Jan Mark (1943-2006)
The Oxford Writer, Spring 2006
Philip Pullman, a founder member of WiO, pays tribute to his fellow Oxford children's writer, Jan Mark.
I'M NOT GOING INTO the formal business of writing an obituary here. The obituaries have been published already, and in due course the entries in reference books will be updated, and summaries of her life and work will appear – should appear – in such works as the Dictionary of National Biography. Those who study and write about children’s literature will have plenty to say about her for a long time to come; her work will be judged and weighed and assigned a place in the canon. This is different. I just want to say why I liked her, and why I found her formidable, and why I was a little nervous of her, and why she’ll be so greatly missed.
I felt a great respect for her, in the first place, because she was already famous when I had published only a couple of adult novels which had (mercifully) failed to trouble the bestseller lists. Her first novel Thunder and Lightnings came out, and won major prizes, and was justly celebrated before I had even begun to write books that children might read. I’m not sure if first impressions are ever quite forgotten, and I never managed to overcome the feeling, whenever I met her, that I was a minor character in the presence of a major one.
In the second place, she wrote so well. What a mysterious thing good writing is! It’s very difficult to define, though people who read a great deal can recognise it at once. It seems to be made without effort, though people who write a great deal know that it never is: but unless you want to draw attention to the beads of sweat and the straining sinews as you take part in the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings, in T.S. Eliot’s phrase, then the result reads more effectively if the effort is concealed. Good writing is musical, though never sing-song; it’s rhythmical, but like jazz it swings rather than thumps. It’s clear, but with the clarity of deep water rather than Perspex, by which I mean that things live and move in deep water, and the long perspective of clarity lets you see them all in their proper relations. Obscure writing shows you only a surface. And finally, for now (though there are many other things to say on the subject) good writing is tense like a tuned string, and never slack. The tuning peg is called intelligence. Jan Mark’s intelligence showed in every line.
Thirdly, Jan was kind. The brusqueness, the sharp tongue, the scowl – others have remarked on these, and told many good stories (I loved the story told by another Jan, Jan Needle, of Jan Mark throwing out a group of teachers from a class she was addressing because they were talking at the back, and then telling the children never to be so rude and inconsiderate when they grew up). She had a passion for justice, social and political and personal, but plenty of people with a passion for justice are cold unpleasant prigs in private life. Jan’s sharpness was tempered by warmth, her wit was generous and never cruel, her hospitality was immediate and unconditional.
She was shy, I think. There was a rough awkwardness and a hesitancy sometimes in her manner, as there is with people who are unusually self-conscious. She was prolific. I can imagine a fastidious critic with the luxury of a private income saying that if she had written less and revised more, she might have become better known; but anyone who writes for a living knows that that living is hard won, sometimes, and depends on keeping the production line flowing. Some of her stories depend on what I thought was a typically Jan view-point, where we don’t see the events so much as what two clever and observant people say to each other about the events. I used to wish sometimes that she’d spend less time with the commentators and more with the protagonists, but that was the desire of a naïve and impatient reader, and her commentators were always people whose company was astringent and agreeable, much like hers.
It’s not for us to say which of her many books will survive longest; time will sort them out. I miss her very much.
One lesson I draw from this sad month is that we shouldn’t take it for granted that we’ll see very much of people who live close by, even in a small city like Oxford. I used to think that since I might bump into her any time, it was hardly worth making the effort to see her on purpose. Well, I should have made that effort more often, and I wish I had. None of us who knew her will ever forget her.
© Philip Pullman 2006
This article was first published in The Oxford Writer in March 2006.