In wartime Garmouth, a North-Eastern coastal town taking a pounding from the Luftwaffe, where are the battle lines being drawn? Interestingly, not necessarily between English and German forces, a relationship that becomes blurred on a very personal level as this gritty, complex novel unfolds. Rather, it is the conflict between childhood and adulthood that fuels the friction at the heart of The Machine Gunners, as a cell of resourceful, if occasionally misguided, teenagers seek to seize control of the war from their ineffectual adult peers.
And the grit is in evidence from Page One. “You remember that lass in the greengrocer’s?” muses the father of central character Chas McGill, wearily glugging a pint of tea in his ARP Warden’s uniform. “A direct hit. They found half of her in the front garden and the other half right across the house.” An unflinching tone is set, and reinforced when – following the latest relentless wave of bombings – 13-year-old Chas discovers, in a secret thicket of his favourite local wood, the severed tail of a downed Heinkel He-11, complete with the decomposing, fly-coated body of the rear gunner and an entirely intact and operational machine-gun.
At first intended only as triumphant booty to deflate his classroom nemesis and rival munitions hoarder Boddser Brown, the gun gradually becomes a totemic symbol of Chas’ disconnect from the adult world. He accumulates a team of mismatched accomplices, each facing their own degree of alienation; so his regular faithful sidekicks Cemetery Jones (inevitably, the son of the local graveyard-keeper) and the tomboy-ish Audrey Parton are joined by terrifying Glaswegian hard-knock Clogger – unleashed from a thankless existence staying with his Garmouth-based aunt, who only tolerates him for the extra rations – and the wily Carrot-juice, a boy unlucky enough to be born during an era when the vaguest suggestion of a reddish tint around the regulation short-back-and-sides was enough to earn an indelible, lifelong comparison to Britain’s favourite root vegetable.
But perhaps the most interesting recruit is the well-heeled Benjamin “Nicky” Nichol, whose life – even more than most – has been marred by tragedy. With his father dead, his mother has become consumed by the black market booze and sexual respite offered by a procession of sailors who have effectively turned their impressive town house into an unofficial billet. The effete, “puny” Nicky is singled out for systematic bullying at school, but his rambling, neglected, ivy-coated garden, complete with a giant Koi Carp that “only speaks Chinese” provides the perfect location for the gang’s prospective weapons emplacement. With the entire town now searching for the missing machine gun, these disparate children are united by a sense of common purpose and empowered by the snook-cocking one-upmanship of secretly keeping the weapon for themselves, and – indeed – their intention to defend the beleaguered town in a trigger-happy manner that seems inexplicably alien to the pre-occupied grown-ups of Garmouth.
At which point, said battle-lines between juvenile and adult worlds become rigidly defined, although neither party are without flaw. The town’s adult population ranges from the wearily defeated (Chas’ exhausted father, permanently asleep at the dinner table, and the kids’ teacher Stan Liddell, haunted by self-doubt and the unresolved trauma of World War I) to the bumbling and the corrupt (local copper Fatty Hardy, who “couldn’t catch chickenpox” and the Home Guard’s amoral wide boy Sandy Sanderson, constantly “winning” supplies). But the children too can be exploitative and cruel. When the boorish Boddser Brown draws near to uncovering the gun’s location, he is given a brutal beating by Clogger and Chas; and the gang’s impressive garden hide-out (itself gained by initially exploiting the friendless misery of Nicky) is built using purloined materials and the unwitting help of John, a trusting, muscular adult with severe learning difficulties, whose sole conversational gambit (“Where you going now?”) became an inescapable playground catchphrase following the transmission of the 1983 TV adaptation.
Nevertheless, the youngsters’ willful separation from their families and the community at large is both touching and evocative. Over the course of several months, they construct “Fortress Caparetto”, the ultimate childhood den, a bomb-proof, underground garden bunker filled with stolen supplies and makeshift beds, with the active machine gun concreted into place above the nearby beach, ready to defend Tyneside from the seemingly-inevitable coastal invasion. Clogger and Nicky become permanent residents and effectively (and excitingly) transform into “non-people”: the former informing the largely disinterested community that he is returning to Glasgow before seeking underground refuge to look after the latter, Nicky being erroneously presumed dead when an air raid destroys the house, killing his mother and her latest suitor. As gossip-obsessed neighbour Mrs Spaulding puts it: “Dead in their bed of sin they was. And a judgement I call it. Lying there without a stitch on, nor a mark on their bodies… God is not mocked!”. And those desperate for a supernatural frisson from their favourite Musty Books can derive a minor tingle from Nicky’s claim that he was tipped off about the oncoming tragedy by his dead father, returning in a prophetic dream.
The children are liberated in a way that seems impossibly exciting to anyone who, as an 11-year-old, ever dreamed of escaping the dreary confines of adult supervision and roaming wild in a life of permanent Swallows and Amazons abandon. Me, for one. Largely unmissed by pre-occupied parents and teachers, they build their own community inside the Fortress: a childhood utopia with its own duty rota and adolescent rulebook (“No peeing within fifty yards… penalty for splitting to parents, teachers etc is DEATH”); better-built than any local shelter, better armed than the local Home Guard. And the children themselves find that friendships forged partly from selfish convenience soon become touchingly profound. But it’s an idyllic respite savagely punctured when Chas mans the machine gun during another air raid, and the ensuing volley of fire is enough to send a passing Messerschmidt veering off course, where it is ultimately shot down by “Spitfires from Acklington” before plummeting into an unforgiving North Sea.
Events take a mildly outlandish turn when the plane’s injured pilot, the youthful Rudi, parachutes to safety and inevitably adopts Fortress Caparetto as a hideout, but this ultimately only serves to reinforce the increasingly blurred loyalties faced by the youngsters. Finding themselves duty-bound to care for the “enemy” pilot while keeping him permanently under guard, they forge a relationship with him that, in many ways, is closer than their relationships with their own indifferent parents. And the book’s intriguing moral dilemma becomes apparent: when the simple, partisan certainties of war are reduced to the most intimate, personal level of contact (and there are surely few more personal levels than co-habiting with your enemy in a tiny, underground bunker in a Tyneside garden) then were is your morality to be found, and how is your sense of responsibility compromised? In addition to being a thrilling depiction of adolescent disconnect, resourcefulness and comradeship, The Machine Gunners explores this conundrum with sensitivity, charm and brutally dogged candour.
POINT OF ORDER: Robert Westall was born and raised in North Shields, and Garmouth is a fictionalised version of the real-life Tynemouth. The 1983 BBC1 adaptation remains criminally unavailable on DVD, but it was filmed in Gateshead, partly on the childhood street of my friend and frequent collaborator Andrew T. Smith. Although (God help me) this happened before he was born. He recently discovered these photographs of the filming in the collection of his late Uncle Harry:
MUSTINESS REPORT: 2/10. My 1985 edition is, disappointingly, as fresh as a daisy. Only a couple of months underground with an injured German pilot, unable to bathe or even change out of his flying uniform, would add an acceptable level of must.