Brian Jacques, Redwall and The Parting Glass


The Parting Glass

First sung in the 1600s, The Parting Glass was well known in both Ireland and Scotland. Before Auld Lange Syne replaced it this song was the most popular parting song in Scotland and it is closely related to the Manx song Te Traa Goll Thie (It’s Time to Go Home). It was the song which, along with “The Leaving of Liverpool”, Billy Maher sang at the recent celebration of the life of the Liverpool writer and broadcaster, Brian Jacques.

The Parting Glass concludes with the refrain:  “Then fill to me the parting glass, Good night and joy be with you all”a farewell greeting with which Brian, a man who lived his life to the full, and who was rarely without a glass in his hand, would have heartily concurred.

He was a man who used his native Scouse wit and story-telling abilities to bring joy and happiness into the lives of countless people.  Whether it was through his children’s novels, the Redwall saga, or through his regular broadcasts on BBC Radio Merseyside, Brian became internationally known, especially in the USA, where obituaries appeared in all the leading newspapers.  His tales about the mice and other creatures of Redwall Abbey are published in 21 volumes and have been translated into 29 languages and sold 20million copies globally.

In 1997, I asked him to deliver one of the Roscoe Lectures which I host for Liverpool John Moores University – which you can hear at http://www.ljmu.ac.uk/roscoe/97603.htm . When the university awarded him an Honorary Fellowship Brian told me how much it meant to be recognised in his home town – where some people, although I think mistakenly, believed his formidable talent had been neglected and insufficiently appreciated.

I first met Brian when I was a local MP and regularly participated in broadcasts from Radio Merseyside.

He was usually wearing his trademark flat cap and his studio would be full of the smoke generated by the cigarettes to which he became addicted as a 15-year-old boy on leaving the Liverpool Catholic school of St.John’s, in Kirkdale,  to join the Merchant navy.  His jobs ranged from longshoreman to logger and policeman to postmaster and milkman.

Tributes from his Radio Merseyside colleagues reminded those who gathered at Liverpool Cathedral that Brian first came to public attention  in the 1960s as a folk singer and comic – appearing regularly at  The Spinners Folk Club and touring with The Liverpool Fishermen  – a group which he founded with his brothers.

In the early 1980s Brian was a milkman in Wavertree – where I was MP. The Liverpool Royal School for the Blind was on his round and we both became supporters and patrons.  Brian had been deeply affected by the children and had written them a story, in a deliberately vivid style, enabling the children to “see” the storyline in their minds and imaginations.  Redwall was thus born.

It was originally handwritten on 800 sheets of recycled paper kept in a Safeway grocery bag. Its central character is a rather timid but heroic mouse by the name of Matthias.  He ends up having to organise the defence of Redwall Abbey against those who would destroy and subvert it.

“Redwall”  first appeared in print in 1986 and Brian told me his purpose had been to show that might does not always have to triumph; that evil need not be victorious;  that we should all be willing,  however imperfect or small we may feel we are, to take on seemingly impossible odds. Many of the books are dedicated to children fighting daunting odds – “Brave Warrior” is dedicated to “Jimmy Casey – the bravest of the brave”.

Catching hold of this sentiment, at the celebration of Brian’s life, children from Liverpool College, accompanied by his sister-in-law, Sandra, sang Andrew Lloyd Weber’s When Children Rule The World: “The demons are gone, the young are the strong, The night that children rule the world…Towers of fire, rise ever higher Magical flags will be unfurled, To Jesus our god, the young are the strong, The night that children rule the world”

Brian had a private but very strong faith. When asked about it in an interview in Texas he said his goal as a writer was to encourage children to realise how precious they are and to “unleash the spark of God” in their lives: to fulfil whatever potential they had.

Brian’s family name came from a French father, Jimmy, who was a furrier. His mother, Nellie was Irish, from Cork, one of ten children from a traditional Irish Catholic family. She taught classical piano. It was a fiery union that produced this quick witted and self taught man.

He was every bit an Irish seanchaí – the traditional Irish storyteller – who would sit and tell his stories, recite his poems and sing his songs.  Traditionally, the process was often helped by some potcheen – the illegal drink brewed in the mountains. Giving this excellent principle contemporary application, Brian once said that “all the characters in the books came from a bottle of wine.” He was especially partial to the Hungarian wine, Bulls Blood, and with a glass in hand would effortlessly conjure up an imaginary narrative around the “fabled land of the Magyars.”

In Ireland and Liverpool enjoying the craic – conversation, wit and humour – still makes life worth living, even during the darkest moments.  Away from the fireside, or the hostelry, even across anonymous radio air waves, Brian had the ability to create a sense of craic in people’s homes and lives.

Mick Ord, who runs Radio Merseyside, rightly says that Brian had the special gift of “talking to you, and to you alone.” It was a great gift for a broadcaster and a storyteller. He was also an encourager in a world of detractors.   Whenever I saw him, and even as the years took their toll, he would greet me, as he did with most people, with his immortal Scouse “Are you alright there, lad.”

Brian’s  Liverpudlian wit and his love of his city – which his cousin, Ted Coogan, says “meant everything to Brian,   is brilliantly expressed in his poem, “Lady Liverpool” – which you can listen to on You Tube –     http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_iWoBFsk1eI . It is sensitive and moving – but realistic too.  Along with the joy there will be tears too; along with the laughs, pain and suffering.

As he wrote in Taggerung   “Don’t be ashamed to weep, ‘tis right to grieve. Tears are only water, and flowers, trees, and fruit cannot grow without water. But there must be sunlight also. A wounded heart may heal in time, and when it does, the memory and love of our lost ones is sealed inside to comfort us.”  In drinking our parting glass to Brian Jacques, there’s much to thank him for and may this good man rest in peace.