Robert Westall – my presentation on two of his books

Hello all,
I am a little pressed for time this week for a post, but thought I would put up a recent ‘presentation’ I gave on Robert Westall – one of my favourite writers at the moment – for my MA course. Westall was famous for three recurring motifs in his work: war, cats and motorbikes, apparently. I am familiar with the first two, but less so with the third.

I will aim to put some reviews up soon of this books but perhaps this might be of interest. It’s all about how war is portrayed in young adult fiction and questions whether bad language and violence is necessary to be realistic. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!

MA Presentation: Robert Westall

For this week’s presentation I will be discussing Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners and Gulf and comparing them to Barbara Mitchelhill’s Run Rabbit Run, with particular reference to how violence is portrayed in books with wartime settings, and any authorial didacticism that can be detected within.

The Machine Gunners may be one of Robert Westall’s most lauded and popular books but it is also arguably his most controversial. Focusing on the clandestine activities of a group of children during World War II, it never shirks from portraying the situation with brutal honesty, bad language, violence and all, as Peter Hollindale asserts: ‘[Westall] held invincibly to his belief that the truth should not be ideologically pasteurised for children…’

The Machine Gunners, by Robert Westall. Image courtesy of
The Machine Gunners, by Robert Westall. Image courtesy of

The children living in fictional Garmouth (Tynemouth) in the Blitz are so used to bombings and death that their casual attitude towards the war might seem shocking to a modern reader. Emerging from air-raid shelters in the morning people look at how many milk bottles are left on the cart because ‘…Every extra bottle meant some family bombed-out during the night.’ (1) This image shows that the children are living in a very unnatural and almost surreal situation; on the one hand, there is the ‘same whistling milkman, same cart-horse…’ (ibid), and on the other, proof that those bottles will no longer be required by the deceased. Equally bizarrely, the war provides children with exciting play opportunities. They compete with one another by collecting war souvenirs, and this provides the inciting incident of the novel: the discovery and acquisition of the machine gun from the German fighter plane which leads Chas and his gang to build their own fortress in preparation for the invading enemy.

Westall defended his portrayal of violence in this book by saying that children ‘…found the war fun; the best game anybody ever invented, unless you or somebody near and dear got killed.’ (Children of the Blitz: 12) It is perhaps their way of making sense of a situation that was too terrifying to contemplate with any degree of realism – even in Westall’s later novel The Kingdom by the Sea, Harry is frightened by the emotions that threaten to overcome him when he thinks his family have perished in an air-raid, ‘…he felt like a bomb himself, and if anyone did anything to him, he would explode into a million pieces and nobody would ever be able to put him back together again’ (16).

The violence of war inevitably is reflected in the children’s behaviour, and this is most powerfully seen and felt in the fight scene between Chas and Boddser. Chas’s conscience knows that his idea for beating Boddser is appalling ‘It set him aghast’ (70) but he has grown up in an environment in which the reality is ‘…maim or be maimed.’ (ibid). The extreme brutality in the scene is shocking and has driven the criticism levelled at the book by its detractors, but Westall has said that his purpose here was ‘to address it from the pacifist angle…’, arguing that the fact that Chas is shunned by all his friends and family is proof that violence is undesirable. In the course notes, Pat Pinsent expresses uncertainty that he achieves his goal here, saying it is ‘…unlikely that the average reader, adult or child, is left with the kind of sense of defeat which his remarks might suggest.’

What I feel comes across more poignantly from this situation is the hypocrisy in people’s attitudes towards violence. Chas is caned by the headmaster, who uses violence to punish violence, and who also doesn’t condemn Chas’s decision to fight, per se, just how he does it: ‘Britishers do not use weapons, they fight only with their fists’, a sentiment echoed by Chas’s father. The implication here is that it would have been acceptable had Chas beaten Boddser to a pulp with his fists rather than his gas mask. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the children acquire a fluid and somewhat confused attitude towards violence, as seen in how they react to Chas after the fight, ‘The class treated him with awe-struck and horrified silence. It was their opinion that Boddser had asked for it, but Chas shouldn’t have done it.’ (ibid)

This internal conflict could be seen as coming from what Virginia Walter describes as the children’s faulty socialisation. In a paper based on Robert Westall’s wartime novels, she compares the characters’ actions to Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s work ‘The Social Construction of Reality’. This explains that every person’s experience of everyday reality comes from their human relationships with others, and that socialisation is how we become part of that reality, with adults being the main conduits for children. Walters says that ‘Childhood is a particularly salient period for acquiring the understanding of what it means to be a member of a particular society,’ but warns that normal societal rules change during war time. This leaves children in a quandary about how they should behave when the boundaries keep changing. Cynical Clogger sums this up well when, in response to the statement that ‘Adults know best,’ (101) replies, ‘They dae what’s best for grown-ups,’ (ibid)

It is somewhat ironic – but surely not accidental – that the adult Westall chooses to express the novel’s antiwar message is Rudi, the captured Nazi gunner. Quickly, Rudi becomes part of their alternative family in the camp, as they realise that ‘He really looked like somebody’s dad; a bit fed up and tired’ (130). The children, particularly Nicky, who at one point calls him ‘Dad’, treat him more as one of them than they do their own parents and sing German Army songs with him, leading Rudi to question, ‘Who was on whose side? Had the children no loyalty to the British? Had he any loyalty left to the Germans?’ (146) Westall decriminalises him both in their eyes and in the reader’s, and calls into question how stable loyalty to one’s country is when you get to know your enemy, ‘His patriotism towards the Fatherland was dead’ (156). While Westall never openly condemns war in The Machine Gunners, he does at least provide opportunities for readers to question the nature of violence and what, if anything, it achieves.

In Gulf, Westall’s antiwar message is delivered much more didactically in what Virginia Walters describes as his ‘…most political novel and … written with an urgent anti-war message’.

Gulf, by Robert Westall. Image courtesy of
Gulf, by Robert Westall. Image courtesy of

Gulf was written later in his career, which could explain the change in narrative intent to a certain degree, but perhaps more relevant is the fact that the Gulf War was very different in nature to the Second World War. The latter had a direct and tangible impact on the British, who were, at home and abroad, defending their country against invasion. However, the distant nature of the Gulf War, which was only really understood by the general public via media reports, is a very different experience of conflict, and one in which it was easy to view almost as entertainment. Hollindale sums it up well when he says the novel was ‘…written out of anger at the nonstop televisual entertainment and deceptive propagandist images of the Gulf War… It shows with unforgettable power the victimisation, by inhuman processes on both sides of the conflict, of a boy soldier in the Iraqi army.’

While Westall frames the narrative through the first person voice of Tom, he uses elements of fantasy to bring to life the horrors of modern-day warfare. From the moment of his birth we are aware that Andy’s / Figgis’s purpose is to fulfill other people’s needs. Tom’s desperation for a brother drives him to create an imaginary friend called Figgis, and when Andy is born, he steps straight into those shoes, even taking on the name. Before long, he is saving injured animals, identifying telepathically with starving Ethiopians and then becoming inextricably linked with a young Iraqi soldier, Latif, at the start of the Gulf War.

Figgis’ metamorphosis into Latif helps Tom see the war in a new light, and he tells Tom that he thinks this was his purpose all along, ‘…I’m meant to be here, to see it all. To make up for all those who’re watching on the TV as if it was a soap…’ (83). Tom admits that his brother’s telepathy is helping him to see ‘…things differently…’ (79). Instead of cheering on Stormin Norman’s troops on the television, like his father, Tom starts to see the murderous Saddam Hussein in a more mundane light, ‘He looked human, like a used-car dealer…’ (ibid). Equally, the supposedly heroic Allied forces become more sinister to him, ‘with their cropped hair and still, expressionless faces… The humble monks of death’ (ibid), who fight not ‘for pride or rage or hate. For oil’ (ibid). Tom is seeing behind the jingoistic media images that have created a monstrous Middle Eastern despot out of a wicked but unremarkable man, while the supposed saviours are actually clinical and unemotional individuals who kill Iraqis in their thousands, as Figgis/Latif, declares, ‘They are all in pieces; arms, legs, heads still inside steel helmets. Hands. How can they bury them, if they are all in pieces… hundreds of them? Thousands… How are they going to bury them?’ (87).

When Figgis recovers and becomes Andy, there is no evidence of the suffering he endured, ‘…he’s normal with knobs on’ (93), which Tom can only see as a bad thing, ‘…nobody seems to give a damn about anything outside our house anymore… Figgis was our conscience’ (94-95). It could be argued that the death of Figgis is a metaphor for the death of society’s conscience when faced with distant wars and conflicts. However, there is hope in Tom, whom Figgis begs to keep the memory alive, ‘Tell people what it was like. I want people to know what it was like. Latif and Akbar are people too…’ (84)

While these two novels by Robert Westall raise various questions about the acceptability of war and violence to varying degrees and success, Barbara Mitchelhill’s relatively recent (2011) book Run Rabbit Run deals with the reality of being a conscientious objector in the Second World War.

Run Rabbit Run, by Barbara Mitchelhill. Image courtesy of
Run Rabbit Run, by Barbara Mitchelhill. Image courtesy of


Mitchelhill tells the tale through Lizzie, whose father has been ordered to either go to war to fight or go to prison. Despite the fact that Lizzie’s mother has been killed in a German air strike, her father refuses to become a soldier or create weapons or materials that could be used to kill – a decision that even his youngest son Freddie doesn’t quite understand:

‘“They dropped that bomb on Mum, didn’t they? … That’s only fair…”

Dad shook his head. “But that would make me just like the people who killed her, wouldn’t it? If we all refused to fight there wouldn’t be a war at all.’” (16)

The first-person narration helps the reader to quickly engage and identify with the family’s situation, as they flee from Rochdale to avoid capture by the police. However, while The Machine Gunners invites readers to consider their stance on violence and war (and perhaps realise that they might have different opinions depending on the circumstances), Mitchelhill leaves the reader in no doubt as to the message she wishes to convey in Run Rabbit Run: that there is no shame or cowardice in conscientious objectors. This is seen in the first two-thirds of the story, where the family move first from the family home in Rochdale to a commune of asylum seekers in Whiteway (an actual commune in the Cotswolds), then to a farm to work in exchange for food and board, before the father finally gives himself up to police when Freddie becomes seriously ill.

In each of these situations, Mitchelhill constructs situations where the father can explain the idea of pacifism:

‘I told them… I didn’t believe in war and that I wouldn’t go killing anybody. War is bad, that’s what I said. There was no good to be gained from fighting wars’ (9)

‘These men in Parliament don’t care how many people die. The just want power…’ (87)

Responses from sympathetic supporters are typically encouraging:

‘“You’re doing the right thing. Remember all those lads killed in the first war? … Wives and mothers grieving? And for what?’ (18)

‘“Well,” said Kitty, “if it were up to me everybody would refuse to fight. Where does all that fighting and killing get you? That’s what I want to know.’” (85)

When criticism is expressed, it typically comes from unlikeable characters such as the dreaded aunt, ‘If you can’t behave like a man and fight, then you’re no brother of mine and I’ll not have anything to do with you ever again. Our mother would be ashamed of you’ (11).

While it is helpful to introduce children to conscientious objectors and their place in war, Mitchelhill overeggs the point, to the extent that the narrative feels like a vehicle for ensuring the reader is on side. Only when the father is imprisoned and the children are sent to Wales does Mitchelhill finally free herself of her obligation to support pacifism and move into a ‘proper’ war story. At this point the children are free of their parent and able to enter their own adventure (remarkably similar at one point to Carrie’s War), which includes becoming part of a – luckily – loving and supportive adoptive family who help them trace their father’s whereabouts.

Towards the end of the book, the children run away to find their father, who has been sent to work in a Shropshire coal mine. They arrive to discover there has been an accident in the mine that very day, and their father is alive but he won’t leave his injured friend to escape to safety. Eventually they are rescued but Lizzie’s father is injured seriously enough to exempt him from the threat of serving in the Army again. At this point, Lizzie declares, ‘I felt really proud of him … our father was a hero’ (214). This jars against the previous messages about pacifism – in effect Lizzie is proud because he did not run away to save himself and even if she accepts his stance on conscientious objecting, there is a sense of relief that he has redeemed himself in the eyes of others.

The ending unfortunately also feels a little too didactic and summative, as Lizzie muses, ‘I sometimes wonder about the war and who is brave and who is a coward. I think you have to be brave to stand up for what you believe in. It’s not only soldiers who are the brave ones. The people they leave behind have to be brave too…’ (222). While this is a valid statement, it stands out rather starkly in a work of fiction.

In conclusion, I feel that all these books have didactic messages but the way in which they are conveyed are different. In The Machine Gunners, Westall’s primary concern is to faithfully and truthfully portray the reality of a community affected by war, with constant threats of death, fear and uncertainty. This arguably excuses their ‘kill or be killed’ mentality, though Westall also reflects on the futility of war, especially in the children’s interaction with Rudi. In Gulf, Westall’s didactic aim is more obvious through Tom’s first-person narration and the very negative depictions of how war is portrayed by the media and how eagerly the public lap up the images from the safety of their living rooms. Finally, in Run Rabbit Run Mitchelhill gives a sympathetic portrayal of pacifism during a time when fighting for your country was the honourable thing to do, yet whose message is slightly weakened by an overemphasis on reasons which start to sound unfavourably like excuses.

Over to you!

Do you think that violence and bad language are necessary for a truthful and realistic portrayal of war? Or should writers tone down or ‘pasteurise’ their narrative for younger audiences?



One comment

  1. Fascinating and thought-provoking. Re the attitude to violence in the Machine Gunners – I haven’t read the book but does the Head make the distinction between fists/gas mask as blunt weapon because if Chas had used his fists he wouldn’t have been able to beat Boddser to a pulp without damage to himself and it would have been a more equal fight? Reminds me of Flashman in Tom Brown’s Schooldays secretly arming himself with a knuckleduster in a fist fight with Tom and of course knocking the younger boy senseless. Dastardly and unfair!


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