Fifty Years in the Making

Thornton Abbey Gatehouse - now THERE'S a story

Thornton Abbey Gatehouse – now THERE’S a story

I’ve previously mentioned the children’s novel I’ve long been working on, the
production of which ground to a halt a couple of years ago. I’ve also expressed my view that writing – whatever the form – is still creativity and the simple act of being creative can sometimes kick start a stalled project. A project such as mine. That opinion has been reinforced for me as, over the past few days, vaporous strands Do not disturbof inspiration have filtered through my mind, along with arbitrary arcs of insight and the indiscriminate chatter of long-forgotten characters. It seems that ‘The Door to Caellfyon’ may be opening once more. So, I’ve sharpened my quill and mixed some ink. And not before time, let me tell you.

First of all, in an endeavour to finally shake off the fetters of ‘Writer’s Block’ I’ll administer some CPR to my tale by revealing a little of what it’s about and where it all came from. So, what and where is this door? The immediate answer is ‘close by, yet as far away as it’s possible to be’. That immediately tells you that ‘Door’ is yet another ‘Through the Portal’ story. I realise the genre has been amply covered before but I like them, and if a writer can’t enjoy what he’s writing – well, he’s doing something wrong.

I also hear you say that, perhaps, today’s kids don’t want to read this type of stuff – it was okay when C.S. Lewis was writing ‘Narnia’ (which hasn’t been the inspiration for my tale, I hasten to add), but today’s kids with their games consoles and cable TV aren’t interested. And I would agree – up to a point. I feel sure that today’s kids would still relish the chance to trespass in barns and make dens out of spud crates, climb trees, make and race box-wood carts with wheels held on by bent nails, or blast off into space in a garden shed … as I did. They have the same DNA as the generation above them, and if they’re different it’s because we shape them that way. Based on that view, I believe today’s 9-11 year olds would enjoy the type of yarn I have in mind … and if they don’t, at least I’ve enjoyed it and in writing it have managed to relive at least part of my own happy childhood.

I’ve revealed that ‘Door to Caellfyon’ is a children’s story, aimed at 9-11 year olds and is a ‘Through the Portal’ tale. I’ve also said that I’ve been working on it for – let’s say a long time. In fact I can see that the seeds of inspiration were planted during my own childhood and, looking back, I can plot the chain of influences that have guided my pen and shaped the tale. I’ll explain.

Source of a life-long love of canals

Source of a life-long love of canals

My earliest literary influence was in the shape of a badger – in fact a badger who was also the skipper of a gaily painted barge (the ‘Wandering Wind’), and who navigated the waterways of our leafy shires. He also got into a fair amount of scrapes along the way. Bill Badger was the creation of ‘BB’ – the pseudonym for the remarkably named Denys Watkins-Pitchford, a British naturalist whose own delight in the outdoors led him to pour his own love of barges, canals and wildlife into the hugely popular series. In doing so he imparted those self-same pleasures to me.

I guess a love of history was the next element that has influenced my tale, for in my story you will find swords and bows rather than blaster’s, phasers and death-stars. I was grateful to have an excellent history teacher at secondary school but my introduction to the subject was at a younger age, and was courtesy of Rosemary Suttcliffe, Henry Treece and others, for whose books I had an insatiable appetite. Rosemary Suttcliffe’s ‘Eagle of the Ninth’ (originally published in 1954) is enjoying a much deserved renewal in popularity thanks to its recent fifty-year anniversary. Certainly, the story of Roman centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila, and his quest to find the ill-fated Ninth Legion’s missing eagle, aided by his unlikely ally, the Briton Esca, inspired what was to become my lifelong interest in Roman Britain.

Marcus and Esca embark on their search for the eagle

Marcus and Esca embark on their search for the eagle

I have also particularly enjoyed the ‘Portal’ type of tale. Influences here have been more recent. First of all there was Thomas Covenant – the creation of Stephen Donaldson. In Donaldson’s books Covenant, a leper in contemporary USA, unwittingly steps into a land – called ‘The Land’ (quite Python-esque) – in which his affliction is healed and he finds himself revered by the populace who consider him the reincarnation of a long-lost hero. Covenant refuses to acknowledge any of this and believes that he’s stuck in a dream. Any request for help he receives from his new neighbours is turned down flatly. An unlikely hero then, but it all turns out okay in the end.

Pride of place on the shelf since 1992

Pride of place on the shelf since 1992

A greater influence has been Stephen Lawhead’s Song of Albion trilogy. This is a series of books I enjoyed massively – probably because it was clearly set in a dimension of Celtic Britain (The Island of the Mighty) – and featured Lewis Gillies, an Oxford University student who, you guessed it, steps through a portal into another ‘world’. Unlikely though all this may be, I found the tales to be so damn believable – and wanted them to be true. And who’s to say that walking around an ancient cairn three times at sunrise or sunset (the Celt’s ‘time between times’) and then stepping inside doesn’t transport you elsewhere? It’s almost worth trying just to see. Or maybe not, maybe some bubbles are best left to drift rather than burst.

Ancient cairn - or portal to another dimension?

Ancient cairn – or portal to another dimension?

That’s covered adventurous animals, history and portals – you can see by now where we’re going with this – what else is there? For that we go back to animals and encounter the most recent influence.

When my son was ‘of an age’ at which Julie and I would read him stories at night, the books I particularly enjoyed reading to him were Brian Jacque’s Redwall series; adventure tales in which animals are the characters in a pseudo-medieval setting. The tales set me to thinking. If children can enjoy a tale such as this, in which animals were the characters, how much more could those children relate to the stories if a couple of kids – just like them – shared centre stage? The seed, planted way back by Bill Badger just got a whole lot bigger.

Bedtime reading

Bedtime reading

Jacque’s own influence for the series was an Abbey close to his home in Merseyside. The Abbey had red walls and clearly set off a train of thought in his mind that led to the popular series of books – and, indeed, a cartoon series of the same name.

So, Abbeys are not simply haunted ruins that are immensely photogenic when the light is right, they can also influence fantasy tales. Well, one certainly influenced mine.

redwall_races___mouse_by_chichapie-d33156sAs a young teenager I and my mates – usually from the same scout troop as me – would spend a lot of time at Thornton Abbey near Goxhill, Lincolnshire. Nowadays it’s run by English Heritage, but then it was simply home to ghosts – and us boys whenever we could get there. There’s no doubting that it’s an impressive ruin, built as a priory in 1139 and raised to abbey status in 1148 etcetera, but it was much more than that; as a place to play hide and seek, capture the flag and other such games, there could be no better place than a massive, crumbling medieval edifice. But one thing always mystified us when we were there, and it puzzles me now – and the cause? A door. Look at the following picture:

The Door

The Door

passageweblog

Medieval playground

See the door? Not the huge ornate archway, look up and to the right. A shadowy doorway – a gaping entrance on the gatehouse wall, clearly seen from outside. But inside? Inside we young scouts spent hours searching for the inner side to that door and never, ever found it – but every door has to lead somewhere. Doesn’t it?

Well, if you’re a wannabee writer like me all it needs is something like that to tingle the grey matter and set those imagination wheels turning … and the end result? ‘A Door to Caellfyon’, that’s what.

Those then are the ingredients to the tale, one in which two young kids are led by their kindly uncle into an adventure, one that begins at an old abbey just like the one above and, to their surprise, leads them to … well, I’d best get cracking and find out.