Monday, 14 March 2011

Goodnight Mister Tom: 30 years to the good

Not many writers are read beyond their lifetime. Not many writers are read a year after their book comes out. Michelle Magorian is likely to be one of the lucky ones.

Her novel Goodnight Mister Tom came out thirty years ago this year. It's a warm hearted tale of a young wartime evacuee who has been abused and neglected at home, but who finds a genuine parent and a new start in the unlikely shape of a grumpy old church caretaker, who lives on the edge of a graveyard.

Magorian was a repertory theatre actress when she wrote the book. In my interview with her in this week's Big Issue Scotland Magazine (it's not available online, you have to buy a copy from a vendor) she recalls being so broke she had to scrabble around for pennies with which to buy fruit and veg with at the local market. When she couldn't even to that, she'd go to the market and grab the surplus waste that had fallen on the floor.

That first novel kick started a new career as a writer and has given her an income all these years - though she says it has been up and down. Even so, with a British TV adaptation, two theatre adaptations (one is currently touring) and sales around the world, Goodnight Mister Tom has claimed a higher profile than most children's books, with the exception of the obvious Rowlings and Pullmans.

I came to the book expecting it to be overly sentimental - based on the premise, and on the snippets I'd seen of the ITV dramatisation with John Thaw. But I was surprised by how much grit the book contained, and the harshness of some of the scenes. Perhaps I shouldn't have been: the written word is generally tougher than it's on-screen counterparts. I was moved by the book, and it struck me that while there were moments in it during which she allowed the pace to slacken a little, the flaws didn't matter too much.

Magorian herself told me that she re-read the book recently and winced a little: because there were passages she felt she could write better now. Her writing, she stressed, has evolved in the thirty years since - her most recent book, Just Henry, has earned a Costa award and rave reviews. And yet it is that first book, with all its rough edges, which she remains most well known for. There's something bittersweet about that.

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