A Significant Rite of Passage by Dennis Hamley

You are reading this on my eightieth birthday. Yes, The Big 8. I don't find this easy to believe. Twenty years ago, reaching such a milestone seemed the merest fantasy. Ten years ago I thought it possible but extremely unlikely. And now, here I am. Made it.  I feel fine - actually, I feel about forty - and confidently expect in twenty years' time to get my congratulatory telegram from King William.

It is, I suppose, a sort of Rite of Passage. And of course, such a rite makes one pause and survey. And this survey leads me to a stark cleavage in life which I don't think I'm the only one to experience - the great divide between private happiness and public misery. The first is never a given: we either work for it or it falls into our laps. Or both. The second is always with us - and, I'm hardly alone in thinking, particularly sharply now.

How lucky I am to have the first in spades. Its profound aspects I'll leave because they are too deep for words. I'll just mention some of its symptomatic immediate aspects. My birthday treat this year is a trip to Stratford on Avon to see the RSC's Henry V. I'd rather it were Hamlet or Lear or A Comedy of Errors but that's the way it is. Whatever it is, it will be great. I'm probably starting the car as you read. Last week, my children got the caterers in and gave me a super birthday dinner. Lovely. And now my new book, the first in the Bright Sea, Dark Graves series, is up on Kindle as the third in Joslin Books and  in paperback as well. The first truly new book I've published independently. All these things come together and fill me with contentment.

It's strange how mundane and unexciting producing an ebook has become. Three years ago, the prospect thrilled me with its strangeness and the feelings of power and release it held out. Farewell to the shackles of print, I thought.  Now, in a strange reversion, it's the prospect of a lovely object in its own right (and a Createspace paperback is indeed a rather nice artefact) which is getting my juices going. Back to the future. Kay's lovely Skye skyscape (with added crippled frigate) makes a wonderful cover image, and inside is a professional-looking print job which seems to have manifested itself almost without my noticing. I'm simple-minded enough still to consider that as a small miracle. Why is it though that the paragraph indents in the print version are always spot-on while in the Kindle version they're all over the place? And I didn't do this myself. To do a Kindle version as well is part of the Createspace service. 

Anyway, I'm pleased with the book, The suggestions of Julia and Jan, my nautical beta-readers, have not merely been useful. They have been decisive and my debt is great. And my new private imprint, Joslin Books (which has nothing to do with Blank Page Press), now has three books in it. Nearly a publisher's list.

So those are the latest manifestations of  private happiness. What about the misery bit?

Reaching eighty isn't much cop nowadays. Everybody seems to be doing it, so Albany's words at the end of King Lear don't have the same force as once they did:

The oldest have borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Trust me though. You will.

But my being eighty specifically now does have a ring of significance about it and it's provided a shape to my life. Seventy years ago today I had my tenth birthday. World War 2 had ended three months before. It had provided the whole of my life experience until then. It has since been a major spring of my imagination and has spawned novels, scores of stories and two pieces of non-fiction, including a history for schools.

Product Details

My first ten years in fiction
Published first by Scholastic, reissued by Catnip. Hurry. Only four new ones left. But you can have a copy for £400.

Ten years old in 1945. I had no idea how important that date would be. Perhaps my life only started when I was ten and the first part was a sort of self-contained prelude. I was suddenly in a strange new world full of possibilities I had no idea of that at the time. In 1946 I took, along with everybody else, the old Scholarship examination, forerunner of the 11+. The prize was the grammar school. I passed. I wasn't altogether happy about it because the grammar school was old and crumbly while the secondary modern was a late 1930s building which still seemed fire-new contemporary. However to go to grammar school for free symbolised a brave new world of unprecedented opportunity, though I didn't know it at the time.

I hadn't grown up in poverty by any means - this was the soft south so no Jarrow marches for us - but my parents considered themselves solidly working class, although my mother stopped my father having the Daily Worker delivered every morning because it embarrassed her in front of the neighbours. If I thought about the future at all, I presumed it would be more of the same and I would live a life much like my parents'. I remember being thrilled  with the 1945 election result, but really, that was only because Mum and Dad were thrilled as well.  I had no idea that I was about to live through a major social revolution which seemed inevitable and final and would surely liberate us and define our world for ever.

The start of the NHS, the coming of British Rail (though I remember nearly crying over the loss of the LMS, LNER, GWR and SR which had affected my childhood almost as much as the war itself) and the defenestration of the wicked mine owners were events which I thought must be good because they sent my father into such raptures. He was a telephone engineer with the GPO, spent stormy nights on top of telegraph poles and was branch secretary of the Post Office Engineering Union for twenty-five years. When he retired, he was awarded the British Empire Medal, which really pleased him even though he had often railed against honours lists. I told him he should have held out for an MBE because the BEM was just a sop to the lower orders. He agreed, but still took it. No investiture for him though. He got lunch in the Post Office Tower with Ted Short, the Postmaster General in Harold Wilson's first Labour government. He enjoyed it a lot more than going to the palace to see the Queen but I still said the BEM was a ghetto award. I see that Cameron wants to reinstate it. What does that tell us?

Yes, it was a time of hope. The ruling dragons had been slain. Yes, there was a Cold War on but things would surely be all right, wouldn't they? Well, in the end, they were, just about, but they've been replaced by things even more frightening. And the dragons weren't slain after all. They slept for thirty years, then they woke and plotted and now they have reinstated the status quo they never thought to lose in the first place.

At this point, I'd planned a discussion of why this should be so. But I've gone on too long already and besides, I'd probably be saying nothing new so I won't bother.

So the brave new world of opportunity, the revolution which would put society to rights for ever, the time of hope for everybody - all seem to have evaporated. Unfairness defines society again. And there's worse. We are busily and wantonly degrading our beautiful world - crapping in our own nest, if you like - so that it won't be fit for our grandchildren to live in. We have allowed evil, monstrous and in plain view, to thrive and have answered it with criminal dereliction and appalling meanness of spirit. Partly through our own actions, we have set up flashpoints of anger all over the world, any one of which could erupt and start the final human catastrophe, thus beating Gaia to it. At least the Cold War was between just two massed forces, so we knew where the threat came from and were comforted that the most likely sort of disaster would be accidental because the stakes were so high. I watched Dr Strangelove again the other week and shuddered at what might have been.

I think that one of the most important, critical and sane and voices over the last hundred and fifty years was Matthew Arnold's. Culture and Anarchy was published in 1867 and is still a wonderful book about the good society and its enemies. His HMI reports as he travelled the country in 3rd class railway carriages from slum schools to village schools now the lower classes were at last allowed to read and write are still the sanest words I know of about education. Our present rulers would do well to read them, because they show how and why the battle was lost almost before it started, which is what their ancestors probably wanted anyway. And he wrote the most prophetic, profound and modern-seeming poem of the age, which I think stands alongside Yeats's The Second Coming as a cry of warning and dramatises perfectly what I feel about private joy and public misery. Dover Beach. I'm not surprised that Ian MacEwan quotes it in full at the conclusion of Saturday, his own cry of warning.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Image result for matthew arnold images

The man himself.

Don't worry. I'll really enjoy my birthday and then finish some overdue projects in the many years which  will follow. And start some new ones too.


Happy Birthday, Dennis!
You're one of the Good Yins (as Billy Connolly is one of the Big Yins!)

(And yes, Yeats and Arnold...like Orwell...did seem to have that instinct for sensing that the Rough Beast is out there...probably always out there, taking various forms, in different eras...)
Wendy H. Jones said…
Happy Birthday. What a wonderful page and equally wonderful post
JO said…
Happy birthday - I hope you have a truly wonderful day.
Unknown said…
What a magnificent commemorative treat that is -- even if you'd prefer another work by WS. And how many who have reached this day in their lives are capable of blogging about it so eloquently and flawlessly? Thank you for this chance for an imaginative escape into your life (I'm choosing to forget all about the 'public misery') from some awfulness in mine, which has everything to do with moving house (again). HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Dennis.
Jenny Alexander said…
What a wonderful post - thank you Dennis. I hope you have a fabulous day to kick off the next 20 years till you get your telegram!
Jan Needle said…
Brilliant piece, Dennis - and very happy birthday. There are some good things out of progress. It's my son Matti's thirtieth today, and tomorrow he's just jetting off to Japan for a fortnight! Better than seeing Shakespeare? All love to you and Kay from me n Viv. xxxxx
Bill Kirton said…
Happy birthday, Dennis. What a pleasure reading a synopsis of the generation story I share with you (but as a mere kid of 76). I really do believe we've been incredibly lucky to 'see what [we] have seen, see what [we] see'. I share, too, your attitude to that dichotomy between private happiness and public misery, skipping lamb-like about (indulge me), while deploring what 'they' have done to our world.

A great post. I look forward to the next 240 from you. Have a drink on me. (I'll send the money as soon as the next postal order arrives.)
Susan Price said…
A wonderful post, Dennis - thank you. I agree with everything you say, but will concentrate on the happy part.

You are a loved and respected elder of our tribe. Long may you stick around, writing and publishing.

(You've beaten me to 'first original wholly self-published' book - well done!)
Dennis Hamley said…
Thank you all so very much. All these wishes made me feel quite teary. But a quick question. Has my BSDG cover image appeared in my blog? It's fine on Kay's laptop, but on my screen there's just an embarrassing space. If you haven't got it I'll put up an extra blog with it on because I think it's worth seeing. . If it's it's still not there, you'll have to buy the book, I'm afraid.
cally phillips said…
Happy Birthday and many more of them Dennis! And so glad that you've got both Kindle and Createspace 'under your belt' so to speak now. More time for writing!!!
Mari Biella said…
Happy birthday, Dennis, and thank you for a wonderful blog post - and may there be at least 20 more years of them! And, on a personal note, I don't think I've ever really thanked you properly for the support and encouragement you've given me, and which has made a huge difference to me. But thank you. I am honoured to be part of the AE team with you, and with so many other wonderful writers!
Hope you have a very happy birthday and lots more to come, Dennis. xx
glitter noir said…
The happiest of birthdays, Dennis. What a kick to see your youthful spirit still in gear, high on new adventures. Will get a print copy of the book as soon as find an inch of spare space in my crammed studio. Meanwhile, my own birthday approaches...and I pray a feel less glum about it when the day arrives. Just lost out on a job opportunity because of my excess of birthdays.
Lydia Bennet said…
Happy birthday Dennis! it's not all bad news about the world, looking back seems safer but at the time it probably wasn't - there is always violence and evil and tyranny. But there is also you, and books, and birthday cake, so many happy returns to you! xxx
Susan Price said…
A late answer, Dennis - but yes, your BSDG cover appears at the head of your blog, bright and clear, and it's beautiful!
Dennis Hamley said…
Thank you everybody for all these jewel-like comments. Sue, thanks for telling me about the cover. I'm very relieved because otherwise I would have had to slip in an unauthorised blog with it on and you'd have been cross with me! And to everybody else, your comments have made me feel really happy. And, as well, Henry V last night was STUNNING. If you can't get to Stratford, don't miss it when it comes live to a cinema near you!

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