Robert Leeson 1928-2013

By Colin Chambers

Not many people, I suspect, have music played at their funeral that moves from The Song Of the Prune to Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs by way of Yes, We Have No Bananas, but for those who knew Bob Leeson, this selection celebrating the serious and the absurd was spot on. For Bob, a former chair of the Guild and a versatile, pioneering children’s author who has died aged 85, was a man of deep commitments and loyalty who always displayed a keen eye for the ridiculous wherever it appeared and turned it to good effect in his writing.

Born in Barnton, Cheshire in 1928 to a working-class family as the youngest of four children, he loved reading and storytelling from an early age, and much of his later writing drew on the experiences of his youth. Although the nearby grammar school, to which he, like his siblings, won a scholarship, had no library, he eagerly looked forward to the arrival of the monthly ‘library box’ from which he was allowed to borrow one title on each of its visits. Ever resourceful, at the local library, which lacked a children’s section, he began to feed his imagination, aged 11, by using his mother’s ticket.

On leaving school, Bob worked for the local newspaper before National Service took him into the army and off to Egypt where he guarded the Suez Canal and edited a clandestine Nissen hut newspaper in which, according to his daughter, he shamelessly published his own short stories. He joined the Communist Party, and, for the next two decades, the most important outlet for his writing proved to be the Daily Worker and its successor the Morning Star, for which newspapers he served in a number of roles, from Parliamentary Correspondent and Features Writer to Children’s Editor and Literary Editor. His pithy articles, often published under pen names, were notable for their sly, subversive humour – something that, if the paper’s letters columns are anything to judge by, frequently eluded a certain section of the readership. As a man of immense self-taught learning with an unsettling grasp of, and memory for, detail it was no surprise that his Books Pages were distinguished by the breadth of coverage and the quality of contributor.

Bob’s first published children’s story, Beyond the Dragon Prow, came in 1973 and was based on stories he told his daughter while she was ill. Later that decade, he was able to realise his long-standing ambition of becoming a full-time writer. The 70 or so books he went on to write for younger audiences encompass several genres, each of which he turned on its head and, before it became commonplace, he anchored in the realities of the contemporary world. This imprint of everyday existence can be found across the range of Bob’s books, from his Cameroon slave trilogy of Maroon Boy, Bess and The White Horse, which spans the Elizabethan era and the English Civil War, to the ghostly tale of The Demon Bike Rider and the sci-fi stories in the Time Rope series of novels.

Building on the work of writers such as Geoffrey Trease, Bob’s books embody his belief in the importance of sturdy narrative without the burden of bias, whether of class, gender or race, that blighted traditional children’s literature at the time, a subject about which he wrote in Children’s Books and Class Society. In The Third-Class Genie, for example, which became a Collins Modern Classic, the eponymous hero Abu, who lives in a beer can, ends up chased as an illegal immigrant. And there are plenty of strong female characters to enjoy, in Smart Girls, for instance, or in the three books about 16-year-old Jan, who is abandoned by her mother.

Bob’s prolific output also includes five novels inspired by the characters in the successful BBC TV series Grange Hill, beginning with Grange Hill Rules, OK? Bob would not simply turn existing scripts into printed versions, as was the norm, but insisted on creating new stories, just as he had done at school when he made up tales using characters from the novels he had been reading. Silver’s Revenge, an amusing and radical sequel to Treasure Island, shows Bob returning to and revelling in this practice again. All of Bob’s stories share characteristics with the folk tales from around the world, for which he had an enduring fascination; they deal in moral choice, speak directly and, beside their wit, are marked by a benign humanity.

In addition to his children’s books, Bob wrote on labour history; in the meticulous and absorbing Travelling Brothers, he traces the growth of modern trades unions from the craft movements of the 14th century. He also wrote for radio, television and the theatre. His abiding love of reading and writing led him to become a tireless campaigner for and champion of change in children’s books. He was a member of The Other Award panel when it was established in 1975 to honour children’s books that fell outside the conventional field, and in Reading and Righting, Bob draws on his extensive experience of reviewing children’s books as well as of writing them to offer a critical survey of children’s literature and a guide for improvements. He also made innumerable visits to state schools around the country to encourage in his young audiences the same passion that enthused him and to hear from them in their own voices their particular experiences of the world, which he channelled into and were invaluable for his books.

In 1985, he was given with the Eleanor Farjeon Award himself for distinguished service to the world of British children’s books, specifically for his reading and writing workshops in schools and for his money-raising for the Third World Book Fund to supply schools and libraries with books. That year he also became Chair of the Writers’ Guild, having been active on the Books Committee. Bob played a vital part in negotiating minimum terms agreements with leading UK publishers, a long and intense struggle, as Writers’ Guild historian has Nick Yapp noted. elsewhere. Bob was Nick’s idea of an ideal committee member: “modest, an extremely good listener, constructive, and always contributing the mot juste, the helpful suggestion, the faultless gathering together of every contribution as the discussion nears its end”.

As well as continuing his interest in languages and his allotment, Bob kept writing until the end, self-publishing regular volumes of poems illustrated by his Norwegian wife Gunvor, whom he met in Budapest in 1952 while working for the World Federation of Youth. They married two years later in Oslo. Bob is survived by Gunvor and their two children, Fred and Christine.

Robert Leeson, b. 31 March 1928, d. 29 September 2013