An interview with author John Uttley, Where’s Sailor Jack? Second edition is due out for release from 28th April 2016
What book(s) 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.
Publication Date: April 28, 2016
Number of pages: 324
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.