(John) Gareth Owen (1936–2002) Biography
Personal, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights
Born 1936, in Ainsdale, Lancashire, England; died May 4, 2002, in Cardiff, Wales; Education: Attended Wakefield and Goldsmiths' College, London. Politics: "Left of center." Hobbies and other interests: Reading, soccer, music, theatre, film.
Writer, actor, and director. Worked variously as a factory worker, gardener, bookseller, and laborer; secondary school teacher in Ilford, England, 1960–64; teacher of drama at a teachers' training college, Birmingham, England, 1964–82. Former presenter and writer for British Broadcasting Corp. radio program Verse Universe and presenter of Poetry Please radio program, beginning 1994; voice-over actor for television programs; performed in radio plays. Founder of theatre company; runs poetry workshops in schools and colleges; gives readings at festivals and colleges and on BBC radio. Military service: Served with British Merchant Navy, 1952–56.
Signal Poetry Award, for Salford Road, and 1986, for Song of the City; Edinburgh Festival Fringe First Award, 1979, for stage production of Salford Road. Smarties Award runner-up, 1985, for The Final Test; John Tripp Award for Spoken Poetry, Welsh Academy, 1991; B. P. Speak a Poem Award, 1992; W. H. Smith Plays for Children Competition award, 1992; Yorkshire Playhouse Plays for Children Competition award, 1993, for Rosie No-Name and the Forest of Forgetting.
Salford Road, privately printed, 1976, Viking Kestrel (London, England), 1979, published as Salford Road and Other Poems, illustrated by Alan Marks, Fontana (London, England), 1987.
Song of the City, illustrated by Jonathan Hills, Fontana (London, England), 1985.
The Final Test, illustrated by Paul Wright, Gollancz (London, England), 1985.
(With Alan Bold and Julie O'Callaghan) Bright Lights Blaze Out, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1985.
The Man with Eyes like Windows, Collins (London, England), 1987.
Saving Grace, Collins (London, England), 1989 published as Never Walk Alone, Fontana (London, England), 1989.
Douglas the Drummer, illustrated by Paul Dowling, Fontana (London, England), 1989.
Ruby and the Dragon, illustrated by Bob Wilson, Fontana (London, England), 1989.
Omelette: A Chicken in Peril, illustrated by Katinka Kew, Bodley Head (London, England), 1990.
My Granny Is a Sumo Wrestler, illustrated by John Bendall-Brunello, Fontana (London, England), 1994.
The Fox on the Roundabout, and Other Poems, illustrated by Danny Markey, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1995.
Say Cheese!, illustrated by Tim Archbold, Young Corgi (London, England), 1996.
Rosie No-Name and the Forest of Forgetting, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1996.
Collected Poems for Children, Macmillan (London, England), 2000.
Contributor of poetry to Wordscapes, edited by Barry Maybury, Oxford University Press, 1971.
PLAYS; FOR CHILDREN
Mr. Chips and the Silver Chicken (pantomime), produced in Birmingham, England, 1977.
Alice in Dreamsville (musical), produced in Birmingham, England, 1979.
Don't Look Down, published in Drama 2, edited by John Foster, Macmillan (London, England), 1987.
Voices (produced on BBC-Radio, 1992), published in Drama I, edited by John Foster, Macmillan (London, England), 1987.
The Bridge, 2004.
PLAYS; FOR ADULTS
Wedding Breakfast, produced in Birmingham, England, 1972.
A Play Called George, produced in Birmingham, England, 1973.
Margaret Born, produced in Birmingham, England, 1973, produced off-Broadway, 1982.
(And director) The Confessions of Jon-Jak Crusoe, produced in Edinburgh, Scotland, 1973.
Penalty, produced in Birmingham, England, 1975.
Traveller, produced in Birmingham, England, 1975.
Mandog, produced in Birmingham, England, 1975, produced off-Broadway, 1978.
Rumpus (musical), produced in Birmingham, England, 1976.
Double Exposure, produced in Birmingham, England, 1976.
In and out the Windows, produced in Birmingham, England, 1976.
Widowmaker, produced in Birmingham, England, 1977.
Salford Road (based on Owen's poetry volume of the same title), music by Richard Isen, produced in New York, NY, then Edinburgh, Scotland 1979.
The Ladder Gag, produced in Edinburgh, Scotland, then London, England, 1980.
The House of Mr. Vanzetti, produced in Birmingham, England, 1982.
The Race, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), 1991.
The Game, BBC, 1993.
Lessons in Italian, BBC, 1995.
Nineteen Fragments (adult poetry), Birmingham Arts Lab Press (Birmingham, England), 1974.
Contributor to Six Modern Poets, edited by Ed Wes Magee, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1992. Contributor to Books for Keeps.
British poet and playwright Gareth Owen has gained recognition for his plays and storybooks for children, as well as for his novels for young adults. Reviewers have often cited Owen's ability to understand the way a child views the world, as well as the attraction of his highly defined sense of humor. Owen's books for children, such as The Fox on the Roundabout and Other Poems, reflect the daily trials, tribulations, and anxieties of young people: dealing with school and sports as well as coping with universal childhood terrors such as a visit to the dreaded dentist. While storybooks such as Rosie No-Name and the Forest of Forgetting and Omelette: A Chicken in Peril are lighthearted fare, his novels for older readers, such as The Man with Eyes like Windows and Saving Grace (published in Great Britain as Never Walk Alone, in contrast, are written in the first person and address more serious themes: disappointment, illusion vs. reality, friendship, fear, and death.
Owen was born on Salford Road in Ainsdale, Lancashire, England in 1936. By age twelve he had decided to become a writer because of the glamorous way authors were always portrayed in the movies. "They toyed with glasses of wine and said witty things," Owen once recalled in an essay for Something about the Author Autobiography Series (SAAS). "They … drove snazzy little MG's … and carried their learning lightly. Oh how I longed to carry my learning lightly."
As a youth, academics were not Owen's strongest suit. He struggled throughout his school years, and after graduation had no career in mind, nor any idea of what to do next. Influenced by his older sister's infatuation with "the romance of ships and the sailor life," as he explained in SAAS, sixteen-year-old Owen joined the British Merchant Navy. Four years later, after his service was up, he wandered from one job to another and, like many other British twenty-somethings, eventually found himself in London.
Enrolling at the city's teachers' training college. Owen finally found his niche. He read classic works by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Webster, Shakespeare, and Homer, made good friends, and became involved in campus theater. Upon graduation, he obtained his first teaching job—and his first experiences with children's verse. As a way to help the children in his class, he began writing short verses to illustrate various poetic conventions. Part of his motivation for writing was necessity: Owen discovered that there was a scarcity of poetry addressing real-life situations that modern children could relate to. "Writing for them I learned two useful lessons," Owen stated in SAAS. "Firstly, it's important to finish whatever you are engaged in even if you think it rubbish. Secondly, I could only write if I had the idea of an audience and some kind of deadline at the back of my mind."
In 1971 Owen became a published author when one of his poems appeared in the anthology Wordscapes. Eight years later, a friend persuaded him to send a collection of his poems to Viking Kestrel. Later that same year, Salford Road appeared on British bookstore shelves; the book has since been reissued as Salford Road and Other Poems. Autobiographical in nature, the poems in Salford Road draw on Owen's memories of post-war life in the lower-middle-class English suburbs. "It seems I require something from my past, no matter how slight, to trigger me; to give substance to the formalised day-dreaming that is fiction," Owen explained. "I knew that a real poetry book always contained a title poem," he added. "I thought about it but nothing came. Then out of the blue of an August afternoon, half asleep in my Birmingham back garden, it came to me like a given thing. A gift. A complete stanza as though someone unseen had whispered it in my ear…. It had never happened like that before. I wept."
Writing for Children's Literature in Education, Anne Merrick praised Owen's ability to create poems that are both accessible to children and relevant to adults. "Seeing life and ourselves through the lens of the child's eye, gives the view a startling, sometimes a shocking, freshness," she noted. Bill Boyle, writing for Books for Keeps, described Salford Road and Other Poems as "an essential item in every classroom or library, not to mention jacket pocket."
Like Salford Road before it, Owen's second collection of poems, Song of the City, earned the Signal Poetry Award in 1986. In a review of that book for the Times Educational Supplement, Shaun Traynor dubbed Owen the "spokesperson for the growing-up," noting that the poet combines adolescent "anguish with a great sense of humour." Owen's sense of humor is perhaps most obvious in the poem "My Sister Betty," which is based on his relationship with his real-life sister, Beryl. Owen recalled Beryl's adolescent fantasy of becoming a tragic actress a là Sarah Bernhardt when he wrote: "'Famous actresses always look unhappy but beautiful,'/ She said, pulling her mouth sideways/ And making her eyes turn upwards/ So they were mostly white."
After Song of the City Owen felt himself "running out of poetic steam," as he recalled in SAAS. "If I wasn't careful I'd end up parodying myself. I needed a change of direction." A friend's suggestion that he write a novel led to The Final Test, a story about two friends that, according to Neil Philip in the Times Literary Supplement, "tackles large themes: friendship, betrayal, death." The Final Test is the story of two ten-year-old boys who become friends over a summer holiday in 1947. Taters, the hero, is a cricketer who shares his passion for the classic British game with Skipper, an invalid who cannot walk. The pair devise a miniature game of cricket, much like Owen did with his best friend when he was growing up. "In my work with children in school I always try to persuade them to write as accurately as they can about an actual event," Owen stated in SAAS. "Writing is much more to do with memory than with invention."
The climax of The Final Test comes when Taters, faced with a complicated set of demands on his own life, betrays to a neighborhood bully a secret about the supposed heroism of Skipper's father. Merrick, writing in Children's Literature in Education, commented that it is the "complex view of heroism which runs through all of Owen's work" that gives this novel "great power."
In The Man with Eyes like Windows Owen again deals with illusions about a character's father. Louie believes that his absent father, who has for a long time been a mostly invisible extra in Western films, is about to make it big in the field of country-and-western music. Louie's illusions are shattered, however, when he finds that his dad is not a member of a country band, after all, but only the band's bus driver. In the course of the book, Louie becomes enamored of a character named Sheila Whitely, a girl Owen based on his own teen-aged crush. "At fourteen, I fell with an all-consuming, venerating passion for a girl called Sheila Whitely …," he wrote in SAAS. "I spent sleepless night hours dreaming up witty and casually delivered phrases that would impress her. But it was all far-off and distant—which is I suppose the only way in which that kind of love can survive."
In The Man with Eyes like Windows Louie experiences the same kind of blind devotion to a girl he does not even know, but whom he sees outside his school building playing volleyball or tennis. He, too, wants to impress. "I'd look up her name in the phone book," Louie relates. "I couldn't help reading her address over and over again. I'd even walked past her house. If she'd come out I was going to say, "D'you know where Danny Birkett lives at?" Danny Birkett trained the County under-fourteen's football team. I thought she'd be impressed by that."
The theme of adolescent maturation is carried even more strongly in Owen's novel Saving Grace. This novel is also notable as the first of his books to feature a female central character in what Marcus Crouch, writing for Junior Bookshelf, called a "most subtle and three-dimensional portrait." The main action of the book revolves around friends Ben and Francesca—better known as Benbow and Frankie—and their attempts to save Grace Park from becoming a shopping mall. Told from Ben's point of view, the story progresses as the narrator learns to deal with difficult changes in his life: his complicated feelings towards Frankie, the death of his beloved grandfather, and the physical renovations of his environment. Writing for School Librarian, Celia Gibbs praised Saving Grace, as well as Owen's ability to communicate "the insecurity adolescents feel when they can no longer rely on their usual mates and their former amusements pall."
Once again feeling himself to be in a rut, Owen turned from teen novels and began writing stories for younger children, such as Douglas the Drummer, Ruby and the Dragon, and Omelette: A Chicken in Peril. W. Kani, in a review for Books for Your Children, called Omelette a "skillful blend of thrills, spills and laughs with some serious agricultural issues." The humorous story follows Omelette, a bantam cockerel, and Omelette's friend Eric the goat, whom the confused bantam at first mistakes for his mother. The pair go through a series of harrowing adventures until Omelette saves the day by out-smarting a pair of nasty, villainous humans.
In more recent years, Owen has continued to focus on younger readers, producing verse collections such as The Fox on the Roundabout, and Other Poems, as well as elementary-grade novels such as Rosie No-Name and the Forest of Forgetting. Containing a dash of the supernatural, Rosie No-Name and the Forest of Forgetting focuses on an eleven-year-old girl who finds herself in a parallel world after a fall through a rotting stairway in an old house leaves her in a coma. While her human body remains unconscious, Rosie follows a strange girl who leads her to a forest and a boy named Alastair. Here Rosie helps track down Alastair's missing sister, despite the machinations of the evil witch Sybilla. Praising Owen for creating "a believable dreamworld," Anne Deifendeifer wrote in Horn Book that Rosie No-Name and the Forest of Forgetting features "expert characterization and exquisitely timed dialogue." In Booklist Michael Cart enjoyed Owen's ability to create a suspenseful tale, adding that the novel provides readers with "a nicely literary alternative" to the popular but overly plentiful series mysteries available to upper-elementary-grade readers.
Regarding the writing life, Owen noted in SAAS that his concern is always that he "be fortunate enough to finish another book. And after that another. That whatever I have that drives me won't go away. And what if it does stop? That's the dread that keeps all writers awake in the small hours. Sometimes, I see the little room in which I write as containing an enemy with whom I have to wrestle.
"I take out a blank sheet of manuscript paper. Slip it into the typewriter. The debilitating whiteness of it. Here we are again old friend. Here we are again old enemy."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Owen, Gareth, Song of the City, Fontana (London, England), 1985.
Owen, Gareth, The Man with Eyes like Windows, Collins (London, England), 1987.
Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 14, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992, pp. 167-182.
Booklist, November 1, 1996, Michael Cart, review of Rosie No-Name and the Forest of Forgetting, p. 501.
Books for Keeps, January, 1988, p. 18; May, 1988, Bill Boyle, review of Salford Road; May, 1990, p. 30; March, 1992, p. 7.
Books for Your Children, spring, 1986, p. 19; spring, 1991, W. Kani, review of Omelette: A Chicken in Peril, p. 21; spring, 1988, p. 15; summer, 1988, p. 28; summer, 1992, p. 11.
Children's Literature in Education, Volume 21, number 1, 1990, Anne Merrick, "From Salford Road to Saving Grace: A View of Gareth Owen, Poet and Novelist."
Growing Point, January, 1980, p. 3636; January, 1988, p. 4903; November, 1989, p. 5241; November, 1990, p. 5414.
Horn Book, January-February, Anne Deifendeifer, review of Rosie No-Name and the Forest of Forgetting, p. 65.
Junior Bookshelf, April, 1980, p. 87; December, 1985, p. 279; December, 1989, Marcus Crouch, review of Saving Grace, pp. 299-300; October, 1990, p. 247.
Listener, November 7, 1985, p. 31.
Magpies, July, 1991, p. 37.
Observer (London, England), December 1, 1985, p. 20.
School Librarian, February, 1990, Celia Gibbs, review of Saving Grace, p. 30; May, 1990, p. 67; August, 1990, p. 104.
Times Educational Supplement, March 7, 1980, p. 46; June 5, 1987, Shaun Traynor, review of Song of the City, p. 57; February 14, 1986, p. R14; March 10, 1989, p. B16; June 8, 1990, p. B12; October 26, 1990, p. R4; July 1, 1994, p. R2; March 10, 1995.
Times Literary Supplement, December 14, 1979, p. 128; January 3, 1986, p Neil Philip, "At an Angle to History," p. 22; January 31, 1986, p. 126.
Gareth Owen Home Page, http://www.garethowen.com (July 15, 2005).
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