The Romancer

Writer's Notes

Memory is the way we keep telling ourselves - and other people – a somewhat different version of our stories. We can hardly tell our lives without an ongoing narrative.

Alice Munro

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New Cover for the revised edition 
 I am a lifelong admirer of the art of the biographer, who lives in the halfway house between history and personality. Returning from lunch with biographer Kathleen Jones one day, my head full of her new work on Katherine Mansfield and its connections with her biography of Catherine Cookson, I was suddenly inspired to make a ‘valid connection’ between my own life and my writing: a kind of creative memoir. So I embarked on The Romancer - not a conventional memoir, but a kaleidoscope with all the elements of my life and experience as glittering fragments in the drum. Every time I shake this kaleidoscope a complex pattern emerges: each new pattern is a novel or story unique in itself.

First comes Inspirations, an account of elements - people, experiences, places, insights and feelings - from my own life that have, whether or not I was conscious of it, inspired my wide range of novels and stories. Inevitably this is the largest part of this book. Without such inspirations would there be anything to write? These elements are the glittering fragments in the drum of the kaleidoscope.

Then Only Connect - the ways in which the novels grow out of the life experience.

Then Onto The Page celebrates many things - the poetic charm of getting the right words in the right place, the development of character, the evocation of place, the organisation of ideas, the architectural skills of building a novel and the joys of editing and shaping one’s own prose. It involves seeing one’s work into print and the surreal, occasionally comical, vagaries of the world of publication.
My great wish is that both readers and writers will relish The Romancer and that it may unlock for them some secrets of the art of fiction and influence their appreciation of the novel in general. I hope also that writers in particular will be inspired through these pages to write on, and acquire some strategies and skills to enhance their own writing experience.
Only in retrospect - in writing The Romancer - have I finally made some crucial connections myself, recognising now how all that stuff buried deep in my subconscious has turned up on the page. I have become more aware of the novelist’s role as an historian of private lives, shaking and shaking the kaleidoscope and coming up with stories that have universal appeal. Of course we have to remember that The Romancer itself is a kind of fiction – a narrative of narratives, a story of stories. I hope you enjoy it.  

Here Are Two Extracts     


'I knew I could write before I could read or write.'

Picture this. A little girl of three in a Fair Isle cardigan, playing outside a house in Lancaster. With her head of Shirley Temple curls she’s winsome, prettier than she’ll ever be in the many years to come. She’s chalking on the sill of the big bay window.
She stands back and looks at the zig-zag scribble. That looks right. It looks just like her mother’s writing, when she writes her letters. But then the little girl frowns her characteristic frown. Are the squiggles all in one or are there breaks in the line? She runs inside and climbs up to the mantelpiece where she knows there are letters. Letters and envelopes are big in her house these days. There are letters from her Daddy who’s making aero engines in another city. Mammy reads these out to them all, the four of them sitting round the table. The letters always end with Love, Bill.
The little girl likes the way her mother smiles as she reads them. But there was one letter that made her mother cry, about someone called Jimmy, whose plane crashed in America. There’s a photo of Jimmy in uniform on the mantelpiece, a sharp face with smiling eyes under a peaked cap.
Now, the little girl takes one of her Daddy’s letters and looks at it carefully. Ah, yes! There are gaps between the squiggles. So she goes outside and - with the corner of her cardigan – knitted by her Auntie Louie who once told her a tale of swinging a milk can – the little girl rubs the sill so there are now spaces and it is real writing.

'THE AUCTIONEER'  A Story for Christmas

I have this photograph of Tom Wetherill, the other grandfather whom I never met, whose son Billy was my father. In the photograph this Tom is about nineteen years old, with a handsome, full face and large smiling eyes. He’s wearing a white wing collar and a long evening coat. Very Oscar Wilde. Tom Wetherill had great charm.

My mother Barbara called him ‘the old man’ and loved him. She loved this photograph because it has a touch of class, it hints of better things. It also backs up her story of how he – therefore we - came from better things. Even in our poorest times she was nothing if not aspirational.

Tom’s Wetherill’s father was an affluent bailiff, auctioneer and valuer from Ripon in North Yorkshire and the Wetherill family lived on one of the better streets in the centre of this cathedral town. Tom was a very clever boy and the legend on his Ripon Grammar School report was often quoted to me: Remarkably clever but abominably lazy.

Reflecting on this now I think perhaps he too was a dreamer like me. A Romancer. In my experience we can irritate the more active, task driven people. I think Tom must have worked for his father for a time. But then the story goes that when Tom was seventeen, his parents died and he and his sister were each left three thousand pounds. Depending on how you calculate it, in present day values this varies between £239,000 using the retail price index, to £1,280,000, using average earnings. My mother told me that by the time he was twenty one little was left of what was by any reckoning an enormous sum of money.

How did Tom Wetherill manage that difficult feat you may say? I have no record of this, oral or otherwise. I suppose he could have been swindled or defrauded. But I feel the reason for this great loss was due to a certain weakness that has come down through the generations. There is a gambling streak around this family. It’s not impossible that he went off to London or Monte Carlo and tried the tables. From his young photo he looks flamboyant enough. This Tom Wetherill was a gambler, His son Billy was a gambler. My late, much loved brother – also Tom - was a gambler. 

What about me, then? When you think of it, assuming one can write for a living is a bit of a gamble. Each novel I write is a ‘bit of a gamble’. As well as that I’m prone to taking leaps in the dark. Deciding to work in prison was one of those leaps. As you will read later here, that turned out to be an intensely rewarding experience but it could have been a great mistake.

I don’t really know what my grandfather Tom Wetherill did after he lost his money, but I do know that after some years he ended up working in an asylum called Winterton in County Durham. On his wedding certificate he is called asylum attendant. (This is the same asylum where many decades later I was up the ladder doing the Christmas decorations…) In time he became chief male attendant. 

They didn’t call them nurses in those days.

At that time the staff – including the doctors – lived on the site, in houses and cottages on the perimeter of what effectively was a large, purpose-built institution. It was at The Hospital (as they called the asylum) that Tom met his wife Elizabeth Ann, who was on the domestic staff. (She once told me that my grandfather had chased her round the table in the Hospital kitchen till she caught him…)

My father Billy and his sister Alice, usually called Mim - she of the cream cakes on the day he died - were born and grew up at The Hospital. They were both clever, and both of them went to Stockton Grammar School. Billy lost schooling because he was asthmatic and took an electrician’s apprenticeship at The Hospital. This asylum was, for its time, very progressive. It had all kinds of social events – dances, concerts, a drama group, and sports teams, chess clubs – in which both patients and staff participated.

Sixty years later I talked to two elderly women who had worked at The Hospital at that time. They remembered Tom and said how much they liked him. He was, they said, a true gentleman. He was kind and good at his job. He could play the piano and they enjoyed many sing-songs in my grandparents’ hospital house in a square called The Cottages. They recalled with affection New Year’s Eves, when the staff living in the cottages would join forces and drink in each others’ houses, from glasses they took with them from house to house. 

Writing this, I’m wondering if, at those parties, my grandmother Elizabeth Ann declaimed what (I discovered much later) was an ancient Durham Mummers Play, normally performed in houses on New Year’s Eve? She made us learn it off by heart perhaps to carry on a very ancient tradition.

This grandfather, Tom Wetherill, died before I was born. Although his wife Elizabeth Ann was on the periphery of our lives for many years afterwards, this ancient play is all I know about this grandmother. Oh – there’s something else: she taught us how to play whist, so we would make a ‘four’, so she could play cards on her visits. And she insisted that the wireless had to be tuned to the racing. And then there was the juvenile mortification when she visited us and – just off the Primrose bus from Lancaster, where she lived - she asked me to put on sixpenny double bets at the bookie’s. She favoured a jockey called Scobie Breasley.

On reflection perhaps the reason why I know so little about her - why she is not a person to me - is because my mother Barbara had no time for her, so apart from a few sour allusions, there were no stories.

As I said there was a substantial sporting programme at The Hospital. I do have a rare photo of my father Billy in his twenties. He’s in tennis whites, holding a tennis racquet, standing alongside a slim, dark haired woman – not my mother. But Barbara did encounter Billy for the first time at The Hospital. She went there to train and work as a nurse in the early Thirties. It was there that they met – an ambitious, fiery young nurse and a smart young electrician, whose gentleman father was on the senior staff. I have a photo of them at that time – he tall, dark and very handsome, she smaller, more rounded with that lovely head of hair. They look happy.

Very occasionally fathers and daughters slip into my fiction. For these I dip into my own experience of a lost father and also my experience of watching my daughter with her own devoted and much loved father.

All this family stuff, one way or another, drifts into my fiction...

eg From The Lavender House (2007).

Sophia, the narrator, has moved to London to train as a journalist and has

met Bobbi, a young girl who lives alone with her father in a Georgian house converted to three flats. Sophia had been dreaming of black tulips in her friend Julia’s garden, which were really – she knew - purple:

‘Not black,’ I muttered again as I opened the door.

It was Bobbi.

‘My Dad’s not home,’ she said, walking straight into my living room. ‘I waited and he didn’t come.’

I glanced at my watch. ‘You should be at school.’ My mouth was dry and my head was raging. ‘It’s eleven o’clock.’

‘I never go to school till he’s back home from his night work. He did leave me this message telling me not to worry. But when people tell you not to worry you know you should be worrying. Mr. and Mrs. Selkirk are out and Mr. Copeland has gone to work so I came here.’ She collapsed onto the couch. ‘It was Mehmet’s or here. And Mehmet’ll be busy with lunches.’

‘Ring your dad now! Try again!’ My shrill voice hurt my own ears. I rushed to the sink, poured myself a long glass of water and gulped it down.

Bobbi stood looking at me. ‘You’ve got a hangover!’ she said soberly.

The child knew too much. At that moment I quite disliked her.

‘Ring him now!’ I repeated. She took out her dinky phone, hit a single number and held it out to me. Straight to voice mail.

I’m gunna go up West and find him,’ she said, pocketing her phone.’

… Which is how Bobbi and I, face now washed, hair brushed, found ourselves in front of a narrow dark green door in an alley behind the Brompton Road that smelled of fish.

The door opened and we were staring at this woman whose over-made up face was too large for her body. She could have been anything from forty to seventy, ‘Yes?’ she said.

‘My dad,’ said Bobbi, ‘He works here and didn’t come home. I’ve come to get him. You know – Sparrow Marsh.’

‘Sparrow?’ The woman pursed her lips, deepening the wrinkles around them. ‘Sparrow’s long gone. You say you’re his kid? You’re not like him. Not so dark. Went off early. On that bike of his.’

‘But I tell you he didn’t come home.’ 

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