There was a talk on the Today programme this morning concerning that charming book Les Grand Meaulnes by Alain Fournier. It is 100 years since he wrote the novel – which, as the BBC’s Jim Naughtie said, is a tale about lost youth.
(Warren Farm in central Exmoor – and area that inspired my own tale of lost youth)
It made me think of my own humble tale of lost youth – a novel with the working title Beastly News – the first 100,000 word bit of writing I ever did.
The novel has not been published – indeed, I am slowly reading through it and rewriting largish sections in places – and have talked to my friend, publisher James Crowden, about getting it out in paperback form.
I do like it, and am proud of it. Most of it, that is. But certainly not the title.
That will have to go – but only when I can think of something better.
Anyway, here is a synopsis I penned to describe the story which I wrote about 15 years ago.
The book is set during a hot summer in the mid-Seventies when a young man takes a job on a local newspaper in the Westcountry. For Melvin Heap it’s a dream come true but, as the first chapter introduces him to life on the media’s most humble rung, so he begins to realise that being junior-reporter means carrying out the same jobs as everyone else – but being paid half as much for doing it…
However, the work of a country journalist is interesting enough, concerning as it does the highs and the lows, the tragedies and the joys of an isolated community. Indeed Melvin is quickly put onto a story which has the potential to take him away from wedding reports, 100th birthdays, fete round-ups and flower-show results – not to mention the horror of proof-reading. He accompanies Proat, the paper’s aged and eccentric photographer, to a remote moorland farm to view victims of the Exmoor Beast – a creature which, in just a short while, has taken on an almost legendary status. As he looks at the mutilated sheep Melvin begins to see a chance of rapidly elevating his career – if he can discover the real story behind The Beast and get some pictures of the wretched thing…
This is a picture of my old friend, press photographer Randolph Priddy, who certainly inspired parts of the character I call Proat.
There’s a second reason why he’s so keen on the story, and it comes in the form of the farmer’s beautiful daughter, Yolande Goodings. Indeed, Melvin finds himself being deeply impressed by the entire scene up at the strange lonely farm called Desolate.
And so he enters a twilight world where, even in the summer sunshine, mystery and darkness lurks among the wind-bent hedgerows of the high moors. He also experiences passion – with its inevitable accompaniment of bitter-sweet torment – as he treads the thin ice of youthful love.
Melvin recruits the help of two hippy friends who happen to own some camera equipment and have nothing better to do. While they head for the hills in a home-built camper van, the young journalist collects numerous leads which seem to materialise in the most unlikely places…
There’s the parish council with a landslide in the graveyard, the ex-wrestler who’s lost at sea only to return from a Bristol Channel island with a most peculiar story, the batty baronet with unpleasant lodgers, the courtroom with the drunken tramp, the deer poacher who’s witnessed something unbelievable occur on someone’s lawn, the strange, other-worldly family who live in an establishment which is half house, half woodland…
As the young man navigates his way through the adventures with more luck than judgement, each unwonted episode provides him with a portion of thread with which he is able to weave a net around The Beast.
As this is going on the reporter meets an extraordinary family who appear to live in some previous age and who are able to explain to him the complexities of the Goodings family at Desolate.
Melvin is in an emotional turmoil over his erratic love-life, which takes a further turn when he falls for the exotic Circe. At last his youthful ardour is requited, albeit rather belatedly, by the very girl he’s desired for months.
(another landscape which inspired Beastly News – Nettlecombe)
His professional ambition to put the Big Story to bed is also coming along well. There’s a grand finale – which for obvious reasons I won’t go into here – and so ends Melvin’s first adventure in journalism. In the end, the young man realises the importance and the delight of being a country reporter. The highs and the lows – the entire tapestry of life – is tapped into his typewriter each day. It is matter of learning to read the tapestry as a whole to see the entire picture.