New review of Where’s Sailor Jack? : ‘‘…romantic, poignant, and extremely funny, exactly what I want from a family saga.’ – Stephen Carver, Blot the Skrip and Jar It

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Getting Older

I’ve just been interviewed about my book Where’s Sailor Jack by The Wireless, Age UK’s radio channel. It’s now available here. Being asked made me realise how old I’d got. I tuned in before going along to see what the channel was about, expecting to hear Bing Crosby and Al Jolson records. The first song I heard was Sandie Shaw singing ‘Long live love’, introduced by Diddy David Hamilton. They’re right. I’m ancient. I go back much further than that.

It’s quite commonplace for someone of my age (nearly seventy) to say that they feel just the same as they did when they were a teenager. I frequently do it myself. The statement doesn’t stand up to close internal examination. Hormones aren’t rushing anywhere. Nowadays, it can be more a memory of what they should feel like than the real thing. The spirit’s willing but the flesh weak. The only similarity is that procreation isn’t the primary driver at either age. Although surprises can happen in both age groups, they are rather more common at the younger end.

Funnily enough, I think both age groups are more likely to take the idea of God more seriously than those years in between. The young are asking what does it all mean, the old what has it meant. What is it about is playing against what was it for. In old age, there still is a bit more life to be lived. Statistically, I can hope for another decade or a bit more, while having to reckon with the thought that I could keel over or be diagnosed with something awful at any moment.

The young usually don’t fall prey to these thoughts, as for them they have only small probabilities attaching. For the old, there is the stream of funerals to be attended (the only necktie I ever wear nowadays is black) and the most dismal of all, visiting those even more elderly in the nursing home, with the consequent feeling that maybe death isn’t such a bad thing. Yet I have the comfort of a good home with wife and family.

When I meet someone I know in the street, my eyes can still light up at the prospect of something new, a short conversation with maybe a bit of banter. And what has life meant? It feels like everything that has happened, the good, the bad, the exciting, the desperately sad, they all had to be. There is an old Rabbi joke that life begins when the kids have left home and the dog’s died. That suggests a late paradise for my wife and me, as we go on smart cruise holidays and share relaxed evenings, her drinking a glass of prosecco and me fine claret. We certainly hope for a bit of that. But there’s far more pleasure for both of us in seeing our kids as adults, and hoping that when they’re old they’ll look back on life saying it had to be like this.

I do still walk the old family dog across the fields as he too considers with me what it’s all meant. It’s not a lot different from when as a teenager I’d walk a previous old family dog round the park when I got home from school. I still mourn that guy’s passing as much as I will do shortly when this fellow reaches his time.

I’ll hope that when it’s my turn to knock at the door, there’ll be two joyful barks and St Peter will feel he’s no choice but to let me in. And one day all the family I’ve known, from grandparents to grandchildren I’ve never seen, will meet again on God’s golden shore. Old friends will be there too, nobody missed out.

That’s what this old man dreams for. Sadly it ain’t necessarily so.

John Uttley, 69, was born in Lancashire although he now lives just outside London. Where’s Sailor Jack is his first novel. Not fancying a memoir, or his family’s story, John instead recorded his Lancastrian sense of humour as well as documenting a tumultuous, exciting period of British history. History John just happened to live through.

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His Bobship – A life shared with Bob Dylan

I was in the upper sixth in 1963, the year made famous by Philip Larkin for the discovery of sex. Not in my world, it wasn’t. That took a few more years. A northern grammar school boy, what else could I be studying but Maths, Physics and Chemistry? Twenty miles down the road, the Beatles had broken through to mega-stardom, with the Mersey sound everywhere. There was some great stuff, along with classic pop coming from America with guys like Don and Phil, the Big O and Gene Pitney.

In these days before teenagers had learnt how to lie in until lunchtime, there was a two hour morning pop music programme, Saturday Club, on the Light Programme introduced by Brian Matthew. The Beatles were playing live, after which John Lennon was interviewed. “That Bob Dylan, he’s dead gear,” were the words as I remember them.

Once the show finished, I rushed out to the record shop to buy Freewheelin. I couldn’t get over how good it all was, head over heels at the wondrous ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’. For me, everything after then, even the great British stuff that followed almost immediately like The Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Spencer Davis and The Animals, would never claim my total allegiance.

I’ve bought every single Dylan album since during the last fifty-two years, as well as the one album out before Freewheelin’. We really have been together through life. In these years I’ve ploughed through science and divinity degrees, and had a long business career. I’ve also had a family, finally having learnt the game, if slowly, that Buddy Holly sang about. I’ve only just now written my novel, Where’s Sailor Jack?, so I certainly got to know my song well before I started singing.

At every stage Dylan has struck the chord. I was still catching up at Oxford when the savvy public school types listened to ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ for drug references. I knew where I was from, so I was far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow anyway. I was friends with a few folkies, one of whom would have lent Pete Seeger her axe at Newport. I loved the electric stuff, happily paying whatever the price was to be ‘Stuck in Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’.

Into the seventies, I lived the pain in that incredible album Blood on the Tracks where every word was etched into my soul from him to me. In one of the concerts at Wembley Arena I went to, Bob wasn’t having his best night, but his acoustic version of ‘A Simple Twist of Fate’ was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard, apart perhaps from another concert when he did ‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’.

His Christian phase didn’t faze me. I’m a lifelong unorthodox believer. Like Jesus, he only preached for three years. He saw that the lone soldier on the cross would win the war after losing every battle, the only sense to be made of life.

He’s taken all his songs with him into his old age. The devil might rule this world, but God is the judge, and he’s decided they’re eternal. No-one has written old age like Dylan. We’re all trying to get to heaven before they close the door. We stayed in Mississippi a day too long. None of us can go back, at least not all the way. We missed that moment when all old things became new again. So while it’s not dark yet, it’s getting there.

But thanks to him, I’ve always had the murmur of his songs, like a prayer, in my soul.

John Uttley, 69, was born in Lancashire although he now lives just outside London. Where’s Sailor Jack is his first novel. Not fancying a memoir, or his family’s story, John instead recorded his Lancastrian sense of humour as well as documenting a tumultuous, exciting period of British history. History John just happened to live through.

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The Author is God

I’ve sometimes heard fanciful people suggest that all creation is no more or less than an idea in the mind of God, that includes us humans too. I’ve never accepted this.

I can’t dismiss the things I feel in life, physical and mental, as belonging to someone else, nor can I ignore the relationships I have with other sentient beings. These appear to convey emotions between us independent of any Almighty.

I’m prepared to accept that the physical world is an idea God had. He created a void which his Spirit moved upon. He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. The physical came into life. Aeons later, sentient beings emerged. The philosopher Kierkegaard saw God as creating us with the capability of being something against Him, against his Spirit. If we can defy God, then the physical world is more than his idea. Is it ours, or someone else’s?

I’ve now written a novel, Where’s Sailor Jack? It started as a blank sheet of paper which filled up as my spirit moved upon it. It only took a couple of paragraphs of scene setting before descriptions of sentient beings appeared. Unlike God, I didn’t need billions of years of celestial billiards. My characters were just ideas in my head. They had no existence of their own. They didn’t have bodies and brains. They only needed the lavatory when I wanted to break up the action. Their relationships with each other were not just mediated by me, they were dictated by me. I knew how the story was to end, what their fate would be.

Yet as so many authors do, I found that the characters made a mockery of this. They started to pull the story about. They delayed what I’d decided was going to happen. They’d tell another character what they thought of them in terms I would never think of. They decided when to be cruel and when to be kind.They taught me more about human character than I’d ever learn on a psychology course.

I know, there are better explanations for this. I was just channelling what I’d heard in real people into my characters, or picking up second-hand some emotion from a book I’d read, a movie I’d watched, a song I’d liked. God didn’t have that luxury to begin with. That’s perhaps why it took him so long to get things going. He’s a real Author, with a capital to prove it.

Pretty early on in the Bible tale, the writers had the idea of the devil. Did God plant the idea? Or is the devil a creature as real as we are? I’ve not given him a capital. But in my tale, I could only make sense of one storyline in terms of God having paid a ransom to the devil, someone over against him strong enough to need buying off. Life often does appear to have the devil as author with God as editor. And who has the final say?

I can only answer with an unknowing smile while not changing my policy on capitals.

John Uttley, 69, was born in Lancashire although he now lives just outside London. Where’s Sailor Jack is his first novel. Not fancying a memoir, or his family’s story, John instead recorded his Lancastrian sense of humour as well as documenting a tumultuous, exciting period of British history. History John just happened to live through.

Find out more about John:

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Info@literallypr.com

On Family

I’ve written a family saga, so I guess that family must mean a lot to me. With the wonders of modern technology, I’ve carried out my personal genealogy, to find that I am fifteen sixteenths English and one sixteenth North Welsh. The English members were, in the eighteenth century, all living north of the Severn to Wash line, so the short a is the pronunciation I’ve received. I’m predominantly Lancastrian, with some significant Worcestershire/ North Gloucestershire input. My Y chromosome, whose provenance has been confirmed as genuine by YDNA testing, is from just over the boundary into Y for Yorkieland and the village that time forgot, Heptonstall.

It’s a fair assumption that the specific geographic mix will go back more than a thousand years further to the Anglo-Saxon settlement period. The identity conveyed is solid, if out of sync with modern North London where I’ve made my home. My wife’s heritage is entirely from London and the South-East, apart from a great-great-grandfather from Bolton, deliciously ironic given the stick she used to give me for my support of Bolton Wanderers. I think as a result our mind-fix is a little different from most of our neighbours. In my own head I’m a top person, so I take the Times, being too old for the Guardian and too animated for the Independent. It has excellent columnists with whom I agree when they argue for this country’s virtue in being welcoming to immigrants such as their ancestors. I don’t think though that they understand the sense of loss in those of us whose ancestors have been settled for sixty generations rather than two. Their loss is profound but of elsewhere. (My youngest son was even given a map of the world in primary school and asked to mark where his ancestors came from. I think he was the only pupil who struggled with the scale of the map.) I can’t avoid the thought that, however enlightened I like to think I am, the pride my characters have in their Lancastrian heritage is me re-enacting Custer’s Last Stand.

Family sagas are thus often about either geographic continuity or discontinuity. The ground in between is probably not that easy to write! They are also about shared family traits and beliefs. My novel Where’s Sailor Jack? has two principal characters who would describe themselves as not only the first baby boomers but also the last Victorians. I think that they see this country’s near abandonment of Anglicanism as an act of treachery although even as coarse northerners they of course are too polite to express it in those terms. But I think the novel does show that their descendants sympathise with them, if only because of family loyalty. At the last trump, they’d all like to meet up on God’s golden shore.

But family is also about difference. Every new relationship is the introduction of a significant other. Every new child shares two sets of characteristics which can sit uneasily with each other. No courtship process can smooth out these differences. Nor would we want them too. Every family is a saga.

John Uttley, 69, was born in Lancashire although he now lives just outside London. Where’s Sailor Jack is his first novel. Not fancying a memoir, or his family’s story, John instead recorded his Lancastrian sense of humour as well as documenting a tumultuous, exciting period of British history. History John just happened to live through.

Find out more about John:

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Or contact:

Info@literallypr.com

Fracking in the North

Lancashire County Councillors have said no to fracking on the Preston New Road site at Little Plumpton near Blackpool, having previously refused permission at the more difficult to access Roseacre Wood site. I’m an ex pat Lancastrian, born in Blackpool Victoria Hospital and raised in Poulton-le -Fylde. I spent most of my business career with the mighty CEGB, and then with National Grid, where I learnt to respect the ability and integrity of most engineers.

I’ve recently published a novel “Where’s Sailor Jack” substantially set in the fictional village of St Chad’s, a thinly disguised Poulton. The principal character, Bob, was born there and returns in later life after a career as a nuclear engineer who reached the top. He is a fair-minded man, prepared to consider all alternatives, while being as antagonistic to wind power as most power engineers are. He recognises the high cost of nuclear and also the attendant proliferation issues. He concedes the small chance of an operational balls-up but believes engineers will be good enough to handle that. Overall though, at this stage he is cautious towards nuclear. He is happy with tidal power being explored.

The antagonism to wind power in power engineers is not just because the projects are not big and sexy. It’s because the generation capacity has to be planned for the winter peak. The wind often isn’t blowing on the coldest days. What that means is that much of the wind generating capacity has to be backed up by other forms of generation, meaning that the capital required has to be found twice. Wind power is also very expensive even without that additional cost. There is some small reduction in the amount of carbon put up in the atmosphere, but the effect of replacing coal by fracked gas would, per pound spent, be greater.

Although more a village boy, Bob mourns the passing of proud, industrial Lancashire. He thinks that jobs are more important than rights, and that the better jobs are in engineering, not call centres. It’s hard for the Lancashire Councillors with the worries they have over fracking and the power of the pressure groups. I do believe that the engineers will manage to frack without polluting water or causing a major earthquake. Bob, a proper engineer, would not give then carte blanche but he would have a go. As he says, “Anyway, we’ve found all this shale gas under St Chad’s, the epicentre of the universe and of an earthquake after the last fracking trial. It’s not that green but it’s Lancastrian. Let’s hope they can extract the bloody stuff without knocking St Chad’s Church and Blackpool Tower over.”

And my last word. Let’s make sure too that we make not only plenty of jobs for Lankies but plenty of dosh too, and not let it all get creamed off by the landowners or the shareholders.

 

John Uttley, 69, was born in Lancashire although he now lives just outside London. Where’s Sailor Jack is his first novel. Not fancying a memoir, or his family’s story, John instead recorded his Lancastrian sense of humour as well as documenting a tumultuous, exciting period of British history. History John just happened to live through.

Find out more about John:

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Or contact:

Info@literallypr.com

Business in Public and Private Sectors

Where’s Sailor Jack? makes some play on the differences between public and private sector attitudes to business. As a former CFO of the mighty Central Electricity Generating Board, followed by the privatised National Grid Group and a later career as Chairman of smaller quoted and unquoted companies in the US and UK, I think I’m entitled to a view.

So I’ve just created three oppositions, public/private, big/small, UK/US. The last one is the least important. The management bullshit is perhaps even more intensive in the States, the availability of risk capital is greater and the marketplace is less sceptical about the chances of success so that, overall, the chance for a start-up succeeding is higher. The problems in running the business on a day-to-day basis are more or less the same.

The business issues are actually not that different between big and small companies either, provided the small company is adequately capitalised. Unfortunately most aren’t and too much management time is spent on cash management as well as abortive attempts at fund raising all advised by bankers and intermediaries more interested in what’s in it for them. Small companies are prone to becoming too dependent on a limited number of customers, none of whom will display any loyalty whatsoever if someone else is charging a penny less for the widget.

The economies of scale of the large company are frequently outweighed by inefficiencies in administration. Sell the shares of any company investing in an atrium at its new headquarters, or in a new management information system. Management for big and small in any competitive market is about having less than perfect information and knowing how to make best use of what you do know.

The really interesting differences to me are between large public sector and private sector companies. The private company is more single-minded. It will have a social responsibility statement designed to say nothing specific, but profit maximisation is the only game in town. No Board of Directors can pass up on any legitimate tax-saving scheme, even if they don’t like its contrivance. The private sector company either has to borrow money or raise more from shareholders for business development, so decisions are made on a hard-nosed and frequently short-term basis. ‘In the long run, we are all dead.’

The public sector body raises money from the Treasury apart from with those crazy PFI initiatives which kept the bulk of the risks public with the bulk of the rewards private. Proposals come forward from empire-building engineering-trained managers to be judged by civil servants you wouldn’t trust to buy you a new tie. Middle managers run operations as much for their own convenience as for efficiency, and the staff soon get the message.

The pay is better in the private sector for the top guys as remuneration committees institutionalise overpayment to directors. The will of the large shareholders is exercised through fund managers whose personal interest is for large salaries to appear justified. Backs are scratched. When the public sector bodies were privatised, the scramble to claim the assets was led by the directors in a way not seen since the dissolution of the monasteries.

Particularly in the private sector, the top man tends to be a driven individual, lacking in social graces. If business is set up as a rat race, it should never be a total surprise when the rat wins. And even in the trading public sector, the egotistical often triumphs over the able and the talented. Political skills can also be useful, giving a higher ‘creep’ quotient at the top of public bodies.

But I can’t think of any better ways!

John Uttley, 69, was born in Lancashire although he now lives just outside London. Where’s Sailor Jack is his first novel. Not fancying a memoir, or his family’s story, John instead recorded his Lancastrian sense of humour as well as documenting a tumultuous, exciting period of British history. History John just happened to live through.

Find out more about John:

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Or contact:

Info@literallypr.com

The North South Divide

I’ve spent most of my life denying that I’m a professional northerner. It sounds too chippy. But it’s not that there isn’t plenty to be chippy about. Recently I was reading Max Hastings claiming that London was just so obviously the cultural centre of Britain. Another day it’s Quentin Letts mocking some politician’s northern accent. I know, I shouldn’t read my wife’s Daily Mail.

She’s a Londoner, along with my children, so they won’t sympathise, although the kids have showed some atavistic loyalty by supporting Bolton Wanderers. London is 250 miles from where I was born and back then only business people and football fans made the trip, it was too far for everybody else.

My county of Lancashire has produced the best comedy and rock music of the last century, and with the Yorkies some of the best novelists. Who couldn’t prefer Peter Kay’s observational humour, or Lee Mack’s stand-up, to the facile, middle-class, patronising tittering on something like the News Quiz? On over half the occasions both in history and since the war, the top English football division has been won by a Lancashire side. Over the hill, the Yorkies win the cricket championship most often, and us Lankies the one-day stuff. About a third of the English population have a full-on Northern accent with the short a being preferred by more, perhaps making it more the norm than the southern alternative. A recent survey showed that Yorkshire women were assessed as sounding the most intelligent in the UK, with those with that dreadful term, ‘received pronunciation’, in second place. I won’t take offence in future when I’m asked in the south if I’m from Yorkshire!

A big difference between north and south is in the way we view our cities. For us, Manchester is in Lancashire, Leeds and Sheffield in Yorkshire. Liverpool may be a slight exception to this, but the scouser too is proud of his north-west heritage and friends from there were as chuffed as I was a few years back when, playing out of Aigburth, Lancashire won the county championship. Our towns are too big and too numerous to be satellites. Bolton will never be part of Manchester, nor Southport Liverpool, despite Edward Heath’s crass local government reorganisation.

I don’t mind Cheshire MP George Osborne’s attempt at a northern powerhouse, I think it’s well-intended. But not that long ago, the historic counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire were of equivalent size and weight to London. People in these towns, and the surrounding villages, have either a manufacturing or a farming culture so Financial Services are not thought to be a public good; they don’t go out of the gatehouse in a lorry.

And here I don’t knock the Londoner. They have a different style but once through the reserve are good with outsiders. Some of them even have an embryo sense of humour. We are one people, we just don’t have the same centre.

WSJ - UTTLEY NEW KINDLE COVERJohn Uttley, 69, was born in Lancashire although he now lives just outside London. Where’s Sailor Jack is his first novel. Not fancying a memoir, or his family’s story, John instead recorded his Lancastrian sense of humour as well as documenting a tumultuous, exciting period of British history. History John just happened to live through. John had a successful career in the electricity industry, being there for the start of the National Grid Company, the Miners’ Strikes and the Sizewell Inquiry. He recently studied for an external Divinity degree.

Find out more about John:

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Info@literallypr.com

Is Sailor Jack anywhere?

To write a novel suggests a belief in more than the physical. It’s saying that there’s a meaning to be understood in a tale as it unfolds that is better expressed in the telling than in a set of equations. Maybe some mathematician could come up with a Maxwell-type equation which contains how the story diverges or curls back in on itself but that couldn’t convey what the characters felt. And as any author will tell you, there comes a point when it feels like the characters are dictating the story.

My novel Where’s Sailor Jack? tries to show a mental realm that humans inhabit linked to the mechanical world with some limited free will to change things, and that this realm is consistent with present-day science and modern philosophy. The prime author of all time is God who allows his creation to change the story for better or worse, although at the end of time which is also the beginning, this God decides and has decided if the events are to happen or not.

I’m informed that this would not be described as dualism, but dual aspect monism. The principal character, an engineer called Bob, wants to understand the linking mechanism and sees events as primary with time somewhat of an illusion. His view of God mirrors that of process theology, with God using his will to lure the world forward to a better future. He’s prepared to take a Job-like view of suffering that it’s presumptuous of us to ask why. His friend Richard would like to make the mental world the primary realm, but struggles with the problems suffering creates for believing in a benign God, and sometimes thinks that the mental has no agency, with God no more able to dictate outcomes than we are. We ride the roller coaster of life thinking whatever we want but unable to change anything. I think this is called anomalous monism. Both their views develop as life plays its tricks.

With Bob looking for purpose and Richard for meaning, they have a different view of St Paul. Richard thinks that Romans tries to explain too much and that if there is to be salvation, no other explanation can be given than the grace of God. Bob admires Paul’s robust intellect, while knowing that he will need to be spoken for at the last trump. They both love the prose of 1 Corinthians.

Bob’s father was called Jack. Jack enlisted in the navy at the start of the war for the duration, Bob being conceived during a Christmas 1944 shore leave. Jack’s parents trained their budgie to say “Where’s Sailor Jack?” Both men in late middle age mourn their past. The book title stands as a metaphor for the existential question they both share – where does the past go? They eventually both come round to the same view that you take the whole story with you to the grave, and if there is anything beyond, it ain’t necessarily so. The rest is their Christian hope.

WSJ - UTTLEY NEW KINDLE COVERJohn Uttley, 69, was born in Lancashire although he now lives just outside London. Where’s Sailor Jack is his first novel. Not fancying a memoir, or his family’s story, John instead recorded his Lancastrian sense of humour as well as documenting a tumultuous, exciting period of British history. History John just happened to live through. John had a successful career in the electricity industry, being there for the start of the National Grid Company, the Miners’ Strikes and the Sizewell Inquiry. He recently studied for an external Divinity degree.

Find out more about John:

Website          Twitter           Facebook       Amazon          LiterallyPR

Or contact:

Info@literallypr.com