The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
A surprise invitation!
I was asked to speak to my old scholars’ association, whose meetings I had seldom attended although I had been a member for over 60 years. I went to Sir Roger Manwood’s School in Sandwich, Kent, and left in 1954. They asked me to speak about my publications but I thought my audience would prefer me to talk about the school in the 1950’s.
So here it is, the text of my talk, which includes some memories of my schooldays not contained in my other autobiographical pieces on this blog.
THOSE WERE THE DAYS
I am honoured to be asked to speak to you today and not a little surprised. I never imagined when I was at school here, over 60 years ago, that the Headmaster would one day invite me to speak to the Old Manwoodians.
My relationship with the Head, which was of course several headmasters ago, was somewhat fraught. At the end of the first Assembly at the beginning of every term the Head would read out the names of two boys who were to see him in his study; always the same two. The first was the son of a local vicar and his problem was that he refused to join the Cadet Corps, the second was myself. I had the opposite problem, I declined to be a member of the C of E, or at least to take Confirmation.
When asked why I dissented, I explained that I felt that I lacked sufficient religious impulse and that if I felt the urge later in life I could act on it. The Head replied that it would be much easier for me to do it now and that I would need to feel ‘much more religious’ to do it later in life. In one of our later discussions he came up with another argument.
‘Suppose you meet a girl you like and she is a communicant member of the Cof E. You might find it a barrier between you if you couldn’t take Communion together.’
I said I would meet that when it arose. In fact I met a Quaker girl and we married in the Meeting House, conducting the ceremony ourselves without the help of a priest.
It is difficult now to realise how conformist school and society was in the early 1950’s, which made our rebellions the more exciting. My most vivid memory of my schooldays is from my last few weeks at Manwoods, after the A level exams. Two other boys and myself painted a hammer and sickle on a dorm sheet and we went out into the night with our makeshift flag, down into the town and into St Peter’s church (then the school chapel), climbed up inside the tower, and hoisted the sheet on the flagstaff.
The atmosphere at next morning’s Assembly was electric. The school was abuzz and reporters lurked in the quad. The headmaster spoke of the consternation in the town and said that he had even had a phone call from the Colonel in charge of USAF Manston, asking what had happened. I had a fantasy that maybe the colonel feared that Soviet special forces had seized the town in the night and he was preparing an airstrike.
The head said he would not ask who hoisted the flag, but trusted that the culprits would go to the church immediately after Assembly and haul it down. The three of us went into town, climbed up inside the tower and looked over the battlements. The whole town seemed to be at a standstill, with everyone on the streets around the church, craning their necks to look up at us. We waited until we had their full attention and then lowered the flag. There was a ripple of laughter.
The incident was never reported in the local paper – the Head saw to that – although there were short reports in some national newspapers. However, the memory lingered in Manwoods. Many years later my daughter, one of the first girls to go to Manwoods, was involved in a youthful indiscretion after the A level exams and her Housemaster consoled her, telling her that when he was new to the school there had been a boy who had hoisted a flag on the church tower and escaped punishment. I’m pleased to say that the Head was equally understanding to my daughter.
The fact that I sent my daughter to Manwoods and before that both my sons shows that my feelings about the school were not entirely negative. It was a high achieving school. In 1954 there were 19 pupils in the Upper VIth, Science and Modern combined. Three of us won State Scholarships. There were only 1,500 State Scholarships awarded that year in the whole of England and Wales. The three of us, Mike Horwood, Bill Beresford and myself, all went to Oxford and at least three other Manwoodians from that year also went to Oxford or Cambridge. In those days less than 10% of the age group went into higher education – now it is 50%.
A State Scholarship did not give a university entrance but it meant that the government paid all the tuition fees and a maintenance grant of up to £300 a year, about £5000 in today’s money. Those were the days!
But I was asked here to talk about my publications, not about the school, so I must hurry on. I enjoyed Oxford immensely and met and befriended several people who went on the have brilliant careers. I did not.
I was first a researcher, then a university lecturer in Britain and America, then a civil servant, then an official of the European Commission in Brussels and finally a freelance consultant. Despite being various things in different place, I always worked in the same field, social security, specialising in pension schemes.
Ah, pension schemes! I sense the tremor of excitement in the audience. You imagine me living the high life at lavish European conferences, braving the streets of West Belfast during the Troubles, touring Russia with a Russian minister bringing peace to the Caucasus, roughing it in mountain villages in Albania and Kyghyzstan and introducing a pension scheme in war-torn Afghanistan. Well you are right, except for the bit about Afghanistan.
The team I was with won the contract to reform the Afghan administration and I was to take the pension component. National governments, the World Bank and the EU all poured aid money into social security reform in politically unstable countries across the world to promote social cohesion, or if you like social control. The idea was that if the Taliban were worrying about their pension rights they would not be ambushing British soldiers. Well, it worked elsewhere.
But fate intervened. I had a medical crisis, was found to be severely anaemic and after several tests they found I was bleeding internally from an cancerous tumour. So while my colleagues were in Kabul I lay in a hospital bed in Cheltenham.
We all survived, although my colleagues said it was the most boring assignment ever. No visits to the bazaar and the only glimpse of the country outside Kabul was through the slit in an armoured car. As for myself, I resigned all my assignments, expecting a long and losing battle for life.
That was nearly nine years ago and I am in good health. In the meantime I reinvented myself as a novelist. I had written books about social security, now I would write about adventure, love, tragedy and redemption – which is what social security is really about My inspiration was the Elizabethan chronicler Richard Hakluyt, who collected sea stories. He published 120 of them in 1559 under the title Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English People. I decided to re-write a selection of his stories as modern novels, writing in the pieces Hakluyt left out, like all the women.
I wrote two novels. One, titled Freedom’s Pilgrim, is about a 13 year old boy named Miles Philips who joins Hawkins’ last slave-trading voyage to Africa and the West Indies in 1567. The slavers are ambushed by the Spaniards and Miles is stranded on a Mexican beach. It takes him 17 years to get home, in which time he is captured and condemned by the Inquisition, escapes twice, lives in the jungle, reaches Europe disguised as a Spanish sailor and joins the Barbary pirates, before reaching home with his Jewish wife, also fleeing the Inquisition, and their infant son. The story is told as a straightforward narrative in the first person. I sub-titled it ‘A Tudor Odyssey’, because it is about a man who takes a long time coming home from the war.
The second book, The Frozen Dream, is a more complex story told from several points of view. It starts in 1553 with a group of London merchants sending three ships to cross the North Pole and open a new trade route to China. Needless to say they do not succeed in the original aim. Two ships are lost in the Arctic and the other stumbles on a Russian settlement. The commander reaches Moscow overland and appoints himself ambassador to the Tsar, Ivan the Terrible. The main protagonist is again a teenager, the ship’s boy from one of the lost ships who is adopted by a Lapp tribe and leads it against the Russians. Back in England he is involved in the Wyatt rebellion and is ransomed by a rich widow whom he marries. Most of the others are shipwrecked in Scotland and murdered on the beach by wreckers.
I failed to find an agent for either book. I think the books were not without merit, since both won prizes as ‘promising novels’, but an author in his mid-70s is not attractive to agents who want to nurture a protégé’s career over fifty years. So I decided to self-publish.
Freedom’s Pilgrim was published in July 2014 as an e-book on Amazon Kindle. It is cheap and easy to publish on Amazon but difficult to generate sales. I have a blog, a Facebook page and a Twitter account but even so I am lucky to sell two books a month. The Frozen Dream was published in October 2015, in paperback and ebook. It came out in print because having won runner up prizes in competitions run by W H Smith and the Mail on Sunday it finally scored first prize in a competition by Silverwood books. The prize was publication.
The cover price is £9.99 but happen to have a stock of books here which I can let you have at £6 and I will be happy to sign them. They will never make me rich, but maybe a larger publisher might discover it one day.
What else do I do? I’m a Review Editor for the Historical Novel Society, reviewing about a dozen historical novels a year and organising reviews for about 50 or 60 others, I’m on the committee of my local historical society and I’m vice-chair of Cheltenham Writers’ Circle. Currently I am organising a national short story competition, The Cheltenham Prize, which you are all welcome to enter. Just visit http://cheltprize.wordpress.com for the details and for more about me visit https://busywords.wordpress.com.