Pleased to announce that my new work of long fiction, Notes From the Superhorse Stable, was published this month (June 2022) by Saron Publishers, and my fourth story collections, Five Go to Switzerand, will appear from Cockatrice Books this autumn.
Here’s a piece about the first that I wrote for the Western Mail daily newspaper.
Blimey – is this what I envisaged when I started out?
That’s the question I asked myself when I finished writing my latest book, Notes From the Superhorse Stable. It’s a sort-of novel (explanations in a bit).
The answer to the question was an emphatic No.
That’s because I recalled the origins of Graham Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case, about a spiritually-destitute architect and womaniser who finds moral redemption in the Belgian Congo. Greene claimed that its inspiration was unlikely and unpropitious: from the deck of a boat on an African river he’d seen a white man in a white linen suit entering a hut on its banks. Just that. It’s where his novel began.
Most writers will recognise the scenario. Something simple, some thought, sight or vision, seems to possess enticing but hidden connections that suggest a whole bigger than the sum of what will turn out to be initially disconnected parts.
Writers respond to the need to make something of the bigger picture, to react to what Greene clearly recognised as a beckoning voice. It’s obsessional.
Notes From the Superhorse Stable is narrated by Francis Taylor, a ‘resting’ actor working pro tem in a Forest of Dean care home. His theatrical career, such as it is, was halted when he was attacked by a pig while making a TV documentary about medieval life. He probably knows that his ‘resting’ will be permanent. One of his first roles was as the lead horse, Nugget, in Peter Shaffer’s play Equus.
In fact, the non-human animal kingdom seems forever to be knocking at the door of his story, as if auditioning for parts. A vicious pig, horses blinded by a disturbed teenager with a metal spike: both roles were non-speaking parts, and I realised only after completing the book how significant that was, maybe a justification for 430 pages of a memoir finally incorporating tragedy.
While ‘resting’, Francis joins the Ancestry website and discovers a distant, virtually unknown relative living in retirement near Brighton: Harold Taylor, a former South Wales coal miner, is seriously ill and being urged by a friend to try an unconventional remedy. Francis also has an unstable partner, a writer. As he tries to re-construct the past, the present is fragmenting, as his loyalties divide, his partner’s sickness worsens, and Harold further declines.
So why a ‘sort-of’ novel?
First, a confession: when I read Pride and Prejudice, I wondered who was telling me the story. Jane Austen, yes; but I didn’t mean that. I meant the third-person narrator. How could she – she? – remember all those conversations verbatim. How could she be privy to the thoughts and intimacies of others? How could she know so much detail and why did she re-live events with such formal exactitude and elegance?
That, of course, is the stuff of fundamental literary theory concerning the nature of language, the province and significance of meaning. Its claims can be exorbitant and are rebuffed by suspension of disbelief: what happened in Pride and Prejudice happened and ours is not to reason how or why the author’s account came into being.
But if I were still worried about such matters, I could find solace in first-person story-telling. The problem with that is not disbelief – what the narrator said happened did happen by definition, unless she/he were deliberately lying. And there’s the problem. How much can you believe, especially of what the narrator tells the reader about other people, other characters, other events? You can tell but you can’t show.
My ruse – successful or not – is to have the narrator explaining exactly that. Francis also admits that his story, his note-taking, by its very nature, includes meaningful digressions, byways, interesting dead ends. His allusion is the long walk, which one doesn’t embark on head down and interested only in getting from A to B. One takes in the view, cogitates, rests, looks over one’s shoulder. He has a story to tell but he’s not a novelist. He’s a ‘resting’ actor, working as a temp in a nursing home. You have to believe it, and it’s believable. Anyway, the lunge of that pig is giving him grief, maybe leading him away from immediacy towards the discursive, a much more leisurely path.
The idea for my book arose somewhat like Greene’s. My wife is a historian and explores family history. She has discovered two distant relatives, one of whom was seriously ill and not long after died. Her discoveries were in Cumbria, where Harold Taylor came from. The research for the book, as so often, was in the pursuit of small details. Being an actor, Francis needed to be placed in the context of theatre, of plays he’d been in. Those antecedents had to be accurate, not least the quotes.
Like all lengthy books, writing this one took over two years on and off. The problem with such intermittent activity is that a character may have blue eyes on page 17 and brown ones six months later on page 154. I was lucky to find the go-ahead Saron Publishers, a feisty Welsh independent, which took the book on. My rigorous editor, and Saron personified, was Penny Reeves, who sorted out eye colour, or kindred inconsistencies. Writing was more a delight than a challenger. I used to be a daily-newspaperman and really haven’t stopped scribbling. I still write devotedly for Jazz Journal, in which I have a column called Count Me In.
The aforementioned ‘sort of’ novel, or book, interests me. So that my influences (though not specifically in Notes From the Superhorse Stable) are writers such as Geoff Dyer, Emmanuel Carrère and W. G. Sebald. Their books do not fall into familiar categories. All writers should try to be original, if not experimental. How Modernism has for the general reader been effaced by ‘page-turners’ and books that ‘can’t be put down’ is the most depressing aspect of contemporary literature. It’s a regression.
I suppose for Saron, I had form: five books, one a poetry collection, published, and I am a winner of the Rhys Davies prize and the Templar Shorts prize for stories. It must have been alarmed, though, by the theme of how animals other than horses and pigs, but as well as them, ‘walk on stage’ in the memoir of an actor. It’s a bit of magic realism and, I hope, not overdone.
There was a strange postscript to the book’s completion. In it, there’s a Victorian eccentric called Charles Lovell Darling and a Giphy-obsessed character who sends the narrator a pic of a smiling rhinoceros. A week after the manuscript had been signed off, I visited Snowshill Manor, a National Trust property in the Cotswolds, with Mrs J and her second ‘discovered’ relative: David Lowis, from Appleby.
I knew nothing about Snowshill; it was our second choice, as the first NT property was shut. Snowshill was once owned by an eccentric called Charles Paget Wade, who stuffed it with masses of quaint collectibles, from Samurai armour to penny-farthing bikes, and lived in a cottage in the grounds. He’d also fabricated a tongue-in-cheek coat-of-arms in which there was a small image of a smiling rhino.
You couldn’t make it up. But I did. The book, I mean.