‘Why do a project about Tarzan?’ said Andrew.
‘Tarzan’s easy,’ said Tim. ‘You just cut him out and stick him in.’
‘Fish are easier,’ said Victor.
‘Why not do worms then?’ said Andrew. ‘Nothing could be easier than worms. Wiggle-wiggle-wiggle: all over in a second. Page one, worms are long and thin. Page two, worms are round.’
Victor began to grin but Tim sat down to give the idea serious consideration.
Victor’s grin became wider, revealing teeth like Stonehenge.
‘I reckon you’re catching on,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you do worms?’
‘I want to do something interesting,’ said Andrew.
‘Ho,’ said Victor. ‘You’ll come to a bad end, you will.’
By Chapter 14, of Jan Mark’s first novel, Thunder and Lightnings, Andrew comes round to Victor’s way of thinking. Victor says,
‘I’m only writing this lot for the project. I don’t need to.’ He meant, I’m only doing it because you say so.
‘Don’t let’s do it then,’ said Andrew. ‘Don’t let’s do a project at all. You were right. As soon as you put it on paper it stops being interesting.’
These observations remain as true in 2019 as it did in 1974. A lot of what happens at school is for school’s sake only. The subversiveness, the wry humour and the irrefutable logic struck a chord with me when I first read it. Fifteen years after that – growing up on the other side of the world in Australia but, you know, school is school – and led me to read as much of Jan Mark as I could find and to keep up with each new book.
With the strong sense that she was writing for me, I wrote Jan a letter; she wrote back, which began a regular correspondence about books and writing, which turned into a friendship. When I moved to England, it involved frequent trips to East Oxford for long, luxurious lunches with food and wine and conversation. The way Jan took the limitations and opportunities of childhood so seriously (both at the same time) – fuelled my interest in children’s books. I became an editor, and was fortunate enough to publish a short collection of stories once – Eyes Wide Open.
I last spoke to her on 8 January 2006 – I know, because she signed her latest book, Voyager, for me – and she died, suddenly, eight days later. I kept reading and remembering her, and still do, and as her literary executor, am delighted when offers come in, now and then, to reissue a novel or picture book text.
Jan’s legacy is that genuine, personal engagement is all – engagement in what interests you, in the truths you discover about the world, not necessarily what others present as exemplars. She was demanding of her subject material – she described writing a novel as ‘getting something out of nothing’ – and her craft: every story had three complete drafts, the first in longhand, the other two typewritten from scratch. ‘I put a lot of work into researching my books,’ she said, ‘but I don’t write about anything that I don’t already have an interest in, or at any rate know something about. I’ll do research as it’s necessary. But “research” doesn’t just mean reading up on a subject in a library; it’s whatever I need to find out about for a story or a novel. In Enough Is Too Much Already, there’s a story in which one of the three main characters cons two American students into believing that snooker was first played with hard-boiled eggs. The stories in that book are extremely realistic, so I had to find out if it could be done. It was no good just fantasising; if you couldn’t play snooker like that, the story wasn’t going to be any good. So I hard-boiled some eggs, got a long garden cane, and tried out snooker shots on the kitchen table. It’s not easy, but it can be done. Once I’d done that, I knew that I could use that story.’
So understandably, she was frustrated by the way books were often used in the classroom. (She had been a teacher herself – art was her subject, but she often acquired the students other teachers didn’t know what to do with.) She said, ‘A lot of teachers, and reviewers, people who review for teachers, are ready to discard a book because there’s nothing you can do actually with it in class except read it, which is why it was written usually.’ She recognised a canon of books which had become classroom standards, because they were useful. ‘I said laughingly to a lecturer I’m working with, “I bet Thunder and Lightnings is going the same way,” and it is. They become classics by inertia rather than anything else. They may be perfectly good, but they’re not questioned.’
When Jan was selected to be Writer in Residence at Oxford Polytechnic, now Oxford Brookes University, in the early 80s, she chose to work with students who were going to be teachers. She realised that many would-be teachers weren’t confident readers – much less writers – so set about introducing them to inspirational children’s books and to writing techniques that would stimulate their own creativity, as well as that the children they’d go on to teach.
‘When I’m setting a writing exercise for a class, or a group of students, I always try not to put people in a situation where they’re likely to fail. So I try to find … ways to cut out the time wasting and get straight into the story at the point where it’s most interesting. For example, I have a collection of about 150 picture postcards, and the students each pick a card and pretend it’s an illustration from a book. They then write the page which would go with that illustration. What they are doing, in fact, is writing a page from somebody else’s book and, because they haven’t written the beginning, they incorporate all the scene setting into the narrative, which is what an experienced writer should do. Although, for most people, it will never be more than just an interesting fragment, it will at least be a good fragment.’
After her two years at Oxford Poly, Jan continued to travel across the UK – and the world – working with teachers and students. She was notorious for giving short shrift to teachers who chatted through her author talks, or marked assignments, or were ill-prepared for her visits. But she was totally on side with the good teachers.
Jan wrote for enjoyment, for pleasure – she gave you a good time if you embarked on one of her stories – but they’re not without demands. She set the bar high, knowing that her readers were totally up to the task she set them. That’s why we remember her books, and why she should still be read. She reminds us how good books and reading can be.
Jan’s fans are legion – we’re all over the world, all different ages – but we didn’t have a place to hang out (her art room would have been ideal). So I’ve built a website to record Jan’s own words about her craft and allow space for her fans’ responses. I want it to feel vital and relevant. That’s why the home page shouts JAN MARK IS HERE. (It’s also a nod to her only adult novel, Zeno Was Here, for the eagle-eyed among you.)
I want https://janmark.net/ to be a platform, ultimately, to bring her stories back into print. Stories that we can keep on talking about, that seem as true today as when they were first written. Please visit, whether you’re a fan or a new reader… let’s keep the conversations going.