In my first blog post on writing.ie, I stated I didn’t start writing until age 64. Not quite true. In 1960, aged nine and a half, I won a BBC national short story competition on the children’s TV programme, “Blue Peter”. More of that later.
Thoughts of my childhood provided the inspiration for the setting of my first novel, “The Secret Resort of Nostalgia”. I remembered the seaside town of my upbringing, a proper town, with full employment through local industries, principally the coal mine, the army school of music, and the many fishermen who operated from the shingle beach. Plus, a host of other small industries, like a shoe factory. And the total absence of chain stores or insidious multinationals.
In those days, the steady progress of the working classes since the Victorian era had engendered a kind of optimism, especially encouraged by the progress of science. Soon we would achieve a fully equitable society. That promise did not deliver. True, technology has provided many inventions for domestic labour-saving and entertainment, but now we have a binary society, financially split between an increasingly rich, technically-literate elite and the disgruntled remainder, a situation ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous power-hungry politicians, as we have recently seen.
For my novel, I tried to image an alternative, utopian community where everyone works in meaningful, lucrative employment, free from the social dysfunction of the modern world. I decided such a society would have to exist in secret, to avoid being corrupted. So, I placed it off the coast of Ireland on a fictitious island. However, because my genre is mystery thriller, my utopia necessarily possesses a dark secret, which my protagonist seeks to uncover, at increasing danger to his life.
Back to that childhood award. It certainly wasn’t won on literary merit, given my lack of enthusiasm for any subject beyond mathematics and science. Could it be that my childish “cunning plan” had really worked? In those days, the Blue Peter television programme featured an elephant family cartoon. I figured if I wrote my story about a baby elephant, it would increase my chances of winning and of my story being illustrated in cartoon form. Sure enough, my story did win and was read out on the program illustrated by a cartoon.
As a somewhat more cynical adult, I no longer believe the cartoon ruse. When my mother died at the grand old age of 97 and we cleared out her house, I found she had lovingly transcribed the full text of my story. Amidst the quirky little-boy humour, one paragraph stood out, where the baby elephant protagonist is explaining they have a nice hearth rug made out of the hide of his dead grandfather. In today’s over-sensitive world, no way could such a passage be broadcast. A storm of indignant Twitter idlers would register disapproval of the BBC’s encouragement of “animal poaching and cruelty”, suggesting the child deserved therapy rather than an award.
I would like to posit an alternative explanation for my win. Imagine this: overworked TV executives handing down the task of ploughing through thousands of entries to a junior. Said junior happens to have attended a posh literary party the night before and, being poorly paid, took the opportunity to gorge on food and booze. Now they have a sick stomach and an appalling hangover and are having to wade through umpteen stories about princesses in castles or wild west cowboys fighting baddies. Then, they get to mine. At last! Something that stands out as being different. No doubt about it: dead grandfather hearth rug won the day!
(c) Sahlan Diver