THEFT: The Fifty-Year Novel.
‘I am so pleased to have found you after fifty years. You don't know me, but I would very much like to thank you for creating something a long time ago that has had a prescient influence on my life.’ .Richard Temple
‘It had been on my mind for many years that I should somehow try to get in touch and let you know how deeply Theft had reached into my imagination.’ Richard Temple.
THEFT The Fifty Year Novel
In 1972 Carousel, a branch of Transworld Publishing, published my very first novel THEFT.
At that time I was a young teacher with two children, managing a family and a house and a working husband. At that time I was writing, obeying the compulsion that had consumed me since I was eight years old. At that time - as well as changing my library book 5 times a week - I used to write my invented stories on A4 paper, then fold each story in half and stitch the spine with my mother’s big tacking needle. In some of these ‘books’ page I even pasted in a library marked up with dates of imaginary borrowers. (Then and always libraries were my heaven-sent place in a rather difficult young life.)
THEFT, written when I in my twenties, was longer than these home-made beauties and took some time to write. Then one night I was sitting in a group of women who were discussing an organisation called Books for Your Children – a group led by Anne Wood, another teacher emerging from South Durham. She happened to mention that some people were - even now! - writing for children. So I happened to say that I’d written one, for a start. She asked to read it and I willingly handed it over.
The next day she rang and said, ‘We’ll have it.’
Puzzled, I said, “Who? Who will have it?”
That was when she told me that she was newly appointed editor for Carousel, the new imprint launched by Transworld.
My daughter Debora, now very grown-up indeed, recently told me that she remembers the day when a box full of copies of THEFT arrived on our doorstep and how excited we all were to see these books with their wonderful cover spilling out of the box.
After that, as well as teaching and family et cetera, I produced several children’s and adult novels before I took the bull by the horns and designated myself a full time writer and proceeded to write more novels.
THEFT is a story told using the context of my own South Durham working class life and family. Here on the blog you can see that that since the publication of Theft in 1972, alongside teaching in schools and later working in higher education I have written a good number of novels which celebrate myown cultural context - I hope without stereotyping, romanticising or denigrating that life and its values. This, I trust, that at the core of all the novels are grains of fundamental truth which are the sign of good fiction and will be recognised by readers from widely different backgrounds – as turned out the case with Richard Temple. See his story below.
Quite an important point here is that, as well as my own South Durham setting, the novels are sometimes located in such far-flung places as Spain, Russia, Singapore, USA and of course - as with many migrant Durham families - locations such as Ireland Scotland and Wales. I grew up very keen on both travelling and researching. And in my fiction, characters are featured sometimes leaving and sometimes arriving in the north-east of England my heart’s home. Like THEFT these novels spring out of my identity as a South Durham person
And so now I have come to full circle. I have just completed the collection SIBLINGS – short stories of seven brothers and sisters living in just such as the location as the setting for THEFT. To my delight these stories were broadcast over Christmas Anne will be published as a book lateOr this year.
And now for the special reason for telling you this long story. I received a letter from a perfect stranger Richard Temple, who lives in London and is now retired from his job as a graphic designer at the BBC. He has his own story to tell about theft and its role in his quite long life.
Richard Temple’s Fifty Year Story of THEFT
I am so pleased to have found you after fifty years. You don't know me, but I would very much like to thank you for creating something a long time ago that has had a prescient influence on my life.
I'm talking about your novel, THEFT.
I was about eleven when I read it. My mum was a good chooser of books and had bought it to keep me happy while I was recovering from mumps and very miserable about going away to a boarding school at the end of the summer holidays.
THEFT was so enthralling. I loved every sentence. I also loved the fact that the story-teller and main character was female. Being a boy, I realised for the first time that girls liked a bit of excitement too and weren't really that different from me. That, and the fact that a lot of the action was at night.
But I was transfixed by the setting, the rows of terraced houses in the North East, the curtain that was a kitchen door and the community spirit and the warmth of the mother telling the story. It really had meaning for me and I understood it, even though I had a very different life myself. I was a middle class child growing up in Cheltenham and went to boarding schools.
I read the book four or five times and took it away to school with me, so I could escape the rabble and travel away to the cobbled streets and night adventures somewhere warmer, in the emotional sense. The illustrated cover was very good too. The moonlit image stuck in my head and visualising it brought back the feelings and people inside the book for my entire life.
When I was twenty-two I went to London to work for the BBC. My bedroom at home had been emptied by then and turned into a guest room. All physical signs of my childhood existence had disappeared, along with my books, and that was that.
In London I met a girl. She was a nurse from Gateshead. It felt like we'd always known each other and after a few months I went up North to meet her family. Until then I had not made the connection with Theft but I soon did. My accent, the sense of being different and 'posh'. But soon I realised that these people were warm, not hostile, they were tolerant and included everyone no matter how odd they might be, which was a far cry from my own world until then.
My girlfriend had grown up in a terraced house in a street just like the one in your book. It was the 'sixties but even then there was no bath, no hot water, no heating apart from coal fires. There was even a curtain across the doorway. Her mam had worked in a shop. Her dad was a train driver who had become ill with the coal dust and died far too young.
My Geordie girlfriend is now my wife and we have been together for thirty-five years. I told her about your book early in our friendship. One day my mother was emptying her loft and gave me a box that she had put all my books in years before. To my joy, there was the moonlit street, the kids running for their lives and 'Theft' in rounded letters.
Christine - that's my wife - grabbed it and read it, and like me loved every bit of it. The almost supernatural attraction it had for me when I was eleven is not lost on her and she finds it as strange as I do.
We settled in London but often go back to the North East. Although in London, the house we live in is in a Victorian terraced street. Sadly the cobbles went years ago, although there are some left along the gutters and in the lanes.
I am bowled over and overwhelmed by your reply to my humble thank you, I really am. I will follow your links and listen to the stories of Siblings. I can't wait to hear it.
It had been on my mind for many years that I should somehow try to get in touch and let you know how deeply Theft had reached into my imagination. It remained a 'should do' item on several lists until I was mildly unwell with covid last year and, lying in bed feeling miserable, raking over life in general, my eye fell on the spine of Theft. I thought of you and realised this was my chance to do what I had always intended to do, but never had. I reached for my tablet and started Googling and soon found your blog. Obviously I found it fascinating and was even more delighted to see an email address.
How you have managed to accomplish so much is beyond me. What an achievement. All those books and everything else; truly amazing.
You were kind enough to say my story was beautifully told in a way that hinted that I might be a writer. From you, that is indeed an accolade, probably the greatest compliment I've ever had. I will have to let that sink in. I've always been told I'm a writer, but I have never published a book, nor even reached the end of writing one. I can write a chapter, but then I feel the need to get up and walk around and that's the end of it. Ten minutes later I'm bored with that story and have a new idea for a different one.
I am actually a graphic designer and worked for many years at Television Centre in Shepherd's Bush, London. I'm more or less retired now, so maybe now is my moment to get writing.
I tried to keep my first letter to you a brief one although there are more strange parallels between Theft and my own world. I mentioned my wife Christine, whose childhood felt so familiar. Like you, she always enjoyed books and was the first ever in her family to get A-levels and then reach university. She studied English Literature and our love of reading, especially modern poetry, brought us together. Perhaps like you, judging from what you have said, education in all its forms has been her metier and she jumped across several unexpected stepping stones to eventually becoming a senior university lecturer. She has always been totally confident about her childhood and proud of her home and her wise and clever parents who did not have the same opportunities. I am proud of that too, although I can't claim any credit for it.
Thank goodness for education. It really does transform and there is nothing better. Although thinking about how easily I found your blog, the World Wide Web springs to mind as close second. My son is in his second year at university and one of his lecturers made the point a few weeks ago that his generation of students is the first to enter university with no experience of the world without the internet. That was quite a thought. He has always used it to teach himself.
That brings me to the next thing I want to tell you. Your daughter says that the books we encounter in childhood are transformative. She is right. I think they can be for adults too, but perhaps less subtly. We read Theft to our son William several times when he was growing up. He too loved it. In terms of being transformative, it prompted wonderful discussions about his north-eastern heritage and he was fascinated to hear all about his mother's life in the terraced house in Gateshead that was so similar to the book's. The concept of a house where children were bathed in the kitchen sink is a real one for him. Those stories have made him, I am pleased to say, very realistic about education and how different life is for him as a result of it. He's ambitious and interested in politics and that has a lot to do with your book. So who knows how long and how far Theft might continue to work, its magic.
You have achieved so much, have so much to be proud of and that alone is an inspiration. I too read The Secret Garden as a child and got a lot out of it, even though it terrified me. I did also love the translated books of a French author, Paul Bernard. They were often adventure stories about a group of kids set in France. They gave me a life-long interest in France. The long roads, the empty countryside and the rambling, dilapidated villages where it's a good thing to sit with a Pernod, smoke Gauloises and contemplate nothing much, apart from life itself.
Thank you Richard for giving me permission to print your story and for making this week so much brighter, Wendy.