Ah, what’s this then? Well, If you must know, I’ve been given a helping hand to climb on board the Blog Tour Monday (a sort of blog-bus) by my writing friend, (fellow Arachne Press author and Ilkley Fringe Festival performer) Louise Swingler and her pal, traveller and writer, Jo Nicel, who wrote a very entertaining blog last Monday. Jo described Blog Tour Monday as a sort of relay race. I like to think of it as a way for writers across the land to hold hands, to make connections, to tell each other and their readers a bit more about themselves and about their writing and to generally feel, well, that there’s somebody out there whose hand they can hold. Holding hands before me, apart from Jo and Louise, were novelist and musician Dr Steve Hollyman (‘CreepJoint’ sounds a most crepuscular name for a band, Dr Steve!), Graeme Shimmin (author of ‘A Kill in the Morning’), Sara Jasmon (author of ‘The Summer of Secrets’, to be published by Transworld next year) and writers David Hartley and Emma Yates Badley. If you click on those lovely people’s names you will be linked to their contributions to the Blog Tour and find out much more about them. As for me, it’s good to shake you by the hand. As you might know (where have you been?) I’m the writer of Inspector Bucket and The Beast – Dahliapublishing.co.uk (available also from Amazon) – and various other Inspector Bucket short stories (see my previous blogs). But what I’m supposed to be doing here is answering some questions about my current writing. What am I working on? Well, since you ask, at the moment I’m 80,000 words into a family saga (currently called No Father Was There), very loosely based on the lives of my Australian grandfather and my English grandmother during the First World War. The tale deals with their rather tragic relationship and the effect it had on my father, who was brought up in a children’s home in Sidcup, South London. Pertinently, given the anniversary of World War One about to be upon us, it deals with the war itself, of course, but more so the impact the war had on people’s family and emotional lives. There’s a chapter of the novel (in much adapted form), entitled The Trumpet Calls, already available in Stew and Stinkers from the ‘Stringybark Book shop’ if you want to have a look at it. However, The Blog Tour demands that one should answer the question: How does your writing differ from others in its genre? Of course then you have to pin yourself down (always a difficult job that can cause bruises and fractures) to work out what on earth your genre is! (Sounds like a very nasty complaint to me.) Well, my first book, ‘Inspector Bucket’, sat in the historical-detective novel genre quite comfortably, I suppose – though it has Gothic qualities too – and, I like to think, it might also be seen as a comic-romance. Sort of. ‘No Father Was There’, on the other hand, (the title comes from William Blake’s Little Boy Lost) is clearly a War Time story – and I’m happy with that description – but it’s also about childhood, class and cultural and racial tensions. I hope its multi-narrative structure gives it a different sort of dimension too. I shall now unravel myself from the floor to answer the next question, which is: Why do I write what I do? Ah, that one brings the priest and the doctor running over the fields! ‘Inspector Bucket’ was (though based on Dickens’ character from ‘Bleak House’) a completely imagined story. The new novel is, I confess, very definitely based on some real people. However it’s still complete fiction, a way to imagine lives that were close to me but that I actually know very little about. The imaginative recreation is a kind of emotional analogue of genealogical research for me, a way of exploring lives that I hope are interesting for their own sake but that might be illustrative of certain times and places in the past. Now I need a lie down in a darkened room. The final question I have been asked is: How does my writing process work? Haphazardly must be the answer. I wish I could say I write a disciplined thousand words a day but, in fact, I can go for weeks without writing much at all – but, when an idea hits me (perhaps through something I’ve read or seen or heard about), I get completely engaged and don’t look up again until I have come to the end of it. (Clothes unwashed, hair and beard down to my knees.) But, in between, I love the fiddly process of editing my own mad scribbles. This bit I find very akin to painting – an extra touch of colour here, a change of position for a character or object there, a complete paint-over when it all looks wrong. (Chuck the whole dratted canvas in the bin over there and go up the pub.) Enough, or too much. So now it’s time to hand over to two writers to take the Blog Tour Monday further on its motley way. And they are Christina Longden (who describes herself as a ‘Funny Female Who Gives A Toss’) author of ‘Mind Games and Ministers’, amongst other delights, as well as being a leading light in the ‘Holmfirth Writers’ Group’. And then there is David Ellis who duets with Julienne Victoria in a collection of poetry called Flying from the Heart and, like me, (you fool!) has a story in the ‘What the Dickens?‘ Busker anthology. Click on their names to find their contribution to the Blog Tour next Monday, 17th March, and they will keep you company. I shake your hand.
The adapted first chapter of my work-in-progress novel (currently entitled ‘No Father was there’) has been accepted for publication by the ‘Stringybark Awards Past Times’ competition in their ‘Stew and Sinkers’ anthology. The e-book is available now and the paperback edition by 17 October.
Modest stuff, but as the putative novel is partly an Australian based story and ‘Stringybark’ is an Aussie publisher, I’m encouraged that they seem to think I’ve got it right!
Thus far anyway! We’ll see how the rest of the novel goes, shall we?
You can get a discounted copy of the e-book (which includes a version of the first chapter of my novel) by going to the above website (if you’re interested) and on payment putting in this code: TV48F – so that you get a discount! (There are lots of other interesting stories there by other authors as well as me!) With the discount the cost is A$2.80 (A bargain, cobber!)
The story (and the novel) is partly about the life of my Australian grandad. He was in fact a serviceman during the First World War who must, of course, have spent some time in England.
The young Aussie pictured above, is not, unfortunately, my grandad. I have no picture of him and, to my shame, and I know to the shame of my brothers, we know almost nothing about him! All we know is that he was called John Cooper and that he was a soldier. I presume he must have just gone back to Australia after he met my grandma. (Who I also didn’t know!) Perhaps he wasn’t even aware that he’d made her pregnant.
I wonder how they met. Were they actually lovers, or …
Grandma went on, I have always assumed, to ‘marry’ a chap called Dopson. This Mr Dopson clearly didn’t want to take on the child (my dad) and, I suppose, Grandma must have been forced to give him up. I never knew Mr Dopson or Grandma. But I do know her Christian names: Florence Elizabeth.
Rather lovely, I think.
No doubt it was common enough for a young woman to get into trouble during the war years, but, of course, it would have been shameful nonetheless – and people would probably go to great extremes to cover up the misdemeanour. To cover up the pregnancy. In this case, to cover up the existence of my dad!
But the reason for the inverted commas around the word ‘marry’, above, is that on my Aunt Joan’a birth certificate (Joan Dopson was the child Florence Elizabeth had at a later stage with the before mentioned Mr Dopson) Grandma’s name is given as Florence Elizabeth Cooper.
Florence didn’t marry Mr Dopson then. Did she marry John Cooper after all? Or did she estrange herself (or become estranged) from Dopson and simply call herself Cooper. Or …
All very mysterious.
But you must forgive me for dwelling on such vague biographical matter.
You might be wondering why my brothers and I didn’t clear up these matters whilst the principals (or some of them) were still alive.
Well, I ask myself the same question and feel full of guilt that I didn’t.
But, of course, my dad would never talk of such things – it being seen as shameful to be a ‘bastard’ in his day.
Here he is in happier times with my brother.
He was probably ashamed, too, to talk about his childhood in the home.
Here it is.
Only occasionally, when tipsy with drink at Christmas time or at other potentially emotional moments, would he briefly allude to his childhood – and then promptly wave aside any further questioning – whilst mum looked upset.
This is him (and mum) below (looking very happy and proud) with two of their many grandchildren.
It was partly that my parents were such cheerful, happy people that, I suppose, the thought of the “terrible hidden secret” was never worried about by any of us when we were growing up. Or when we were grown.
Here we all are (minus my brother Lew who was already in the services himself) looking the typical picture of a happy family. (I’m the little one.)
But what about our Aunt Joan? (Dad’s half-sister.) Perhaps she would have known something about the mysterious John Cooper and she could certainly have told us something about her own father (Dopson) and her mother, Florence. Perhaps so, but I barely knew her, beyond the occasional visit to what seemed to me at the time a rather posh house where we were served such unheard of delicacies (for a boy from Woolwich) as Twiglets!
My Aunt Joan always gave the impression that she was a cut (several cuts) above us (above my dad – above her half-brother.)
This impression wasn’t solely due to the Twiglets, or the posh house either.
Mum always put on an embarrassingly ‘la-di-da’ voice when she spoke to Aunt Joan. That was always a sure sign!
And dad would sometimes visit his half-sister and bring back exotic things (or so they seemed to me) like brief cases, expensive looking headed note-paper, fine looking fountain pens and golden nibs. (Perhaps she or her husband – I don’t remember ever meeting him either – ran a stationery shop!)
And then there was the whispered, anguished voice of my mum muttering something like, “Couldn’t your Joan help out?” – which I always supposed was a question about money. (Though, on reflection, my mum would have been too proud to accept that sort of help!)
So what was Aunt Joan to ‘help out’ with that, presumably, she never did?
Anyway, by the time I was an adult, Aunt Joan had moved to Spain (must have been posh then) and by the time I was interested in the answers to these family conundrums she had died there.
Was Mr Dopson (my ‘step-grandad’ I suppose I have to call him) ‘middle class’ then?
Several steps above us, indeed.
But where is all this leading me, you might ask?
Well, there is, of course, the trumpet call to explore the verities about one’s own antecedents. (Must get on to Ancestry.co.uk. Must explore the Australian Forces records. Yes, must.)
But, for me, there is also the trumpet call to make fiction of all of this. To invent the bits in between the vague facts. To investigate in the imagination before I investigate in fact.
Grandad (Johnny Cooper as I call him in my fiction) must have heard the trumpet call to join up in 1914. After all, there was unemployment in the dusty overcrowded suburbs of Sydney (where I imagine him living as a young man.)Joining the Australian Imperial Forces (as I imagine he did) must have seemed a great adventure, as it did to so many young men. (And the AIF paid 6 bob a day! Enough to make the British troops jealous anyway.) Like most in the AIF he would have been posted to Gallipoli and, if he survived that, the Somme too.
Some adventure! At some point, of course, he must have been in England – possibly on leave but more likely hospitalised due to some war wound or other. And Mr Dopson (my step-grandad) – what sort of man was he? A man perhaps with class aspirations, if not middle class as such. And Florence Elizabeth? What kind of young woman was she?
That’s him, my dad, the little fat boy in the middle. (The only picture I have of him as a boy.) And it makes my heart ache every time I look at it.
And how come he was born in Limehouse? Limehouse had a notorious reputation at that time, just before and after the First World War. It was the ‘China Town’ of London, in the days before it was supplanted by Soho. In 1917, Limehouse was an area of docklands inhabited by a colloquy of Malays, Lascars, Chinese, negroes, Jews, boxing bouts, opium dens and brothels. A recipe for a story perhaps.