After finishing my debut novel, Tumbling in Bethnal Green, I began writing short stories. With the initial aim of keeping each story within a 2000 or 5000 word limit, as I approached the 5000 word limit with the as yet unnamed Puffin Boy, intrigued to see where it might end up, I simply abandoned word count.
Here on the website, (see menu at top of page) along with details of Puffin Boy, are a couple of “works in progress,” short stories I wrote during this period. The Snip, pure fiction, is an exercise in discipline of sorts, the focus remaining on plot rather than individual character development to keep it within the 2000 word limit.
Within the 5000 word limit is The Latin Lesson, its origins an incident I experienced during my own schooldays. Both this story and Puffin Boy explore aspects of education, and as such, there are “overlaps” in references to texts I mention such as Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock which I studied as a 13 year-old. Though I understood very little, when I think of this poem, I wonder if those responsible for choosing this early 18th century mock-heroic poem for 13 year-olds to study genuinely believed it could win the “hearts and minds” of boys in that era spellbound by the irresistible allure of T-Rex and David Bowie. (For ex-students reading this, you may recognise parts of The Latin Lesson from stories I quite possibly told you in class.)
While Tumbling in Bethnal Green is an observation of my own learning experiences in the UK and USA, Puffin Boy responds to my experience as a teacher, commenting on aspects of what constitutes a “good” education – a varied and enjoyable experience, rarely pursued in isolation, a process most effective when individuals see purpose and value in what they learn. To this end, individual curiosity, central to a happiness life, a key aspect of the novel, requires nurturing, as once the long grind of adult life begins, if one lacks curiosity, rekindling it later in life is often very difficult.
Through Tom, the narrator, born into a tiny island community in Scotland in the 1940s where little has changed in generations, I explore how opportunity, curiosity and a desire for learning can change lives for the better. Isolation, war, poverty, and a culture opposed to individual progress and ambition appear insurmountable hurdles for him to clear. His future appears bleak. However, a chance encounter opens up a world of unexpected opportunities, the novella’s blurb capturing the spirit of the story:
Solitary and curious, 12-year-old Tom feels the limitations of life on a remote island off the west coast of Scotland. Tradition, self-doubt, and a distant violent father suggest a bleakly depressing future. But then he meets Thomas – artist, philosopher, saviour. Through art, music and literature, and under Thomas’ guidance, Tom searches for a happy meaningful life. Puffin Boy – a story about discovery, triumph and how to live.
With colleagues I often discuss difficulties students experience transitioning from adolescence into adulthood. Whilst writing Puffin Boy I thought often about the challenges my students face at this time. Like Tom, they are at turning points in their young lives, many on the verge of casting off familial security as they search for their own personal paths to happiness. Consequently, when the publisher requested a target audience for Puffin Boy I ticked the Young Adult option. However, with friends, I frequently discuss aspects of life considered more “adult” – family conflict, exploring love, abuse of power, prejudice – all barriers to finding happiness, a lifelong project, which I also comment on, and so believe the novella has a broader appeal than solely a Young Adult audience.
Finally, if you’re reading this, thank you for showing interest in my work. Feel free to get in touch. I’d love to hear from ex-students – to know how you’re getting on in lives that are, hopefully, exceedingly happy.