Today, we have a special treat. A guest post from author John Uttley. Welcome John!
Why there’s still room for philosophy, theology and religion in a contemporary fiction, family saga novel
My book has sold pretty well. It’s had lots of nice things said about it. It was of course self-published. I could come out with the usual guff as to why I preferred that route, but rightly you wouldn’t believe me. I tried loads of agents. A few commented on how well written the book was, but “it wasn’t for them.”
Both my editor and my subsequent publicist think two inter-related issues were the reason for this. The first was my age and background relative to the readers employed by the agencies. I’m seventy and if metropolitan at all, only by default. The second was the inclusion of philosophical and religious issues in a humorous and poignant family saga. A novel is not now expected to carry this baggage. No matter how non-judgmentally I had written this, “it wasn’t for them.” No matter how much the literary canon is full of such musings, with only a few decades ago Graham Greene’s catholic guilt and the like being mainstream, “it wasn’t for them.”
I was writing about provincial early baby boomers, who are now approaching old age and the prospect of death with the anglican innocence their mental life has always occupied. If I were not to have included these thoughts I would have been unfaithful to them. As much the last Victorians as the first boomers, they have grappled with the twentieth century and reached a liberal, tolerant world view. Religious considerations play a full part in that. The century has produced so much suffering and pain to challenge faith, but they see their own long lives as more blessed than cursed.
The main characters, having been grammar school and university educated, also have a good grasp of the intellectual developments of the century in philosophy and science. They understand the fundamental lack of determinism in the wave equations which not only Schrödinger’s cat should fear and that Gödel has demonstrated there to be no ultimate explanation available in any equations. They thus want to consider if the physical and mental are so inextricably linked as present orthodoxy has it. And so do many real people of their and subsequent generations. It isn’t irrational to examine if metaphysics and religion can say more. It’s only in a story that this can be done.
Feedback from younger folk suggests that some do feel confronted by the ideas in my book, despite the open way they’re presented. In most cases, they’ll say it’s not the world they’re inhabiting. To them religion is archaic, about ritual or illiberal fundamentalism. It does not spring from philosophy. Challenging that isn’t why I wrote the book, but it’s a good reason to read the damn thing.
A novel must be entertaining. The several hours needed to go from cover to cover are a long time to be bored. Nobody has said they were as they read this one. They identify with the characters, they’re amused by the dialogue, and they’re caught by the story. That’s what real life is about too.
John Uttley, 69, was born in Lancashire although he now lives just outside London. Where’s Sailor Jack is his first novel. Not fancying a memoir, or his family’s story, John instead recorded his Lancastrian sense of humour as well as documenting a tumultuous, exciting period of British history. History John just happened to live through. John had a successful career in the electricity industry, being there for the start of the National Grid Company, the Miners’ Strikes and the Sizewell Inquiry. He recently studied for an external Divinity degree.
Find out more about John:
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.
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, greying 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 bed 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, not that he’d ever really wanted it. In the evenings, 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’d 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 vibrato by Joan Baez and civil rights were coming. Bras weren’t being burnt though. Much later Jane challenged him with 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 her 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.
He was off to LA to discuss the possibility of him chairing a solar technology company, The Northern Solstice Inc., looking to be floated on AIM, the small companies’ part of the London Stock Exchange. He’d created a portfolio of non-executive chairmanships since his nuclear demise; nice work if you can get it, he’d say. He’d had surprising success given that he was temperamentally stuck somewhere between public and private sector. On one venture, he’d helped rescue a telecoms company after the dotcom bubble burst, which he’d then sold to a trade buyer, a conglomerate chaired by Sir Charles, for a huge profit, a month before the market fell again. He’d found that the private sector was about living on your wits rather than on solid ground.
He hadn’t much knowledge of solar economics or if it was such a good environmental thing. He hoped that this opportunity could provide some atonement for his past environmental sins. As a nuclear man, he’d never been a denier of the greenhouse effect. He knew how expensive nuclear had been but could see no better option despite his lingering doubts on waste disposal, weapons proliferation and operational balls-up issues. He was as antagonistic towards wind power as most power engineers and ornithologists were.
The invitation to LA had come from a woman he’d got to know at Black and Robertshaw, an accounting firm working out of Bristol whose corporate finance arm had handled the telecoms sale. They were advising on the Northern Solstice flotation, acting as Nomad – shorthand for nominated adviser. Wendy Ballinger was already in LA and he was to meet her the next day with the acting Chairman and the CEO.
In the arrivals hall, the driver arranged by Virgin was holding up his name. All upper class passengers could have a limo for up to an hour’s journey. Anaheim was in the band. He was stopping at the Stonehaven there, near to the Northern Solstice factory in Yorba Linda as well as close to Disney. Wendy was upmarket and uptown, staying at the Westin. His mobile beeped a message as he reached his room. Wendy wanted a word. He was desperate for the lavatory, but couldn’t prevent himself from ringing her first. As he waited for her to answer, her face appeared in front of him on the screen in his brain (not on his phone, that was an early, basic model), almost elegant, with a distinguished nose. Her blonde hair looked natural enough but did owe something to a bottle. He found her both friendly and competent, a pleasure to do business with. She was a while answering and his internal camera panned slowly downwards. In her early forties, married without children to an older man, her bosom was worthy of the name; her long legs went all the way to her not insubstantial bum. And she was intelligent. He should have thought of that first.
She had bad news, disclosed in pure, gentle, Gloucestershire tones that could have belonged to a sixth former. She’d been at a pre-meeting with the acting Chairman, a guy called Peter Forster, along with the CEO, Emil Fares. Forster was a hard-nosed South African who owned Forster Capital, the largest shareholder. He’d told Wendy that they didn’t want her to handle the listing as Black and Robertshaw had no market strength.
Bob wanted to ask if that meant he’d wasted his time coming out, and if somebody would be reimbursing his expenses, but realised he’d better sympathise first. She didn’t need that, believing that her firm, although not a strong broking house, had done a pretty good job. “No first division broker would handle such a small transaction,” she asserted. “And there’s so little time before the date they want to float that they’d like to take a look at you. They’ll also want to know if you’ve any other ideas as to who else could act as Nomad.”
“I’d have no idea. I wouldn’t want the job now anyway,” he said, honestly enough as Wendy was a big part of the attraction.
“That’s up to you, but I’d be grateful for my reputation if you could hear them out. Perhaps Divinity might do it. They’re pitching hard into renewables.”
Bob became more interested. “Fancy that. An old friend of mine from my nuclear days, Richard Shackleton, told me over a round of golf that he’d just joined Divinity Partners. He said it was about time the Godhead had some new blood. Do you know him?”
Wendy did know Richard, who she called a terrific bloke. “Hey, thee, me and him could make a great team if they’d have us,” Bob reckoned. “Can’t we get him to do the broking and you to be the Nomad?” Wendy doubted Forster would agree to that idea but was happy for Bob to try it on.
Bob was already looking forward to Richard joining them and started to tell Wendy about his daft ideas. “Like me, he doesn’t think metaphysics should be a dry study of what can and can’t be said, but a licence to think insanely. According to him, we can’t actually change anything physical and all events rigidly follow the laws of nature. But we are free to make whatever we want of what happens. I remember a flotation meeting with loads of advisers. We took time out to discuss Schrödinger’s cat, as you do. Richard…”
“As you and Richard do, you mean. Tell me about that some other time,” she interrupted. “George Coulson, the CFO, will be in the hotel lobby at nine o’clock to collect you. We’re meeting in Emil’s office at nine thirty.”
Having at last managed to have a pee, he unpacked his case, lining up one shirt and tie, his suit, a pair of socks and shoes for the morning. He put pyjamas on the pillow, soap bag and razor in the bathroom, Saturday and the alarm clock by his bed, before he had had a quick shower, drenching the bathroom floor. At a quarter past nine PST, twenty two hours since leaving his London flat, he went to bed.
He quickly went to sleep, only to wake with a start at about two o’clock, gasping for breath. The heavy quilt was over his head. He pulled the quilt halfway down the bed and managed to sleep again. An hour later he woke again. This time he turned the air conditioning off. Sleep wouldn’t come. He tried to read for a while, propped up against the pillows. In the big mirror on the opposite wall, he caught sight of his gaunt face drained of colour. With a shock, he realised he was looking at his Dad, Jack Swarbrick, laid out at the funeral parlour. That Swarbrick big conk was a matter of pride.
Of course it wasn’t his Dad, but the embodiment of hard-wired genetics. Wendy’s face, and much prettier conk, had frozen on his internal screen. He slept through till 6.30am with her in view.
Copyright © 2015 John Uttley
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.