Celtic Illumination, part 321, Buckminsterfullerene’s and the badgers of Penzance
It was a very difficult job trying to catch Murphy or O Grady on the telephone. I didn’t want to pester them so I would call every Wednesday afternoon, unless the secretary gave me a specific time that she knew they would be in. With speaking to the secretary so regularly we established a sort of rapport and she became friendly toward me. One day I telephoned and she was able to tell me that they not only had received the complete full manuscript for the first novel but that Savage had read it and, “Was rolling around the floor laughing while holding his tummy.” That was good enough for me, they had seen it and liked it all I had to do now was convert that into a publishing deal. The Manchester United deal was chugging forward at a snail’s pace, somehow or other I felt that these publishers were far more important and advanced than Murphy, the gay sauna manager, so I treated them with respect and kid gloves.
I would hate you to think that I would sit down and produce a book in two weeks simply by pulling stories out of fresh air. Apart from the years of dedication and practise, not to mention the rejections, there is the research element that takes up quite a lot of time. I mention this now because I do remember specific research that I carried out for my third project. Sometimes you get things so right it’s terribly exciting. In my first book I had invented a machine called VAMPT, a Voice Activated Multidialectal Phone Tap, which would be an automatic telephone listening device, monitoring thousands of telephone calls and only activated when key trigger words were used. A couple of years later to read that these machines were being developed and used by the security services really cheered me up, showed me that I was on the ball, so to speak.
Irene watched a soap opera called Emmerdale, I couldn’t stand the programme, however rather than sit for thirty minutes complaining about the pathetic acting and the ridiculous storylines, I began to watch, but with my writers head on. There was a family in the show called The Dingle family. They were mainly pig farmers, but the suggestion was that although lovable rogues they lived just on the wrong side of the law. I then noticed that the television company had produced a separate video that had the Dingle family travel to Australia to visit relatives. This wasn’t mentioned on the main television show and it got me thinking. Using my video to video machine I began to collect footage of the Dingle family and slowly a story began to build up.
As they were pig farmers I needed to carry out some research on pig farming. I had experience of pigs been reared, from my time on the farms in Ireland, but I needed something specific to focus on, something that might provide one thread of the storyline, like a rare pig disease or breeding problem. When you take six books on pig breeding and pig farming out of your local library you don’t half get some funny looks, but I suppose some of us are accustomed to funny looks. I got home and began to read. Admittedly some of the books were terribly heavy going and they probably got no more than me looking at the pictures and diagrams, but one book was nice and simple and encouraged people to read. Then I came across one important little detail.
It was a story about the pig breed known as Cumberland pigs from which the famous Cumberland sausages were made. The last, pure bred, Cumberland pig was called Sally and her owner wouldn’t put her down, but Sally died and rather than dispose of the body he put it in his freezer. The story then went on to ask that as the line of pure Cumberland pigs had effectively died out, how long would it be before European bureaucrats would step in and stop people from selling products called Cumberland Sausage? The pig breeders had taken the two breeds closest to Cumberland and bred them together calling the product Cumberland, but of course it wasn’t pure. Now you might be sat sitting there thinking, so bloody what, well, what I wanted to do was give you a little insight into how a writers mind works.
Think Jurassic Park, I know, I sort of stole the story from Michael Crichton, he wrote the book, Steven Spielberg helped convert it into a movie. So I decided that government scientists would occupy the farm next door to the Dingles where they were carrying out top secret experiments. A team of genetic scientists were cloning pure Cumberland pigs from poor old Sally’s remains in the freezer. This now sets out one area where you have to complete some research on genetics so that you can pretend that you know what you are talking about. I also wanted then to be next to a secret military installation so thought that I could suggest they were close to the Ballistic Missile Early Warning Station and Space Surveillance Service at RAF Fylingdales which luckily for me was situated in Yorkshire, as was the fictitious soap opera Emmerdale.
As I began to research Fylingdales I came across Buckminster Fullerenes. I knew you would immediately get the connection, because it is so obvious. As everyone knows a Buckminsterfullerene is a spherical fullerene molecule which has a cage like structure of twenty hexagons and twelve pentagons, resembling a soccer ball, or as we call them, the big golf ball things at Fylingdales. Now get the girl of the Dingle family, Mandy, to start a relationship with an RAF cook on Fylingdales, who now arranges for them to collect the slops for their pigs. The cook wants to have a career in the media and has joined the camps amateur dramatic group.
Now add in a badger set, which a local television news crew are monitoring, because they expect badger baiters to turn up, and the opportunities for mirth and mayhem are endless. Zak, the head of the family finds restricted documents in the slops, doesn’t realise that it is a telephone book, and tries to sell it to the Russians. The guy who owns the farm next door is gay and falls for Zaks son, who is appropriately named ‘Butch.’ To start off researching dry old books about pig breeding and to end up with an RAF cook singing, “I am the very Model of a Modern Major-General,” on top of a badger set, at midnight, while Russian spies and British research scientists are drinking huge amounts of Zak’s mind blowing home brew is some journey, I can tell you. In fact it got me so excited I sat down and wrote the book. I hadn’t approached anyone or asked permission I was just so excited with the story, I had to write it.
It came out quite well and I enjoyed not just writing it but researching the various elements that somehow or other came together and made the story. But I had a problem, I now had fourteen books that would form one hell of a deal and I knew that I really needed someone to represent me because if the truth be told, I would very soon be out of my depth. I knew I wanted to have a simple and honest approach to it all but I also knew that publishing was full of sharks. So I went to the toilet, well; that’s where all my rejection letters were, plastered all over the walls. I went through each letter some of which were so bland and un-personal they were embarrassing. I ended up with a list of literary agents who had actually taken time to reply to me, only problem is that the list was two people long.
One was an agent at Peters, Frazer and Dunlop and the other was a fellow called Jeffrey Simmons. I constructed a letter to both of them explaining that I was about to close three contracts, covering fourteen celebrity book deals, would they be interested in representing me. I didn’t say who the books were for or give any indication of the deals. I said that I would telephone them the following week to find out if they thought we could work together. Peters, Frazer and Dunlop were a huge firm, still are, whereas Jeffrey Simmons was a one man show. I rang Peters, Frazer and Dunlop first and asked to be put through to the agent I had selected. One of the thoughts that goes through your head, well; my head at least, was what happens if they both say yes? I couldn’t believe it when I heard the agent say to the secretary, “Tell him I’m not in.” It certainly took the legs out from under me.
I now had my final chance and telephoned Jeffrey Simmons. He answered the telephone and we began to chat. Jeffrey then referred to my letter and asked me directly who these ‘celebrities’ were. “Manchester United, Lily Savage and Emmerdale farm on the television,” I said, which brought about a slight silent pause. I know that I had mentioned in the letter that Carol Anne Duffy had recommended me to her literary agent, in the hope that it would add some credibility to my cause. “Okay,” said Jeffrey, after a good few moments of giving it some thought. “I am prepared to take you on as a client, I will represent you.” Well; I had done it, I had secured the services of a literary agent, I could sit back and concentrate on my writing, he could do all the negotiating, and boy would there be some negotiating, for as I hope you might have expected, I had my eye on a new client, it was going to be so nice to phone them and when they asked about money say, “Oh, my agent will sort out the details.”