Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Peter Tomlinson - The Genre Strike

One Author Who Believes Pigeon Holes Are For The Birds - Part Two

Read Part One here

Peter’s road to print was long, winding and frequently pot-holed. Born in a working class district of Merseyside, UK six months before the outbreak of World War II, he retains some hazy memories of the blitz he lived through.

“I vaguely remember my mother cradling me in a blanket and telling me that the ‘all clear’ would be heard soon and we would be safe again.”

His father joined the Royal Navy and served throughout the war on destroyers and mine-layers, returning home in 1945 a virtual stranger to Peter. Meanwhile, Peter was evacuated with his mother and elder brother to a remote hill farm in North Wales to escape the blitz, and that is where his vivid memory begins.

“I well remember the sheepdog and the farm animals and I have a pictorial recollection of being left on the edge of the field whilst my mother helped the farmers with haymaking. There is also a recurring infant memory of a distant mountain that seemed very remote and mysterious.”

There was no electricity, gas or piped water in the family’s evacuation home so that much time was spent collecting wood for the fire. Whilst in the safety of North Wales they knew that their home town was being heavily bombed and that relatives were in constant danger. It was inevitable that the anxieties their mother felt were inadvertently transmitted to her children.

When the war ended, the family was re-housed back on Merseyside in one of the emergency prefabricated houses (prefabs) on a cleared bomb site opposite a pawn shop. Peter received the minimum education and often ran wild with other kids in the wasteland of bombed-out buildings and post-war dereliction.

He has only two clear memories of his junior schooling: fear of being wrong and the embarrassment of a recurring stutter, a disability suffered by many wartime children. Perhaps this early communication difficulty led him to retreat into his own imagination.

It was during his brief secondary schooling that his interest in storytelling began. Often, when the teacher was engaged in administrative tasks, Peter was called out to stand in front and tell the class a story. It was terrifying at first, but he gradually mastered his stutter and enjoyed the task. This happened so often that making up stories on the spur of the moment became second nature to him.

He left school aged fifteen and worked briefly in a shipyard before finding a job as a telegraph boy at an American Cable Company’s station in Liverpool. They trained him as an operator and taught him the telegraph man’s economy and precision in the use of language. They also trained him to touch type, a skill useful to an author. In fact he can still type as fast as he can speak.

His main recreational interest at the time was mountaineering and rock climbing. He associated with a group of free-spirited, rebellious young people who regularly hitch-hiked to North Wales, slept in old barns and tents that fell down whenever the wind blew, and involved themselves in poetry, heavy drinking and deep discussions by candlelight.

Peter was a very early member of the Cavern Club in Liverpool. But these carefree years ended at the age of eighteen with conscription into the British Army. Peter resented the curtailment of his freedom and the discipline, bull and homesickness played heavily on him. Years later he published a poem recalling those feelings:

Conscription 1958-60

Barracked and confined
in drab wooden huts
with the smoke of cheap cigarettes,
smells of adolescent sweat
and scant privacy.

Tethered to an unfamiliar routine,
a world of harsh discipline,
contrived discomfort
and coarse khaki roughening skin,
chasing any kind word or praise
amidst insults and humiliations
embarrassingly endured.

Cold, always cold
in those slow, homesick,
day-counting weeks
in alien Catterick.

An ache filled the space
where our freedom once was,
where fettered youth could no longer run.

Then ranked in tight marching order
and dispatched as props for a dying empire
with mum’s fears, dad’s knowing eye
and daft words like: ‘It does them good’.

© Peter Tomlinson – first published in Reach Magazine

As a wireless operator, Peter spent eighteen months in Cyprus. It was here that his serious interest in poetry really began. It was often too dangerous for young soldiers to venture far from their army camp but he was able to wander freely in the nearby deserted ruins of an ancient Greek city and give his vivid imagination free rein. Often he put his thoughts on paper and years later he worked these into published poems.

Another three or four carefree years passed after demobilisation before he went to college and university and pursued an academic career.

After early retirement, he worked for a few years as a cultural guide overseas, leading tours on foot in Rome, Venice, Florence, Assisi, Verona, Istanbul etc. What he saw and what he learned was to find its way into the fictional land he created for Petronicus and his descendents.

Since achieving his ambition to take time to write, he has published hundreds of poems in scores of magazines. Success came to him when Bluechrome published his first commercially produced poetry collection Tunnels of the Mind, which received favourable reviews.

In an effort to present even more work to readers, his wife, Margaret, suggested self-publishing under their own imprint, Hengist Enterprises. This launched four collections of poetry, two collections of short stories and two collections of original epigrams.

Peter read his poetry at numerous poetry festivals. At the Oxford Poetry Festival he had a chance conversation with a friend, the well known British author and poet, Sam Smith, who suggested submitting work to his own publisher, Bewrite Books.

Neil Marr – who edits both Peter and Sam’s work for BeWrite Books – said: “It was a fortuitous meeting. Sam is another author whose writing refuses to be pigeon-holed. It courageously crosses genre lines or, like Peter’s, absolutely defies all genre definition.

“The sheer scope of Peter’s books is breath-taking. He’s the only author I know who can produce an epic in a tight 80,000 words.”

Many of Peter’s ideas for poems and novels come to him whilst he roams wild and lonely places; the Shropshire hills and forests, the mountains of North Wales, the Lake District and the Alps. He finds that the restful rhythm of solitary walking removes his thoughts from the futile imperatives of modern life and provides an easy conduit for ideas to flow into his receptive mind. His wife Margaret acts as an at-home editor, paying meticulous attention to his manuscripts, ensuring clarity, correct use of grammar and making sure a good clean copy is sent to his publishers.

Margaret says: “After we’ve had breakfast and discussed our plans for the day, Peter settles down to the intensive daily writing session. He is very self-disciplined about this and not even the lure of a visit to the supermarket can drag him away. Slips of paper with cryptic words litter the house as ideas enter Peter’s head and he scribbles them down before forgetting them. This can happen at awkward times: I’ve even found messages on the loo roll!

“He freely admits to living in a dream world and it can be disconcerting living with a daydreamer. Not only does he forget important things I’ve told him, but he forgets what he’s told me. Is this the onset of senility or the flame of genius burning bright?

“Despite these drawbacks, I think that Peter’s writing has drawn us closer. I am full of admiration for his creativity and feel privileged to be involved in the process, especially when we discuss ideas and language, although the dots and commas department is where I really feel important.

“Entering into the dream world is the best of all: during our recent travels to Iceland and Greenland we were both fired with delight at recognising scenes from Petronicus – the Land of the Towering Rocks, the Land of the Bubbling Mud, the Mountains that hold up the Sky. Peter had created them in his mind before we saw for ourselves that they actually existed in the real world.”

Interview by Alexander James

Interview first appeared in Twisted Tongue Magazine

Read an excerpt from The Stones of Petronicus, The Time of Kadrik, The Voyages of Delticos

Visit The Petronicus Legacy site

Click here for Peter Tomlinson's biography

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