (an approach that makes the uncanny familiar, the approach in fact of a Westall narrative) applying Westall’s metaphors and themes to his own life – and why not; if we do not use our fevered imaginations to construct infinite and fantastic possibilities, how can we ever become writers or readers – it then becomes obvious that there must have been two Robert Westalls, each working in parallel in his own stream of time. And that Hayao Miyazaki inadvertently, or perhaps somehow deliberately (for all I know), moved from one time-stream to the other and did actually meet Robert Westall. But the Westall who was still alive in 2003 in his own time-stream, the Westall who created Jack Stokoe not Chas McGill. And, if that fantastical possibility was so (one that Westall himself would surely not have excluded), perhaps Miyazaki in his mischievous and idiosyncratic way has alluded to it in choosing to illustrate – out of all of Westall’s numerous books – Fathom Five, but covered his tracks by ensuring that it was the Chas McGill version. Of course, as I have not seen the Japanese version of Fathom Five, it’s possible that Miyazaki has blown his cover entirely, and illustrated the Jack Stokoe text. But I suspect not. Miyazaki is a master of disguise.
That was a long way around to be able to say, but say it as fully as I can, that the act of reading exists as a space. And in that space where we live like ghosts of ourselves, many changes and transformations are possible. If they weren’t, we would not be reading. More anon.