James Follett Talks About James Follett

 

Well finally I have had an answer of sorts that goes some way to answering the questions that were originally posed,

so instead of the twenty questions I provide James' answer in all its glory.....(22.05.2000)

 

Some Early Influences

There were forbidden fruits in our village library. The children's section consisted of two small bays immediately adjoining the adult fiction bays. For a spotty 12-year-old devouring one book a day on one ticket (the maximum children were permitted) and having to read Biggles Flies North (and South, and East, and West) for the umpteenth time and so starved of material that I was reduced to reading Worrals Flies North (and South, and East, and West), the proximity of so many denied books, literally inches from my fingers, was a torture.

`PUT THAT BACK!'

Over 40-years later I can still hear Miss Foster's imperious cry ringing out across the library, shattering the hallowed silence. I can still feel her icy, disapproving stare boring into my back as I frantically tried to shove back an `adult book' that I had surreptitiously removed for a quick shuftie. I had a theory that she had a hidden alarm system that warned her whenever a kid had the temerity to open an `adult book'.

One of the beckoning titles was PRELUDE TO SPACE by Arthur C Clarke. Beckoning?

The title positively screamed at me. Space exploration was kids stuff that adults didn't take seriously. It took about a year of seized moments when Miss Foster wasn't on duty to read the first chapter. Sheer bloody magic -- the grown- ups actually wrote serious stuff about space exploration; it was something more than Dan Dare's exploits on the front page of the Eagle.

On my 14th birthday Miss Foster grudging issued me with four adult tickets. Four! I was in heaven. But there was a catch. The system didn't allow me to make off with four works of fiction; two had to be nonfiction.

I grabbed PRELUDE TO SPACE and THE TIME MACHINE.

I had never heard of H G Wells but the title captivated me. I forget the nonfiction. books I snatched from the once-forbidden shelves but I remember the wondrous sensation of the weight of four books strapped to my back as I pedaled furiously home. I finished them all in two days.

The next six months was an orgy of reading. I got through H G Wells, Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard in a matter of weeks, always homing in on the returned books section for those titles that hadn't been around on my last call.

That other people, adults at that, had similar tastes to mine intrigued me. After six months I was forced to start on other authors. Eventually I read every damned book in that tiny library. The attitude of my parents towards my reading gluttony instilled in me the notion that I was some kind of freak. Certainly my friends though so. Anyone who blew all their milkround money on torch batteries for reading under the blankets at night had to be a little strange. One day I spotted THE HISTORY OF MR POLLY among the returned books. An H G Wells I hadn't read! I hot-footed home clutching my prize.

After a diet of Dickens, once again I would be plunged into strange, wonderful worlds of interplanetary wars, amazing accelerators, and time travel. The disillusionment with Mr Polly was total. I was devastated. I ploughed through it expecting, as I turned each page, that Mr Polly would suddenly be grappling with invisibility or confronting weird aliens. It never happened. Ann Veronica was the same. How could Mr H G Wells do this to me? I was betrayed.

About this time I had an accident that blinded me. A week later in the Royal Eye Hospital, I was making life difficult for the staff with my demands for books in Braille.

Why all the fuss about learning Braille?

I wanted to know. It was just raised letters wasn't it? A nurse explained about Braille cells and that it wasn't worth my learning Braille because my eyesight would be restored after my `operation'. Besides, the hospital didn't have facilities to teach Braille. I wasn't having that. I wanted to read.

The obliging nurse fetched me the only Braille book they had: THE CRUEL SEA by Nicholas Monsarrat. Three massive volumes with a collective weight of about quarters of a ton. She explained the Braille cell system to me as best she could and I was off. No Braille first readers; no Braille tactile exercises. Straight into the book.

Do you know what the first line of THE CRUEL SEA is? I do.

I'll never forget it because it took me about a week to read it: "Commander George Eastwood Ericson, Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve." My eye operation was delayed and delayed but I didn't mind. With THE CRUEL SEA I had a book that gave me bouts of tremendous action and bouts of tremendous sex. My feverish fingers flew over some passages. Mr Monsarrat was my new hero; a writer who knew exactly what pimply boys wanted.

The intimidating length of the book didn't matter; the great thing about blindness and Braille was being able to read after lights out without the aid of a torch. The disadvantage was having to keep one's fingers on the pages during the juicy passages when they wanted to be off doing other things.

About a year later I was turfed out of hospital and sent home with my eyesight largely restored to discover that a little brunette moved in next door who was provocative enough to put books on the back-burner.

Actually she had been next door all the time but I hadn't noticed her until then. Apart from THREE CORVETTES, Mr Monsarrat hadn't written any other books, and having read what I imagined were all the books in the world and being thoroughly disillusioned by H G Wells' let-down, the little brunette caught me on the rebound. More disillusionment: I soon learned that books were easier than girls to cope with. They didn't press their covers tightly together when you tried to open them, or threaten to report you to their dads when you removed their dust jackets.

Then we moved to Kingston-upon-Thames and I had a town library to violate. I went through the lot; indiscriminate reading -- enjoying just about everything I picked up. The sheer joy of using eyes instead of fingers to absorb a story. Agatha Christie, John Creasy, H E Bates, Graham Greene, Nevil Shute (particularly Nevil Shute) -- writers who could put a cracking good story together. I've since gone back to those writers who disillusioned me with their stabs at serious or worthy fiction. Sadly, time has not changed my initial immature reactions. Subsequent books by Nicholas Monsarrat have been a disappointment.

For that reason I've always admired those writers who've chipped doggedly away at the seam they're happy with. The exception to the rule is Paul Gallico who could write whimsical yarns about little old ladies and move onto thrillers about ocean liners turning upside-down with great aplomb.

For plot-structuring skill, Ira Levin leaves me breathless with admiration; his stories are put together with the precision of a Swiss watch. So much so, that not even Hollywood has been able to tinker with his storylines. Change one thing and the whole building comes crashing down. Read ROSEMARY'S BABY and you're also reading the screenplay.

He seems to write about one book every five years. Bad show, and he doesn't have my excuse of collecting boring postcards

(A well-deserved dig at Dave Williams, this site's webmaster, who keeps nagging me about my prized collection and why don't I write more books?).

So today, when people ask me which writers most influenced me, I'm sunk for an intellectually convincing answer. I have to resort to the truth and say: all of `em from Tolstoy to Mickey Spillaine. There is an exception: Barbara Cartland. The good, hard-working lady has stayed out of my clutches so far. Perhaps when I'm senile I'll consider ravishing her.

-- James Follett -- Novelist May 2000 -

(So That's it so far.... part 2 at this rate in 4 years time ) David Williams

 

Take Two

 

I've enjoyed Al Bennett's 'Telling Tales' and other stories being repeated on BBC7 immensely. Al Bennett is five years older than me yet his reminiscences keep prodding nerves. His 'Eating Out' reminded me of the first and only time I was guilty of shop-lifting.


A great treat when I was about six or seven was to be taken to the Palm Court Restaurant in Bentalls department store in Kingston. A silken, crimson rope guarded the entrance until a table was ready. A waitress would place a plate on the table loaded with ten cakes: doughnuts, scones and eclairs, the latter filled with a greyish-white synthetic substance which, in those days of rationing, was called 'creme'. The cakes were untouchable because one was charged for any eaten. The managers of that restaurant had invented 'impulse eating' long before 'impulse buying' -- but to have eaten one of those tempting offerings would've ruined my mother's budget. So I had to nibble my toasted teacake and try to ignore the forbidden sixpence each delicacies placed before me.


A empty table by the window was vacated by a rich lady and gentleman. I say rich because they had eaten, and paid for, nine of the ten cakes, leaving an eclair. The summer breeze flapped the curtain across the table just before it was cleared and sent the remaining eclair onto the carpet where it lay, 'creme' down, unnoticed, under a chair. My mother went to 'spend a penny' and I seized my opportunity. I dived under the neighbouring table and, screened by the tablecloth, grabbed the eclair and gobbled it down. The 'creme' was covered in carpet fluff. I didn't notice. In retrospect I don't think I noticed anything about that eclair such was my concern to get rid of the evidence, wipe my mouth hurriedly on the tablecloth and be back in my seat by the time my mother returned.


When she did return, she gave me an odd look, counted the cakes, and demanded the truth. Her 'compact', a sort of make-up toolkit that many women carried in those days, had a mirror which she used to reveal the damming evidence: a smear of that ghastly 'creme' on my face. Fearful of her effective and quite deadly interrogation techniques, I had little option but to blurt out the terrible truth. Like Alan's mother, that I had eaten something 'off the floor' mortified her -- far moreso than my theft of a carpet fluff-encrusted Bentalls cake.


Her method of cleaning me up 'on the hoof', so to speak, was to stretch her forefinger over her handkerchief like a linen prophylactic, lick it and wipe my face vigorously while holding my head in an iron grip with her other hand. This action was usually accompanied by the observation that one could grow potatoes behind my ears. For years this oft-repeated comment on my hygiene, or lack of it, had me feeling behind my ears when waking up, fully expecting to find that a fine crop of King Edwards had sprouted during the night.


As Al commented in 'Eating Out', the war did not feature much in Leeds; the Luftwaffe had priorities other than Burton's Fifty-Shilling Tailors factory, but I saw plenty of action. I was only two at the start of the blitz when my mother took me to Bristol to stay with relatives and yet my memories of that period are sharp and clear. Hitherto my experiences of the war were limited to hearing the wail of air raid sirens -- a sound that still sends shivers down my spine whenever I hear it in TV documentaries, particularly the rising and falling note that was supposed to herald the imminent arrival of falling bombs, which never fell on New Malden. Bristol was a different matter. Within a week of my arrival there was an unexpected raid on the aircraft factory at nearby Filton and for the first time I actually heard the heavy crump of exploding bombs. Looking back, I suspect that my feelings towards my mother were those of gratitude for having the foresight to send me to Bristol to witness the war at first hand otherwise I might've missed it.


Four years later, back in the safety of New Malden, a V2 demolished our street. The explosion left me slightly but permanently deaf in my left ear, a grievous handicap for a small boy destined to become blind less than ten years later. But that's another story

James Follett -- Novelist October 2005

 

Take Three

Has anyone here ever had a detached retina?


In the such like category, blindness is a bit of a drag. Not being able to read was a real pain for a twelve year old who loved reading.

In those days the NHS (circa 1953) was financially straitened and there was no budget to teach me Braille. Why all the fuss about learning
Braille? I wanted to know of the Royal Eye Hospital staff. It was just raised letters wasn't it? A nurse explained about Braille cells and that
it wasn't worth my learning it because my eyesight would be restored after my `operation'. I wasn't having that. I wanted to read.


The obliging nurse fetched me the only Braille book they had: THE CRUEL SEA by Nicholas Monsarrat. Three massive volumes with a collective
weight of about quarter of a tonne. She explained the Braille cell system to me as best she could and I was off. No Braille first readers;
no Braille tactile exercises. The first line of that book is burned into my memory because it took me about a week to read it: "Lieutnant
Commander George Eastwood Ericson, Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve."


Eventually I learned Braille although I made the mistake of using my sight hand when I was right-handed. I learned American Modified because
they were about the only books that were available. Big plus in the dorm was that I could read after lights out without the aid of a torch.


My 'blindness' was a result of the practise in the 1950s to prevent infection by stitching the eyelids down. So after my op I could see
reasonably well although my left eye had lost it's lens. In 1987 it shed its retina, and again in 1988. With insufficient tissue to anchor it,
the surgeon improvised by cutting a section off a heart valve, spring it open like a giant circlip and using that to hold the retina in place.


Eighteen months ago I had a stroke (a CVA) that deprived me of the ability to walk. Funny things, strokes. The word can be a misnomer as it
was in my case. No blinding flash; no sensation of being struck down. Iíd been working late when I decided that Iíd had enough. I switched
off my computer, stood up, and promptly had to sit down again because I couldnít stand. My sense of balance had gone completely.


Getting to the house from my office outbuilding was a problem. I canít remember how I managed it but I do recall reaching my library and
clinging to two things: a bookcase and a belief that Iíd be okay after some sleep. I couldnít even sit on the bed without keeling over
sideways. My wifeís beliefs were more practical than mine. She believed in getting help. She called NHS Direct. Even though it was a
Saturday, within twenty minutes I was bundled into an ambulance and spent the next six weeks in hospital, first in an intensive care unit,
then in a high dependency ward, and finally nearly a month in a rehabilitation unit where they taught me to go through the same process
that a baby goes through when it learns to walk, starting with the supposedly simple task of sitting in bed propped up with pillows.


The report of my death in Wikipedia at the time was grossly exaggerated. Altering my Wiki entry was regarded as a spiffing jape by a prankster.
It caused no end of problems and resulted in Wiki changing its procedures.


A terrifying 20-minute ordeal by noise in a magnetic resonance imaging machine revealed that I suffered a cerebral haemorrhage in an area that
controls balance. That was the bad news. The good news was that other bits of my buggered neural network could be trained to take over the
work of providing me with a sense of balance so that I could learn to walk.


I was supposed to receive intensive physiotherapy but a spate of staff illnesses meant that the regular NHS sessions were not forthcoming. It
was no ones fault. My decision to have my stroke just before Christmas was not a good one. The hospital physiotherapists did the best they
could but they were overwhelmed. Also my stroke had left me with no feeling in my right foot. It was completely numb. Have you ever tried
standing or walking on a foot thatís gone to sleep? Itís impossible, doubly so when youíve lost your sense of balance. I did manage a few
steps using parallel bars but my right foot felt like a sock full of custard. I was convinced that learning to walk was out of the question.


After five weeks of poor progress my wife took the bold step of discharging me from the hospitalís rehabilitation unit into her care
because I was alone in a ward with no one to talk to and was sinking into a state of depression that wasnít helped by all the drugs I
taking. She brought me my notes for a book a was working on but reading them was too much effort ĖĖ it was easier to stare at the wall. It
was a brave move because I could only stray from my wheelchair by clutching a walking frame, and having a strong hand holding onto a
handling belt that I wore like a parachute harness. The hospitalís primary concern was my size. At six foot five inches
tall and weighing about 18-stone, I was more bear than human being.


The local NHS Stroke Support Team worked wonders. They fitted out our downstairs wetroom/loo with all manner of aids for the disabled, and my
son, Richard, installed a double bed in our library, much to the delight of our two black-furred and black-hearted sibling rivals from hell,
Dylan and Thomas, a pair of Bombay cats, who promptly garrisoned my bed as theirs.


Thanks to the wonderful support of many my D-Day (Discharge Day) went according to plan. By midday I was back at home. There had been many
black moments during my weeks in hospital when I thought Iíd never see my home again. To be in a wide bed in which I could turn over without
fear of falling onto the floor, and to be able to sleep until a civilised hour in the morning was bliss. Dylan and Thomas werenít too
pleased at having to share their bed in the library with me but they bore it tolerably well. Their we-shall-not-be-moved bed occupation
caused my wife to worry about infection but those cats never caught anything from me. Their occasional blood-curdling spitting, growling and
swearing contests under the bed alternated with all night choir practice sessions that kept half the village awake alarmed my wife but my daily
dose of pills enabled me to sleep through anything at the drop of a girder.


Getting to my office was a bit of a struggle, as was remembering how to drive my computerís email software. Dave Williams, who looks after the
James Follett website, had kept people informed about my progress and I was deeply touched my many emails waiting for me from readers all over
the world wishing me good luck and a speedy recovery.


My pair of NHS-loaned crutches consisted of one that was too long, and one that was too short. Even had I learned to use them, I wouldíve
been condemned to walking along only kerbs with deep gutters.


Sunday Mass was my first trip out and an ordeal for my poor wife who had to struggle single-handed to fold my wheelchair and get it and me into
the car, but at the church we were surrounded by helpful parishioners who greeted my return with overwhelming warmth.


As part of my rehabilitation into the normal world my daughter, Joanna, took me on shopping trips to Waitrose supermarket. She coped admirably
with me in a wheelchair and quickly learned how to hitch it to a special trolley for the disabled. My first visit was a revelation. I was used to
seeing the world from my height of six foot four inches. Now I was seeing the world from a childís point of view and found myself
surrounded by mouth-watering legs and mini-skirted thighs. I decided that being stuck in a wheelchair wasnít so bad after all but my poor
daughter, with four mouths and two cats to hunt and gather for, found the turning circle of a wheelchair coupled to a shopping trolley
somewhat irksome. She took to leaving her dozing dad for short periods to go scooting off down aisles on unencumbered foraging sorties. On one
occasion I woke up in a panic to discover Iíd been abandoned in feminine hygiene.


My wife secured the services of a neural physiotherapist who planned to start her treatment by visiting me twice a week at home. My initial

feelings were that the whole thing would be a waste of time and money (a neural physio costs GBP1 per minute!). How could I possibly learn to
walk on a dead right foot that felt like a lead sock full of custard?


Then the lovely and talented physio entered my life, shook it by the scruff of its neck and stood it on its feet. For her first visit she
bought a piece of equipment for restoring sensation to my dead right foot: a tennis ball! She made me sit and practice rolling it back and
forth on the floor underneath my bare right foot. I did so several times. She doubted if every nerve in my foot was dead. To my
astonishment, there was a certain point when I could feel the tennis ball against my instep. I exercised my foot and tennis ball hard for
week so that by her second visit JoJo got me standing with enough confidence not to hang on anything. I still couldnít move without a
frame but my foot had enough feeling for me to stand and shave at a mirror. It was sheer bliss.


After the home visits I started visiting her at her treatment room where she had plenty of equipment designed to end my dependency on a
wheelchair. That day came sooner than I expected when she had me clinging to a handrail at the end of a corridor and announced that was
going to walk, unaided, into her treatment room. I had managed a few faltering footsteps before on parallel bars but this time it was very
different. I had no frame, no crutches, no one holding onto me. The corridor had wall handrails for emergency use only and I was under
strict instructions from JoJo not fall over because that would result in a morningís paperwork for her.


I did it!


I donít know how but I did it. With my wife urging me towards her, I walked a wobbly 20 metres along that corridor ĖĖ it felt more like
20 miles ĖĖ and collapsed onto the treatment plinth. I was so overcome that I burst into tears.
It was a wonderful, emotional moment which I thought marked the end of my physiotherapy but as far as the physio was concerned, it was only the
beginning.


Over the next few sessions she had me walking backwards, sideways, picking up loads in one place, putting them down in another, going up
and down stairs, pounding a treadmill and setting homework in the form of strange exercises. She was always pushing me. On the proud day that I
walked into her treatment room without a wheelchair, she took me into the garden and car park and made me cope with the terrors of soft
ground, uneven paths, open spaces, and wind.


Thanks to her a special day arrived that I never expected to see. In March of last year my loaned wheelchair was returned to the British Red
Cross together with the donation of my unused crutches that I never did learn to cope with, and an NHS stroke support team car was loaded with
bed raisers, chair raisers, loo raisers, a walking frame, in fact all the paraphernalian designed to make an invalidís life tolerable. My
son dismantled my downstairs bed and the house was restored to normal. I now visit the physio every few weeks for what she calls some fine-tuning
of my walk.


The return to normal writing is proving tougher than I expected. My concentration was severely impaired by my stroke. Working for more than
a couple of hours at a time is difficult but itís improving, albeit very slowly.


Today my only aid when I go out is a walking stick. Itís used only for emergencies because Iíve never really learned to cope with wind. I now
lead a fairly normal life, Iím working on another book, and enjoying every minute.

James Follett 2008

 

 

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