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Paul Andruss and his partner moved to Turkey three years ago after deciding to stop moaning about life and start living it.  Each year they take a trip: this year it was to some of the ancient sites a few hours drive away.

This land of gods and heroes fills me with irrational love and irrepressible longing. Here a sister married her brother and built him a tomb so magnificent it became a wonder of the world. Here, a nymph saw a young man drink from her spring and desired him so fiercely, she prayed they would never part. With cruel humour, the gods joined flesh to flesh, creating the first hermaphrodite...

This is Bodrum, once Halicarnassus, home of the mausoleum. Behind the town, hidden in hills of olive and pine, is the spring of Salamcis where the son of Hermes and Aphrodite drank. The heartland of Ionic Greece was already ancient when the Parthenon shone brand-new on the lion coloured rock of the acropolis. Cities old as time ringed the Gulf of Latmos; even then a dying seaway, choked with mud from the Meander River. First Priene and then Milatus were left high and dry.  Abandoned since antiquity they provided tourist attractions for Ancient Rome.

To one side of the silted estuary is Lake Bafa, formed by the tears of the Moon goddess weeping for the shepherd boy, Endymion. On the other, the city of Miletus, where in the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Paul awaited the Ephesian elders. Once, Lake Bafa was seashore. The freshwater lake only formed when the estuary silted. The men of Heraclea faced with the retreating sea, dug desperate channels, causing seawater to make the lake brackish. Legend says the moon goddess, Selene, was so smitten with Endymion she threatened to forsake the sky. In response, the fearful gods made him sleep for eternity and as she wept for her lost love, she cried a lake. It was a good day in November and Bafa was body warm, we swam and can confirm the water does indeed taste of tears.

The Meander estuary is now a fertile plain. Having never seen it in November we were surprised by hundreds of cotton wool balls littering the roads. It was cotton-pickin’ time. Turkish women, in traditional rural dress of headscarf and baggy trousers, picked tufts of gossamer from branches of stunted, scrawny bushes. It could have been a hundred years ago if not for the huge blocky harvester devouring the adjacent field; it’s parallel rows of vertical teeth leaving only broken, skeletal stalks. In factory courtyards were cotton castles of pearl- grey lint, while caught in the wire of the perimeter fence, grimy candyfloss streamed in the wind. The first stop was the ancient city of Eurymos. All that is left is the Temple of Zeus. We were the only people there. It was like discovering it for the first time, as if we were some Victorian explorers with Sir Richard Burton - the one who translated the Arabian Nights, not the one who married and remarried Elizabeth Taylor.

The only problem with fantasy is truth. Although sites look undiscovered they are actually the result of extensive excavation. Unexcavated, they are under 2,000 years and at least 20 feet of wind blown soil - like the rest of Eurymos. One field is the forum and another is the theatre. Each has its herd of indifferent sheep, munching as they have munched for millennia, placidly unaware of their contribution to history, falling out the other end. 

The temple of Apollo at Didim was never finished because during the centuries it took to build, Christianity became the state religion and pagan temples were abandoned. It is impossible to convey the sheer size of the site. Nothing is on a human scale, the column bases; the cyclopean stones walls - only a third of their original height. All of it dwarfs you. Awes you. It is like something built by giants. 

There is a sacred spring in the temple grounds. It had recently rained and the area was marshy. It should have prepared us for what was to come at Miletus…. It didn’t. Here we saw tortoises mating. And it was lucky they were tortoises. When Tiresias saw two snakes copulate, he changed sex. Because of his unique perspective, Zeus and Hera asked Tiresias to settle an argument about who needed love the most. Tiresisa replied that if love had ten parts, women needed nine. Hera was so furious she blinded him.  Leaving Zeus to compensate with the dubious gift of second sight.

Back at the car, we saw a stone placed at the base of a wall. As it was obviously for looking over, we discovered part of the sacred way stretching from Miletus, 26 km away, to the shrines of Apollo and his sister, Artemis. 

We had read that Miletus has a fantastic theatre but not much else. Because of this, our friends decided they had had enough of scrambling over ruins and went to the site café, leaving us to explore. 

Reaching the top of the theatre we saw the rest of the city hidden to the side, the wreckage of the harbour mouth monument, now miles inland, the forum, the stoa and senate house lining the start of the sacred way. 

The site was boggy and halfway through, mosquitoes attacked. According to the guidebook the café owner was trying to sell our friends, when the Meander River silted up, the city became a malarial swamp and that was another reason it was abandoned. One of our friends said we came fleeing out of the ruins like Tippi Hedren in “The Birds” – obviously in search of a phone box to shelter in. In our defence, the mosquitoes did seem the size of Hitchcock’s gulls. 

Our friend Jack is thinking of writing a travel book and, caught up in the idea, has a tendency to pause after each utterance as if waiting for an unseen amanuensis to jot down his musings for posterity, which is probably not far from the truth as he is committing the phrase to memory for future use. 

From Miletus we drove through the alluvial plain to Priene, crossing the mighty Meander, now tamed to the size of the Regent’s Canal. Approaching the site, we saw the remaining columns of the Temple of Hera on the hillside and a ruin-lined road snaking down to the old port, now farmer’s fields. 

Priene is another huge area of tumbled stones, smashed columns and fractured walls sheltering under black cypress and pine. Unchanged since the time of Caesar and Christ, the view across the plain takes your breath away.

The next morning, no doubt due to a sleepless night of trying not to scratch souvenir mosquito bites, we were up at daybreak. Duly covered up like Turkish cotton pickers, we walked down to the lakeside to watch the full moon turn the far water silver, while the light bringer, Lucifer, the morning star, ushered in a dawn of lemon and rose – the flavours of Turkish Delight.

The rest of Paul's enhanced photos of Didim, Miletus and Priene and extensive
footnotes can be found on Flickr at

His novel Thomas the Rhymer - 'A children's story for adults' can be downloaded from his website.

Pull Out All The Stops

Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve have been intrigued, entertained and amazed by Geraldine McCaughrean's Pull Out All The Stops, a brand-new sequel to her much-loved novel Stop The Train.  

Here are some photographs to prove it:



Stop The Train told how the children of the prairie town of Olive, Oklahoma, manage to persuade the railway company to build a station there.  It also introduced the Bright Lights Theatre Company, and the spectacular schoolteacher-turned-tragedienne, Miss Loucien.  In Pull Out All The Stops the young protagonists, Cissy Sissney and Kookie Warboys, set sail with the Bright Lights aboard a shabby stern-wheeler, bound for adventures involving gamblers, bandits, steamboat races and Queen Victoria ... sort of.  The Bee asked Ms McIntyre to review the new book, but all she sent us were these letters...

Sarah McIntyre has just launched her own railway adventure picture book, 'When
Titus Took the Train' with Oxford University Press.

Photos by Stuart Pyle.

Fresh Pages: Samples from the Sound-World of The Books.

By Nick Riddle.

The Books (Photo: Nino P.)

Radio 3’s Late Junction is pretty good at digging up a few curious and engaging pieces from the loamy subsoil of music’s less-frequented corners. Thanks to Fiona Talkington and co, I am no longer a knee-jerk knitter of the eyebrows at the mere mention of electronica or sampling. I discovered I’m quite partial to Matthew Herbert, especially his  Plat du Jour, which does inventive things with the sound of food (and makes political points about the food industry, if you want to take such things on board), and Matmos, whose album   The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast revels in references to Patricia Highsmith, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Joe Meek and King Ludwig II Of Bavaria.

But best and most listenable of all is the Boston duo,  The Books. Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong trawl through jumble sales and thrift stores for old home-recorded cassettes and use them to build, er, sound collages with music. No, that doesn’t do them justice. Their albums are stuffed with oddness, humour, non-sequitur, a kind of absurdist pathos, and - crucial, this - terrific music, inspired by minimalism and American folk and played mostly on acoustic instruments. 

The Books also ransack old videocassettes in search of footage for their videos, making them more than unusually worth looking for on YouTube. Try these two for size: The first a glimpse into the violent world of young siblings, the second a track that gallops ruminatively through someone’s four-minute daydream.  



Any of their four full-length albums is worth a go. Their DVD, Play All, is great if you like free-association montages, but you can end up feeling a bit mad if you overdo it in one sitting. You can order it from  The Books’ website.  

Nick Riddle works at Bristol University and blogs about an obscure troubadour legend at The Afterlife of Jaufre Rudel.

St Vincent

Philip Reeve turns his attention to that modern-type beat music.

Now I don't set myself up as a music critic.  I know almost nothing about music, and for long periods of my life I've been happy to listen to none at all.  Nowadays I have an MP3 player, but it only comes out when I'm on a long train journey, and is mostly filled with stuff I liked when I was fifteen - listening to it is more about nostalgia than music appreciation.

However, I do sometimes stumble upon something new that seems good and worth sharing, and one of these good things is Annie Clark, who records under the name St Vincent.  I have no idea what musical genre she falls into - perhaps she falls between several, and that's why I never hear her on the radio.  Her voice is very clear and sweet, and her lyrics often verge on the whimsical, but she's never twee: there's something sinister in there too, and the arrangements are often strange, decked out with grinding guitars and bursts of sudden drama.  In a way she reminds me a bit of David Lynch - that sense of something strange and twisted lurking behind the white picket fences o' Middle America... except that I always found that deeply boring and predictable when David Lynch did it, and St Vincent is never either of those things.

Enough:  I think you'd better have a listen for yourself: here's one of the singles from her recent album Actor. 

And this is another 'track' (as I believe they're called) from the same album, this time played live:

You're in the Country now...

Text and photos by Andrew Gorton.

One rather damp morning, I decided to cycle to the ruins of a local castle (or 'fortified manor' as the English Heritage sign has it), at Baconsthorpe. I took a path along a recently ploughed field towards some woods, and soon found my way blocked by a style. Being too lazy to lift the bike over I retraced my route 50 yards and took a left turn, hoping to find another way around. Pedalling away, I was only half-aware of the fluttery, squawking disturbances in the line of trees to the right. Suddenly a piercing whistle attracted my attention. An irate capped face, that of a gamekeeper or some such, was peering at me through the undergrowth. ‘Excuse me; this is not a public footpath. You’re disturbing the pheasants!’ Chastened, I headed back the way I had come, half expecting some buckshot to pepper me as I fled. I never got to see the castle that day.

This incident brought home the fact that I, a London boy through and through, was now living in the country. There have been a few others since then. I captured the scene below on camera a few weeks back. My bedroom window overlooks a farmer's field, which has had several types of crop planted in it over the 4 years I have been here, including bright yellow rapeseed one time. The smell of that stuff was overpowering when the wind was right. It occurred to me that I would never have seen this view in North London! I found it rather evocative. There are several fields around my area, and you can often see various different agricultural machines at work, combines, tractors spraying clouds of fertiliser....  Sometimes you can also see the fruits of the farmers’ labour. I once came across 5 or 6 large sacks about 3 foot square by 6 foot high stacked on the edge of one field by the road. Noticing one was half-full, I sidled up and found it full of potatoes. I could easily have filled my pockets but I stayed my hand. I wish I’d taken some now. *

There have been a few other rural encounters. One day I was walking through my local National Trust property of Sheringham Park and I suddenly came across a herd of cows. They seemed well trained, if that term could be applied, as they kept on the fields either side of the path. The thing was, I could have walked up and tried to milk them or something. Again, that would never have happened where I come from. It actually makes good ecological as well as agricultural sense to graze them there, as keeping the grass cropped encourages biodiversity in the form of wild flowers and the insects they attract.  

Some cows contemplate their narrow escape from a guerilla milking incident.

So what of the county of Norfolk? It has been said that nothing ever good came from here, but I’d disagree. Norfolk has produced many people of note, foremost of whom, in my opinion, have got to be Lord Nelson, Stephen Fry and Henry Blogg, the most decorated of lifeboat men.  Norfolk has also produced heroes in the mould of Edith Cavell, a nurse serving in Belgium during World War 1, who was executed by the Germans for helping some British servicemen to escape capture, as well as the Iceni queen Boudica, who led a doomed revolt against the Romans.  The county has produced its own share of sportsmen, artists and writers, including Philip Pullman, a literary hero of mine.

Speaking of literature, Norfolk has influenced the creator of one famous detective to resurrect him. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was staying at the Royal Links hotel in Cromer, recovering from a fever picked up in Afghanistan. It was when dining with a friend that he heard an interesting local legend of Black Shuck, a large, ghostly black dog that was said to cause death to whoever beheld it. And thus, The Hound of the Baskervilles was born. It is rumoured that, to this day, Norfolkians have never forgiven Conan-Doyle for relocating the story to Dartmoor. 

Upper Sheringham

Andrew Gorton is an Open University student, London born but now living on the north Norfolk coast.

*The Bee in no way condones potato rustling.  Ed.

War Without Hate

Philip Reeve celebrates a classic film, and the book on which it was based.

I was born more than twenty years after the end of the Second World War, but as a child I could almost have been forgiven for thinking that it was still going on.  We boys of the 1970's played Tommies vs Huns in the school playground, spent our evenings sticking together model Spitfires and Hurricanes, and whenever we switched on the TV there seemed to be either a wartime drama playing (Colditz, Secret Army) or one of the old war movies which the British film industry turned out in huge numbers both during the war and in the decades after it.  The 'seventies were a grim decade for this country, so I suppose it's only natural that we liked looking back to the last time we actually achieved anything, but in retrospect it all seems slightly sad; a washed-up culture, forever looking back.  It's one of the greatest and least recognised achievements of George Lucas that he finally brought World War II to an end; after Star Wars came out the 00-gauge Spitfires that dangled from our bedroom ceilings were replaced by X-wing fighters, and schoolboys learned to make blaster noises instead of straining their young vocal cords with the stertorous egh-egh-egh-egh-egh of Schmeissers and Tommy-guns.  War movies (which had by then been degraded to the level of brutish fantasies like The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare) were replaced by a new sort of fantasy; there were no more chipper Tommies on our screens; cinematic GIs were embroiled in a far more dubious war in Vietnam, and Nazi-slaughtering had been outsourced to Indiana Jones, who seemed happy enough to do it on a freelance basis.  TV channels still stuffed the gaps in their schedules with old war films, but they began to look rather quaint - quite unfairly so, as many of them were actually very workmanlike productions, made in the days when Britain still had a film industry worthy of the name, and often based on the memoirs of people who had done extraordinary things between 1939 and 1945.

My favourite of them, though, was one of the later ones, and its story (as far as I know) is pure fiction*.  Released in 1958 and adapted from his own novel by Christopher Landon, Ice Cold in Alex is that rare beast, a war movie with almost no actual war in it.  It tells the story of a captain in the British Ambulance Division, his sergeant major, and a nursing sister who, after the fall of Tobruk, make a long and difficult journey across the desert in a battered army ambulance to escape the advancing Afrika Korps and reach British-held Alexandria.  Along the way they pick up a South African officer, whom they gradually start to suspect may really be a German spy.  Here's an absolutely splendid trailer for it ("North Airfrica: The Bettlefield of Giants... ").

The movie is a classic, and very easily available on DVD even if you haven't caught it on the telly, where it's frequently re-run.  Directed by J. Lee Thompson, it stars John Mills as Captain Anson, Sylvia Syms  as the nurse, Diana, Harry Andrews as Sergeant Major Pugh and Anthony Quayle as the South African hitch-hiker, van der Poel.  It was released in the US under the gung-ho sounding title Desert Attack!, which is rather misleading, since the only attack in the whole movie is the  bombardment of Tobruk by off-screen Germans which starts the story off; once our heroes are on the road in their ambulance their main enemy is the desert, and the important set-pieces are not their encounters with Afrika Korps patrols (who mostly behave with a regard for the Geneva Convention that would have been unimaginable in the screen Nazis of a decade before) but the tense crossing of abandoned minefields and treacherous salt-flats.  The unforgettable scene in which the ambulance has to be cranked by hand up a seemingly endless incline - twice - is worthy of Clouzot's Wages of Fear.  It's such a good film that I'm almost afraid to mention it, in case another reference on Google leads some bright spark in Hollywood to do a remake starring Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie and sky-loads of CGI Stukas...

The book on which the film was based is less well-known these days, but thanks to the miracle of buying second hand books on the internet I was able to come by a copy recently.  I'm pleased to say that it is every bit as good as the film,  and although the film is faithful to it (except for one rather startling change which I shall come to in a moment) there is enough extra detail, enough fleshing out of characters and historical background, that I was never bored by knowing what was coming next.  Christopher Landon could write, and he was writing here about something he understood, having served in ambulances during the desert war himself.  He is remarkably honest about the psychological strain of it all (Anson is on the verge of a nervous breakdown as the story opens, and increasingly dependent on drink).  He's also scrupulously humane.  'A War without Hate' was what the Germans called the conflict in north Africa**.  Since their lot started it that was hardly for them to say, and one imagines there must have a bit of hatred washing about in those savage and deadly desert battles.  But it's true that there seem to have been no atrocities, that both sides treated prisoners and enemy casualties well, and that a certain respect and almost affection seems to have existed between them.  This Landon captures well, and he is always careful to remind us that the Germans are as human as his heroes.  Even when the widowed Tom Pugh thinks of his wife, killed in Plymouth by 'a lone raider, the fighters on his tail, dropping his load... to get more speed for the desperate run home', he is aware that 'There had been no hate in the mind that loosed those bombs, he knew, only fear.  And in him, now, there was no hate either.'  These small asides underline one of the main themes of both book and film; the possibility of comradeship between the Brits and their German passenger; enemies united against 'the greater enemy: the desert.'

But the big surprise of the book, to someone who knows the film, is that it is Sergeant Major Pugh, not Captain Anson, who is really the hero.  Anson is sympathetic and admirable, and the friendship between the two men is at the heart of the story, but far more of it is told through Anson's eyes than Pugh's, and crucially, unlike in the film, it's Pugh who gets the girl.

What was at the root of that change, I wonder?  Did John Mills, as the bigger star, have to be given the love scene?  But if that's the case, why could he not have played Pugh instead of Anson?  Was only the officer class allowed to have love interest in British cinema of the '50s?  In some ways the relationship between Anson and Diana in the film is more interesting than the Pugh/Diana pairing in the book - it has an awkward, one-night-stand quality which leaves us in some doubt as to whether it will continue once they get to Alexandria, while Pugh and Diana in the book are clearly going to get married and head back happily to his village on the Tamar.  But it leaves the always excellent Harry Andrews playing something of a stereotype; the indomitable, uncomplaining, basically sexless sergeant major who keeps things running smoothly for his more sensitive commanding officer.

In the end, I can't help feeling that by making this change in his screenplay, Mr Landon slightly betrayed his own novel.  But then movies always betray the books on which they're based, and I suppose if he hadn't done it, someone else would, and might have made a far worse job of it.  And if there had not been a film, not only would be the poorer for the lack of it, but the book would probably have vanished into obscurity by now, one of many such novels written, in the years after the war, by men who'd seen a thing or two and had stories to tell.

*The trailer and poster both seem to suggest that it's a true story, but there is no mention of that in the novel.

*Also the title of a very good history of the period by John Bierman and Colin Smith

Mr Levett's Scottish Tour: Part the Last.

In which Jeremy Levett and family reach Edinburgh, the final stop on their Caledonian oddyssey.

Photo: Oliver Bonjoch
I'd forgotten Edinburgh. It's one of the loveliest cities I know.

Colin and Paula are old friends of my parents, and their children only a bit older than my brothers and I. Their house, near Newhaven, is linked to Dorothy and Paul’s house on Corstorphine Road by a pleasantly long walk along the Water of Leith.

The path felt as though it had been built by someone digging through my dreams. If it weren't for the regular-but-unpredictable outcrops of dogshit it's damn close to heaven on earth. At times it's a steep-sided valley with fast-flowing water and greenery on all sides, with only the murmur of traffic and the looming silhouettes of viaducts far overhead to remind you you're in Scotland's first city. At other times, it's a straight, civilised watercourse, one storey down from the rest of the town, with flat bridges and buildings on both sides, like a shallower, wilder city canal. The path crosses over the river on all manner of bridges, and sometimes leaves the water's edge entirely, passing through neat gardens and streets of two-up-two-down tenements or rising a dozen metres to meet a road or circumnavigate a building, swinging you around on a cobblestoned waltz. Everything is green and alive, but the path is clear. Not by the actions of some local authority, but because hundreds, maybe thousands, of people use it, every day. But when we walked the path, the place (somehow) wasn't crowded; in the depths of the city, you can feel perfectly alone.

Photo: Richard Webb
It's got the good stuff: history, architecture, and all sorts of whimsical Fringey things by and sometimes in the water (weird little statues, follies, a rain shelter made of rebar.) The buildings on either side range from Elizabethan half-timbered things real and fake, through the skeletons of old mills (weirs and leats are the only remains of many more) to brand-spanking-new yuppie kennels. Tenement blocks and grand houses tower on the hillsides above. There was a pleasing lack of plastic trash, either in the water or built next to it.

My brother Oliver had left us for rehearsals and Stage Crew work for the school production (he's doing lighting). The day after we arrived in Edinburgh, the school theatre company rolled into town, for their show... at the Edinburgh fringe. What a total coincidence.

The production was "ASBO Fairy Tales." I wasn't overwhelmed by the concept (fairy tales - BUT WITH CHAVS AND DRUG REFERENCES LOL) the script (spotty and overly reliant on sudden scene changes and random narration), or the idea of private school kids pretending to be chavs (just because I didn't think they could do it without looking dumb, rather than from any stereotypes or issues of class warfare, comrade.) But it turned out to be pretty good entertainment; the acting was excellent across the board, and laughs were had. The only thing that let it down was the lighting - an endless sequence of painfully ghastly failures, which left the actors in pools of darkness, blinded the audience, set the curtains on fire, strobed us all into epileptic fits, and at one point caused all the lights to explode, sending showers of red-hot fragments across the stage, drilling into my body and stopping dead my beating heart, OLIVER. Still, I later heard they had totally unusual and unexpected full and near-full audiences for the rest of the week (still running at a loss, as all Fringe things do, but a less crippling one.) After the show I offered to help tidy things up, an offer perfectly timed to coincide with there being nothing to do but hobnob with the actors. We went down a Secret Back Staircase past a long line of nervy-looking young thesps wearing period costume and clutching various props, lining up for the next show. They really rush them through; the turnaround time at these venues would make pit crews envious. Most of the talent seemed to be Mikes: Mike Lovering (lighting, covering for Oliver's treasonable incompetence), Mike Howie (butt-ugly duckling) and Maik Keefe (mutely suave crack-piper of Hamelin.) It's odd how well I get on now with people who I just didn't have much contact with in school. Odd, and good. Mikes are cool people.

After that, Dad went off to Fringe it up on his lonesome while Mum and Dorothy bought Nick and I hideously overpriced, slow paninis and I browsed the fringe guide: trash, gimmicky trash, the same magnificent Flanders & Swann act we'd seen with Ned years ago, lolsorandumXD trash, shows that would have sold out five years ago, a variety show by Clarke Peters! Then we trotted up the Royal Mile, to look at buildings Paul had designed and be harangued by a million and one assorted weirdos in assorted weird costumes. So thick were the crowds that we got separated, upon which the heavens opened. The weather had been highly un-Scottish, and I was reminded of something our old Glaswegian neighbours would say in response to a sunny day: we'll pay for it.

We paid for it.

Photo: Alan Ford
The next day, Dad and I climbed up to Arthur's Seat and looked down on the city - the winding, picturesque tangle of the Old Town, the orderly grid-pattern of the New, weird spiky spires, office buildings that looked like a scaled-up 
Giant's Causeway, faux-Athenian ruins and fortified civic buildings (St. Andrew's House, Scottish government HQ, combines Art Deco stylings with no-bullshit Scots construction sensibilities, a match made in stony heaven). Tugs guided a big liner into the docks among towering cranes and grain elevators, the tops of the Forth Bridge cantilevers poked up from behind the hills over the firth. Little puddles in the rocks were black with dead midges. We came down on the path less travelled (read: one fumble away from a rockslide) and had lunch in the town - battered cheeseburger. I've said it before: I love a place that takes its cholesterol seriously. Then, armed with a memory stick, a street map torn from the Fringe guide, some bus recommendations from Dorothy and the TomTom capability of my new phone, I crossed town to give Andrew a copy of Office, and back again to watch some Fringe shows Dad had recommended.

On the 14th, we picked up Oliver and drove back south in beautiful sunlight, stopping to look over Morecambe Bay and buying dinner from a chippie by a railway bridge. The fish and chips were fantastic, but it felt strange; there were no chipsteaks on the menu, and the accents were Northern, not Scots. In the darkness, sleepy and happy, we arrived home.

Jeremy Levett has his own blog, here.

A Conversation with Ian Beck

I think it's fair to say that Ian Beck is something of a legend in the world of children's books; part of that great generation of illustrators who emerged from Britain's art colleges in the 1960s.  He has long been famed for his picture books, but in recent years he's turned to writing longer stories too: his beautifully illustrated Tom Trueheart series harks back to the era of Arthur Rackham and Heath-Robinson, while the novel Pastworld uses his deep knowledge of Victorian London as the basis for a very 21st century sci-fi thriller.  He's kindly taken time out from writing and drawing to answer a few questions for the Bee.  But first, settle down and enjoy this trailer for his latest book, Tom Trueheart and the Land of Myths and Legends.

Philip Reeve: It turns out we're both Brighton boys.  Can you tell us a bit about your background?

Ian Beck: I was born just after the war (WW2 that is) not in Brighton itself but in Hove. My family was working class, and very much so. My father was a milkman, and we lived in a house with, and rented by, my maternal grandmother. Most of our neighbours lived in rented houses and they mostly rented from the same landlord. It was essentially the end of an Edwardian way of life which was still lingering on post war. Our immediate neighbours were an elderly brother and sister who were completely Edwardian, he wore a tasselled smoking cap and a black velvet smoking jacket with a quilted collar and frogging and I can still remember the texture of their chenille table cloth, and the pictures of Queen Victoria on their biscuit tins. I have no doubt that this fuelled my later obsession with the era. Although we were poor I never felt the lack of anything and indeed had the usual sort of 1950's childhood, Saturday morning cinema club, (ABC Minors) cubs and scouts, Adrian Hill and Sketch Club and Quatermass on television, all of that.

A youthful Ian Beck (far right).
I failed my eleven plus and went to the local secondary modern school. This in many ways was the saving of me. No real pressure to perform academically.  After the first year the incumbent headmaster was imprisoned for paedophilic crimes against some of the boys. A new head was appointed who was very keen on Shakespeare and plays and drama and the arts  generally and as time went on I got very involved in acting in the school productions and designing the programmes etc inluding making a lino cut for Macbeth. I liked performing and public speaking and even went to elocution lessons run by of all things the CO-OP (my father was a Co-op milkman). This has certainly helped latterly in my visits to schools and so on. At the same time I had noticed and studied the profusion of  little black and white drawings that were all over the Radio Times, and I noticed the names of the illustrators who drew them too, only in those days they would have been referred to by most people not as illustrators but commercial artists. My immediate ambition was to get a job drawing for the Radio Times, I wrote to them and a had a polite reply which suggested art school as the first priority.

Following the uprising in Hungary against the Russians in 1956 a great many creative refugees came to Britain. One of them, a sculptor named Victor Prejm, ended up teaching art at my school. Both he, and the headmaster, Mr Turner, encouraged my ambition in their different ways. Mr Prejm suggested that I went to the children's saturday morning art classes at Brighton School of Art.  This was  a revelation to me, the feel of the art school that is and the glimpses I managed to get of the glamorous full time students, girls with pony tails black slacks or stockings and baggy sweaters. I was at once determined to go there as a full time student myself when I left school. However my Father died suddenly just before my final year, and it took some persuading by my headmaster for my mother to allow me to go to the art school at all, which in the end  (very happily) I did in 1963.

At art school I had ambitions to be a painter. However during my foundation year  it was clear to the staff that my interests were almost entirely literary, I would produce large charcoal and conte drawings based on seeing Orson Welle's film of Kafka's The Trial and after foundation I was bundled off into Graphics. We were very lucky to be taught then by a profusion of talented illustrators. Raymond Briggs was a part time tutor as was John Lawrence, John Vernon Lord, Ferelith Eccles Williams, and Justin Todd. Of my fellow students during those five happy years, one of them, Ian Butterworth, has latterly designed several of my picture books, it is amazing to have had that continuity of friendship and collaboration over nearly fifty years. Several illustrators came out of my year, most notably Peter and Sian Bailey, and designer illustrators too, like Bob Norrington. I became focussed at Art School on a career in Illustration, I drifted for a while after I left and was eventually persuaded by my then girlfriend's mother to move to London, which was the best and most sensible thing I ever did. I certainly feel that London is where I belong now even though I still have great affection for the sea and seaside places.

PR:  I've been aware of your picture books for a long time, but I think you've only recently started writing longer texts, including Pastworld, which isn't illustrated at all.  Was writing novels always an ambition, or something that came later?

IB: While I was at Art School, and indeed before, I was an obsessive reader. I got totally hooked on certain writers. Ray Bradbury, Vladimir Nabokov, M R James, Chesterton's Father Brown stories, odd novels, such as Portrait of Jennie by Robert Nathan which I found trawling the second hand bookshops. I tried to write throughout my art school years, principally adult fiction but was very easily distracted and was also very good at self discouragement. After my move to London I went to creative writing courses at the City Lit, in Stukeley Street but these somehow only strengthened my own insecurities. It was after all the early seventies and avant garde novels were the only thing possible for a young would be or aspiring writer. I admired Alan Garner, and also and especially Thomas Pynchon. I ended up writing pale versions of them which inevitably petered out after a few pages. By this time I was earning a good living as an illustrator. Not for children's books but for magazines, album covers, that sort of thing. By the mid seventies I was also a regular illustrator for the Radio Times, so one childhood ambition was fulfilled at least. It was only when I was married and we had our first baby that I began to get interested in the idea of illustrating for children. Looking back on some of my earlier commercial work, it seems an obvious leap. A lot of what I was doing before was heavily influenced by various children's illustrators of the past, a kind of nursery nostalgia which seemed popular with art directors then.

When our first child was about a year old I had an approach from the Oxford University Press. A young editor there named David Fickling had an idea for a baby book, which showed parents how to play all the old finger games. I drew some samples and was offered the book to illustrate, which was; Round and  Round the Garden, first published in 1983 and still going strong. This was such a pleasurable experience, both drawing for the book and working with David, that I wanted to do more. Luckily the book was a success and so more followed until the books gradually edged out all the other work.  David also encouraged me to write my own stories to illustrate which I did increasingly.
PR:  I remember the Radio Times being a treasure-trove of illustration.  By the '70s when I was looking at it the TV section was mostly photographs, as was the cover - except at Christmas - but the radio pages always had illustrations, and I remember trying to copy these little images by people like Robin Jacques, who was the first illustrator whose work I came to recognise.  I probably had a go at some of yours, too! 
We should talk about influences. From following you on Twitter I've gleaned that you're a big fan of cinema, and I've also heard you mention that the Pre-Raphaelites were important to you...

IB:  I grew up in the era before Television. In my childhood you could wander into a cinema at any time during the programme, ('B' picture, cartoon, newsreel, trailers, adverts, ice creams, 'A' picture) you could also sit there all day and see it all through more than once if you wanted to. It was common to walk in half way through a thriller, pick up the story as it went along, in media res, as it were. See it through to the end, then catch the beginning watch it through until the middle, then say, 'this is where we came in', and leave. This all changed with Psycho in 1960, when Hitchock allowed no admission after the film had started, so gradually continuous programming stopped. Cinema was and is certainly, along with music the biggest influence on my work. Seeing films in those big glamorous single screen cinemas in Technicolor and Cinemascope was bound to have a lasting effect, it still does.

There was a big revival of interest in Victorian art while I was at art school, the art nouveau revival, the re-discovery of Aubrey Beardlsey ( a Brightonian) and Alphonse Mucha all of that set me to reading books on the period by James Laver, William Gaunt, and others and I soon immersed myself in it, the recognition and interest partly stemming, I have no doubt, from those quaint childhood neighhbours in Hove. It all felt and still feels very alive and real to me.No accident then that my first novel for young adults, Pastworld, should be set in an alternate version of that London.
PR: There's a house in Brighton with a blue plaque on it to say it was once home to Aubrey Beardsley, 'master of the line'.  Some friends of mine used to think he must have been a famous angler!  And I remember falling completely under the spell of the Pre-Raphaelites when I was about sixteen and making pilgrimages with my friend Justin Hill to see the Burne Jones windows in Ovingdean Church; I wanted to be a Pre-Raphaelite.  Unfortunately there wasn't much call for that sort of thing in the 1980's; I think the Victorian revival had passed by then, and they pretty much knocked it out of me at art college.  But I did feel that fascination with things Victorian and Edwardian all through my childhood, and for a long time afterwards; it seemed much more real to me than the real world, which I thought was hugely overrated!
Can you tell us a bit about what you're working on at the moment?

IB: I have just finished the second draft (I doubt it will be the last) of a new novel for younger readers, again a Victorian setting but not London, a big square house in the country which is surrounded by an enchanted wood,there is a changeling girl, and such like is called at the moment; The Haunting of Charity La Touche, it will be illustrated too, with black and white drawings as are my Tom Trueheart books, but not silhouettes.

I am also finishing the first draft of another young adult title, provisionally called The Hidden Kingdom, which I am enjoying writing very much. I don't want to say too much about it, except that it snows a lot and it is set in a mythical place.
PR:  Every time I look at Twitter there seems to be something by you saying, "A good day's writing!" or "Just polished off another chapter - going well!"...  Do you really enjoy the writing process? And do you plan the stories, or just let them grow?
IB:  I do enjoy the process of building the story. I feel I am blessed to be given a chance at a new phase in my work and especially at my late age. It all feels like a bonus, I can imagine nothing nicer than settling in with a good scene to write. I do plan, and then, despite the planning, the thing suddenly runs away on its own power. Things crop up, accidents, notions, links I hadn't thought of and so I follow them. The craft is I think in lacing it all together and making it seem meant and the only way the story could have gone, that is what I have been gradually learning. Not only over the last four years or so, but of course in all my years of reading too.

For further information (and illustration and animation) visit Ian's Website...