Every Leader in Scouting undergoes formal training. When I say formal, it’s actually also fun because you get to behave for a weekend or two like the youngsters you’re being trained to lead.
One of the many things that stuck in my mind from that experience was a quotation from one of Baden-Powell’s books. B-P was the author of Scouting for Boys, the book which encouraged boys the country over to form Patrols of Boy Scouts, as they were then, and to do the adventureous activities the book taught. It’s worth saying that Scouting is open to both genders and hasn’t been referred to as Boy Scouts since 1967; so if you hear the old expression it doesn’t say much for the person using it!
B-P’s quotation was: “The more responsibility the Scoutmaster gives his patrol leaders, the more they will respond.” I remember it better as “Tust your Patrol Leaders. They will rarely let you down.” Maybe my version came from a different book.
At Hurst College, where I was on the support staff, youngsters were increasingly being asked to come out of their comfort zone. They were asked to take part in plays; from minor plays, just role-playing in the classroom, to major, theatre-based productions. They were asked to demonstrate, to teach, to debate.
Taking those initial B-P quotes, I wondered what might happen if a group of youngsters of reasonable age were put together and found they just had to manage as best they could. Most of my Scouting (1957-1963 and 1975-1995 and subsequently) was with the male gender; I can remember aspects of my own youth; and I had dealings with student technicians in Hurst’s theatre. I felt I could think myself partly into the mind of a modern, sensible bloke of about 14, enough, anyway, to be able to carry it off.
“The Suspects” is the result, and I’ve had one or two comments from people currently at the right age to know which say that it’s believable in that respect.
They may just be very polite, though.
A long, long time ago in a parallel universe (called Hurstpierpoint College, for whom I worked), I started having to look at the requirements about safeguarding. Don’t get me wrong: as a retired Scout Leader I was very well used to doing my utmost to ensure the safety of the younger people I came across. I did it by using two formulae – common decency and common sense. The first was inculcated into me as a child by parents, and as a Cub and a Scout. The second was taught by parents and school (“Don’t be silly, Richard. Think.”) and particularly by being in Cubs, Scouts, Southdown Motor Services, in all my other employments, by friends, by need, and as a result of my own thinking and observation. After all, I’ve had a lifetime to do all this research and am still learning.
Hurst’s safeguarding requirements brought me to think about the law, and how the law differed from what was rightly regarded as de rigeur in a school. More and more I saw that, according to law, all human beings are equipped with two switches. One is switched on at the age of 16 (sex etc) and the other at 18 (drink etc). At this point in my reading the safeguarding requirements had been assimilated and found to equate to the common decency and common sense with which I was already programmed, and the disquiet and unfairness with which I regarded those two fictional yet legally regarded switches mounted. Certain legal cases whose outcome has resulted in actual mental and spiritual damage to both ‘perpetrator’ and ‘victim’ have done nothing to alleviate my concerns and, at times, anger.
Having been an Assistant Scout Leader and a Venture Scout Leader I knew quite a bit about how a variety of young people (mainly boys, admittedly, as Scouts then didn’t admit girls) approached and dealt with increasing physical and spiritual attractions. Not once was there a sudden difference in outlook between the ages of 15 years, 11 months and 31 days, and 16 years and 1 day.
Therefore we should be able to deduce that there is no biological switch at 16 (or 18, come to that). There is no reason to believe that a person a day shy of their 16th birthday can be inexperienced, whilst on the 16th birthday can know how to deal with all – er, romantic – circumstances.
It is, quite obviously, a slow learning process that keeps pace with cell growth. There are no goals to work towards, no mileposts to attain and observe , no epiphany, no ‘switches’. It is like human physical and mental development, a pure, organic process.
It was at that point that the seed for Loft Island was sown.
The Island and the Town
With Loft Island finished, published, corrected and republished (!) I had become fond of the characters and intrigued by what might happen next in their journey to a future-proof life. More importantly, readers were starting to ask what happened next, so I thought I’d better see what I could come up with.
I didn’t know what characters are going to do, or what their surroundings might do to them. I never do. I don’t usually plan a book methodically, as you’re taught to. But then life isn’t methodical either. I will take a character or a group of them and start wondering. Maybe I’ll have an event to aim for. Maybe there are norms of the 1950s I want to explore, ways of life that are so markedly different from the norms of 2020+.
There is a type of character regarded as toxic, one who succeeds in controlling the lives of others to their detriment. They’re not a modern invention and it seemed a good time to include one. In fact there are perhaps twoin the book, although one is moody, irascible and impossible to please for very good medical reasons; reasons which the story lays out.
Another beacon I aimed at was the treatment experienced by many girls and women who were pregnant outside marriage or who had an unwanted pregnancy. I wanted particulary to show what could happen to unmarried mothers with no obvious support; treatment that was experienced by a few up to the 1970s.
In this case, there is a supporting circle of friends, a surrogate family. But in so many cases mothers had their babies taken away having been given no opportunity to have a meaningful opinion, let alone advice or support. Stories abound.
Is this moralising? No: it’s a demonstration, of the inhumanities of history that continued out of sight of any major authority. The story has to stand up for itself and I believe it does.
Change at Tide Mills
At a distance the bus was passing what looked like a series of old, rubble walls typical of many from the old Sussex. A question mark formed in my mind. Years later, by then living in Seaford, I saw a painting of a series of fascinating old buildings and asked what they were. “Oh, that’s the old Tide Mills, along the seafront,” came the answer.
Intrigued, I started asking around, but could never discover a great deal about the place except that it had been what it said on the tin, the owner had delighted in the name of Catt, and it was evacuated and demolished in World War II to prevent it being able to harbour enemy troops.
Over the years my store of information grew, along with my intrigue level. What was it like to live there? What would it be like if I peopled it again with fictional characters, having first resurrected the buildings in my mind and getting the mill to work again?
The more I brought people into it, the more research I found was needed. And that was not just to resurrect the hamlet but to discover what the neighbouring towns would have looked and felt like to live in, shop in and play in. Having grown up with the last vestiges of Sussex dialect I knew I had to refer to that as well and bring it sparingly into the stories.
So was I writing a novel or researching recent history? Clearly the simple answer was “yes”.
The story bends history at times but is faithful to it at others. The cinema is still at the corner of Dane and Pelham roads and there is no sign of Morrisons or their predecessors. The Buckle by-Pass did open in 1964 (lucky coincidence for me!). The old Newhaven swing bridge still bore trains over it to shunt on the West Side. But there was never a workers’ ferry across the lower harbour as far as anyone knows, even if it’s a long way round by road. But most certainly the river mud is clodgy, and there ent no reason to goo spanelling ’round in it, see how.
The book has ‘normal’ – and otherwise – adventure, the local interest and the inevitable inclusion of my own interests of railways, vocal music, local Scouting, the Downs, and Harveys beer.