Through the eyes of Needle

Reporter: Martyn Torr
Date published: 29 May 2012

Martyn Meets... Jan Needle, author extraordinaire

(Part 1 of 2)

NERVES do not play any part in my life but I must confess to a slight sense of apprehension as my fingers dance, more of a skitter really, over the keyboard as I began this piece on one of the country’s most gifted and prolific writers.

Because my words of prose will be read with amused interest by Jan Needle, once of Portsmouth but for most of his adult life an an adopted Oldhamer, a charming, gracious and most entertaining man of words. And northern bitter beer.

And music, the second — or should that be third after the beer — great love of his life. And what of his love of the sea and sailing?

And if that’s the case, where does Liz, his endearingly lovely wife of goodness knows how many years, fit in?

I didn’t ask, because James Albert Needle as he was christened, has such a beguiling innocence about him he would doubtless have answered and such is their devotion to each other I didn’t dare risk rocking the boat.

And there’s a substance to that metaphor. For there is a sailboat, a pocket sloop, in the farm yard among the chickens, two modest cars and ancient sun-bleached red Land Rover which sits forlornly in the long grass.

This vehicle is a wood repository these days for the fires which heat the country pile resting in the shadow of the Pots and Pans memorial high above Saddleworth which has been home to the Needles for 30 years.

Jan hasn’t taken the sloop to sea for nigh-on two years but has plans to revisit the ocean this summer, but must first negotiate a very rough track leading from his delightful home on to Gelfield Lane, down Church Lane and on to the more modern highways and byways of this land.

I wish him well. Not that Jan has any doubts whatsoever about his ability to complete this onerous journey.

For I was in the company of a man who has overcome challenges all of his adult life, including eight years in a writing wilderness that would have crushed a lesser man.

But I’m getting ahead of myself as I attempt to chronicle the life and times of a man who was born to write. And write exceptionally well.

He is from humble stock and is immeasurably proud of his parents. His father, with his Welsh ancestry, was a dreamer, a wanderer in terms of gainful employment. His mother was a school cook. Jan is immensely proud of his parents and their great understanding of the work ethic that has clearly imbued him with a sense of being.

He was hopeless at school — the one thing he and I have in common, given that we both earn a living as wordsmiths — being “asked to leave” Portsmouth Grammar school after twice failing his A-levels.

“My father was a sailor and so was a chap called Wilkinson, who was the news editor at the Portsmouth Evening News. My father mentioned I was good at English, I was invited for an interview and hired on the spot as a junior reporter.”

That was how things worked back then when the young Jan lived less than mile from Fratton Park, home to Portsmouth FC. Jan didn’t even know it was a football ground, he had time only for the sea and writing short stories.

As our conversation drifted into a third hour, I was reminded of the words of German-Swiss poet, writer and painter Hermann Hesse, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, who famously said: “It is possible to be a writer . . . but not to become one.”

For Jan is a writer, and a talented one at that. There is a world of difference between those of us who write and those who can write well.

In his teens, Jan — under pen name JW Urquhart — was compiling short stories about his obsession with the sea. None were published but he was undeterred and continued to earn a living as a reporter while, actually, hating the real work of collating hard news.

“It wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed. I recall once being sent to see a bereaved family and told to come back with facts and if possible a picture, but when I got there I rapped on the window with a ten-bob note and told the news desk there was no-one in.”

He got away with that one and soon got away, too, from the south coast altogether when a friend up north offered him an interview with the Daily Herald.

He travelled on a steam train into Manchester Central Station and has never looked back.

“I loved it from the moment my feet touched the platform. I have been here ever since.”

It was in the pubs around Oxford Street, close to the city centre where Jan discovered bitter — “after being derided on my first visit and having the temerity to order a pint of mild,” he chuckled into his beard. Jan chuckled a lot. He is an inveterate, spontaneous chuckler. He chuckled about his life and times as a reporter, and being drunk enough — well, tipsy anyway — to tell his editor he hated the job and wanted to be a sub-editor. So that’s what he became.

He chuckled about going back to school to get the A-levels he so dismally failed to achieve in Portsmouth and “despite my father telling everyone I was good at English,” barely passing in that most specific of disciplines for a writer.

He needed the qualifications in order to go to Manchester University where he read for a degree in drama. By now he was married to Liz, whom he met at a party in Liverpool where she was studying to be a teacher. With her salary and his £800 a year grant — “in those days they just gave me a grant, just like that” — he was able to keep body and soul together with some comfort.

And, of course, he wrote, copiously, for he has a fertile mind and is such a natural he can write on two or three subjects, genres even, at once. It’s a gift, believe me, it’s a gift to those of only special talents. By now, as you would have guessed, he was writing plays, too.

“Nobody bought them,” he chuckled but he had the eternal optimism of a man born to write and continued to produce acres of words.

He would send his synopses to the BBC and then came the breakthrough. “A Place of Execution”, an hour-long drama for which he received several hundred pounds when it was picked up by the BBC.

By now he and Liz were living in farm cottages off Haven Lane, Counthill, before moving to Uppermill, where Liz owns several properties.

Jan supplemented his income with shifts at the dailies in Manchester and he chuckled again as he remembered his first interview.

“The news editor said he could offer me only only £25 a week . . . I was earning £10.50 at Portsmouth!”

As the years moved on he was later to earn £24 a shift at the Daily Mirror.

But his novels were the love of his life, inspired by walks around the reservoirs of Saddleworth.

He chuckled again, this time more plaintively, as he recalled how hard it was in those days to earn a living as a full-time writer.

“Royalties, if you were lucky, would amount to around £3,000 a year, most of the money goes to the publishers.”

He then laid bare the royalties system from the library service, which works out at less than a penny per borrowing and is capped at £5,000 in any given year. That isn’t per book, by the way, but per author.

But he wasn’t really complaining, not at all. He was writing, and enjoying life in the hills and valleys of Rye Top Farm. Life was good.

The bitter was in plentiful supply at the Cross Keys and Church Inn and Jan and Liz’s joint love of folk music was sated weekly by the folk nights at the Keys.

Then came a terrible accident which all but wrecked his life.

On a rain-lashed evening on a bleak, treacherous stretch of the M62, his stationary Peugeot van was hit by a truck.

Two people died. For eight years his writing life was on hold. But Jan is an indomitable spirit as you will discover in part 2.

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