What immediately comes to mind when you read the above? I think of the 1800s, swirling fogs; the plaintive cry of a lone tug hooting on the River Thames, and – goose-pimples and horror – Jack the Ripper waiting around a corner with a knife and evil intent. But then, I was born in England, my father worked on the river – we lived near enough to hear those mournful cries – and I walked down many of the alleyways the Ripper haunted when I later lived and worked in the East End of London for a few years. So, it was hardly difficult… Plus, I read a lot of Charles Dickens works. Like much writing, it’s when realism and imagination merge, which is my favourite style. For reasons unknown to me, I most enjoy writing stories based on the truth, although I veer off course now and then.
Travel and life experience are invaluable to factual writers, whereby fantasy writing, as the name implies, relies on a vivid imagination, and authors don’t come more imaginative than Franz Kafka who wrote The Metamorphosis. Let’s face it, waking up in the form of a giant cockroach needs serious thought…
Switching to fact and fiction, how easily old, historical cities and towns lend themselves as backdrops for mystery, murder and intrigue. Take Prague with its cobbled squares and enigmatic alley ways. I explored it, fascinated by its architecture when celebrating our Golden wedding anniversary with my husband.
Charles Bridge, surrounding countryside and castle were a joy to behold; the atmosphere so tantalizing and almost as “sliceable” as an elaborate iced cake…
It didn’t seem in the least bit bizarre that we came upon a man sitting by a gutter with a fishing rod down a drain, or to come across a lady with a tortoise on a lead in the local park.
Us writers are such lucky souls… even if some haven’t travelled widely. I believe it was Einstein who said that “Imagination is more important than intelligence.” Bless him. Imagination married to talented writing can produce some amazing works of fantasy. One such author, who creates believable ‘other worlds’ peopled by believable creatures because her writing ability ensnares you with her craft, is Diana Wallace Peach (See below.)*
It is said that most of us have between 60,000 and 70,000 thoughts per day… and we have to make around 35,000 decisions (crikey!). That many of the thoughts and decisions are usually quite mundane is inevitable, but pouncing on the INSPIRED ones, which sometimes creep in like welcome visitors, can be a gift from the muses.
Much like many frequent travellers, I have always kept a daily diary and have more notebooks than money… (being ‘mature’ and not technical I like to SEE my words written in ink, although I do, of course, save them online). Leafing through them is fun – little illegible – and handy if I want a quick quote or reference.
Lately, as I’m still…writing THAT book (you know the one which will make one famous…) I’m more aware than ever of ATMOSPHERE and CHARACTERIZATION, so it’s edit, edit, edit. To write “The wind – wailing like a banshee through the forest,” (Steinbeck?) is obviously more descriptive than just plain “It was windy in the forest,” (Hemingway?) so I’ve got ‘my eagle eyes open.’
Fortunately, whether your reading taste runs to fact or fantasy, the choice is huge. I am an eclectic reader and writer, but there was one book I just couldn’t get into, and that was James Joyce’s Ulysses. He may have been highly intelligent and spoke 17 languages, but he certainly didn’t speak mine.
Of course, whatever style you write in, catchy, character descriptions are valuable to any reader desirous of ‘seeing’ the person on the page. Someone with “Close-set, olive-black eyes, an elongated face and parrot-like nose” is hardly likely to be forgotten…”. “Tall, dark and handsome,” belongs in an old Barbara Cartland novel.
So, all you factual/fantasy writers ‘out there,’ what’s stopping you?!
Every now and then I pontificate on the power and magic of words. Those twenty-six little letters have faithfully served us ever since “Adam” said Ugg to “Eve.” And, in what variety! True and Fairy tales… Sci-Fi and Paranormal, Murder and Mystery, Love and Romance, Historical, et al – all cater to different literary tastes.
What led to writing today’s post was reading about Alan Alexander Milne and his Pooh stories. The House on Pooh Corner (1928), and Winnie the Pooh in particular. Without Milne, Pooh, Piglet, Tigger and the rest of the gang, would have been lost to so many fans. Christopher Robin, Pooh’s human companion, was named after Milne’s own son. Sadly, Christopher was not happy about his inescapable connection to the popular books as he grew older. Winnie the Pooh was based on his teddy bear. Also on his infant bed, were a stuffed piglet, a tiger, a pair of kangaroos and a downtrodden donkey. (Owl and Rabbit were added for good measure.) Hundred Acre Wood closely resembles Ashdown Forest near to Milne’s home.
Milne went to Cambridge University to study maths but focused on writing. He pursued a career as a writer and contributed many humorous pieces to Punch magazine, later becoming Assistant Editor at Punch in 1906. Having served in WW11, despite being a Pacifist, he suffered illness and was declared unfit for service at the front, going on to join a secret British Propaganda unit: M17b. He also turned to playwriting. Deemed successful, he changed Wind in the Willows into the acclaimed Toad at Toad Hall.
It seems especially sad that Milne was estranged from his son, Christopher, who rarely saw his father, despite him having a stroke and spending his last few years in a wheelchair. He was ever conscious of his disliked association with the Pooh books. I feel it was his great loss.
When I read the Pooh books, way back, I knew nothing of their creator, but re-quoting some of the content, I can’t help thinking he was a man with his heart in the right place.
I had the warmest glow, when I read:
“My spelling is wobbly. It’s good spelling. But it wobbles and the letters get in the wrong places.”
And “A day without a friend is like a pot without a single drop of honey inside.” And
“I always get to where I’m going by walking away from where I have been.” And
“We’ll be friends forever, won’t we, Pooh?” asked Piglet.
“Even longer.” Pooh answered.
And, this one made me cry…
“If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day, so I never have to live without you.”
Thank you Mr. Milne. Very much!
Other books by AA Milne: When we Were very Young, Now we are Six, The World of Pooh Collection, The Complete Tales of Winnie the Pooh.
It is fortunately not often that millions of people on our planet find themselves in such a similar, dire situation, except in wars and epidemics, and so many, brave individuals have, in this present, horrific coronavirus situation, paid the ultimate price for their unselfishness in caring for the sick and dying. We should feel eternally grateful and humbled. I am.
Harking back to the truly dreadful plague of 1665: it was said that a five-year-old boy named John Morley was found dead at his home in Cambridge with black spots on his chest in July 1665 and became the town’s first bubonic plague victim. Townspeople started to isolate, and a young scholar at Trinity College named Isaac Newton fled to his home farm in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire to study. In the two years he was there, he studied calculus, created the science of motion and unravelled gravity, or so it was said. (Husband reckons he went scrumping, filled his pockets with apples and they were so heavy, his trousers fell down, but wouldn’t dream of putting forward such a theory… ).
As for the Diarist Samuel Pepys, in 1665, aged 32 years, he dined out wearing a camel-hair or goat suit, noting ‘The very best I wore in my life,’ during the plague. He commented that most doctors, lawyers and merchants fled the city and that ‘Parliament is postponed until October.’ Later, while in Drury Lane, he saw ‘two or three houses marked with red crosses’ and the words “Lord have mercy upon us.” Writ there, which was a sad sight to see.’ Claire Tomalin, Pepys biographer, spoke of his pain and suffering since a child which made him a stoic person. It was said that he welcomed whatever there was to enjoy.
Theatres, sports and other meeting places were closed and the poor – as ever then – had to steal or beg for food. History rarely shows us a pretty place.
Pepys was a clerk and worked for the Navy Board, had a wife called Elizabeth, but as he admitted, was up for many shenanigans with fancied chamber maids and the like. The times provided rich pickings for his diary, like the Restoration of the Merry Monarch, Charles II (from whom Pepys received favours), the Great Plague (An estimated 100,000 died – 20% of London’s population), the Great Fire of London and the terror waged by the Dutch when the Royal Navy suffered one of their worst defeats after they destroyed several British ships and captured Sheerness. Luckily peace swiftly followed. It is not known whether Pepys, who lived to the age of seventy, actually expected his diary to be published after his death, but it now famously infamous.
Back to the present, apart from a birth explosion in around nine months, I wonder what some of us will have accomplished/learned during this trying and protracted period of isolation. Of course, some will be almost speechless from boredom, while others will have gained more than they lost… Marriages and relationships will have floundered or, hopefully been made stronger. Life itself will, surely, be writ in larger letters, for it is the most precious thing we have, and Mother Nature, in her more likeable guises, will never have looked more attractive; or freedom sweeter. The fact that so many people have lost loved ones of all ages and creeds is heart-breaking and all the blaming won’t bring them back. We can, perhaps (must!) try harder to work together for the well being of each other. Surely, we can do that, in memory of all those lost and the brave heroes and heroines of this epidemic.
As such phenomena as splitting the atom, black holes, penicillin, and heaps of other, tremendous strides in technological fields have been discovered or accomplished, I questioned my feeble grey matter and did a lot of thinking. Sadly, I had to accept that – in the grand scheme of things – I had diddly-squat to offer, as I push when a sign says ‘pull’ and maths is not my best subject. So, what to do? Well – and I’m sure you are dying of curiosity!! – it’s mainly too prosaic to itemize – I lived, within the boundaries dictated, read, prized the telephone and my computer, exercised a little… toured the ‘estate’ (small urbanization and communal pool) daily, and thought some more. Oh, and read and wrote a lot. I missed our sons and their partners, but a loud hurray for my online friends. They are a wonderful, friendly and helpful bunch. Not to mention good writers. So, what’s with all the thinking you may wonder? Well, I intend finishing the ULTIMATE, FABULOUS book I’ve been working on – forever – and new ideas have been percolating. You can drop my name at dinner parties if you like; autographs given on request. Who am I kidding… Joking aside, hubby and I have had more than a few laughs – quite silly things can spark us and we are most grateful for humour. It’s a great antidote to what’s really happening outside and saves sanity.
Meanwhile, I bet many people have actually published their books, cooked up a storm, written songs and music and painted near masterpieces. Do tell what you have been doing.
“In each human heart is a tiger, a pig, an ass, and a nightingale. Diversity of character is due to their unequal activity!”
Now, where was I… Not ‘the bravest girl on the block,’ I nevertheless had a handy store of optimism and surprised myself by my determination to beat the pesky, would-be burglars I was aware of lurking like wary wolves. No exaggeration! OK there was no snowstorm, north wind blowing or eerie howling, but we (the seven or so couples residing on the site) knew that cigarettes glowing in the darkness of half-built houses, meant itinerants camping out and keeping watch. We quickly formed a “Neighbourhood Watch” after the window frame and intricate metal grille of the house behind us was removed and electrical goods stolen, and I disturbed a guy using a pole as a battering ram to break in the font door, three houses down. I never thought I could yell so loud… but three male saviours came running and the guy quickly disappeared. Although my brother: a building surveyor in the UK, had examined and put his “Seal of approval” on the standard and quality of our property, there was a small design fault in that the Spanish had a liking for a miniscule, additional, walled enclosure at the side of the house, in which they housed their washing machines, which was open to the elements, and – you guessed it – a burglar’s dream come true. We covered ours up pronto. Not so our neighbour, who unwisely left everything of value in one bag, available, along with his pin number… You couldn’t believe it! Perhaps, having lived through W.W. II, we were more stoic than we thought. You know… “Can’t let the buggers win…” sort of attitude. Fortunately, after that, the police made regular, visible appearances and the villainy was more contained and gradually lessened and more or less disappeared.
Our nearest, lively, town: Torrevieja – just three miles away – has a buzz, even in the cooler days of winter. There are ample shops, a Salt Museum (the area famous for its generous salt lakes), an Art Gallery and two theatres, plus a multitude of cafes and restaurants. And I mustn’t forget our fascinating old Casino of Moorish design. It is a most pleasant place to sit and watch the world pass by while sipping a Café con leche or something stronger. (Although the Casino wasn’t completely destroyed in the serious 1829 earthquake, it was rebuilt in 1896 in the “Fin de Siecle” style by the architect Aznar. It became the “Sociedad Cultural Casino de Torevieja” and many Concerts, Balls; Art and Photographic exhibitions have been held there).
Despite the original, most annoying hiccups, there were so many distractions and the weather was so glorious, our enthusiasm was only slightly dampened. The fact that we could see that cobalt-blue Mediterranean sea lapping the shore in the near distance from our large solarium, was a huge plus and there were so many places to explore and friends to be made… Ever since living in a small, friendly community on a mountain-side in Wales during the last war, I had unconsciously hankered after a repeat of the rewarding experience. We all seemed to need each other for one reason or another. My husband made furniture and was a dab hand at DIY, and being a practical and helpful man, found himself, at 73, much sought after. In fact, during the first five years there, our house was a bit like Piccadilly Circus with human traffic requesting help of one form or another. In between the graft, we had many, jolly parties on solariums to celebrate everyone’s birthdays, new life, or their dog’s arrival in their household!
With not enough hours in the day, we continued to make our new house a home, and set about titivating it further, until satisfied. Meanwhile, there were acres of beach-side and countryside to explore and our car’s wheels were ever turning. Between Torrevieja nearby and Moraira: a favourite destination, further along the coast, were many attractive coastal towns to visit, one in particular called Altea. Chosen as a ‘seat of learning,’ the town houses a University and is justly proud of its cultural standing and artistic bent. Answering a call of nature, I soon realised the bohemian side of Altea by the shape of the handles in the loo; (“Shield your eyes, Mabel!”) and the ‘his’ and ‘her’ paintings on the doors were an amusing surprise… Many concerts are held in Altea, and the Cathedral at the summit is an impressive building. The day we were there, we were blessed by the impromptu, soulful, guitar playing of a visiting musician. Optimism was in the air! I wish I’d had my camera with me as the view from a high balcony across the ocean to Benidorm, was memorable with sea and sky competing and the ‘white horses’ playing by the hem of the rocks.
It’s a strange phenomenon, retirement, because every now and then, I was aware of not working – or going out to work – and felt a tad guilty just swanning around so much… (I didn’t know what was around the corner then) but I at least joined a Pilates class to save my ageing body from wrack and ruin. One other, equally important, issue was bothering me. I wasn’t writing!! How could that be… I set about writing a monthly “Donkey Oti” (think about it…) Urbanisation Newsletter” with the competent assistance of an aptly-named Ron Merry (always obliging) to distribute among our ever-growing urbanisation (eventually 172 properties). And, yes, our swimming pool was finished, and a large, handy supermarket built in walking distance, so lucky us. Things were looking up
As studying human beings and what makes them tick (from a lay person’s viewpoint) colours some of my time, I must introduce several characters who gradually peopled our “Urb.” The first – she could not be ignored – was a former, just retired, ex Fleet Street journalist, clutching a very RED pen… A Miss with a capital M, she showed much interest in my Newsletter, so I asked if she’d like to help. ‘In what capacity?’ she asked. ‘Assistant Editor?’ I suggested, for our Newsletter was growing as more and more casas rose to greet the sky and tenants filled them. For obvious reasons, I shall refer to my new assistant as Loretta. She proved to be a hard-hitting, down to earth, masculine-woman, who preferred dogs to most people; disliked children and smoked her living-room (who needed a brush?!) to a dull shade of yellow. BUT what tales she told of her travels around the world! Sadly, she is no longer with us, but we will long remember her acerbic tongue and strong presence.
Two other, male tenants rented a villa nearby and raised a few, conservative eyebrows. The older man of the two – well tanned – sometimes popped in for coffee of a morning wearing nought but a satin – G-string and a smile, and his partner, Marlon, was a sweet, most likeable guy. We hit it off straight away and he now and then asked my husband’s “permission” to whisk me off to shop… They were the source of great fun and we had a few, beautifully catered for, parties on their patio. They planned buying and running a small hotel and we inspected several likely properties further afield with them, but they were too fussy and ended up buying a house instead, and – being fidgety souls – ended up returning to the UK and opening a café there.
With gardens gradually blooming – with the ubiquitous, colourful Lantana, Bougainvillea and Hibiscus popular, plus the more reasonable cost of living when compared to the UK/Ireland and Sweden, and the more settled climate, the majority of newcomers in our maturing “village” seemed happy enough. And, although I wasn’t actively looking for more work, IT found ME! As many of the householders were part-time, we were asked to “Please look after our spare keys/switch on the electrics/buy a few groceries for visitors,”etc. With me being a bit of a soft touch, my husband held up his hand and said “Stop” and I became a paid “Home Service Operative” alias cleaner. Eventually, on a part-time basis, I looked after four/five villas for a few years. It kept the corpuscles working and me in trim. Although then in my 70s, I still had plenty of energy. Thereafter, I had a few minor health issues, so decided to cut back the work and concentrate on my writing.
Joining the Torrevieja Writing Group was a wise and desirable move, and I – along with my husband – also joined The U3A (University of Learning). I became a group leader of the latter, which led to a lot of fun and meeting more interesting, talented people. I then learned that the Cultural Department of the Torrevieja Town Hall were running their first International Short Story Competition…
Today, I have great pleasure in interviewing someone very familiar with the writing craft. Not many of us can claim to have sold ONE MILLION BOOKS, but Beryl Kingston can. I can’t begin to imagine how that feels … Hugely proud and gratifying, I’m sure, and she must have worked so hard to have achieved that figure.
I’ll tell you more about Beryl later on, but first I’ve invited her to answer a few questions to give you some insight into what makes this amazing lady tick.
Hi Beryl, a warm welcome to the ‘writer’s hot seat.’ It’s great having you as my guest today. I promise it won’t be a bumpy ride!
Where were you born and what is your earliest memory?
To start at the beginning, I was born in Tooting in South London 88 years ago and my first memory is probably singing and dancing on a stage somewhere feeling completely happy with spotlights shining on my head and foot-lights warming my feet and people clapping and cheering in the darkness below me. I was probably about five.
Were your early years marked by an outstanding/unusual or particularly disturbing/amusing incident?
I’m afraid I can’t tell you amusing stories about my childhood because I was an abused child and spent most of my time in a state of twitchy anxiety and fear. The abuser was my mother who beat me with a cane from the time I was five, when my younger sister was born, until I was seventeen and finally took action to stop her. Not a pretty story. I wrote about it in some detail in ‘A Family at War’ so anyone who is interested can find it there. But there’s one fact that might interest other writers. In a roundabout way, being beaten made a writer of me. My mother enjoyed her brutality and was buoyed up by it, but she also had an image to protect, which meant that she had to take steps to ensure that her neighbours knew nothing about it. I had strict instructions to hide the marks she left on my legs and arms by wearing a thick cardigan and black stockings – she never hit my face, only my back, legs and arms. She used to say ‘Cover yourself up. You don’t want people to know what a wicked child you are.’ And I did as I was told because I agreed with her then and thought she was right. But I needed to talk about it and I needed it desperately. It didn’t seem right to me, that she could be so cruel and get away with it. And in the end I decided to keep a diary. I nicked and exercise book from school, kept it well hidden and wrote in it freely and honestly from the time I was seven and for the next twelve years until I married my darling. I never considered that anything I wrote or did could ever be any good or of any value. My mother made sure of that. She told me so often that I was a nasty wicked child, that I should never have been born, that I was useless and would never amount to a ‘row of beans’ and that my ‘dear little sister Pat’ would ‘make ten of me’. Naturally I believed her. So when I started to write poems and stories and plays I threw them away like the trash I thought they were.
Did evacuation in World War II have a lasting – good or bad – effect on you?
I don’t think being evacuated made a lot of difference to me. It was just something that happened. The London Blitz, on the other hand, was another matter altogether. That had a profound effect. My mother evacuated us all to Felpham on the day before war was declared, but having decided that we were going to make peace with Germany and that the Germans were going to fight the Russians, she brought us back to London in August 1940. We were just in time for me to watch the bombing of Croydon from the flat roof at the top of an apartment block, and, not long after that, the Blitz began. From then on we spent our nights in the cellar, listening to the ack-ack and the dreadful laboured droning of the German bombers, until November, when we were bombed out and she evacuated us again. But I was back in London in 1944 – on my own this time – so that I could attend the local Grammar School. And that meant I saw the terrible casualties and the widespread devastation that was caused by the doodle-bugs and Werner Braun’s obscene rockets. All of which I’ve written about in ‘London Pride’ and ‘Citizen Armies’ which is my latest book.
During your teaching years, did you nurture a growing desire to write?
It rather tickled me to be asked whether I ‘nurtured a growing desire to write during my teaching career’, because the question is so wonderfully inapplicable. I didn’t ‘nurture a desire’ to write, I just wrote and enjoyed it, even though I was still sure it wasn’t any good. It was as simple as that. Most of the time I wrote plays. I taught in a variety of schools and the bulk of my time was taken up with encouraging my pupils to enjoy learning, but whenever I found a drama club or a group of kids who wanted to act in a play, I wrote one for them. Very cumbersome things they were because anyone who wanted a part had to have one, so the casts were enormous – on several occasions over a hundred strong. It was great fun. The last five or six were musicals which I wrote in conjunction with a talented teacher from the music department. I learnt a lot from doing that.
What advice would I give to a young writer just starting out?
I don’t think I would give them any advice at all. We all have to discover our own writing methods and we are all different. I expect what a newbie would most like to know would be how to persuade one of the big publishers to take their manuscript and publish it and sell it in millions. But another writer can’t tell him/her that. What they need is a good agent. I can tell them how to set about looking for one but that’s the limit. I feel very sorry for newbies in these pushy times. There are thousands of wannabees out there all pushing their work as hard as they can and the competition must be soul destroying. I feel very fortunate to have had a Fairy Godmother around at the two big turning points of my life. One saw to it that the man I was going to marry should turn up on my doorstep at just the right time. The other arranged for an agent to be at the Frankfurt Book Fair and to pick up a rather esoteric book on the next stall on how to cope with period pain that had been published by Ebury and to be interested enough to read it. With his help and support – offered out of the blue and doggedly – I ended up having my first novel published by Century/Futura – no less – and became a best seller. But that’s the stuff of fairy tales. When I tell people the story I also tell them that when I’ve finished they’re at perfect liberty to chant, ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire’ because I don’t believe it either.
Separate from your writing, how would you like to be remembered?
I’m going to answer that with a – suitable when slightly adapted – quotation from Hilaire Belloc.
‘‘When I am dead,’’ he wrote, ‘‘I hope it may be said
His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.’’
More about Beryl and her books:
She was evacuated to a place called Felpham, during World War II, igniting an interest in poet William Blake, and went on to become a teacher until 1985 when she became a full-time writer.
Her debut novel “Gates of Paradise” was her 20th novel on Google Books. She admits to writing VERY BAD poems, aged seven but, hey, give a little girl a break! She redeemed herself when her first novel became an instant best seller years later. Beryl is an eclectic writer, publishing family sagas, modern stories and historical novels, including books about the first and second world wars. She reached the pinnacle of one million books with No. 12, and has also written plays for children, stories for magazines and a novella about a conceited cat!
Our celebrated author won The Blake Society Tithe Grant Award, and has been married for 54 years, has three children, five grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren – all apples of her eye… Another distinction, is for receiving the top level for public library lending with her 4th book.
Beryl’s books, include:
“Hearts and Farthings”
And the sequel “Kisses and Ha’pennies”
Modern: “Laura’s Way” and “Maggie’s Boy”
Historical: 18th/19th/20th centuries, WWI & II – “A Time to Love” and “Avalanche of Daisies.”
Beryl’s 30th book, ‘Citizen Armies’, will be published this year on 2nd September.
Today, I have the pleasure of interviewing a writer who you may, or may not, be familiar with; but one, I’m sure you will return to, once you have enjoyed a taste of his excellent, entertaining books and writing style.
Hi Richard, it’s a pleasure to have you here today as my guest. Get comfy and take a deep breath as you’re now under the microscope so to speak! We’re all keen to learn more about you, so fire away.
What’s your earliest memory and your favourite one?
I remember living in Brixham when I was very young. Our house was at the base of what seemed to be a huge cliff, trains ran over the back. The station has long gone, the house was for sale when we were on holiday one year, we almost looked around; in the end, I couldn’t face it. My favourite memory is harder to pin down, I’ve had so many memorable experiences in my life, as most people have, there are all the usual ones, marriage, the birth and achievements of my wife and children., it’s hard to say which one was the best. I think that my favourite one must be when I was twenty, after passing my Second Mates Certificate of Competency and completing my apprenticeship. Standing on the bridge of a ship and realising that I was in charge of it for the next four hours. Exciting and terrifying all at the same time.
Where do you live? And have you travelled much?
I live in Brixham, after retiring here a few years ago. As you might have spotted, I was at sea, in a forty-year career I went to a lot of places. As well as the familiar ones like New York and Cape Town, I went around Cape Horn, travelled 600 miles up the Amazon, spent a lot of time in the South China and around the Indonesian Islands. I was on a ship that was flooded and somehow didn’t sink, survived a collision, a fire in an engine room, and was on a jumbo jet that crash-landed in Johannesburg after a bird flew into an engine. The smell of Sandalwood on the breeze at 3 am, moving across a flat calm sea; shot with phosphorescence, under a sky filled with stars, is another fond memory. I ended my career as a ship’s pilot on the River Thames, taking ships of all sizes through the Thames Barrier, Tower Bridge and up Barking Creek!
Did you have a creative background which guided you towards writing, or was it something you gradually drifted into?
I failed English at school, in fact, I failed all my O levels first time around, largely because I couldn’t be bothered. I had to retake them while working in a supermarket and scraped into the apprenticeship by the skin of my teeth. I never intended to be a writer, I had ideas but never wrote them down. I had trouble writing letters home. My mind must have been storing up all the experiences because one day after I had retired, I had a dream, which I kept having until I wrote it down. I thought, or at least hoped, that writing it down would be the end of it. Then I had another dream, which I realised was connected to the first. After that, I was away and the more I wrote, the more ideas I had. It was like watching a film in my head, I just wrote what I saw. I could slow the film down and rewind, but I could never fast-forward. Even now, after nine novels, I never see the end of a story until I get to it.
Have you a secret desire/dream or ambition you’d care to share with everyone?
Apart from Fortune, Glory and World Domination? Seriously, I’ve had a full life, I’ve been lucky, and I appreciate it. I’m not desperate for huge success, because I think that doesn’t necessarily solve problems, merely adds new and different ones. I’d like people to like what I write, and to be known as someone whose books were enjoyable. When I was just starting out, with one badly edited novel and no clue what I was doing, I received so much help and advice from other authors, for which I’m very grateful. I try to give back as much as I can by encouraging and supporting people who are at the same stage now as I was then, by promoting them and their work on my website. If I can leave my work as a legacy for my children and grandchildren to enjoy and perhaps benefit from in some small way, I think I will have achieved enough.
Which two people would you like to be shipwrecked with? And one you wouldn’t? (You can change the name… )
If I couldn’t take any of my family, they would have to be authors, so that we could swap ideas and develop new plots and characters to while away the time. My heroes include Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C Clarke, so if one of them were available, that would be fantastic. As I’m also writing crime fiction, Agatha Christie is a candidate, to help me learn the craft of dropping clues and leading readers astray. I’d also love to know the REAL story of her disappearance in 1926, there have been so many theories, the truth might be more exciting than anything she ever wrote. As for one person I wouldn’t, maybe the ship’s Captain who sacked me on my 21st birthday. Although it eventually got me the job of my dreams, it felt like the end of the world at the time. Other than that, there is nobody that springs to mind.
If someone gave you one million pounds tomorrow, what would you do with it?
That’s far more money than I would ever need. I’m not attracted by fast cars or fancy holidays. I know it sounds cheesy, but after I made sure that my family shared in my good fortune, I’d like to set up a way of using some of it to help people. I don’t know how but I’m sure I could think of a way to make it useful. Money is only energy after all: if you can, you should pass it around, keep it flowing.
You are now well-known as a writer. Have you another talent you keep hidden (like singing)?
I bake bread. When I first retired, as something to do, I started baking bread for a local shop. It was all Organic Sourdough, using Spelt and Rye flour, I also made various rolls, cakes and biscuits. It developed into too much work in the end, especially complying with all the regulations and keeping up with the paperwork. I was supposed to be retired and spending more time with the family. I was starting at 4 a.m. seven days a week and something had to give, I couldn’t stay at the level I was. I was faced with the choice of either expanding the business it had become or stopping, after a lot of deliberation, I stopped. I still bake every week for my family though, occasionally I’ll do something more for a special event. I put baking posts up on my website and I’m always happy to talk about techniques with anyone who’s interested.
Would you rather sit under a tree and read or go for a run?
I’d rather read or write at any time, but I do enjoy walking. Torbay has some beautiful walks, which I used to do with my dogs, before the inevitable happened. Now I still walk the familiar paths on my own, thinking up plots and having conversations between characters, as long as nobody else is in earshot. You get funny looks if you’re not careful.
What’s the funniest thing that has ever happened to you/or the most serious?
At college in 1982, which I was attending to study for my Mates Certificate, I was in the pub and saw a man I hadn’t seen for ages, he had a dark-haired girl with him. I remembered his previous girlfriend, who nobody liked, so after saying hello, I said, “what had happened to the awful blonde you used to hang around with?” It all went quiet as she replied, “I dyed my hair.” Five years later, I was their best man, so I think I got away with that one.
The most serious was probably when my wife was choking, I had to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre on her. There’s a lot that can go wrong, the potential for all sorts of disaster. Once again, I got away with it, as she’s still here.
If you could pass another law, what would it be?
I’d like to make it illegal to be too busy to stop and enjoy yourself. Whether it because of pressure from work, your peers or any other reason, you have to take time to appreciate that you’re alive and take enjoyment from the wonders of the world around you, There’s no need to travel to exotic lands, or spend a fortune on the latest whatever, beauty is around you, it’s free and all you need it to take the time to see it. I learned that on a ship, you might be under pressure to get to the next port or pick up the next cargo, but in the end, you only went at a certain speed, the wind and currents could disrupt your progress and you got there when you did. It’s a valuable lesson, I know we all have things that need doing but there is always five minutes somewhere that you can take for relaxation. You’ll feel better for it.
What, if anything, really tests your patience?
People or organisations who come across as friendly, promise mutual things until you have done what they want, at which point, they don’t reciprocate and dump you. Or people who seem to have missed out on common sense. Fortunately, they seem to be dying out, you still get the odd one though. And traffic lights that turn red as you approach, on an otherwise empty road.
What makes you the happiest and what would you like to be remembered for?
A smile, or a compliment from someone who you’ve never met. I’d like to be remembered as a person who always did their best.
Thank you so much for the interview, Richard. Most revealing! I’m sure your many fans will have enjoyed reading your answers. Wishing you a mountain of good luck and mega sales of your books.
You can find out more about Richard on his website at richarddeescifi.co.uk. Head over there to see what he gets up to, click the FREE STUFF tab or the PORTFOLIO tab to get all the details about his work and pick up a free short story!
After the ‘Doctor Clouseau’ incident (see December’s post), and having sold our successful green-grocery business for several, valid reasons, we bought a very mock-Tudor house in Ilford and lived there for ten good years. During that period, I worked part-time in my most exciting job EVER, for an old established publishing house, based in the City of London, called Kaye & Ward Ltd., As secretary to the two female editors of the ‘Childrens’ and ‘Adults’ books, it was an education and delight. Hooked on words, to make up a ‘mock children’s book’ and meet artists, occasionally writers and illustrators was a treasured bonus. But another ‘life curve’ was on its way when, seduced by the tantalizing idea of running a ‘Tea Rooms’ – for my other half and I both enjoyed cooking and people – we sold our house and bought a business in Bournemouth.
We were to discover that, seemingly, half the population also wanted to run Tea Rooms, and so any decent establishments were very expensive and sought after. PLAN B was then considered. We decided on the hotel business. Bournemouth and surrounds were vetted and combed, and we found “Broughton Hotel,” a splendid Edwardian house, covering three floors with a manageable garden and reasonable parking area. Eleven bedrooms sounded just about right. A genial bank manager was successfully courted and papers duly signed. We were HOTELIERS!!
Our enthusiasm and optimism overcame a few blips…and I soon had an enviable waist-line again… (and muscles where women don’t usually have many…). But, hey, onwards and upwards.
We were, temporarily, a little deflated when a local butcher asked us where our hotel was located and, on learning its position, guffawed and said in a loud voice “Oh, my God, that’s where the Prosies touted for business until recently!!” (It was thickly wooded by pine trees, so understandable from their point of view.) On noting our open mouths…he quickly added that “It’s out of bounds for them now, though…” What a relief, though still food for thought! (We, much later, experienced the secret company of two plains-clothes detectives with powerful binoculars who surveyed the area once our dining room had been vacated after dinner… They declared it “Safe!” while hovering over-long on the shapely figure of one of our female guests waiting for a friend on the opposite side of the road…
It was only when we were moving in, that we realised we had ‘inherited’ a sort of ‘comfortably-off’ (despite claims to the contrary) elderly resident, who was an entrenched Ms! (once in charge of the local telephone exchange.) “I have to pay into a Cremation Fund” she told me, “…so have to be careful with my money! You won’t be putting up my charges will you?” (My husband rattled a large box of matches, with a wicked gleam in his eye when I told him…) We soon realised she almost laid claims to ‘owning’ the building… but she was, at first, polite and manageable, so we acquiesced.
Dungeon-like lighting and dark corners were banned: mirrors; lighting, plants and pictures adorned the walls and suitable areas and the brown cabbage-roses wallpaper removed from the residents’ lounge. Ms. Groves kicked up quite a fuss about our ‘refurbishments’ but we stood firm. When, at a later date, a guest took umbrage at Ms. Groves ownership of the TV set and we offered to buy her one for her room, she nearly exploded! Our ‘dear little octogenarian’ was proving to be anything but…A short period of sulking ensued but she still refused our offer, while grudgingly accepting she had to share the only set.
Life was far from dull for long…. and we survived one or two near mishaps, one mishap (saved for another occasion), and a couple of minor floods…We also managed our first Christmas without a scratch or divorce papers being thrust on either of us… Our bookings were growing pleasingly (despite no ‘Answer-phones’ then) and we had return visits from Travelling Salesmen and weekenders alike. Our prowess at cooking for around 10 to 28 people was steadily growing and we still have the ‘Guest’s book’ with blush-making comments to prove it. (While we didn’t serve pheasant, partridge, pate de foie gras or truffles… we could cook an excellent roast dinner and offer rice and pasta dishes and vegetarian fare, with salads, soups and tasty desserts aplenty. And all for a reasonable sum!) Short-stay and longer-stay guests came and went with little trouble and, to be expected, we had some memorable types who left a more indelible mark. Let me tell you about one in particular…
One night, at around 10.30, pm, our doorbell rang and I discovered a shortish, long-haired, middle-aged man standing on the step. He was dressed in a three-quarter length, sheep-skin coat and wore jeans and cowboy boots, with a scarf nonchalantly knotted at his neck and a shoulder-bag on one hip. Ummm!
‘Good evening, madam,’ he said with a brief smile…’ I’m a physicist looking for a bed for the night. Can you oblige?’ (Husband later suggested I should have replied ‘Have you split any good atoms lately?’ but my brain’s slower than his…) ‘Certainly, sir.’ I heard myself say, and he was shown a suitable room, then ushered into the lounge where he partook of a round of ham sandwiches and coffee as ordered. Ms. Groves had just vacated her usual armchair and the TV set and he made himself comfortable, as our other guests had left that day.
The next morning – having professed to have ‘Slept like a log.’ and been scrutinized by our resident at the next table, I served our new guest’s breakfast and was requested: ‘Would you kindly cut up my bacon and sausage please!’ and it was only then that I noticed his right hand was encased in a black glove (shades of Dr. Strangelove, later naughtily altered for private consumption to ‘Dr.Strangeglove’ ). Taking in my slight change of expression, he explained…’ It was badly damaged in the flash-back accident.’ ‘Oh dear!’ I exclaimed, rather lamely. Our new guest later engaged our middle son in a game of snooker (?) and bent his untutored ears with talk of nuclear fusion and the like. I believe he let him win the game so that he could escape…’Mr. Wellington’ as he had signed the visitors’ book, then progressed to the lounge, where he turned the TV channel to a children’s cartoon programme while Ms Groves nearly choked on a mint she was chewing while watching a documentary. I had the misfortune of entering the room at that precise moment, and quickly assessing the situation and not wanting blood shed over our new carpet, (further noting the rolled up Crossword puzzle magazine and the thunderous look on the scientist’s face) commented on what a lovely day it was for a walk in the sunshine.
‘Madam, would that I could…I’m afraid I have to forego the sun since the flash-back accident.’ I believe I uttered something quite inane in reply..
Later that same day, two young nurses were driving through the County, and desirous of stopping halfway through their journey, booked in for the night. Our other visitor was soon conversing with them most animatedly, and they later told me how knowledgeable he was, that he had once been a medical doctor, before taking up science and, further, was a direct descendant of the Duke of Wellington! When one mentioned that her brother had lost two fingers in a firework accident, he offered to operate and replace them (I’d heard of fish fingers, but really?!) What, with one good hand?
Our strange Mr. Wellington stayed on for another two days (during which time he nearly asphyxiated our permanent resident by smoking countless Gauloise cigarettes in the lounge, despite repeated requests that he cease.) Ms.Groves spent the time thereafter either in her room or took several walks and expressed her utter disgust at the situation. Naturally, I was relieved when Mr. Wellington announced that he was leaving. ‘My housekeeper has erased much of my work off the blackboard and I have to return home. Also, my Jaguar is ready, dear lady, so I regret I must leave. I have so enjoyed my stay and shall return in the autumn with a few of my scientist chappies.’ (How did he receive a message from his housekeeper? I hadn’t noticed any pigeons around and there were no mobile phones then?! ) Just after his departure, the telephone rang and a mechanic called Jim asked:
‘Have you a Mr.Campbell staying there? Only his Ford’s now ready for collection.’
‘No,’ I replied, ‘Just a Mr. Wellington who said his Jaguar has been fixed. And he’s just left!’
‘Sounds like him,’ he laughed and rang off.
So, who was ‘Mr. Wellington?’ or should that have been Mr. Campbell? Or was he just another Walter Mitty?
Note: Hard to believe, but the above story is true. Apart from the Duke of Wellington, I have changed the names for obvious reasons. When I later wrote a book about hotel life, the magazine “Good Housekeeping” wrote a short review, but they wouldn’t accept a story about Dr. Strangeglove, as they deemed it ‘too surreal,’ Or words to that effect.
There may be a couple of ‘follow-up’ stories about our hotel life, which could hardly be called ‘pèdestrian,’ and when we finally ‘threw in the towel,’ something quite extraordinary occurred. I was approached by a publishing company (Kogan Page Ltd., of London) and commissioned to write a modest book about running a small hotel! It even went to a reprint. How about that?
Seven lines from the seventh page of current work in progress: ‘The Highs and Lows of Leticia Dombrowski’
‘Then the thoughts take on a different form. Had he – his teenaged self – really been so sharp with his loving, warm, over-needy Mama; disenchanted with the sometimes cloying atmosphere of the home he really loved? He shrugs, briefly recalling the testosterone-absorbed years. His Papa came into focus, bearded, prematurely white-haired, sharp-featured (‘That nose could pierce a can!’ from his Mama), and serious. How he had insisted on absolute commitment to learning Hebrew, the Talmud and Russian! That he, Daniel, held a very different opinion on organized religion soon came to light…’
Commonly known in writing circles as a ‘hook,’ a lot has been said over the years about the opening sentence, or two, of a tale. It’s common sense to try and grab a reader asap, be it with something dramatic, curious, unusual or quirky. Not all writers do, of course. I’ve read some bland opening sentences over the years and yet – reading deeper – some books have ‘delivered’ more than promised. It is, nevertheless, a good idea to give careful thought to those first words which confront you when you open the cover. As I always have piles of read and unread books everywhere…I picked five at random and checked them out.
The first one: Kate Granville’s The Lieutenant began: ‘Daniel Rooke was quiet, moody, a man of few words.’ Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8) by Sandy Balfour, simply said: ‘Let me take you back to December, 1983.’ Both openings were an invitation: to know more about the ‘quiet, moody, man’ in the first instance, and a direct request to return to December, 1983 in the second. So, both subtle hooks… The third book, called The Seed Collectors by Scarlet Thomas starts: ‘Imagine a tree that can walk. Yes, actually walk. Think it’s impossible? You’re wrong.’ The fourth book titled Amsterdam, written by Ian McEwan, begins: ‘Two former lovers of Molly Lane stood waiting outside the crematorium chapel with their backs to the February chill.’ Both openings intrigue. A tree that can walk? And who was Molly Lane? None of the authors are amateurs. They knew what they were writing.
The fifth and final book, a favourite by Carlos Ruiz Zafon The Shadow of the Wind states: ‘I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.’ Another interesting, mind-winding opening.
Fast-forwarding to Writers’ Ink member, Nigel Grundey’s, latest novel, The Vienna Connection, let’s see what his hook is…Take his first paragraph; ‘Can we trust the messenger?’ asked Harry Ward slowly as the tall Warrant Officer scratched at a scar on his cheek, then returned the hand-written note to his commanding officer. ‘What it says is believable, because the Nazis broadcast their plans for Rome and Paris before liberation. But why wait until now to reveal the details?’ Again, intriguing.
The first introductory ‘Whistle Stop Tour’ of Italy’s most famous cities almost scrambled my brains. Oh the majesty of Venice! To see painter Canaletto’s (little canal) print of the Piazzetta on the wall of my childhood home become a reality before my eyes, was a joy; and as we alighted the ferry, was that Vivaldi’s music I could hear?! There is a magic veiling Venice which delights. Were we really walking across the vast Piazza San Marco, gazing at St. Mark’s Campanile, and the Doge’s Palace? Alas, there is only room for a thumb-print.
Travelling through Italy’s verdant countryside, with the divine voices of Pavarotti, Carreras and Domingo (radio-borne), we were charmed by the terracotta roofs dotting the horizon, the abundant flowers and the adjective-begging scenery passing our window.
It seems almost criminal not to give a brief description of Assissi, but we were impressed. Next stop, Rome. Hardly a place you could ignore – from the vastness of St. Peter’s Square, the grandeur of The Vatican, the incredible Sistine chapel, to the many churches and museums. Our brains were in danger of over-load…
We next added our coins to the three offered in the film to the Trevi Fountain; stood in the Coliseum: which seemed steeped in death, and from where I escaped asap!
Via the town of Pisa, with its famous leaning tower (yes we had our photo taken holding it up!) we arrived in Florence – ‘Cradle of Renaissance’ – wondered at The Diomo (cathedral) Santa Maria del Fiore, and the quaintness of the Ponte Vecchio, shop-bearing bridge straddling the river Arno. Yet another jewel in Italy’s impressive tiara. Satiated by so much antiquity, we longed for the following week’s calmer atmosphere.
Catching us by surprise – inducing a coach-load of travellers to catch their collective breath – the town of Riva suddenly lay at our feet: the sparkling waters of Lake Garda lapping the hem of its skirt. Praises buzzed in the air like bees¸ smiles inhabited faces. We were in thrall of its beauty and had surely found a little piece of heaven! As recorded by murals and mosaics, ancient Romans visited this lovely haven. No fools they! Elongated Lake Garda sits grandly in the north eastern part of Italy, surrounded by towering cliffs and mountains with abundant vegetation; saucer-like, creamy magnolias growing on its slopes. Every day, around late morning, a determined wind whipped up the lake water. Cue wind-surfers, who appeared like water-borne butterflies. Later, fun over, they disappeared as the wind dropped, leaving the lake serene.
Out hotel – more than we had hoped for after the basic fare of our first week’s tour – was delightful, with ‘silver service’ at our elbows. (It was, after all, a reasonably priced package holiday.) The service was impeccable, the food delicious, and the waiters handsome… As in Spain, the pleasing Passeggiata – promenading – was popular with local families: the praiseworthy public gardens the venue. Riva has a tranquil, refined air, the inhabitants mostly elegant Italians. The shops and produce were a delight, and the restaurants and cafes had me purring like a spoiled cat. As for the rest rooms – there were ‘state of the art’ loos in Riva – self-flushing, and taps which turned themselves magically on.
So, what did we do in Riva? We explored, admired, laughed a lot, ate a lot…fortunately walked a fair mile or so…and ferry-chugged across the satin-like waters of the lake to sup coffee and eat delicious pastries in a minimalist café on the far shore. Exploring the many small towns and hamlets peppering Lake Garda’s banks was a must (a bus hugs its contours). The narrow, medieval, cobbled streets come alive as I recall the charms of Sirmione and Malcesine; and in Desenzano there is a castle and grounds where outdoor concerts are held. A trip to pristine, pretty Gardone, pleased, and a day in buzzing Verona: “Wherefore art thou Romeo” intrigued. An aged edifice boasted a painted fresco: a faded scene, in part depicting the devil prodding his fork into the ample posterior of a well-endowed maiden, bawdy enough to bring a blush to a Nun’s cheek.