Jan Needle, whose 1981 novel Wild Wood turned the Toad Hall of Wind in the Willows into a socialist utopia for stoats and weasels, has died in Manchester.
His edgy 1978 story My Mate Shofiq, about a desperate interracial alliance between two boys in Oldham and his novel The Bully, 1983, became recommended reading in schools worldwide but Wagstaffe, the Wind-up Boy, a gruesome tale about a boy catapulting eggs at heavy lorries on the M62, was widely deplored by adults, although relished by children.
John Stephens in Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction found that Wagstaffe was seen as “endemically subversive of such things as social authority, received paradigms of behaviour and morality”.
Wagstaffe was published by Andre Deutsch in June 1987 just before BBC Two screened Needle’s eight-part TV drama Truckers about lorry drivers surviving in Thatcher’s Britain, sometimes by strike-breaking.
After a long strike by their drama personnel, the BBC had asked for new series ideas “on the back of an envelope”. Needle sent in an empty envelope covered in hand-written storylines gathered on continental journeys with a lorry driver from Warrington.
Despite the gritty and sexy truth of the stories and despite the BBC hiring real lorry drivers to drive real work-stained lorries at locations in the North of England and Southern Italy, the Commercial Motor accused the BBC of fantasy and “doing a great dis-service to this country”.
The South Coast boy who landed in Manchester
Born in Portsmouth in 1943 and schooled on small boats in Portsmouth Harbour by a cunning old salt known as Pop Meadows, James Albert Needle started calling himself Jan Needle at Portsmouth Grammar School after reading a Dutch novel about the captain of an ocean-going salvage tug.
Jan de Hartog had published Hollands Glorie in May 1940, ten days before the German invasion of the Netherlands. The book sold a million copies during the German occupation, mostly printed in secret. Hartog escaped to Britain in 1943 where the roman van de zeesleepvaart was published in English in 1952 as Captain Jan.
The schoolboy from Portsmouth Harbour wrote a cheeky letter to Arthur Ransome, asking the author of Swallows and Amazons for directions to Wild Cat Island. Ransome sent a cryptic reply revealing that the island had been lifted by the author from one lake and planted in another lake.
In 2012, when Martyn Torr of the now defunct Oldham Chronicle climbed up to Rye Top, an isolated stone house on the moors above Uppermill in Saddleworth, Needle explained how a double A-level failure had landed him in the newsroom of the Portsmouth Evening News:
“My father was a sailor and so was a chap called Wilkinson, who was the news editor at the Portsmouth Evening News. My father mentioned I was good at English. I was invited for an interview and hired on the spot as a junior reporter.”
Young Needle didn’t much like the job but teenage sailing stories, submitted as J W Urquhart, found no takers. A pal in the North of England fixed him a job as a reporter at the Daily Herald in Manchester. “I loved the city from the moment my feet touched the platform at Manchester Central. I’ve been here ever since.”“But I was just no good at reporting. I hated it,” he once told me. A ghastly day reporting alongside the crusty cronies of the Liverpool Press Club prompted a drunken but successful demand to switch to sub-editing at the Herald printing plant in Oxford Road.
Graduation to the national dailies
Hugh Cudlipp of the Daily Mirror relaunched the Herald as the new Sun in 1964 and five years later, in another misguided attempt to protect his Daily Mirror, Cudlipp sold the Sun to Rupert Murdoch for £800,000 and a promise to print a “straightforward, honest newspaper”.
Murdoch closed the Manchester plant. But the sub-editors who served the presses of Manchester’s Fleet Street could switch bosses and teams quicker than footballers. Needle played for various tabloids as one of the sharpest of the ‘permanent casuals’ during the last 20 years of hot metal printing.
Withy Grove, where he worked on the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Mirror, surrounded by pubs and clubs frequented by printers, journos and racy ‘night workers’, was the second largest newspaper printing plant in Europe, after Pravda in Moscow.
Peter Grimsditch, the ingenious launch editor of the Daily Star, gave Needle a bonus job as children’s’ editor. Week after week, Needle awarded the children’s best joke prize to a contestant called Sadie M’Gee until the Star discovered that Sadie M’Gee was an old lady living in Scotland.
Needle “loved the jokes, loved the name” and named his only daughter Sadie M’Gee Needle. Years later, when it came to naming a fictional nurse capable of thieving from Oldham Royal Hospital the liver of the squashed Wagstaffe boy and cooking it for supper, the wind-up boy’s nemesis became Nurse Sadie M’Gee.
“I never thought I would have to explain it to anyone. Because even I could not have invented what was going to happen. Our little Sadie M’Gee grew up, passed all her exams and became an A&E nurse at the very same Oldham Royal Hospital. Unbelievable. Even for me.”
After taking a drama degree at Manchester University at the age of 25, he collaborated with Professor Peter Thomson on what was said to be the best book on Bertolt Brecht in English. Margot Heineman, in the London Review of Books, noticed its curious introduction. Brecht by Needle and Thomson was, she wrote, “designed as an introduction for students and theatre people who have to read their Brecht in English [and] is very good most of the way, though the introduction refers to unresolved (and unspecified) disagreements between the authors which may be responsible for a slightly schizophrenic effect at times”.
There are over 40 books, published for all ages under various names, starting with Albeson and the Germans in 1977:
“… the attitudes and opinions of the adults count for very little to the protagonists, who see them only through a haze of incomprehension and misunderstanding. Strangely, it is only the feared and hated Germans who offer Albeson any real hope for the future.”
The most curious tribute to Needle as novelist and researcher came in May 1991 when HarperCollins published The Butcher’s Bill, a roman á cléf for the 50th anniversary of the still unexplained crash landing in Scotland by Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess.
Francis Wheen at Private Eye soon worked out that Frank Kippax, a mysterious author offering a £5,000 prize for any new information on the Hess flight, was really Needle.
When copies of the book went on sale at a launch party in the field where the Hess plane had crashed, someone from the British security services turned up, bought a copy, gave Needle a false phone number in Edinburgh and picked up an entry form for the cash prize.
A later edition of the book, re-named Death Order, included fresh information that the cabinet minister Ernest Bevin had warned Winston Churchill in a telephone call from the Queens Hotel in Leeds that Hess was flying to Britain.
Death Order attracted serious attention from a history professor who found evidence in wartime newspapers that Bevin had cancelled an advertised speaking tour after making the phone call to Churchill but no one has ever claimed the prize.
From ‘dosshouse in Dewsbury’ to the BBC
The “absolutely wonderful joyful satire” that the late Paul Foot found when the stoats and weasels evict “the rich, uncaring few” from Toad Hall, flourished again in 2014 when Julia Jones, the present custodian of Arthur Ransome’s wooden ketch Peter Duck, re-published Wild Wood under her Golden Duck imprint and re-united Needle’s text with the original Willie Rushton illustrations of the banishing from Toad Hall of Kenneth Grahame’s once-lovable Ratty, Mole and Toad.
When Golden Duck reported that Wild Wood had been dreamed up in “a dosshouse in Dewsbury” Needle emailed their website: “I must point out that the conversation in the dosshouse in Dewsbury took place between me and the young woman to whom [along with our two as then undreamed of sons] the book is dedicated. It was a wonderful weekend.”
The author of accurate historical sea stories like A Fine Boy for Killing, Nelson: the Dreadful Havoc and Napoleon: The Escape displayed immaculate taste in boats. He owned Badsocks, a 4.5-metre Drascombe Scaffie with a traditional loose-footed lug sail. His 6-metre pocket gaffer William Shakesbill is a Winkle Brig designed and built at Fiddlers Ferry on the River Mersey by his friend the late Eric Bergquist. His 14.6-metre steel narrowboat Pale Cynthia was powered by a Gardner 1L2 single-cylinder diesel engine built in 1937 by legendary engineers at Patricroft.
Needle crewed every summer aboard Hydaway, an 11-metre wheelhouse ketch owned by an itinerant market trader from Salford who shared Needle’s love of remote Irish Sea anchorages and harbours, especially Ynyis Llanddwyn, Amlwch, Ardglass and Portpatrick.
Jan broke into television scriptwriting with A Place of Execution, a one-hour drama for the BBC that led to countless scripts for Grange Hill, Brookside, The Bill, Behind the Bike Sheds, Soft Soap, Sooty and Sweep, Count Duckula and Thomas the Tank Engine.
Needle’s legacy in critical thought remains
Grange Hill earned him an invitation from Phil Redmond to join the tightly organised scriptwriting team at Brookside, the Merseyside soap opera that ran on Channel 4 for 21 years.
Andy Lynch, who met Needle at Brookside, remembered how “Jan was initially taken aback by the combative nature of storyline conferences at Brookside where a dozen or so people vied to have their voices heard, stories accepted and commissions awarded”.
“It was a far cry from the solo crafting of novels. We became the best of friends and Jan was soon a valuable member of the team, enjoying the camaraderie and the social side that went with it.”
Margaret Thatcher’s armed forces minister John Stanley asked Thames Television to ban Needle’s three-part children’s TV serial A Game of Soldiers. The government in the recently liberated Falkland Islands had discovered that Needle’s plot involved three islander children deciding it was their duty to kill a wounded Argentinian soldier. Thames resisted.
A Game of Soldiers was nominated for a BAFTA and is still shown in schools to provoke classroom discussions and inform school essays on the power of rumours in wartime. On the orders of Bryan Cowgill, the wartime Royal Marine from Clitheroe who headed the Independent Broadcasting Authority, each episode of A Game of Soldiers included a spoken warning about “the fictional nature of the storyline”.
Jan Needle’s Irish penny whistle will be heard no more in the back room of the Cross Keys pub at Uppermill. He leaves his wife Elizabeth, his partner Viv Gardner, emeritus professor of drama at Manchester University, four sons and Sadie M’Gee Needle, who was at his bedside when he died in a Manchester hospice on 9 October.