Dream or reality? By Jan Needle

Reading Julia Jones's lovely post a few days ago led me to wondering (for no very good reason) why or how one decides to become a writer. Her evocation of sitting on Peter Duck, all alone, with the river water rushing past her, did all sorts of things to me. Firstly it reminded me of one of my recurring childhood dreams - being alone on a boat, conjuring up whole new worlds. Which led me to Arthur Ransome, and then to Secret Water and the stranded barge with a focsle stove and splendid isolation on which a young boy could order his own universe.

Flat calm dreams of piracy, off the Llyn Peninsula
I come from Portsmouth, and in the upper reaches of the harbour in those days there were many abandoned and rotting hulls, some of which had once been barges. Great rusty, open-bellied steel masses, with only the tiniest area for men to live, surrounded at high water by the impassable sea, and at low water by even more impassable acres of gleaming, treacherous mud. God, how long I used to stare at them and see myself down in the cuddy, warming myself at the barrackroom stove, drinking my tipple of choice.

(Strangely enough, I did not even know what that was, because it was from another dream. William Brown always drank something called lickrish water. I asked my mother what it was, and she didn't have the foggiest idea. She was always prepared to let me try, however, and bought me some liquorice allsorts as the makings of an experiment. I steeped the black ones overnight, and believe me it didn't work. In my imagination, though, I still sat in the cuddy drinking it. When I got a bit older I moved on to Brickwoods mild, which tasted just as vile.)

One of the things I did in my fetid, airless cuddy, was write. With the iron stove gently melting the soles of my plimsolls, I constructed huge novels involving (inevitably) the sea, and pirates, and me (the hero). Occasionally I would cease scribbling, take a swig of lickrish water, and go up on deck to survey the wild and lawless waters of Portchester or Fareham Creek, probably shooting a criminal or two before returning to the womb. Some days, in winter, I almost froze to death standing on the shore and contemplating the other me, me the  writer, me the hero, down below somewhere warm inside that rotting coal hulk out there on the mud. And I knew that one day soon I'd be a writer, and make enough money very quickly to buy an abandoned barge and put a stove in. Possibly get Jean Rouse to come and share the heat. I was so young that it didn't even occur to me to install a bunk. Ah, such innocence.

Later on I took to sailing. Or rather, my old man introduced me to the great eternal joy. My father was a strange one, a very clever man of nil education, of dubious parentage and race, an inventor and a writer of romantic short stories, and pretty well incapable of holding down a job. My mother's parents hated him so much that when she fell pregnant (deliberately?) they still forbade her to marry him, and they had to go to court to win permission. Those were the days, eh? For their honeymoon they drove by motorbike from Portsmouth to Bala in North Wales in the depths of winter. No helmets, no proper gear, just overcoats and (my dad) a canvas ski cap worn back to front. It was wartime, so the headlight of the Ariel was confined to a slit, and they found a farmhouse that would take them in when they arrived in the dead of night. Joe Pritchard and his wife, a place called Dolwen Isaf. I tracked it down and visited about ten years ago. Iawn.

And after sailing - music!
My father was indeed a strange one (and my mother's mother transferred her dislike of him to me because I was his son) and he was always destitute. But he was always rich in one thing, and that was friends. He was charismatic, kind and generous, and once befriended usually clung on for life. He always told me, as a kid, that friends were the only important things a human being ever needed, and even as he got barmier as he got older (he lived on cake and pipesmoke) he was never without them. He was a good old fashioned English racist, most of whose friends were Jews or blacks or Asians. And he was almost certainly half black himself. His mother wasn't telling, and threw him out at just sixteen. They never met again.

His sailing friends were ridiculously varied. Richard Green,  who played Robin Hood on telly. Uffa Fox the Cowes boat designer. David Maw the baby steriliser man. Even the Duke of Edinburgh, who took my old man sailing in his racer Bluebottle (can that be right? Was she called Bluebottle, and if so, is that why Charles became a Goon Show fan? No, memory's just clicked in - she was called Dragonfly. Too much lickrish water, Needle jnr.) But the finest and the longest of them all was an old ex-London River policeman called Albert Meadows - Pop. They met and began sailing together when Dad was in his early twenties, and I became a part of it when I was six or so.

Pop Meadows, also known as Uncle, was a giant of a man. His thumbs were bigger in diameter than my wrists. He adapted a Harrison Butler twenty-five foot cutter design to suit himself (got rid of the canoe stern and replaced it with a transom), and helped build her out of pitchpine on oak at a boatyard on Point. Then he lived on her until he got taken into a home and died. He'd always intended to be sailed out to sea in Sabrina when he was dead, and burned with her in the Viking fashion. Sorry, Pop. Not allowed.

The boat, the lovely boat, I also tracked down about six years ago, to a man on the Isle of Wight called Craig Nutter, a noted international yachtsman and boatyard owner, who took me and Viv and our sons Matti and Wilf for an amazing sail from Cowes across to the mainland and right up the Hamble River. I'm ashamed to say that I hogged the tiller all the way, recapturing my lost youth (wha'evva) and not even letting Matti have a go, selfish bastard that I am. (Wilf didn't give a toss. He's not into sailing.) The ghost of Albert Meadows, and my dad, were with me all the way. And they played their instruments.

Another dream of childhood. Pop Meadows had a Wheatstone concertina, my father a mandolin-banjo, which I still own. Together, with me on triangle sometimes, they were the Solent Minstrels, and another part of my growing imagination was that music, spreading across the rolling waters, percolating weirdly from the cockpit to the forepeak where I'd be put to go to sleep, haunting the lovely Newtown River of a summer's night. Alone with stories, alone with friends, alone with the great waters.

The Solent Minstrels, Pop Meadows and Farmer Needle on Sabrina. Mid 1930s
I wrote a song about those days not long ago. Not one of my usual ventures, song writing, but this was constructed around the only verse that survives in my memory of one my father wrote. And this piece is meant to be about what makes a person become a writer, so perhaps it's relevant.

I've sailed with Julia on Peter Duck once (and she didn't hog the tiller, let me tell you!) and I hope to do so again before I get much older. Perhaps I'll sing it to you, Julia. It's called Pop Meadows, Old Farmer - and Me.

And it's true.

LATE NEWS: There's going to be a review of A Game of Soldiers in IEBR today, I'm told. Cally's given me this link:


AH WELL MOMENT 1: My proposed title for my prisons thriller Kicking Off was Panopticon, which I dropped after seeking opinions of it on my website www.janneedle.com and on Facebook
I was interested to see a new novel reviewed in the Guardian last week - called Panopticon.

AH WELL MOMENT 2: I got a mention in the Scattered Authors Society newsletter this week. And once again I'm a female. The price of fame.

AH WELL MOMENT 3. Just tried for ten minutes to add a picture of A Game of Soldiers cover to this post. Computer says no

HEADS-UP MOMENT? Three friends of mine have suffered Kindle screen crashes recently.  One occurred three weeks after the one-year guarantee period, and he got pretty short shrift. A Kindle's some sort of computer, isn't it? Should it fall down so quickly? Should you have no redress? Smells like a possible scandal in the making.


CallyPhillips said…
And THAT'S why you became a writer Jan. That effortless ability to 'spin a captivating yarn'.
FYI I haven't drunk lickrish water BUT I do have liquorice tea which I take for medicinal purposes (it's from the root and tastes more rooty than liquoricy) but it is a stimulant - well, it works to raise cortisol (consumed in enough quantity) so I'm guessing lickrish water could have been some kind of early red bull/ buckfast attempt. Nothing new in the world eh?

Oh, and yes, Kindles/Kobos etc ARE all some form of computer and therefore in my opinion are DESIGNED to break down within a couple of years but they hope that no one notices because they expect everyone to rush after the NEW one before the OLD one breaks. I think we are all supposed to upgrade our technology hardware every 18 months or we deserve no sympathy. It'll be interesting to see what happens when ereaders start dying en masse. Will they be as pitiful as 1st/2nd generation ipods? Batteries are not immortal it seems and it's the devils own job to get an ipod more than a couple of years old to actually LAST and PLAY for more than 20 minutes (especially if you don't use them every day) Ah well... serendipity over.. off to shiver me timbers. Ransome has SUCH a lot to answer for doesn't he? Three cheers for him.
Jan Needle said…
i think i'd rather stay unstimulated than drink that concoction, cally! thanks for the response, tho, and thank you for your generous review of Game of Soldiers in IEBR today. it occurs to me, as a computer pillock, that if i put in the link to the review, i might after all get a cover photo of the book? it's worth a try, at least. Here goes:
http://wp.me/p261oC-fi Did it work? think now. ah well...
Susan Price said…
Superb post, Jan. Thank you for sharing your memories. I'll go round the back of the blog and add a working link to Cally's review - Sue.
Very much enjoyed reading that one, Jan!
Being exposed on a motorbike in winter isn't funny at all, especially as the pillion passenger. Was Farmer your father's name, or a nickname? I have a photo of masel' holding an accordion just like that one, which I inherited from my Dad, the farmer.
The Solent MInstrels look fantastic characters and like they're having a great time on that boat!
Love this post, Jan. I can smell the sea, hear the slap of the waves and the gentle rocking. Moments ago my head was happily bubbling with a developing novel. Now you've quite distracted me.
Dennis Hamley said…
Jan, that was absolutely beautiful. I wish I had childhood memories to match those. As a non-nautical, non-swimmer even, I really envy you and Julia your unmatchable experiences. Sailing to me means Italian cruise liners and car ferries to Ireland. Still, our latest cruise liner gave us a great ten days in the Med so we mustn't grumble. But in all conscience I think I'll have to retire from the Moonfleet/Treasure Island confrontation, perhaps because I think you may be right after all and also because you know what you're talking about while I only pretend to.

Did you notice we both made ghost posts on Tuesday? I pressed PUBLISH by mistake before I scheduled it. What's your excuse?
julia jones said…
A piece to treasure. No time to say more - am supposed to be writing a talk about writing and sailing. Ah! cue for a little light plagiarism, perhaps ....?
CallyPhillips said…
It's called 'recycling' these days Julia never fear!
Jan Needle said…
just got back to me computer in the rain, so thank you all for those comments, and thank you, sue, for putting up the pic. why can't i do it? i went to grammar school, me!

john, my dad was called farmer because altho he was a superb seaman, he once (aged about 17) made a false hitch on a mooring boom on the foudroyant, a 'wooden wall'then anchored in portsmouth harbour (now in hartlepool). it was during a scouts and rangers regatta, and he was standing in a navy whaler showing off to the young ladies lining the bulwarks.

he made the hitch above his head without looking, and missed the boom altogether. as the whaler, with him alone in it, drifted rapidly downtide, he was encouraged on his way by howls of laughter. and because of the strength of the ebb, he had to set the sails and beat back up to the foudroyant - boat too big to row alone. forever after he was farmer needle.

dennis, i refuse to let you duck out of the treasure island/moonfleet conflict. although a few quid might make me change my mind! as to ghost posts - i don't know what you even mean! did i miss something again? i'll be in portsmouth soon. fancy a sail?

and julia - the pic of you as a tiny girl sailing peter duck is in MY treasure bank. don't be too horrified if i say you looked just like jean rouse! i told her - privately - that i loved her when i was seven or eight, and she replied - very, very publicly - WELL I DON'T LOVE YOU!!!!

sorry about your novel, dirtywhitecandy. but it is the weekend!
Susan Price said…
And I only went to a Brummie Comp, Jan!
Dennis Hamley said…
Jan, our ghost posts were on Wednesday, not Tuesday, immediately below my Thursday blog. I thought I'd got away with it, but my heart sank when I saw the evidence. To see the same from you directly undernath cheered me up no end. All right, I will get back into the TI/Moonfleet contest. What do you envisage sailing me in? Will it hurt?
Dennis Hamley said…
PS Jan, was the foudroyant the Trincomalee? A Nelson's nave frigate now in Hartlepool which, the last I heard of it, had been mucked up with modern windows so it looked like a down ar heel detavhed house. A prime case for restoration, it seems to me.
Jan Needle said…
still don't really know about ghosts, but never mind. yes, foudroyant started and ended her life as the trincomalee. when i was a kid i used to crawl all over her to my heart's content, just as my father did before me. before i got there, she was moored alongside another wooden ship called the - bugger, memory's gone - which was towed out into the channel and blown up when she was deemed too far gone to save. the implacable, that's it. my father never forgave the authorities for that vandalism. as to sailing - eric has a natty little 25 footer. pip pip. love to lady kay
Jan Needle said…
ah - now i see the ghost. ghostly, eh!

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