Me and my brother Haydn on Southport beach an eternity ago. The shadows say the sun is shining but the absence of people suggests that this is Autumn or Winter. Plus we’re pretty well wrapped-up. Though frankly, my outfit is nothing short of inexplicable. My mum had read one book in her life at this point and it was Gone With the Wind, which is set at the time of the American Confederacy. So I’ve no idea why she chose to attire me as some kind of infant tribute to Sherlock Holmes, but that suit (and particularly that hat) say Sherlock to me. Most of my wardrobe at the time, and obviously I had no say in the matter, bore the Ladybird label. It’s possible Ladybird were having a High Victorian moment style-wise. I’ll just never know. My brother appears to be wearing a harness, possibly in tribute to the donkeys that used to give children rides on the beach. I was in Southport in the Summer and the donkeys are still there, sited at a spot just to the right of the pier as you face the sea. Haydn was always big for his age, but not as big as a donkey, so maybe his harness was custom-made.
I never thought I’d set any fiction in my home town until I did, when a big chunk of Dark Echo took place there both in the 1920s and the present day. I went back to it – or rather Phil Fortescue and Ruthie Gillespie did – in Harvest of Scorn. They liked the town, though their two shared visits were mixed experiences for reasons which I’m not going to provide spoilers by explaining fully here. If you haven’t already, you’ll have to read the book to find out why Southport wasn’t all fun and games for two of my favourite characters.
One of my most vivid childhood memories is of passing the monstrous bulk of the Palace Hotel to our left walking along Weld Road for picnics on the Birkdale sand dunes. I remember the hotel being demolished, when the workmen complained of hearing the derelict lifts still running, empty and without power. The Palace features in Dark Echo, when Jane Boyte attends a ball there in the sweltering Summer of 1927. I was out running yesterday when its labyrinthine corridors and countless rooms and haunted reputation came strongly back into my mind. It occurred to me that it would make a good setting for a Jericho Society novella, a period story this time, maybe set in the early 1960s towards the end of the hotel’s long decline, when the staff probably outnumbered the guests there. There were some pretty exalted guests in the period of the hotel’s pomp. They included Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra and the Palace boasted its own airstrip. Grant and Sinatra probably came for the golf on the links course at Royal Birkdale. I don’t play golf. Instead, I’ll be going back there for the ghosts…
This is me aboard the ocean-going tugboat on which my dad served as first-mate in Liverpool Harbour in the early 1960s. This was before the Mersey silted up, when the big liners were towed into their berths by any number of tugs, depending on tonnage, with a pilot boat leading the path through the deep water channels. This is how I spent many a weekend back then. The water was cold in that improvised bathtub but it wasn’t drawn from the Mersey (I don’t think). Not much thought for health and safety regulations back in those days though. I don’t remember complaining. But my dad wasn’t really the sort of bloke you complained to. Certainly not at the age of four, you didn’t.
My memories of the harbour and the industry surrounding it – like the huge Tate & Lyle sugar refinery near the docks – are vivid reminders of a world that’s gone. I put some of it into my novel Dark Echo seen through the eyes of my character Jane Boyte in scenes depicting the Liverpool waterfront more than thirty years before this picture was taken. And of course Dark Echo herself is a far fancier vessel than anything my father ever crewed. But I do have some nautical credentials and they go back to when I was very young. Probably why I’ve never in my life suffered from sea sickness.
In other news, the early reader reviews for Harvest of Scorn both on Amazon’s UK site and the Goodreads site are the best I’ve had for anything I’ve written. The last book in the Colony trilogy is going down really well and I’m both relieved about that and genuinely gratified. As an author you just never know whether anything’s actually any good until your readers deliver their verdict. That’s the acid test, the only opinion that counts. And when the reception is as positive as it’s been so far, it makes all the effort seem worthwhile.
My relationship with my father ended abruptly when I was eleven and he chose to close the chapter in his life involving me. I’ve a few strong recollections of him. One of the most enduring is of him weeping silently when we passed the radio mast sticking up above the surface that was all left visible of a tug sunken by collision in a fog. Those Mersey fogs were sometimes lethal and my dad had known the men who perished aboard her.
Some episodes from childhood we remember. Others are just impossible ever to forget.