Michelle Magorian: Just Michelle
For Michelle Magorian, small details lead to bigger things. While researching A Little Love Song she came across a photograph of evacuated children returning to England after the war. The image became the focus of Back Home.
A meeting with a director led to Cuckoo in the Nest, about a boy who wants to work in the theatre. A scene in that book led to A Spoonful of Jam . And the chain continued with Just Henry, Magorian’s first book for ten years.
‘I couldn’t sleep one night and a scene came to me at three o’clock in the morning – bam. It was the old cinema. I thought, “Ah! So that’s where I’m going next. Are people trying to restore or save this cinema or am I going back into the cinema’s history?”
‘I felt myself being pulled back into history. It was only when I finished the book that I remembered that in A Spoonful of Jam there was a tiny scene where Elsie goes to the cinema. So obviously there was a seed there that I just developed later on.’
Just Henry takes place during the austerity years after World War II, in a fictitious coastal town based on Magorian’s home city of Portsmouth.
Henry lives with his mother, stepfather, half-sister and manipulative grandmother, who convinces Henry that his stepfamily is an insult to the memory of his father, who died a hero’s death in the war.
Things are no better at school, where Henry is teamed in a project with the class outcasts: Pip, who is illegitimate, and Jeffries, whose father was a deserter. A mystery turns Henry’s own world upside down, but, in this big-hearted novel with larger than life characters, love conquer all in the end.
Cinema forms the backbone of the story. The children spend every spare minute at the pictures, and Magorian describes the experience of 1940s cinema-going, as well as the films themselves, in loving detail.
She was familiar with some of the films before she wrote the book and watched others specially. ‘Sometimes weird things happen when you’re doing the research,’ she says. ‘I decided to set Just Henry in a particular place so that I would know what was on in the cinemas. It would have been perfect if round about March or April one of the cinemas had started showing European films, but I thought nobody would believe me if I did that in the book.
‘So I’m going through these newspapers, and I see that the Rex cinema in Portsmouth closes down for refurbishment and when it reopens it shows European films. I thought, “This is spooky. Absolutely amazing.” Historical detail about the filmmaking process itself was acquired through interviews with retired film cameramen that Magorian located with the help of the producer of Goodnight Mister Tom.
The temporal setting of Just Henry allowed Magorian to illuminate for young readers the seismic changes that have taken place in British society since the war.
Henry’s stepfather, Uncle Bill, is a railwayman who aspires to be a teacher. When he goes to night school and passes his exams, the achievement is so unusual that it makes the local paper.
The character of Uncle Bill is based in part on Magorian’s own father. ‘My father came from Ireland. He was the eldest of nine children. He was 14 when his mother died of TB. The only time he wore shoes was when he went to school and he lived on bread and tea. But he was very bright, and by the time he was 10 he’d finished all the work in school.
‘The couple that ran the school told his parents that he should be a teacher and they laughed. When he got to the navy they cottoned on that he was bright and they just threw everything at him. He ended up being an officer. When he left the navy he became a teacher. Then he studied law in the evenings and became a barrister.’
“I was looking through old newspapers, and out of the corner of my eye there was this boy jumping up and down, and I knew everything about him.”
Other characters, like the initial idea for the story, simply appeared as if by magic. ‘I was looking through old newspapers, and out of the corner of my eye there was this boy jumping up and down, and I knew everything about him. That was Pip. He’s small for his age, and has complete optimism. I knew he was illegitimate.
‘I thought, “You’ve got nothing to be optimistic about. You’ve got everything going against you; what are you so optimistic about? Will you please go away? I’m trying to concentrate on taking these notes.” And back he’d come. And in the end I said, “OK, you’re in. I give up.” And as soon as he came into the story I knew why he needed to be there. Things fell into place.’
At 700 pages and with its mature themes, Just Henry seems on one level like a teen read, but its style and innocence suggest both an earlier era and a younger readership. Magorian herself assumed it would appeal primarily to teenagers, but has found, unexpectedly, that Just Henry is being read by people from age eight to 80.
Adults who were themselves children during and just after the war, in particular, have been sharing with her their reminiscences of the time. ‘The older generation want to read it because it’s their childhood. They have got some lovely stories. One person was talking to me about how the cinema commissioner used to patrol the queues of kids. He had a wooden leg.
‘Another was talking about the grocery shop. The publishers wanted me to cut down that part. I wanted to keep in just a tiny bit of the grocery shop where Henry works, because if I said, “He was going into a shop,” children would think he was going into a supermarket.
‘I thought that I must keep a taste of it so they’d know what that was like. If the older generation and younger generation could enjoy Just Henry together, that would be lovely. Really, I’m just longing for people to enjoy the book.’