Now Here's a Funny Thing by Dennis Hamley

Arthur Koestler once said that we should never be surprised by coincidence.  Indeed, we should be seriously worried about living in a world in which coincidence never happens.  Quite a number of significant coincidences with far-reaching effects have erupted into my life over the years. Here’s one which - though perhaps not quite of Premiership status but certainly at least League 1 level - occurred since my last blog.

So, before starting part 2 of my publishing experience, I’d like to share it with you.  Last time, I went into more detail than I had intended about the circumstances of the publication of my very first book, Three Towneley Plays in 1962.  I hadn’t particularly thought about them or the book for many years but I really enjoyed revisiting them in the blog.   Later on, I did several more translations of Miracle Plays from Middle English which remained stubbornly unpublished.  Someone recently asked to see them, possibly with a view to staging them again, who knows?  So I dug out unsatisfactory photocopies of old duplicated sheets and put them together - and then wondered whether to slip my last remaining copy of the book in as well.  No, don’t, I thought.  You may never see it again.

But I knew that I had to include the book in the package.  So I went to Amazon Marketplace, and found to my surprise that Three Towneley Plays was available – and also, wonder of wonders, NEW.  Intrigued, I sent for a copy. It cost me £9.  And when it arrived (from a well-respected bookseller independent of Amazon), I got a shock.

A big jiffy bag arrived.  I opened it and a book utterly unlike anything I had ever seen fell out.  What was this cover?  Online, I had assumed it was an Amazon avatar because the old one wasn’t available.  Not so: it really was the cover.  I opened the book – to find that it was an upload of the original, considerably magnified.

Spot the difference

Inside is printed:

Nabu Public Domain Reprints             
You are holding a reproduction of an original work published before 1923 that is in the public domain in the United States of America, and possibly other countries.  You may freely copy and distribute this work as no entity (individual or corporate) has a copyright on the body of this work.  This book may contain prior copyright references, and library stamps (as most of these works were scanned from Library copies)….We believe this work is culturally important and…have elected to bring it back into print as part of our continuing commitment to the preservation of printed works worldwide.

The library stamp reproduced inside says:

                   KANSAS CITY (MO.) PUBLIC LIBRARY  
There is no mention of a publisher.

Interesting that the precise date of 1923 has been chosen as the cut-off.  Had the person who did the electing (and I must admit it’s quite pleasing to be thought of as ‘culturally important’) bothered to turn the page, she or he would have found, very, very clearly, the legend:
Copyright DENNIS HAMLEY 1962

Have I missed something?  Doesn’t copyright last the author’s lifetime and seventy years after death?  Is that not still covered by the Berne convention in most countries of the world, including the USA?

A copyright lawyer of my acquaintance discovered the publisher’s identity.  I emailed them at once.  Within a few minutes I received this answer.

Dear Dennis, 

Thank you for your email. 

We are a print on demand publisher that specializes in facsimiles of books that are currently in the public domain. 

We can assure you that we would never knowingly publish a work that is currently under copyright.  We believe this work to be in the public domain as we are unable to locate it in the copyright renewal database.  If you have evidence to the contrary, please send it to me so that we can remedy this situation expediently and efficiently. 

Thank you

Just to be on the safe side, I’ve omitted the names of the publisher and the writer of the letter.  I am writing to both the rights and the legal departments of Heinemann Educational Books with my evidence.  Strangely, when my daughter started work at HEB in 1992 she found my original contract in a filing cabinet.   I should have asked her to make a copy (£25 advance: I really thought I was on the way!) because mine disappeared long ago.

I shall obviously tell The Society of Authors and, I think, ALCS.  What else should I do?  And am I right to be annoyed?    This seems to me a matter of principle and another stage in not only the devaluation of but contempt for the writer?  Or should I just accept that these things happen nowadays, and I may as well let them because it’s the new way of the world?  But it sticks in my gullet to pay £9 for a new copy of my own book without getting even a 5% royalty.

Anyway, back to the future.  We left it last month with me having lunch with Pam Royds in Andre Deutsch’s posh little dining room - and, now the first obstacle had been cleared, I was really enjoying it because the French chef knew his stuff.

Then Pam said, ‘And when can I expect your next book?’

‘My what?’ I replied.

‘Your next book.’

‘But I’ve written you a book,’ I protested and nearly added, but something stopped me, ‘What more do you want?’

‘Oh, how I hate these one-book writers,’ said Pam.

I honestly really hadn’t considered what might happen afterwards if someone took Pageants on.  I nearly spluttered my Cotes de Rhone over the tablecloth as a vision of an endless treadmill stretched out before me.  I left muttering ‘Crazy woman’ to myself but by the time the train arrived at my home station the embryo plot of the next book was in my mind and I was away!

Of course, I still had a full-time job and the first thing I decided, despite the mirage of sitting at my desk in a book-lined study typing yet another best-seller, seeing the advances and royalties piling up and awards and honours showering me night and  day, was that I was going to keep it!  Anyway, I liked it.  I trained teachers, saw inside schools, met lots of kids as well as my own and, now I felt I had the knowledge, could design and teach a new curriculum course in children’s literature.  I was lucky.  Even at work, I could keep in touch.  And then one day the bound proofs of Pageants and a cover rough by Gavin Rowe arrived and I suddenly realized that IT REALLY WAS GOING TO HAPPEN.  And it really did.  Pageants was published in 1974, to stinking reviews, the worst one of all by John Rowe Townsend in the Guardian – and then, as if to make up for it, some really good ones, which stopped me jumping in the lake.

So in 1976 out came the second book, Very Far From Here, about two boys at the start of the First World War who think they’ve found a nest of spies, and in 1979, Landings, set during the 1956 Suez crisis.  But now came a difficulty.  I changed my job in 1978 and went to Hertfordshire, where the living, as County English Adviser, was not as easy – though the challenges were all good ones - as it had been in the safe cocoon of a college.  Writing died a temporary death.  All I was doing  in the next four years was learning how to meet these challenges.  Except that a different publisher asked me to write a short story.

How many years was it since I’d dropped out of the  correspondence course deciding that not only were short stories not worth writing but, even if they were, I was rubbish at writing them?  Well, despite misgivings but thinking that the worst they could do was not publish it, I tried.  And, wonder of wonders, I finished it and they accepted it.  Yes, I could write stories after all.   So at last I set about another book.    A collection of ghost stories.  The Shirt off a Hanged Man’s Back.  

I was very glad to see it come out in 1984 because in 1983 I nearly didn’t see anything coming out ever again.

Quite out of the blue, I found myself in Harefield hospital having a heart triple by-pass.  When I came out I couldn’t quite comprehend what had happened to me.  But I did remember that before it all happened I’d been asked to write a story for a collection called Outsiders.  In hospital, I was tortured by the illogical feeling: If I don’t do this people will think I’m unprofessional and never ask me again.  So when I came out I started writing not knowing what would turn out – and then, almost inevitably, a story developed under my hand which I called The Bed by the Door. It was all about my operation – but distanced so it happened to a boy of about twelve.  And of course, it was another ghost story.  AND: when I’d finished it I found that I understood what had happened to me, had come to terms with it and put it behind me. 

Yes, writing  - as well as all the other expressive and creative arts – is indeed essential and life-giving and any society which doesn’t understand this is doomed to extinction.

Well, time hurried on and so did the books, one a year now (I woke once up in the middle of the night with the solution: ‘Write shorter books’).  The Fourth Plane at the Flypast, Haunted United, Dangleboots, Coded Signals, Blood Line (the worst book I ever wrote and arguably the worst ever written by anyone).

And this is nearly where I'm going to leave it this time.  Because in 1988 the best book I've ever written and of which I am most proud was published:  HARE'S CHOICE.

The cover of the Barn Owl Edition by the incomparable Meg Rutherford.
It's the same as the original Andre Deutsch, Collins Lions and Dell Yearling editions, except for the lettering.

I knew this would be a good book the very moment I first thought of the idea.  After I came out of Harefield, my boss came round to visit me.  And he brought me a lovely book – The Leaping Hare, by David Thompson.  Through it I learnt everything I ever wanted to know about hares and quite a number of other things I would rather not.  A wonderful creature, brave and clever, the trickster, the fey, free wanderer, the animal magician.  And at once I knew I had to write a story about one.

I was already running creative writing courses for children.  And it was those children to whom I dedicated the book.  Because it’s about children writing and telling a story – about their Queen of the Hares, who is also a real hare, stretched out before them, dead.  So the Hare has two lives, a real one which ended in sudden death, and another in the children’s story.  But which of them is her real life?

Well, the answer is in the book.  ‘Things aren’t untrue just because they never happened.’  Work it out for yourselves.  It took me years to understand what I had written and I had to write a trilogy to sort it out.  Or buy the book if you can because it seems that the reissue by Barn Owl has disappeared without trace, probably pulped by Verso in their determination to rid Frances Lincoln of all trace of fiction.

And if you do, marvel at the illustrations by the late and wonderful Meg Rutherford, whose death of cancer in 2006 was a personal loss to me as well as to children’s book illustration generally.

But is Hare’s Choice really a children’s book?   Well, judge for yourselves when you've read it.  When I’ve sorted out the rights question and Ebook technology can cope with putting the illustrations in the right place, I’ll publish it on Kindle and any other platform which can take it.

Here's the original of an illustration by Meg for Hare's Choice.
But you won't see it in the book.   In the story, Hare meets Peter Rabbit,  Ratty, Mole, Badger, Wilbur (some pig!) and the rest.  When Penguin found out that Peter Rabbit was in an illustration they went ballistic.  So now Hare appears on her own, with Black Beauty and Ginger, safely out of copyright, cavorting in the background.   If you look carefully, you can read Meg's inscription to us.

Next month – leaving my job, my decade in the sun and then the long, slow, drawing down of blinds.  Well, not quite as bad as that.


Chris Longmuir said…
Absolutely scandalous what they did with you Three Towneley Plays, and the response you got. Looks like there are folks out there who don't give a damn about copyright. Maybe you can sue them for royalties on all sales made?
CallyPhillips said…
I know you are away Dennis... but yes, you should be angry. It's a salutory tale and something all should watch out for (those who have work that people WANT to do copyright theft on anyway!!!)
I'm loving the long journey of Dennis Hamley by the way. Can't wait for next months episode. Why isn't it out as a celeb autobiog for Xmas... I'd buy it!
Lydia Bennet said…
this is such fun Dennis, I love the 'but I wrote you a book!' type comments! yes you should be annoyed of course, though I'm not sure sueing would be any good - expensive, and difficult with people overseas. you might get a fairly cheap solicitor's letter sent asking them to desist and send you the copies they have left? Yes as Cally says you should write your memoirs!
Lydia Bennet said…
for a minute I thought I had a copy of your book but it is 'The Wakefield Pageants in the Towneley Cycle'.
Dennis Hamley said…
Lydia, is it Cawley's The Wakefield Pageants in the Towneley Cycle published by Manchester Uni Press?
Brilliant book, scholarly and full of real insights. I used it as the definitive text to translate Cain and Abel, the 2nd Shepherds' Play and Herod. But somehow, after several house moves, I seem to have lost it. You've prompted me to look for another copy.

Popular posts

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

Navigating by the Stars

The Splendid Rage of Harlan Ellison - Umberto Tosi

No, The Times Journalists at the Hay Literary Festival, Burglarising is Not What It's All About, says Griselda Heppel

Meddling Lemons by Susan Price