Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Where’s Sailor Jack? By John Uttley

What books or authors have had the most influence on your own writing? And why?

There are many I’ve read over the last fifty-five years as an adult. I’ll discuss just seven: Tolstoy, Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch, Saul Bellow, Anthony Burgess, Malcolm Bradbury and Ian McEwan. I’ll start with Graham Greene, introduced to me as a late teenager by a girlfriend I was trying to impress who was reading The End of the Affair at her convent school. I came to love the Catholic guilt of Greeneland, although I was and remain an Anglican and innocent. Then back to Tolstoy. I did read War and Peace to show off a bit (not in the original Russian), but at a confusing point in my early twenties I read Resurrection which was a powerful testimony to the inner peace of a redemption. Iris Murdoch’s complex novels with a philosophical background became must-reads, The Sea, The Sea being my favourite despite winning the Booker Prize. Saul Bellow’s conversational style of writing and understanding of the male psyche make him a stand-out for me, with Henderson the Rain King perhaps my favourite, although I loved Herzog too. Then I started to lighten up a bit. Anthony Burgess’s rumbustious style with Inside Mr Enderby  made me laugh out loud, taking me back to my younger days when J P Donleavy and Joseph Heller had done the same. Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge were very different authors, though both worked brilliantly with the campus novel. Lodge gave me belly-laughs and I’d have loved to have met his character Robyn Penrose. But I’ve listed Malcolm Bradbury for the brilliantly wicked satire that The History Man constitutes. There’s a chapter in my novel where the affluent yet intelligent engineer goes to an academic party and faces similar behaviour. Finally I come to an author younger than myself, Ian McEwan, who is far more serious and earnest in his writings. Saturday is perhaps my favourite but all his books are worth waiting for, as are those of William Boyd and Sebastian Faulks. The McEwan I like least is Atonement, where nothing is atoned, speaking to me the post-modern dilemma in finding meaning. I guess that’s why Tolstoy’s Resurrection is put at the top.

Tell us about your book…

Where’s Sailor Jack? is a family saga combining plot and humour with a moral centre. Three generations are in play, but the core characters are nearer the end than the beginning and thus look back as much as they look forward, still trying to figure it all out. One of the many questions the story asks (and answers) is will there be too much baggage when Bob Swarbrick’s s ship comes in?

Bob is an engineer. He's a working class Northerner made good, and his origins place him always slightly outside the professional class to which he now belongs. He was inspired by the cultural revolution of the late-fifties and early-sixties, and although he did well out of Thatcherism, his roots have left him with a rebellious scepticism in which corporate greed and leftwing intellectualism are held in roughly equal contempt. Since the failure of his first marriage he has been unable to sustain a serious personal relationship, and still carries a torch for his ex-wife, Jane (a feminist academic who tries to steal every scene in which she appears). His best friend, Richard, is an investment banker with enough doubts about his profession to return a bonus. He partly regrets his decision not to enter the church as a young man, although his younger wife is far from convinced that Christianity holds all the answers. He’s also from the North, with lower middle-class roots.

Now nearing retirement, Bob and Richard are working together for one last time on the flotation of a clean energy start-up company. Against this backdrop, Bob is offered two chances for love, one new, one old, while Richard's apparently idyllic marriage is sorely tested. And all the while, in many different ways, major and minor characters search for some sort of meaning to their lives, from faith to politics to love, all of them in one way or another trying to answer the question the book's title asks, `Where's Sailor Jack?' (Bob's late father): Where do we go when we die? The novel doesn’t preach an answer, but allows different world views, inviting readers to decide their own answer to the book's question. Either way, there is a fundamentally uplifting message, whether taken as Christian or simply Humanist and Existential.

The music of the fifties and sixties, the music of the early baby boomers provides the soundtrack to the mood and pace of the text, where a sexual honesty describes the emotions of the characters. The subplot about the flotation provides an insight into investment banking at the point when the sub-prime crisis is about to break.

This is not a saga where everything is left up in the air. No multiverses are to be seen. All major loose threads are joined together after the veil is rent in twain. The show goes on.

 What books are you reading at the moment? How did you choose them?

Last Orders by Graham Swift, a book I missed first time round.
Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello. Bought for me for Christmas by younger family who knew I quite like Costello. Dylan he’s not but he’s good.

What books or authors are on your reading wish list, and why?

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift. I saw the review in the Sunday Times and I’m liking  Last Orders so I bought it.

What a  Carve Up by Jonathan Coe. Missed this too when it first came out and thought I should give it a bash.

Shark Alley by Stephen Carver. I owe a major debt of gratitude to Stephen who was developmental editor of my novel. He gave me the confidence to carry on and publish. I’m looking forward to reading all about Victorian penny-a-liner writers.

How many books do you read a year?

About a dozen.

Where do you do most of your reading (ie.,when commuting, on holiday, in bed…)

All of the above, plus in an armchair and a garden chair in summer.

 Where do you get your books from? (Do you buy, borrow, swap…)

Usually buy, Amazon or Waterstone’s

Tell us about your self-publishing experience!

I decided to self-publish following advice from Steve Carver, my developmental editor, after a frustrating time hawking the book round the agents, who all seemed too young and metropolitan to appreciate it. Steve’s wife Gracie is a superb designer and she did the fantastic cover through their company Green Door. (They were both suitably impressed that I immediately got the Frankie Vaughan reference which they had intended.) Steve recommended that I go with CreateSpace and Kindle as the most straightforward route to market. This I did about a year ago. The book sold respectably but that platform requires much self-promotion on digital media, not my forte. Also, it provides little opportunity to reach the shelves of bookshops. The book received excellent reviews including one from a 74 year old listener to The Wireless, Age UK’s radio channel who featured the book. This listener had got what the book was about perfectly and had really liked it. By then I was using Helen Lewis at LiterallyPR as my publicist, and she suggested that we run a second edition with Matador, to find new markets and maybe to reach the bookshelves, where perhaps more of my natural demographic will be looking. I have had many much younger people who have appreciated the book too, including some who went overboard about it. I don’t think they were just being nice. So we are now starting a campaign with the Matador edition.

Where's Sailor Jack?
John Uttley

Publication Date: April 15, 2015


Print Length: 324 pages

Book Description:

A family saga that takes in three generations of two families and all the struggles, tribulations and fireworks that you would expect as well as plenty you wouldn’t. Where’s Sailor Jack is the story of Bob Swarbrick’s journey from Northern-grammar-school-boy to business magnate through the break up of his marriage, the arrival of a new lover and an unhurried, consistent search for meaning in his life.

Bob and Richard are grammar school boys ‘done good’. Starting life in similar working class homes they have progressively climbed the ladder until they are able to both sit comfortably as champions of industry, and look back on their achievements and failures with the keen Northern wit that never left them, even after years of exile life in the south.

As they reflect on their lives, loves and business decisions both try to find an explanation to fit their lives: Bob seeks purpose, Richard meaning. While soul-searching, the reader is witness to an exemplary part of British history - from their childhoods in post war Northern England to the boom years in a prospering South (before survivors guilt starts to bite in their latter years and they wonder just how their opportunities would have worked out if they were born a few decades later).

The book covers and takes a unique look at romance, religion, business sense and social mobility but does so with wry tongue in its cheek whilst looking for a laugh, not a deep and meaningful conversation.

Excerpt from Where’s Sailor Jack? By John Uttley
Second edition, published by Matador, released April 28th 2016

Chapter One
On a Sunday soon after his move north-west, Bob was flying high on Virgin, to LAX, as everyone but he knew Los Angeles airport was called. His last long-haul flight had been on Atomic Futures’ business in the bulkhead with British Airways. At over six foot and heavily built, he could make good use of the leg room. In an unflattering lavatory mirror he saw receding, grey hair and many wrinkles above a jaw line a boxer could break a fist on. He’d never quite understood how his rugged looks had charmed the several-to-many women along the way. The seating arrangement in Virgin’s best seats made the cabin look like a beauty salon, but he’d played safe and eschewed the offer of an on-board facial. The Journey Information on the monitor told him there was about an hour of the flight to go, confirmed by something looking like the Grand Canyon out of the window, though it looked bleak enough to have been the surface of another planet.

He was trying not to sleep on the way out, nor to go to be until at least ten o’clock Pacific Standard Time. He’d flicked between the films on the in-flight entertainment system, and found nothing he’d wanted. He’d then settled down to listen to some music, first Elvis, then Ray Charles and finally Abba, who’d bounced along merrily at first until a cold sweat told him that he was the loser standing small alongside seventies woman. He switched Agnetha off to pick up the book he’d brought, Ian McEwan’s Saturday, which he immediately put down again. His eyes were tired.

He reclined the chair to be alone with his musings on his return to Lancashire. Blackpool was making a good fist of doing itself up, despite New Labour lousing up the Las Vegas style casino scheme, the place was alive with young ladies joyfully, sometimes even decorously, celebrating their hen nights with like-minded friends. The folk who lived in St Chad’s hadn’t changed that much. The young people at church had the same freshness that he’d once had, full of their multimedia world and excited about their opportunities, though the ladder had been pulled up since his day, leaving cows from the Fylde fields with more chance of going through the eye of a needle than any ordinary kid entering the kingdom of riches he’s inherited. Lancashire wasn’t at the centre of things the way it had been back then, with Blackpool the Mecca for comedians, Liverpool the capital of music, the mighty Granada television like a second BBC, and the Manchester Guardian thinking about what the world would do tomorrow. He saw The Guardian moving to London as an even bigger betrayal than John Lennon’s sleep-in.

The summer of 1963 with Freewheelin’ on his turntable and the Mersey sound on every radio was forever to remain his Archimedean point. Martin Luther King was dreaming his dream accompanied vibrator by Joan Baez and civil rights were coming. Bras weren’t being burnt though. Much later Jane challenged him why not. He’d answered that women’s liberation hadn’t come out of nowhere. She’d generously agreed that it was only fair for apes like him to have had their day in the sun before the real business got done.

He’d had a vacation job in Stanley Park and that had given him an affinity with the old codgers from the Great War who came for the brass band concerts. Though they were sitting in God’s waiting room, they were cheerful, talking for hours about space travel and the like but not of course about their health problems or the trenches. He thought of his never-liberated Grannie who died at the start of the pivotal year. She’d make him green jelly with bananas whenever he went round as a kid and had knitted most of the jumpers he was still wearing through university after he death. His sister had in her kitchen the old milking stool from Grannie’s farm-girl days, with more than a thousand years of history stored in its battered wood. Like the religion his ancestors had shared, its purpose had been endorsed by the long passage of time. To lose either would be to lose his soul. He didn’t want to live so long that his memory of Grannie dimmed.

About the Author:

John Uttley was born in Lancashire just as the war was ending. Grammar school educated there, he read Physics at Oxford before embarking on a long career with the CEGB and National Grid Group. He was Finance Director at the time of the miners' strike, the Sizewell Inquiry and privatisation, receiving an OBE in 1991. Shortly afterwards, he suffered his fifteen minutes of fame when he publicly gave a dividend to charity in the middle of the fat cat furore. More recently, he has taken an external London degree in Divinity while acting as chairman of numerous smaller companies, both UK and US based. This is his first novel. He is married to Janet, living just north of London with three grown children and dog.

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