A rather extraordinary thought has just occurred to me. My first-ever book was published fifty years ago this month. So long ago? Incredible. it seems like last week. I’ve got it in front of me now. A rather insignificant volume, I fear. Not even a carefully preserved original complimentary copy but rescued many years later from a school stock cupboard, in Ipswich of all places, before they threw it out. I’m not going to print out the cover: it’s hardly mind-boggling. But oh, how proud I was.
It was called Three Towneley Plays. They were modern versions of three medieval Miracle Plays and I wrote them for schools – even though I was, for at least half of the book, still a student myself, which now seems pretty cheeky. ‘I’m on the way,’ I thought.
Vain hope. My next book was published twelve years later. In 1971, I started my first children’s novel, Pageants of Despair. It was published in 1974. After that I was writing in the moments I had free from teaching and advising until 1992. In that year, after fourteen years of being County English Adviser for Hertfordshire and fed up to the teeth with dashing round the county peddling the then new National Curriculum and seeing a job I loved take new directions that I didn’t like, I retired early to become a full-time writer, which I’ve been ever since. I’ve lost count of how many books I’ve written, but there are over sixty now, all sorts – novels, short story collections, books for schools, non-fiction for all ages. The War and Freddy, Hare’s Choice, Death Penalty, Out of the Mouths of Babes, Spirit of the Place, Ellen’s People, Divided Loyalties, historical, fantasy, contemporary and (as far as I can make it) serious, though I like to think cheerfulness keeps breaking through
Writing has given me so much pleasure – as well as hard work and often anguish. It’s a craft. I had to learn it on my own. But we can do better than that now. We can spread the word to others who want to share in writing’s wonderful experience and this is a movement I’ve tried to involve myself in. In 1985 I started the “Lending Our Minds Out” writing courses for children at the Pearse House Conference Centre, Bishops Stortford. After I retired early, Philip Levy, the director of Pearse House, and I decided that these courses offered too good an experience to let die so we set them up for primary school pupils from all over the country, using Youth Hostels as venues. These courses ran until 2004, when rising costs meant they had become too expensive for most schools or parents to afford. Many hundreds of children had been to them over the years. And now there’s a chance that I may be able to start them afresh, here in Oxford where I now live.
Anyway, here I am, an Indie author.
You’re probably fed up with being told that the world of publishing is in a sorry state at the moment – at least, it is for people like me who have been writing successfully for a very long time but are now seen to be not profitable enough any more and so find getting new publishers difficult. There are many in the same position, including some very famous names. So we have to take matters into our own hands. As a result we feel suddenly free and in charge of our own destinies, like farmers giving up their ruinous contracts with big supermarkets and opening their farm shops.
Something which Catherine Czerkawska said in her Writer’s Piece last week struck me quite forcibly as something else which I have in common with one writer – and, I believe, most others – in this festival.
Catherine bemoaned the fact that she could no longer find ‘the midlist, non-genre specific books I like to find in the big bookstores.’ And why is that? Because so many authors, including Catherine, refuse to write the same book over and over again: refuse to be typecast. But the very term ‘midlist author’, once something quite well worth being, has now become a kiss of death.
I felt a sharp shock of recognition. Publishers like authors to be like cobblers, sticking to their lasts (and look where it’s got them in these days of sweated-labour Nike trainers). If a book catches on, they want the same again. And again. Some writers can do it – PD James, Ian Rankin, PG Wodehouse. But that’s because they are wonderful authors who – good phrase this but sadly not mine – ‘define the taste by which they are judged.’ That’s not open to most of us and anyway, many authors would find such a life boring beyond belief. When one book is done, the next must be totally different. A new challenge, a new exploration. Catherine is one of those, and so are Jan and Chris and Dan and John and Bill and Cally and Peter and pretty well everyone else in this festival. And so am I.
When I first started being published, I was labelled a ‘historical novelist’. And it’s true: I often am. But then I wrote a few ghost stories. ‘Ah yes, DH the ghost story writer,’ people said. I wrote a lot of stories and two novels about football. I was dismissed as ‘a writer about football’. I wrote stories about war. Football and war – I was called ‘a writer for boys.’ Hadn’t anybody noticed how often my main character was female, including in my three most ambitious war novels, The Fourth Plane at the Flypast (1985), Ellen’s People (2006) and Divided Loyalties (2008)? I wrote my little book of short stories about Freddy in World War 2, The War and Freddy. It’s done well, still in print after twenty years, read in primary schools all over the country. ‘Oh, let’s have more like that,’ people said. Well, no. Freddy was finished, his war was over and there was no more to say. I was already writing a sequel to Hare’s Choice, my favourite among my own books. Hare was not after all the standalone which I had intended but the first in a trilogy. This was not because anyone asked me to write one, in fact the publishers were quite doubtful when I announced it, but because I realised I had to. I wrote Out of the Mouths of Babes, a fairly strong book about contemporary society and a clash of class values. Shall I write another like it? I doubt it: I’ve had my say there. Will I ebook it? I doubt that too: it would have to be updated because it’s set clearly in 1997 and this would be a major, major job which probably wouldn’t be worth the effort. I wrote Spirit of the Place, a serious time-slip book which is my next to be put on Kindle because rereading told me that I really liked it. I was going to update the (nearly) present-day bits but then realised that no, they had to stay as they were because if I changed them the whole point of the book would be lost. Yes, I know The Long Journey of Joslin de Lay consists of six books. But I was first asked to write a series and I couldn’t stand the thought of getting on a treadmill which I could only get off when the publishers got tired of it. Joslin’s story was conceived as one big 250,000 word novel in six volumes. I was once hauled in to see the Scholastic publishing director and told that they wanted me to be the British answer to RL Stine. What an appalling prospect. I said I’d think about it. This Writer’s Piece is the result. Thank God.
The main reward for any writer is to be read. That’s more important than earning lots of money, more important than being famous. If nobody reads you then you’ve got no chance of either. This is why so many of us are turning to open access publishing on Kindle and the like. This is why some writers, including me, are planning to set up their own publishing co-operatives, to reissue some of the books we have put on Kindle as high quality printed editions and publish new ones. After all, nothing in the world can really beat the feel, the smell, in fact the beauty, of a new book – or the indefinable romance of an old one.
I have seven books out on Kindle now. The eighth, Spirit of the Place, is nearly ready to go. A time-slip novel – 1773 through to 1993. It deals with, I hope, some big subjects. It’s got a bit of supernatural, some things to think about: science and art, what the human function in the world is and, I hope, some good entertainment. And a lot of poetry you’ve never read before. Or ever again, I shouldn’t wonder.
The Long Story of Joslin de Lay has a special competition feature on 21st August in Extras @ Eight
And because Dennis is ‘the father of the festival’ he’s given us a special gift – a short story to end his ‘piece.’ (Ed)
AM I THE KING OF THE CATS?
(suggested by an old folk tale)
Fred Blazey went to his allotment every morning. First, he unlocked the shed door. Then he sat down on his folding chair and poured a cup of tea from his thermos. This was how he started each day of his life since he was too old to go to work any more.
One morning he found a big black and white cat fast asleep on the shelf where he kept his seed packets.
“I must have left the window open,” said Fred to himself. “I’ll make sure I close it tonight.” But when he looked, the window was shut. “How did you get in here?” said Fred.
The cat opened one eye and then closed it.
“You cheeky little so-and so,” said Fred. “You winked at me.”
The cat opened both eyes, sat up and stretched. He yawned and looked at Fred in a superior sort of way.
“Now you’re laughing at me,” said Fred. “Shoo!”
But the cat didn’t move. He never left the shelf all day. Before Fred went home that evening, he picked him up and carried him outside. Then he closed the shed window. “That’ll stop his gallop,” he said. But the cat was there next morning, fast asleep in the same place.
Fred spent hours looking for a hole in the wall where a cat could squeeze through. But he couldn’t find one.
“You’re a mystery, you are,” he said.
That evening on his way home he stopped at the corner shop and bought three cans of cat food. Next morning he brought the cans, a tin-opener and two saucers. He filled one saucer with water from the tap outside, spooned cat food into the other and put both saucers on the floor. The cat jumped down from the shelf, purring. He rubbed up against Fred’s trouser leg and then ate heartily. Next day Fred brought in a cushion and put it on the shelf. The cat curled up on it, still purring loudly.
After a week, Fred got to like having the cat there. One afternoon he left the allotment early and went into town. He called at the pet shop and bought a cat flap. Next day he fitted it neatly into the shed door. “Now I’ll know how you get in here,” he said. The cat looked at him with a strange expression, as if saying, “Oh no you won’t.”
“Since you think you live here, I’ll call you Tom, because that’s what you are,” said Fred.
Then he noticed something odd. Tom had black fur except for a white chin and white paws. But his eyes were not green. They were a sort of grey-blue, like the sea when the sunshine is hazy. And the sea was very deep.
* * * *
Since his wife died, Fred lived alone. He only had a little flat, so when his daughter and her family came to see him they stayed in a guest house down the road. Fred was always pleased to see his grandchildren, Bella and Luke. Sometimes they came with him to the allotment.
“I’ve got something to show you in my old shed,” he told them.
“What is it, grandad?” Luke asked.”
“Ask no questions and I’ll tell no lies,” Fred answered.
When they reached the allotment he unlocked the shed. Tom was lying on his cushion. He made a chirruping noise which seemed to say, “What took you so long?”
“He thinks he owns the place,” said Fred and tickled Tom under the chin.
“Look!” Bella squealed. “He nodded. He really thinks he does.”
Tom miaouwed softly, as if saying, “Dead right I do.”
“I put a catflap in the door for him,” said Fred. “I don’t know how he got in before.”
Luke bent down to look at the catflap. “Grandad,” he said. “You’re supposed to unlock it first.”
“They didn’t tell me that in the shop,” said Fred. “How am I supposed to know? I’ve never had a cat before. So how does he get in then?”
“The same as he did before you got the catflap,” said Luke.”
“Perhaps there’s a gap you haven’t noticed,” said Bella.
“That there isn’t,” said Fred. “I searched.”
“We’ll look again,” said Luke.
“Try if you like,” said Fred, rather huffily. “I’ve got work to do.”
So while he sowed potatoes, Bella and Luke examined every inch of the walls, floor and roof. But they couldn’t find the slightest chink for even a mouse to get through. “A mystery,” said Bella.
Tom watched them all the time. “Look!” cried Bella. “He smiled. I’m sure he smiled.”
Tom jumped down, drank some water and ate some cat food.
“I don’t think he’s an ordinary cat,” said Bella. “I think he’s got a secret.”
Tom looked up and said in a sharp cat voice, “Yes, I have. I’m waiting for someone. You keep an eye open as well. You’ll know when whoever it is comes.”
They ran out of the shed. “Grandad, grandad!” they shouted. “Tom can talk.”
“Don’t be daft,” said Fred.
“Then come and listen,” said Luke. Fred put his spade down and followed them.
Tom was still eating. “Tom,” said Bella. “Tell grandad what you just told us.”
Tom stopped eating and gave her a “This girl is a fool” look.
“I knew it,” said Fred. “You’re having me on.”
* * * *
That night, Bella had a strange dream. Before she slept she thought about Tom. How could a cat talk? Don’t be so stupid, Bella, she thought Of course cats can’t talk. You imagined it. Tom may be a clever cat, but he’s not as clever as that. Then a little voice inside said, “You didn’t imagine it. It’s true”
She couldn’t stand all this thinking any more. It was keeping her awake. She put the bedside lamp on and looked at her watch. It was midnight, the witching hour. She had a feeling that something extraordinary was about to happen. She waited, but nothing did. So she switched the light off, closed her eyes and…
She was in a strange place. It was very dark, though she could make out tree branches over her head, like skeletons. The ground was covered in dead leaves. She shuffled through them, but suddenly stopped. She had nearly fallen into a narrow pit in the ground. Like a tiny grave, she thought. At the side was a heap of loose earth.
She listened. The silence and stillness made her feel afraid. Now she was sure some great thing would happen.
Then the stillness was shattered by a weird, unearthly sound. It sounded like many cats wailing, as if in grief. They came into view: tabby cats, tortoiseshell cats, pedigree Siamese, Burmese and Persian cats, alley cats and moggies, all howling as if their world had ended. They came to the long pit in the ground and the wailing stopped. Silently they sat down.
Gradually, quiet at first, then getting louder, came more miaouwing, every three seconds, like a tolling bell. “Miaou! Miaou! Miaou!” A procession of black and white cats, all like Tom, walking on their hind legs. They were led by a cat wearing a silver chain. They carried a little coffin draped in black velvet on their shoulders. A golden crown was placed on top. Slowly, they came to the grave. The leading cat picked up the crown from the black velvet. The pallbearers lowered the coffin into the grave. Then cat with the chain handed the crown to the cat standing behind him. He lifted his paw. The watching cats stood up and watched the cat with the chain and the cat holding the crown.
Bella also watched. The black and white cats turned to her. They spoke in high cat voices like Tom’s. “The King is dead: long live the King.” The other cats cried out as well. “The King is dead: long live the King,”
The cat with the crown walked towards Bella. He held it out to her. “Tell him it is his,” he said. “Tell him he is our rightful new king.”
“Tell who?” asked Bella.
“You disappoint me,” said the cat. “You know very well who. Tell him.” Then Bella saw his eyes were not green. They were grey-blue, like hazy sunshine on the sea.
The cat continued. “You must tell the cat who shall succeed to the throne. He is of the blood royal. He is the chosen one. You are the messenger. Tomorrow his hour of greatness will arrive.”
“I’ll try,” said Bella faintly.
“The Kingdom of the Cats depends on you,” said the cat.
Everything disappeared into a blur. She sat up in bed wondering for a moment where she was Then she remembered where she had just been. “What a weird dream,” she said.
Then she saw the dead leaves on the duvet cover.
* * * *
She told Luke. “So what?” he said. “It was only a dream.”
“Then what about the leaves on my bed?” she said.
“They stuck to you yesterday at grandad’s allotment,” said Luke. “They fell off your clothes when you got into bed.”
“No” said Bella. “I was there at the cat king’s funeral.”
“That’s silly,” said Luke.
“We must go to the allotment,” said Bella. “I’ve got a message to deliver.”
“Now I know you’re crazy,” said Luke.
Fred smiled when he saw them. “Hello, kids,” he said. Bella felt sad, because grandad had grown very fond of Tom. Now Tom would disappear as mysteriously as he came. How would they cheer grandad up? Perhaps he would like a new kitten.
She went into the shed. Luke followed, still muttering, “You’re daft.” A half-empty saucer of cat food was on the floor. Tom was asleep on his cushion. He woke up when they came in and Bella tickled him under his chin. He purred and bent his head so she could tickle the top as well. Then, suddenly, he stood on all fours. His fur shot up straight like a wire brush and his tail fluffed out.
“It’s you,” he hissed. “You’re the one I’ve been waiting for. You’re the messenger.”
“Yes,” said Bella. “I am.”
Tom calmed down. He sat down and folded his paws in front of him. “All right,” he said. “I’ve waited long enough. Tell me the news.”
“The King of the Cats is dead,” said Bella.
“Ha!” said Tom. “So the old devil’s gone at last.”
“Yes,” said Bella. “I saw his coffin put in the grave. A cat just like you told me what I had to do. You are to succeed to the throne.”
Tom was silent for a moment. Then he said, “Just a minute. Do you mean they want me to be king?”
“Yes,” Bella said. “They are offering you the golden crown.”
Tom washed his face and scratched behind his ear. At last he spoke. “Tell them they can keep it,” he said.
“But you must take it,” Bella cried, horrified. “You are of the blood royal. You are the chosen one.”
“Rubbish,” said Tom.
“But if you won’t be king, it’s the end of the Kingdom of the Cats.”
“Good thing too,” said Tom. “It’s about time they entered the twenty-first century.”
“Tom, why not?” Bella felt awful. “They trusted me to give you the message. I’ve let them down.”
“No you haven’t,” said Tom. “You did what they asked you. What I do is my business.”
Tom smiled a strange cat smile. “I don’t believe in all this king and queen nonsense. I’m not changing just to suit them, so they can push off,” he said.
“But Tom…” Bella started.
“But Tom nothing,” said Tom, suddenly fierce and quivering with emotion. “I have a mission. But it’s not their mission.”
“What do you mean, Tom?” Bella asked.
“This is my manifesto,” Tom replied. His voice rang eloquently round the shed. “Monarchy is dead. True rule can only be by consent. Power to the People. I shall place myself before the whole of Catdom and ask for their mandate. One Cat, One Vote. True democracy. Liberty, equality, fraternity. All cats are equal. And when I am their constitutionally elected leader I shall set out with them on a great campaign. I will not rest until the feline race has taken its rightful place as the Masters of the Universe. And this, you mark my words, will happen in my lifetime. I shall see this great day dawn and die happy knowing that I have fulfilled my destiny.”
Stunned by his rhetoric, shocked by his ambition, Bella and Luke were struck dumb.
Tom jumped down and finished off the saucer of cat food. Then he curled up on his cushion and yawned.
“On the other hand,” he said, “I might just stay here with Fred.”
And went to sleep.
* * * *