All authors start somewhere. I’m not quite sure when or why I got the bug, but it was certainly very early on. My mother relates how my infants school teacher (ages 4-6) told her that she loved reading my stories: whereas a lot of the kids turned out a paragraph or two about bunnies, I’d produce some vast screed about aliens or World War Two. By the time I was seven or eight, I was writing a lot, even turning my hand to what my dad called comics but which were probably nearer in conception to graphic novels. However, these were let down by one fundamental flaw: I can’t draw to save my life, so no matter how good the storylines might have been, they were always illustrated by stick men. (Nowadays, I sometimes still draw scenes to help with visualising some aspect of a plot, but my artistic skills haven’t moved on, so they still contain stick men. Tall stick man with feathered hat = Matthew Quinton.) I was picking up influences, too. At that age I was reading voraciously – everything from the Ladybird books (I particularly remember the ones about Nelson and Charles II, which probably explains a lot, but also the one about Alfred the Great, which doesn’t) to comics. As far as the latter went, I was never a Beano or Dandy man: my staple diet was the Valiant, which contained the adventures of Captain Hurricane (an entire Waffen SS division against one man? no contest, Hurricane triumphs again!), but I was also an avid reader of The Eagle and the legendary Dan Dare, reading copies borrowed from the next door neighbour’s son, who was a lot older.
All of this might have remained unchanneled but for a lucky quirk of fate. Having spent the best part of thirty years as a teacher, principally in a public school (note to my American readers – the opposite of your public schools!), I know that there’s inevitably a tendency to remember most vividly the staff who were there for many years and who thus impacted on many generations of students. It’s obviously gratifying when former students or their parents come up and thank you for what you did for them twenty or more years ago, and even more gratifying that, far from thinking ‘I don’t want to end up like that grumpy old Welsh bloke’, quite a number of my former charges have ended up as historians or history teachers themselves. But in my case, perhaps the biggest impact on me of all wasn’t made by a teacher who’d been at Llanelli Boys’ Grammar School for decades: it was made by one who was only at the school for two years before moving on. In 1969 or 1970 a young English teacher called Peter Elliston came to the school. He taught me English, but much more importantly, he set up a school newspaper. This was named The Jester, a name chosen in a school-wide poll, and from the very beginning, it was driven and staffed almost entirely by the students. This led to some peculiar quirks: for example, the early issues contained a long running Pythonesque story about a rebellion by the much-reviled prunes that were invariably served up as pudding in the school canteen. But it also ran ‘serious’ news stories, features of all kinds, sport…indeed, it even had its own crossword. Fortunately it survived Peter Elliston’s departure: another keen young teacher, Noel Rees, took it on, and the paper went from strength to strength. I still have some copies of it, and will have to take good care of them – even the National Library of Wales considers The Jester worthy of a place in its collection!
I joined the staff of The Jester almost at once, so it became the outlet for my first ever published work, aged about thirteen. I wrote pieces about local history and warships, but as I gradually worked my way up the hierarchy, I branched out into all sorts of other areas, even writing about sport – very nearly with disastrous consequences, notably in 1974, when my prediction in print that Manchester United would be relegated led to The Jester office being besieged by a potential lynch mob composed of some of the school’s very large contingent of irate Man U fans. (Gratifyingly, though, I was right and they were wrong: the team was relegated.) I ended up as co-editor; this was in 1974-5, long before the days of desktop publishing, so each page was typed onto special stencils and then affixed to a duplicating drum filled with foul-smelling fluid. This led to a particularly memorable disaster when someone accidentally put their hand through the drum. In the best traditions of journalism, we went ahead and published anyway, leading to the production of an artistically surreal edition which had a strange blank space in the middle of each page. (If my memory serves me right, the culprit later became – and still is – an exceptionally eminent surgeon, so his manual dexterity evidently improved with age.) At that time we also had a very keen young junior sub-editor on the staff by the name of Huw Edwards; I wonder whatever became of him? Indeed, quite a number of Jester alumni eventually went into the media or became writers of various sorts. For my part, I know that I owe a huge amount to The Jester, which was probably the pivotal experience in giving me the ambition to become an author. Consequently, I certainly owe a tremendous and very belated ‘thank you’ to Peter Elliston, wherever he is!
Next weekend I’ll be attending the Historical Novel Society conference in London, and will be speaking as part of the ‘Ships Ahoy!’ panel on Saturday morning. I’m really looking forward to meeting lots of fellow authors and enthusiasts for the genre, and will provide my take on the proceedings in next week’s blog post.