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Born on Leap Year’s Day 1932
in the former workhouse, Chipping Sodbury.

(These are only fadographs of a yestern scene)

The eldest
of three brothers.

Father a district electrical enginer and Class-A reserve RAF pilot was called up on the outbreak of war.

1939 We followed him through postings to Ternhill in Shropshire, Prestwick in Scotland, and, finally, Port Elizabeth in South Africa, where he took charge of flying training at 42 Air School.

1941 We were torpedoed on our first attempt to follow him - on the City of Nagpur ... (what on earth could have given away our position?)

... but were rescued by HMS Hurricane and made honorary stokers in their mess below decks.

Our second attempt, on the Ulysses, was a success and we became boarders at Grey School ...

... in the style of the day.

1943-44 We lived in a house named Sou’West, down on the coast at Skoenmaakerskop, sharing it with Mike and Biddy Fleetwood, who later produced Mick (of Fleetwood Mac) and Susan (of the National Theatre). Their eldest, Sally, was then a toddler (and is still a friend). Baboons used to come down out of the bush at night and rejoice in the thunder they could make, leaping up and down on the corrugated-metal roof.

1944 We returned—safely this time—in the Andes.

1945 Our father died in the war and we moved to a 3-acre smallholding in Cornwall (the nearer house of these two). And ...

... became jolly farmers, and ...

... with the help of the RAF Benevolent Fund were enrolled as boarders at Bedford School.

Our mother married a local farmer and we moved a mile away, to Wheal Fortune ...

... where we milked cows ...

... and cows ...

... and cows

... and kept pigs ...

... and hens ...

... and weeded ...

... and weeded ...

1950 And then it was time to leave Bedford School and start on a career.

Oh, Mr Rhodes-Harrison (aka "Rosebud") if only I had heeded your parting shot!

1950 (still) So, having majored in physics, chemistry, zoology, and minored in art, I naturally chose ...

Falmouth and ART ... enrolled at Falmouth School of Art—two years’ foundation course followed by two years for the National Diploma in Painting (special level)

* Career choice postponed for four brilliant years—1950-54!  *

The third- and fourth-year students were ex-servicemen and women, not your stereotypical art students but people whose lives had already been mucked about too much ... people who were serious and driven. We beginners caught our work ethic from them. The hours were 9:00am to 9:00pm with two hours off between 5:00 and 7:00. So for us it was two intense years of pottery, textile design, life drawing, clay modelling, etching—then two more years of painting and painting ...

... and an obsession with china claypits as landscape ...

l to r: Trelavour, Higher Gothers, Wheal Dream, and (nowadays) The Eden Project

... and as female form ...

... and religious iconography ...

Judgement Day


The Betrayal


Xt in the wilderness


... and more painting

Still life


The weekly bath


Claypits flora


* Career choice postponed for two more not-so-brilliant years—1954-56! *

You can’t hoodwink yourself into the free life forever
My country [or Mr Selwyn Lloyd, Minister of Defence] called me up ...

Officer & gentleman?


... and handed me one shoulder pip, a transport platoon, three sergeants, three corporals, three lance-corporals, but only three drivers. The three drivers could not be spared for actual driving duties, of course. So they all helped me spend my remaining year of service learning how to how to spit-and-polish thirty trucks to death before Mr Lloyd decided to flog them off to civilian haulage firms at 30 each because they were too obsolete for the Suez Adventure.

Some people still want to bring back National Service!

But the army paid my busfare
to evening life-classes
at any nearby art school

like Farnham


and West Hartlepool


* Career choice postponed for two more brilliant years—1956-58!*

Thanks to a County Scholarship for the Slade in London ...

...where I got lodgings in Hampstead with the poet Jon Silkin, the [later] playwright David Mercer, in the house of [later Booker prizewinner] Bernice Rubens

l to r: David and Jon


Back view from our flat


Two years of wild, eclectic experiment

Darning by candlelight 1


Sun goddess


Darning by candlelight 2


... and painting

Greenwich park at dawn


Chemical factory




Helston, St Johns


Miss Geek


Satan pleading for mercy




premature self-portrait


Clearly I was never going to make a living as a painter ... maybe a second-class pasticheur... so a few more years of career-postponement were called for ... rather urgently.

* Career choice postponed for a few more brilliant years—1958-61!*

Teaching English in the north of Sweden

Clandestine photography discovered in adult evening class


Learning to skid, fish, and relish brännvin


Swimming among the last of the ice


Saying farewell


In Sweden I wrote a sort of “novel” ...

… really just to amuse Jon Silkin and David Mercer and their girlfriends, because it repeated whole chunks of the conversations we’d had … ideas we’d tossed around … all very loosely bound together in the form of a novel. To add a bit of spice, almost eveything originally spoken by a man was spoken by a woman in the novel – and vice versa. But David showed it to Tom Maschler at Cape and the first I knew of it was a letter to me in Sweden to say Cape would just love to publish my “novel.”

Which they did—in 1962.

The Times gave it a glowing review, saying I had “an unerring ear for
the differences between masculine and feminine speech.” Indeedy!

I rushed home to London, fully prepared to grow,
novel by novel, into the Grand Old Man of Eng Lit.

Things turned out somewhat differently

Cape rejected the sequel—and the sequel to the sequel. I was now 30 and the choice of career could not be postponed much longer. So I went to work as caption writer to the illustrations in a 10-volume encyclopedia …

… and married Ingrid, a fashion model earning twice my salary …


… and moved to a flat in Marden Hill, between Hertford and Welwyn Garden City …


… in the Tudor wing …


… and started a family


Nothing lasts

1966: Promoted to executive editor responsible for a series of scientific paperbacks, I was now beyond my level of competence. So I got the sack and …

… went freelance.


And, like any good hack, wrote guidebooks to places I had never seen …

… and edited and illustrated books with Donald Longmore, consultant at the National Heart Hospital and part of the team for Britain’s first heart transplant …

… and wrote books for the publisher who sacked me …

… and helped plan projects for Reader’s Digest …

… and wrote plays for the BBC …

… and taught graphic design
at Hornsey College of Art
for two years
before the student sit-in
(no connection) …

… and created brochures for Alcan.
(That’s me (white cap), Ingrid (in wig), and the girls, plus the Alcan account exec and his girlfriend.)

And bought one of the world’s most beautiful cars.


I persuaded Richard Imison of the Radio 4 drama department to try out a quartet of 90-minute dramas set around 1840 against a background of the building of the Summit railway tunnel on the Manchester—Leeds Railway. I sent them all four scripts. They hemmed and hawed. My agent said, “Turn it into a novel. They’ll do it then.” He added that Bob Gottlieb, supremo at Knopf, New York, was coming to London in 3 weeks and he was looking for a historical novelist who could write about the Victorians—to replace the great (and now late) Ronnie Delderfield. Despite other commitments and a wedding in France I managed 30,000 words and BG said if I could finish the remaining 200,000-odd words by late-September (we were already in mid-July) we’d have a deal—a $25,000 advance for the US edition (to add the the 12,500 already promised by Hodder for the British edition). What could I say? I was then making about 3,000/year.

I finished by the deadline, the BBC agreed to broadcast the plays as a trilogy … and the feeding frenzy began. An editor at Hodder advised us to move to Ireland, where income on royalties and patents was then tax-free. The writer’s dilemma in the 1970s was that your soaraway best-seller might be a flash in the pan and you’d pay 86% of your earnings in tax (in those days) only to be back on the dole a few years down the line. We postponed the income, borrowed frighteningly, and chose Ireland.

And so …


… we moved …

… into Coolfin House, on 14 derelict, overgrown acres

… which had looked like this in 1904

But there were previous commitments to honour

The final volume of The Living Earth, a 10-book series I had planned and edited, and …

… the debut title for an obscure book packager working from a lock-up garage in Streatham named Dorling Kindersley.

From here on, if I followed the style I’ve used so far, it would be a series of washing lines, hanging about 50 book jackets out to dry:





Pretty … and pretty uninformative. In fact— completely misleading in that it would give the impression I was now on a one-book-a-year treadmill … but it was never like that. In the beginning the earnings were just absurd. The U.S. paperback rights for The World From Rough Stones were sold to New American Library for $480,000! Admittedly they declined quite sharply after that. The next two went for $250,000 each and Abigail grossed a “mere” $125,000—a slide that continued throughout the next quarter century. The last of my historical “romances," Rose of Nancemellin, 2001, had a UK advance of 5,000 and a warning that they could not go higher than 3,000 for a further offering.
So let’s get the washing lines out of the way and then get back to the actual life. If you imagine that the cover of a book should somehow iinform you of its contents, then a more misleading collection of images was never before assembled:





UK: In Love and War



1988 / UK: The Sky with Diamonds














UK: Crissy’s Family







Typesetting my own books

The first five books, up to and including Goldeneye were all written in longhand, transcribed by a typist, corrected, retyped, and then submitted. The typesetter sent back “galleys” a yard long that gave no indication of page-breaks; the system, which would not have surprised Gutenberg, cried out for change.

In 1980 I went to a computer exhibition in London looking for a machine that would let me circle text on a screen (for example) and drag it to a new position—one of the most elementary requirements for a writer, surely. It has only taken 30 years for technology to catch up with the dream. The following year I took the plunge and bought a 4,000 Exidy Sorceror, with a then-massive 48k of memory, a 4Kz chip, and 5.25in discs that could each hold 250k (a couple of chapters). It took almost two minutes to save that amount of text. The daisywheel printer cost almost as much again and took a whole day to type out a novel. Even so, this system just about halved the time between agreeing the outline of a book and submitting the final ms. And writing on a word processor is the nearest thing to writing by hand—whatever you can achieve by hand can also be done on the machine (except that the machine obliterates each previous stage as the text is edited, much to the horror of literary vampires).


  The word processor bundled with the Sorceror was Spellbinder, which (uniquely, I think) came with its own programming language. For instance, I used it to manage all my accounts and fill in the tax return at the press of a key. Many government departments made it their preferred software because of its mathematical capabilities; the English football league cabled all their results to the main Sorceror agent, who returned perfectly formatted tables of rankings, averages, and other data within hours. Mainframes could do the maths but not the printing; WordPerfect could do the printing but not the maths. But I took the program in a different direction.

At Bedford School I had belonged to the Printing Society and learned to use typecases and metal type to compose pages of text, employing all the subtleties of typeface, size, weight, leading, and kerning. With computer typefaces, the ability to use font editors to create true typographic characters like small caps (which Microsoft, for instance, completely bastardises) and ligatures was too good to resist. I built up a good typographic font for use with HP laser printers, whose PCL (Printer Control Language) allows control of every element to 1/300inch. And, in 1988, I talked Hodder into letting me supply camera-ready copy for my novels.

Many books were already being printed from typewritten pages; and Douglas Adams had sent his Hitchhiker discs out to printshops who made printouts as camera-ready copy (CRC) to send to his publishers; but I believe I was the first writer of mass-market books to do the whole job in-house—with His Father’s Son—using my own modified typography. Each batch of CRC earned around 500, with a similar amount from a separate American set, but this wasn’t simply a way of adding income. It meant I could supply print to a quality that publishers no longer bothered to achieve (or even knew how to). By making minor rewrites “on the stone” (as we typographers say) I made sure that no paragraph ended on a stub—a one-word line; and the first line of a paragraph was never “widowed” at the bottom of a page, nor was the last line ever “orphaned” at the top of the next page; nor did I allow “rivers” of white to run down the greyish slab of text. And I could adjust the line-length in hundredths of an inch to make sure there was never more than one blank page at the end. In all, I typeset 20 novels in that way, hardback and paperback, UK and US editions. And all of them were free of stubs, widows, orphans, and rivers. The head of production at Headline, who printed the British edition of the Irish stories, had nightmares at the mere thought of letting an author be the last person to mess with the text before it went to the printers; but the American publisher of those same Irish tales preferred to use my setting even so.

Away from the rockpile

After a year’s residence in Ireland it became safe to accept royalties under the tax-exempt regime; we then set about restoring and improving Coolfin House. The experience led me, some years later, to outline a novel titled The House That Hated People, but it proved too painful to write—and anyway, the movie The Money Pit had already said it all. The house as we bought it had 6,600sq ft on three floors. We doubled that by converting the stables to bedrooms, workshops, and stores and then adding a 3-storey link between them and the house. That housed the laundry, tackroom, cold store, garage, and an apartment for a housekeeper. A new, balustraded first-floor walkway wrapped around the building, pulling old and new together.

We bought a tractor, trailer, front loader, back-hoe, flail mower, 30in circular saw, buckrake and cleared 14 acres of jungle, restoring it to open parkland. I made a steel-frame attachment to the front loader that converted it into a cherry-picker, which speeded up many building and tree-surgery tasks. We also dug a new lake, built an arched stone bridge, rebuilt all the boundary walls, created a new raised terrace with 40k litres of rainwater storage beneath, replaced four dozen wooden windows with aluminium double-glazed lights, and made an artificial hill on which to place a 7kW wind generator. Indoors, we rewired the house, put in central heating and ducted vacuum-cleaning, stripped every door and panel back to bare wood and repainted it in colours to match the new William Morris wallpapers we used throughout.

 And then the money ran out.

In 1981 we put Coolfin on the market but were persuaded to withdraw it again when a Swiss businessman made an offer on behalf of the Hahnemann Institute (homeopathic doctors) who “wanted to establish a clinic in Ireland.” But a year of negotiations went nowhere and ended with his arrest (for numerous other swindles) on the tarmac at Zurich Airport. He had never been near the genuine Hahnemann Institute but he had a good line in headed notepaper. But the 1970s oilshock had pushed bank interest rates up to 28% and our modest 60k loan had now risen to 100k. We were lucky to sell it to a Dublin architect for just 20k over that.

We were lucky, too, that, back in 1975, we had also bought Cummeen Lodge, which had been built on two acres carved out of the partly wooded, western end of the Coolfin demesne; so we had somewhere to move to. And a less megalomaniac garden to develop. Our elder daughter helped me build a summerhouse, entirely out of material culled from the estate …

… and Ingrid and I planted a few dozen more trees and two large shrub borders. We also restored the old gatelodge by the western gate, which became my studio and library. I had squirrelled away about 5,000 books by now—mainly reference books and illustrated histories, to avoid tedious journeys up to Dublin to browse at Trinity and the National Library. They were shelved in the gatelodge, which became my office.

It was one such abortive visit that persuaded me to connect with the internet—after years of fearing its power to distract; Windows’ solitaire was already distraction enough. I had spent a day in Trinity College library, waiting for a book that held a translation of the infamous Wannsee Conference of 20 January 1942, where the Nazis produced the “final solution of the Jewish Question.” The book was somewhere in the building but no one could say where. That night I phoned our younger daughter in Cornwall and vented my frustration. There were a few keyboard clicks before she said, “D’you want the British translation or the American one?” A new world opened up.

Even farther away from the rockpile

In 1992 the local Vocational Educational Committee paid me to hold an evening writing course in the Library in Tullamore, the county town, which was about 25 miles away. It was scheduled for two hours on Tuesday evenings for six weeks. About a dozen people turned up and it was so enjoyable (and worthwhile to me) that I decided to continue, unpaid, as long as people wanted to go on attending … and thus, as the Offaly Writers Group, we continued for the next 20 years, though we changed to meeting every two weeks in the mid-90s.
Here I could take a high moral tone and say that, as a person living tax-free, I had a moral duty to give something back, but it was all so enjoyable, and so worthwhile to me that I’d blush to say it. During those years, seven of our members became published writers, among them Geraldine O’Neill, who was there from the first meeting to the last; now her list of works is into double figures. And there are several others who have become successful self-published authors since then. They would certainly have been published back in the ’sixties but they fell victim to the flight from the midlist and the search for nothing-but-bestsellers that dominates publishing nowadays. But the one who gained most from it all, I fear, was myself.

By 1982 I had already published half a dozen fairly hefty novels—and been edited by two of the best editors in the English-speaking world: Bob Gottlieb at Knopf (later editor of the New Yorker) and Michael Korda at Simon & Schuster. It would have been so easy for the act of writing to become a semi-automatic activity with me. But meeting every week with people of great talent, with good ideas for a story but an underdeveloped sense of how to tell it … that forced me to take a mental step back from my own storytelling and work out how they could get to where they wanted to be. Telling them how I would do it was no use. Worse than useless, in fact. One of them wanted magical realism; another, full-blooded, brutal realism; another, an ethereal, Celtic romanticism—to say nothing of those who wanted to tell a simple, factual tale … growing up on a farm in the fifties … working in a maximum security prison full of Republican dissidents … a grandfather’s memories of the Civil War …

My role thus became less that of editor and more that of facilitator: to give my idea, for whatever it was worth, of how each one of them, working in her or his own genre and style, could best tell the story and tell the story … and tell the story. For instance, • one young woman (who aimed for a magical-realist tale of a dethroned queen who, with the help of a talking raven, fought to recover her throne) let herself be sidetracked into a long idyll on a remote island while the usurpers tightened their grip. The idyll was interesting and well described in itself, but the tension slackened away to zero. A really experienced writer could have subtly kept the tension going with little nudges throughout the idyll, but that was beyond a beginner with her first attempt at a novel. • Another, a mature man, had a great gift for terse dialogue and strange but compelling locations and settings but found it hard to understand that a novel also requires a thread to hold it all together; it is not enough to promise: “Well, I’ll make it all come right in the final chapter.” • A farmer’s wife wrote wonderfully observed little nature poems, bordering on doggerel but with a touch of whimsy that made them delightful reading for children; yet at least once in every poem she’d produce a line that crashed right out of the strict metre. Her metrical sense was entirely subconscious and when it let her down, she could not consciously see it. Over the two decades of our group’s existence something close to a hundred people must have come and gone; and each of them had a unique problem of that kind.

And yet, despite all those individual problems, each needing its own form of treatment, the “glue” of storytelling binds them all. But storytelling needs a book to itself even to scratch the surface of the subject. All I can say here is that—for me—to be directed to consider, at meeting after meeting, how the myriad-faceted art of storytelling is at the core of almost every problem would have kept anyone’s feet firmly on the ground.

I could say the same of the Banagher Residents Association, when I made the mistake of joining at a thinly attended AGM in the mid-1990s—and immediately got elected Hon. Sec. (In case I seem to claim some kind of virtue for all this pro bono activity, let me say it was also informative, enriching, and, above all, fun.) Our main business was to prepare for the annual Tidy Towns competition and to represent local opinion to every level of government when decisions had a local impact. We were also the channel for all local heritage projects, particularly the conservation of four local fortifications from four ages: Elizabethan, Jacobite, Cromwellian, and Napoleonic. The Jacobite one, Fort Franklin, was the most divisive. It was built in the 1620s by planted Britishers to guard the bridge, an important Shannon crossing; but during the Williamite wars of 1690-91 it was seized by Banagher men and held against several British assaults. This kept Banagher bridge open for Sarsfield’s men to come down out of Connaught and help raise the Siege of Limerick; all other crossings of the Shannon were under British control.

You’d think that would make it a prime site for conservation, restoration, and general pride … but no. Not at all. In Victorian times the fort became the barracks for the hated Royal Irish Constabulary, who were at the sharp end of British colonial rule in Ireland. Worse still, perhaps, it had been used as a store for relief supplies during the potato famine of the 1840s, including the equally hated “Peel’s brimstone”—American corn (maize) so dry and hard that it blunted even the best grain-milling machinery. And that bad odour lingered still about the fort, outweighing even its association with one of Ireland’s greatest military triumphs. And, though I gathered support from military historians and a retired army chief, and an archaeological dig produced some amazing findings, there was no local enthusiasm at all to prevent its continuing decay.

I had more success (or so I like to think) with a 1999 campaign for all Ireland’s Tidy Towns committees to boycott the state-sponsored Tidy Towns Competitions (in the symbolic millenium year) unless the government did something about litter, which was a terrible problem in every town and village. I made the suggestion in a letter to the Irish Times, followed by several radio interviews, saying that the government was sheltering behind the razzamatazz of the TT Competition to avoid doing anything substantial, such as putting a charge on plastic bags in shops or financing a corps of local litter wardens. The much more powerful organization Irish Business Against Litter weighed in with their support; they were already plastering Irish cities with big billboard ads apologizing to overseas visitors for the filthy state of the country. That had really rattled the government, and maybe our little protest broke the camel’s back; but penalties for littering, properly funded litter wardens with powers, and charges for plastic bags at checkouts were all introduced shortly after. And my bluff did not have to be called.

Endgame (?)

I’ll never kow whether it really was a heart attack or a bruised rib, but the pain was real enough—cycling up a modest slope and having to stop and catch my breath. The ribs were, indeed, bruised. The previous day I had been sorting out a spaghetti-junction of pipes, valves, timers, stopcocks, and one-way restrictors between the boiler and the four circuits that distributed its heat to the house and gatelodge; some of the joints were stubborn enough to need a three-foot stilson wrench. The working space was tiny … 18in square by 6ft high. The only force I could apply was to lurch forward with the wrench handle against my ribs. I knew the pain was a bruise but stress tests, ECGs, and angiograms pointed elsewhere. Suddenly two high-maintenance buildings on two labour-intensive acres did not fit too well with the Live-Forever Plan, so, in the mid-noughties we sold Cummeen to a wonderful family who have turned it into the sort of place we only aspired to create. They didn’t want to move in for the best part of a year so we stayed on as caretakers—which gave us leisure to hunt for a smaller place in Birr, a small, delightful Georgian town, twenty minutes away.

We looked at several splendid little bungalows … the first was “sterilized” by family indecision (and, almost a decade later, is still on the market) … the next was claimed by the vendor’s estranged mistress just before completion … the next was snapped up by the estate agent’s (realtor’s) secretary—a decision she made as she posted the ad in the shop window. But fate was kind, for the next was the best of the lot and … we bought it.

Two doors south of the local pub-cum-gourmet-restaurant, one door north of the ever-open village store, a post office just round the corner, and a doctor within walking distance … what kept us? Our first couple of years in the new house were spent in d.i.y home improvements …

… an all-new kitchen, a sun-room extension, and the conversion of a double garage into a library-cum-studio to get me out of the house. Since we did every bit of this ourselves, except for the glazing, that took care of our first year or so. Another year went in filling/cataloguing some 90 boxes of manuscripts, proofs, correspondence, research materials, royalty statements, and so forth to the archives of the Glucksmann Library at Limerick University. Between 2000 and 2007 I had sold some 1,700 books from my collection (for a handy $54,000-odd) but that still left over 3,000 unsold and the pace was slowing. So I came to an arrangement with Kennys of Galway, Ireland’s largest and most progressive bookseller, to buy the remainder; a further year (or more) went in cataloguing, conserving, and packing them. The bibliographies were as detailed and descriptive as I could make them, often running to several hundred words, which is what took most of the time.

The books themselves filled 112 boxes—which looks a bit pathetic when assembled in piles, but displayed in shelves, they had stretched over 1500ft. Symbolically, perhaps, the space they leave is generous enough for a painter’s studio, so …
  who knows what’s next?

And there is already Work in progress.

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