One night, unable to sleep, my head whirling, I suddenly saw an image of an old cinema. It was so vivid that it drew me into the world of more old cinemas. It also reminded me of some of the films I had seen when I was taking a post graduate certificate in Film Studies run by London University and the BFI. It was the seed of Just Henry.
Set in 1949/50 in a town based on Southsea and Portsmouth (Sternsea), fourteen-year-old Henry uses every penny he can earn to buy tickets to see films at the many cinemas in the area. All the cinemas mentioned in the novel actually existed and all the films I mention were shown in them.
Henry is a bigot but has no idea that he is. His grandmother, who is the mother of his father who was killed in the war, has told him there are some people you mix with and some people that you don’t. In the previous year, the school leaving age has risen to fifteen so that everyone in his form has to remain for an extra year. They are none too happy about it but to cap it all they have a new teacher, a Mr Finch, who puts them into small groups to work on a project together. Horrified, Henry finds himself with two boys he has avoided for years. One of them is the son of a deserter and the other boy, so Henry has been told, has been born on the wrong side of the blanket. When Henry asks his teacher if he can be put with another group he is given short shrift.
One matter which Henry does approve of however, is that Mr Finch would like to use an old shed in the school grounds as a dark room. With the acquisition of a precious tin of black paint which has been handed to someone to give to Henry, Mr Finch and his pupils succeed in making it happen. It is in this dark room, while Henry is developing photographs he has taken with a camera that a Mrs Beaumont has leant him, that one particular image hurls him into a series of alarming events that resemble the thrillers he has seen on the big screen.
I found the time to write this book by working after my sons had gone to bed and getting up before they woke. By the time I had completed it, the bags under my eyes resembled handbags. It was then that my thoughts returned to the third of the Hollis Family trilogy.
A baby, Josie Hollis, is born in A Spoonful of Jam in the autumn of 1947. Three years later another baby is born in Just Henry, Henry’s half-brother Larry.
By the time I was eleven I knew that when I grew up, my perfect life would be to act half the year and write the other half. (Later, I added wanting children as well). I was also a tomboy and would like to have gone to a stage school in London. But it was not to be. Fortunately, I attended a school in Waterlooville (now called Oaklands) where I was given plenty of opportunities to act, and outside school hours I attended lessons at a dance school when I wasn’t jumping up and down on a trampoline or camping. But I wondered what might have happened if Josie Hollis had gone to a stage school in London at the same age and at the same time as I had wanted to attend one. By now, I knew of two children who had performed with professionals. One was a boy who had danced in Nutcracker with a ballet company in London, the other was a girl who was in Billy Elliot in the West End. And I asked myself, what would Josie’s life have been like if she had performed with adults in productions in the autumn of 1959?
I went into detective mode and thus began the third book in the Hollis Family Trilogy in which (spoiler alert) Josie prevents Larry from being kidnapped.
I called it Impossible! because the Principal of the stage school she is attending tells her that it will be quite impossible for her to be given any acting roles with professional casts because her hair is so short that she looks like a boy, she has a working-class accent and to cap it all she has the wrong number of freckles. After I had completed it, the publisher of the first two Hollis Family books told me to cut two thirds of it, and turn it into a 60,000-word book about a girl in a stage school. In other words, she wanted a completely different book for a much younger age group. I was puzzled. Noel Streatfeild had already written a classic story on that subject and the stage school elements were only a small part of the story. Impossible! explores what it was like for Josie to work in a professional adult environment with three completely different companies.
It ended up being published by another company and was thus separated from the first two Hollis Family Books. Meanwhile they were given new jackets along with A Little Love Song and Just Henry. Not long afterwards, I was bewildered to discover that they had not only been given age bands but they were also for a much younger age group when previously they had been promoted as books for teenagers. Because of this, they were put on shelves in bookshops where no teenagers could find them. Later, I discovered why. The company had been divided into two sections and the section for teenagers and young adults only published contemporary fiction. Which probably explained why I had been asked to turn Impossible! into a novel for a younger age group. Just Henry was suddenly called the third of The Hollis Family Series which must have been confusing to readers, as the only trace of the Hollis family in Just Henry is when Ralph Hollis is mentioned as the person who has donated the tin of black paint. And in Impossible! the man Elsie Hollis is to marry (spoiler alert) is Henry.
Back on the musical front, I hadn’t looked at Sea Change for years, as I thought, being set in 1998, it would be out of date, only to discover when I had heard several incidents being reported on the news that some of the subjects that were touched upon were still happening. After I contacted Stephen Keeling, we had more songs recorded, (now on Sea Change SoundCloud). It was to be performed this spring but has now been postponed to October 2022.
And what of TINSEL?
It opened a few months before lockdown and was a sell out! Some people booked to see it twice. The most magical sound during the performances was wave upon wave of laughter. At the beginning of 2020 I wanted lots of other companies to perform it so that it could make more people laugh but the pandemic has put it on hold.
And now for the two adult novels I completed last year, one just before the first lockdown Looking for the Diamond and the other at the end of it, Broken Soil. And yes, some of my other novels have led me to write these as well…