Published in 1975 The Machine Gunners was one of the first books I read for myself, cover to cover. I recall being curled up in the Big Chair at my grandparent’s bungalow in Cowley where I had likely been deposited for a long weekend. Both having been in their forties when they had my Dad they were never sure what to do with a young boy and so were doubtless relieved that I spent the time so deeply absorbed. And absorbed I was.
Commonly regarded as a children’s book, there’s nothing of Enid Blyton here. Set in what could have been the then (to me) foreign land of Tyneside, it is World War II and Chas McGill has the second best collection of war trophies in Garmouth. Shrapnel, nose cones from incendiary bombs and all picked at from fresh bomb sites. For this is not some rural idyll and no matter how the grown-ups try and shelter the wee’uns from the war it’s too immediate, too obvious – with bombing raids and armed trawlers here with so many important ports and of course the North Sea. And this is what makes the book a great book, because this is the war and not some Boy’s Own Adventure. This is a story where from a crashed bomber Chas and his grisly friend Cem manage to thieve the eponymous machine gun. To fight when the inevitable invasion comes. And much as my generation grew up expecting Nuclear War, so too is there no doubt here that the Nazis will come - and any day now.
This is an England where people can disappear, and they do. Whether runaways or simply assumed to have been blown to bits. Where Chas’ own Grandpa still dreams of the ‘Jarmin’ from the first War he killed. And where the adults, bumbling, secretive or useless show different sides when confusion arrives, bells are rung and Garmouth is hit with the expectation of the horror to come.
Robert Westall paints vividly his characters in a story where never speaking down to his presumed audience – what would now be termed Young Adult – shows them a different time, and without speeches and leaders, without dead heroes but where and never unbelievably a small group of early teens prepare to die fighting an invader. What that says is never actually said, rather and like the best of stories it’s there waiting for when the reader grows older and perhaps by chance remembers a long weekend curled up on the Big Chair, in the bungalow of his grandparents (for whom the war was not a story).
It was all a little different from the Warlord and Battle comics I was otherwise reading at the time.