Storyteller so nearly had a tragic ending

Reporter: Martyn Torr
Date published: 29 May 2012

...Continuing our Martyn Meets feature on the remarkable Jan Needle’s life, work and brush with death...
(Part 2 of 2)

FOR eight years Jan Needle couldn’t write. Well, that’s not strictly true, he could write, just not very well. Although he believed he was producing “brilliant stuff”.

It was a traumatic time in the life of one of the country’s most gifted authors, a man who has written more than 40 published books ranging from children’s fiction to young adult and in a variety of other genres.

For here in the bosom of the Oldham family this seafaring fella from Portsmouth has long adopted as his own, he has also written original television drama series for such successes as “The Bill”, “Brookside” and “Grange Hill”.

His plays have been performed professionally all over Great Britain.

The money was good and then came the big breakthrough, a commission to write six episodes of “The Bill” at £4,000 a time.

But then fate dealt it card and Jan — christened James Albert Needle — was not destined to complete that lucrative contract.

He world was wrecked by a careering monster of truck on a wild, wet night on the M62.

The resulting collision left two people dead, one of them a passenger in his stationary van, and Jan in a coma for several days.

“I was in hospital for a long time. Basically I had brain damage and I didn’t realise for a long time just how seriously injured I had been.”

Jan eventually returned home and was determined to take up the reigns of his previous life. “I went out and bought a new van from a place on Broadway. I thought I was well, other people, including my family didn’t agree and, of course, they were right...”

Arriving at the complicated junction best described as where the Roxy used to be, Jan simply froze at the wheel of his new wheels.

“I sat there and didn’t know what to do next. I simply didn’t know.”

That was 20 years ago — the six-vehicle pile up was in October, 1992 to be exact — and Jan looks back on those sombre, dark days with more than a trace of anxiety.

The natural chuckle, a deep, uninhibited reflection of his joy of life, was missing as he recalled the recovery period.

“I would sit down and start writing and within two minutes i had fallen asleep. I just slumped at my desk.”

This happened for months on end as Jan doggedly tried to return to the only life he knew — writing.

“Eventually my agent, a wonderful lady called Rochelle Stevens who never gave up on me, secured me a commission to write a pilot for a new television series.”

Jan had to produce 60 minutes of drama in two months, easy peasy for such a wondrous talent.

Except . . . the initial draft was two months late and ran for 130 minutes and Jan didn’t hear a word from anyone.

“I honestly believed I was on time and that I had produced some brilliant stuff.”

A call to his agent revealed the brutal truth: “It’s crap!”

“It was a helluva shock, I can tell you” and it was a further two years before Jan was back on track and producing usable material.

Perseverance paid off and today Jan Needle is back to his authoritative best, a writer of dark thrillers and sea stories with an edge.

His controversial children’s novel “A Game of Soldiers” was reissued this month to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War. Jan’s work was nominated for a Bafta award when it was first broadcast as a television serial — and this despite Margaret Thatcher’s government trying their damnedest to ban the work as “unpatriotic”.

The story unfolds of three young Falkland island children who find a badly injured Argentinian conscript in deep shelter on the moors and decide it is their patriotic duty to kill him...

“The work is now an eBook and the original television serial is now on You Tube. Really, it’s a revolution.”

That work reflects the darker chasms he explores. A couple of years ago he wrote “Killing Time at Catterick” about the British Army and having been spurned by “running scared” publishers Jan took the novel to his his public as an eBook. It was promptly nominated for the Orwell Prize.

And then there was his classic piece “A Fine Boy for Killing” calling on his love of sea and his fascination with unnecessary murder — can there ever be a necessary murder, I ask myself? — when a brutal sea captain murders a young sailor basically because he can. And get away with it.

It is in dark stories that Jan excels, which I found strange given the surreal way he acquired his rather exotic christian name.

I couldn’t help but inquire and was more than a little amused at the anecdote which followed...

“When mum was pregnant with me she was convinced I was going to be a girl, a sister for Valerie. So convinced was she I was named Jan before I came into this world — and there I was — a boy! I was christened James Albert Needle and the initials became Jan, which I have been known as all my life...”

So far. There is much more to come for, as he admits, he has an new idea every day and he will never, ever stop writing.

Parallel to this joy of storytelling is his love of music and his adroitness on the tin whistle, also known as the penny whistle, and his skills with a mandola.

This is a beefier version of a mandolin, with four double courses of strings pitched a fifth lower than its smaller cousin.

He plays regularly at the Cross Keys down the lane from his home at Rye Top Farm and is good, too.

I took the opportunity to see him play and it was a delightful experience among talented, creative folk sharing a joy of music.

Jan and Liz have clearly found peace.

Their life on the farm seems to me idyllic.

I hesitate to describe them as “eccentric” for it seems vaguely insulting, but I do not mean it to be for they were wonderful hosts and welcomed me into their home as if I had known them for years.

Except well, there is no other way of saying this really: they are eccentric, if only ever so slightly.

Jan has a second family, you see.

Viv is mother to two more adult sons and they live in South Manchester where Jan spends part of his week, with Liz’s blessing.

When Jan was recovering from his car accident his partners shared time together at his bedside.

See what I mean?

I didn’t want to leave Jan’s company but I had a nagging feeling I was intruding on his writing time.

He still has a myriad of stories to tell and has recently completed his first work for Kindle — a brave new world for a true traditionalist. Six of his works are available under the umbrella title of Skinback Books, and all at 99p.

He says somewhat reflectively: “It’s not a case of making money — not many authors do that solely from books — but of spreading the word a bit. Lots of my books are, in any case, pretty controversial and in today’s climate publishers are running scared.

“Many of my books published in America and South America are still flourishing and I’m hoping to make some of them easily available here.”

So, you heard it first in the columns of the Chron.

And here’s another little teaser, too, straight from the author’s mouth.

He let slip that a fifth in his ever-popular series featuring midshipman William Bentley is in production.

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