The Sundial Press
Roger Norman worked and walked in Dorset for twenty odd years and still does so when he gets the chance.
He is the author of Albion's Dream and Treetime,
published by Faber and Faber. Red Die is his first book for The Sundial
From The Author
I was born in Wimbledon in 1948 and lived
around half of my life in Dorset. My father was a prominent figure during the
Wilson years, as president of the CBI, and later as chairman of the World
Wildlife Fund. He still lives in Hammoon, at the age of ninety-one, doing his
own cooking, weeding his garden, indignant about the politicians and, lately,
the bankers. 'England's mistake was to turn her back on the sea,' was a remark
of his that stuck in my mind. More recently, he assured me it was the greed of
the bankers alone that was responsible for the current economic recession.
I was born in Wimbledon in 1948 and lived around half of my life in Dorset. My father was a prominent figure during the Wilson years, as president of the CBI, and later as chairman of the World Wildlife Fund. He still lives in Hammoon, at the age of ninety-one, doing his own cooking, weeding his garden, indignant about the politicians and, lately, the bankers. 'England's mistake was to turn her back on the sea,' was a remark of his that stuck in my mind. More recently, he assured me it was the greed of the bankers alone that was responsible for the current economic recession.
I've always been writing, ever since my first handful of poems, written in Mexico in 1968. To begin with it was only poetry, nothing of which has survived so I can remember it as better than it probably was. After that, countless fragments of prose which might have been the beginning of something, or the end of something or some part in between. None of that survived either apart from what became the first paragraphs of Albion's Dream, which was published by Faber & Faber in 1990. I don't know quite how to describe that book. It is a children's book enjoyed by adults, a fantasy in which the elements of fantasy are rather closely controlled, a pre-Potter Potterish sort of story which was translated into a number of languages and is still alive here and there. At one time it seemed as if there would be a Hollywood film, I would make a lot of money, the publishers would make a lot of money and everybody would be happy. It didn't happen, but I am still fond of the characters of that story, Hadley, Tom, Avery and Hod, even if I would write it differently now. Next came a genuine children's book called Treetime, also published by Faber, but it lacked the breeze of magic that blew life into Albion's Dream and had only one character whom I loved. There was one other good character, a daddy-long-legs, but I lost him half-way through.
I began the first version of Red Die nineteen years ago. I wrote it, rewrote it, revised it and re-wrote again. I could not make it how I wanted it but I could not abandon it either. I had become attached to the characters - to Jack, Maggie, Bate, Cockler and the rest - and although from time to time I despaired of it, there was something in there that I wanted to get out. It started off as a children's book, in the manner of its predecessor, and grew into … what it is now. Various people have helped me with ideas and suggestions and detailed editorial comments, notably Fred Clough, Ben Holland and Anthony Head, without whose help I would probably have given up. It was Louise de Bruin who first made me believe that the book had arrived somewhere, and Frank Kibblewhite who offered to put it on his list alongside distinguished writers such as AE Coppard and Llewelyn Powys. A literary connection with the Powys family, however incidental, is a privilege.
Of the Powyses, it is John Cowper whom I most admire, the crafty old magician of Phudd Bottom. I dreamt of him once, on his deathbed. 'He looked inexpressibly noble,' Gerard Casey, my companion in the dream, told me. Later we saw him striding, leaping over the darkening land, a great tree lit up with lights in all its branches. Perhaps it was the extraordinary bouncing motion of that JCP tree that first gave me the idea for Treetime. I wish I could have done it justice. It was a magnificent sight.
At one time or another, I have loved William Faulkner and Henry Miller, Dylan Thomas, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Mervyn Peake and JRR Tolkien, Carlos Castaneda and Cormac McCarthy. Of these, only Cormac is still writing. His Blood Meridian, despite its ghastliness, seems to me a masterpiece, and his latest book The Road says more about the condition of the western world than any other I have read with the exception of Gulliver's Travels, which said it all a couple of centuries ago. Not so much has changed.
Most of my enduring literary loves belong to the nineteenth century: Hardy, Kipling, Stevenson, Dickens and Eliot, Melville and Dostoevsky. Kipling seems to me the best of all short-story writers, an opinion for which I have the support of Jorge Luis Borges:
Kipling's last stories were no less tormented and mazelike than the stories of Kafka or Henry James, which they doubtless surpass; but in 1885, in Lahore, the young Kipling began a series of brief tales, written in a straightforward manner … Several of them are laconic masterpieces. It occurred to me that what was conceived and carried out by a young man of genius might modestly be attempted by a man on the borders of old age who knows his craft.
I mention this as an antedote to the careless dismissal of Kipling as an 'imperialist'. The bookshops in England more or less ignore him, but the bookshops in India have everything he ever wrote, in several editions.
Am I influenced by JCP (John Cowper Powys) in thinking Dostoevsky the greatest of novelists? Probably I am. There is in Dostoevsky a sense that there is not enough room on the page for everything he wanted to say. There is a superabundance of life in his books, always turning to madness, passion, violence and frenzy but characterised by an extraordinary honesty and a lack of artifice. There is something of the same in Melville, but really only in his one tremendous book. As for Dickens, he is the only one of all of them who can make me laugh aloud. Once on the Bakerloo line I was laughing so hard at a passage in Bleak House that I looked up to find the occupants of the carriage staring at me in wonderment. Among women writers, apart from George Eliot, I admire Sylvia Townsend Warner, Rebecca West, Katherine Mansfield and the early Doris Lessing. Nothing very modern in this selection, but there's nothing very modern in my toolshed either.
Lastly William Blake, from whom I borrowed the quotations at the start of Albion's Dream and Red Die. I don't understand Blake, apart from the Songs of Innocence and Experience, but I cannot read a single page of his writing without feeling a deep gratitude for the boldness and originality of his vision. He makes me wonder if we haven't got it all wrong. Everybody's looking down when they might be looking up. My favourite anecdote about Blake is when he opened the door of his house to a visitor and apologised for being stark naked by saying that he had been having tea in his garden with John Milton (who had been dead a hundred years).
It seems pretentious to talk of these exceptional writers in the same breath as my own work, like comparing a royal feast with a picnic in the woods. No comparison is intended. I'm not claiming literary influences, only talking of literary loves, an exceedingly pleasant pastime. I had a teacher once who said that during the two years he spent teaching at an ancient public school, he had only two friends, William Blake and William Shakespeare. A bit like tea with Milton on the lawn.
I'm sixty this year. A filmwriter friend of mine recently told me that anything we do in our lives we shall do by the age of sixty. If that's the truth, I have achieved almost nothing: my part in the building of one beautiful house, a solitary 1,000 kilometre walk from Istanbul to Athens (an eccentric contribution to Turkish-Greek friendship, resulting in immediate dťtente) and a couple of novels which I hope will be read by my great grandchildren. I say nothing of my four remarkable children, who are a blessing, obviously, rather than anybody's achievement. Kaye Webb, longtime children's editor at Puffin books, wrote in The Observer that Albion's Dream was 'a wonderful book', a judgement of which I am proud. I am buoyed by the fact that JCP wrote his best books at ages more advanced than sixty and that my father's garden looks as good as ever, even though he's over ninety. I have just finished writing the first version of 'a Victorian novel', set in Sherborne in 1877. It will be called Green King, or Green Man or A Tale of Seven Moons, or something else.
I'm also proud of my long association with Dorset, a county like no other. At various times, I have lived in Manston, Hammoon, Holnest, Buckland Newton and the stables flat at Sherborne Castle. I've walked every step of the territory described in Red Die and lots more that isn't. Hambledon and Bulbarrow are my favourite hills in all the world and the Stour is the only river I ever really cared to fish. Our county is very fortunate in its literary heritage. Thomas Hardy of course, but also the three brothers of the remarkable Powys family and the great William Barnes, who is to be met with walking along the Stour near Sturminster in Green King. He is at that moment composing in his head the following verse:
An 'oft do come a saddened hour
When there must goo away
One well-beloved to our heart's core,
Vor long , perhaps vor aye:
An' oh! it is a touchžn thing
The lovēn heart must rue,
To hear behind his last farewell
The gešte a-vallen to.
The men who survived the First World War are now all dead and what survives of the most terrible, inexplicable and futile of Europe's wars is only what is written in books and inscribed on monuments. It is an obligation for succeeding generations, to my way of thinking, not to forget. Under Fire by Henri Barbusse ought to be required reading for sixth formers, along with The Great War and Modern Memory, an illuminating book by the American writer Paul Fussell.
Red Die is partly an attempt to fulfil my own sense of obligation. For oh! it is touchin' thing that twenty million people died in conditions of infernal awfulness in order to … to what exactly? If it seems like ancient history, it ain't. It was repeated almost move for move twenty years later, at the cost of a further thirty million lives, and the the rulers of today appear to have learned nothing from it, making wars, or provoking them, in every corner of the earth for the sake of oil or diamonds or that extraordinary term, territorial integrity. Integrity!? Well. It's not clear that the greedy bankers and the acquisitive industrialists have learnt much either.
Forgive the didactic note. There's no trace of it in Red Die. One sentence perhaps that I could not cast out. Nor is the book about the war, just about folk who to one degree or another were touched by it in the Dorset of 1916 and were forced, like their author, to look for explanations for the inexplicable among the ghosts of history.
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