Once and Future Things by Dennis Hamley
I'm really looking forward to June because something wonderful is going to happen. Harefield Hospital will celebrate its centenary. What a place. It was first founded in 1915 as a hospital for Australian and New Zealand troops and thus came under immediate and overwhelming pressure during the Gallipoli campaign. After the First World War it was for many years a TB sanatorium, where stricken Londoners could at last breathe some clean air in the Middlesex countryside. And finally it was chosen as the place for what has become one of the world's very top specialist heart hospitals. Once, when heart transplants were still headline news, miracles happened there every day, including the world's first heart-lung transplant. Now yesterday's miracles are almost routine and surgery has advanced to the utmost point of what seems credible. Thousands have cause to be thankful to Harefield Hospital. And I'm one of them.
'Abandon hope, all ye who enter here'? Emphatically NEVER.
This is NOT St Sebastian's, horror hospital in 'Hospital Trust', which you'll find in Colonel Mustard in the Library with the Candlestick.
There's a lot going on there next month. A book of patients' stories is to be produced. I've sent my story in: they haven't told me yet whether it will be included. On 15th June there's An Evening with Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub, greatest heart surgeon of them all. We shall be there. I hope so very much that I'll have the chance to shake his hand and thank him at last for what he did for me back in 1983 - something I didn't know about for twenty years after the event and which, when I heard it, made me at first go cold with fear and then rapturous with surprise and gratitude. Sadly, 15th June is the day after my monthly AE blog appears. This is by way of being advance information so you'll know what my July effort will be about. It's the June blog which is the problem!
That's the first of the Once and Future Things. The second is hardly as dramatic, but it matters to me nearly, though not quite, as much. Some of you know that I'm one of Authors Electric's battered veterans who, after thirty-five years of publishing with some fairly, though not stratospherically, eminent publishers, had finally to admit that those days were probably gone for ever. Since then I've regarded myself as an independent author first and foremost, a badge I wear with pride. Scholastic and Walker impeturbably sailed on without me, When Verso took Frances Lincoln over they scrapped Barn Owl Books - and all Frances Lincoln's other fiction as well, the rats. When Evans went bankrupt, I thought, well that's it. Perhaps I'd outstayed my welcome anyway. I never expected resurrection.
But out of the blue, I received requests from two publishers I'd never heard of, Ransom Publishing, then based in Winchester, and Readzone, with offices in Ludlow. Hardly metropolitan I thought, but hey! who cares? Publishers don't have to be in Bedford Square, St Martin's Lane or Great Clarendon Street. I'd written books as part of two series for secondary schools for Evans: Shades, short hi-lo novels for less able readers in secondary schools and Sharp Shades, hi-lo books half the length for 12-16 year-olds with reading ages of 8. Both publishers wanted to revive them. So I sent my one Shades story to Ransom and my Sharp Shades, plus a story from an anthology, to Readzone. Both specialise in books for less able and struggling readers, mainly, sadly, boys.
That was the Once Thing. There are quite a lot of Present Things and, with luck, a good burst of Future Things involved here as well. Both publishers have brought out the books they asked for. And Ransom have asked for more. Two they already have. Not only is Coming in to Land, first published by Evans, now well established in the Ransom list, but also two new books, Sixteen Bricks Down and The Team with the Ghost Player were published last year and are selling quite well. I'm reasonably pleased with all three - an adventure story (of a sort, I suppose), a crime caper, a football ghost story. But they're out there now so that's the end of them, I thought.
I was wrong. I received another email, saying wouldn't it be good if 16 Bricks and Ghost Player could be made half the length so they could have another incarnation as Sharp Shades. Well, yes, I thought. I've always been convinced that if a short story comes out as 4000 words, its true length is 3000 and an 80,000 word novel really has to be taken down to 60,000. I constantly bang on to students about this and try to practice it myself. But I'd already taken 2000 words out of the first drafts of these two and to halve what was left really seemed a bridge too far. Nevertheless, I thought I'd have a go because money, reputation and the chance of a slightly extended publishing career were at stake. I stripped both stories down to the barest essentials and when I'd finished, read them with a heavy heart.
What a shock I got. I really think they are better than the originals. I'm still trying to understand what moral I can take from that. Anyway, Ransom then told me that they were starting a young adult trade list. That really got my juices going. What a brave and daring thing to do in these inhospitable days. They already have the first in a series by Malcolm Rose, who does terrific thrillers with a science background (he used to lecture in Science at the Open University and many years ago he and I wrote Point Crimes). Ransom's major aim is to get boys to tackle long and demanding fiction. I don't think that's sexist or mysogynist. I think it's vital. Anyway, I've made a proposal and I'm waiting for a verdict. So that, with any luck, may be the final Future Thing.
Last week I paid a visit to Ransom Publishing. They have left their cramped and expensive Winchester offices and moved to Brocklands Farm, West Meon in Hampshire, twelve miles from Winchester, situated in stunning countryside, which you can see below. The farm runs a campsite as well. It's hidden behind the nearest hill on the right.
In this photograph, the farm is hidden as well. Just as well. In my life I've visited many publishers. Give or take a few idiosyncrasies I've always had a pretty good idea of what I'm going to see. This time, I was expecting a small, rural industrial estate consisting of small, modern units, much like the Eynsham industrial estate where last year I discussed Spirit of the Place with Berforts Information Press. Steve Rickard, Ransom's publishing director, met me off the train, drove me down country lanes and then turned off the road through tumbledown gates, bumped across a rutted, potholed farmyard and parked by a huge, half-ruined barn. I never said a word but was wondering whether this was a practical joke. We got out of the car and faced a rickety wooden staircase to the upper floor. The bottom step had come adrift on one side. I climbed gingerly up, clinging to the handrail, turned a corner - straight into a smart, neat, busy open-plan office with displays of Ransom's extraordinarily large list for such a small company and with an air of quiet efficiency from people who know exactly what they are doing. I met Steve Rickard and Jenny Ertle, the managing director, and realised that here were two people who ARE the firm. They run it with an easy co-operation and understanding which gets things done, innovates and punches way above its weight in a very difficult world.
They saw my shock. But at a fraction of the cost of the inadequate Winchester offices they've got not only a lovely main office but, in another part of the barn, a big warehouse which they never had before and which other small publishers can share.
I travelled back to Oxford well pleased. I'd seen a model of how a small publisher should run and where writers are respected and valued. I felt in safe, supportive hands. Ransom won't take up all my writing life. I have independent projects I've really got to get on with and soon, possibly, after so very, very long talking about it, a publisher of our own to run. But I hope Ransom will play a significant part.
So good luck to Ransom Publishing, Jenny and Steve. In these dark days you have to make your own luck and I have a strong feeling that's exactly what they are doing.