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

Archives: family

Those Autumn Leaves

I’m reaching the empty nest stage quite late in life, being 71 next week. My wife Janet and I are not fully there yet, but the return to university this week for our youngest means that we’re rattling round the house during the day. Our eldest has found pastures new, leaving just our daughter with us and then only evenings. And our family dog, Timmy, is nearly 15, has cancer and a failed kidney. He still soldiers on, leaving an acquaintance observing how he doesn’t want to leave us, but sadly we know that very soon he must. I’ve lost my sister and my Mum over the last few years, my Dad having gone in 1998. In that under-rated Dylan song ‘Nettie Moore’, he sings of there being no-one left here to tell. There still is, but nobody who shares with me where it started.

There’s an old joke from a Rabbi saying life begins when the kids leave home and the dog dies. Rob Brydon and his wife in the advert go on a cruise looking forward to the glazed scallops for dinner that evening. I know I’m fortunate that such pleasures might still await, and if they do, I must make the most of them as gifts freely given. Yet I wish Dad was at the end of a telephone to talk to on a Saturday as the football finishes; that I was looking forward to visiting my sister’s beautiful garden as the Autumn leaves turn to flame; that my Mum was still here to ask the recipe of that suet crust we used to have on cold winter days. Most of all I wish it was ten years ago and summer, with Janet, the three kids,the dog and me piling into the old Espace around a picnic box full of sandwiches, sausage rolls, pork pies and cake, for a day out at Nicky Nook, Timmy unable to contain his joy at the prospect.

I swear that at the first glazed scallop on that luxury cruise, I’m going to think of that day with my eyes full of tears.

My family

I haven’t got any pictures from the late forties of the four of us together in Poulton, the Lancashire village that was our home. That’s Mum, Dad, sister Lynda and me. With the war taking Dad away for the duration, Lynda was nearly five years older than me. I guess I knew when visiting the grave of the Grandfather I never knew, before I’d started at school but able to read and already keen on sums, that the words on his headstone, ‘The Day thou gavest Lord is ended,’ meant it was likely I’d be the last of the four to die. In not quite the predictable order, so it has proved.
The forties were even before the Brownie 127. A box camera was the technology. A fifth party had to take a family photo, and the first example of that I’ve found is well into the fifties and after we’d moved to Southport. We were a family then, the four of us, plus dog Rex and cat Chloe. My memory doesn’t fail me. It was a good home.
That family had broken up by 1961. Lynda had married and unusually for the time and place Dad moved out for someone else. The only pictures with all four of us since are at family weddings with Mum trying to stand as far away from Dad as the lens would allow. Both Rex and Chloe lived into old age but of course they’ve both been gone many decades. Dad died in 1998, Lynda in 2012 and Mum went two weeks ago, two days after my seventieth.
I didn’t really live at anywhere I could call home once I left University. Nothing unusual there, most of us didn’t. In fact, more come back afterwards to live at home now than then, with property prices high and marriage unfashionable. My present family is still half with us, as family dog Timmy reaches old age. I hope the three kids think that my wife Janet and I have given them a good home. And that they’ll still be around and think that in fifty years time.
Those of you who’ve read ‘Where’s Sailor Jack?’ will know how I try to see eternity through science or those quirks of inexplicable meaning sometimes thrown up by events. Maybe some events are there to make us wonder, even to see wonder. But if anything makes me hope for eternity it’s just this: We were a family, we are a family. Maybe there won’t be many mansions for us in heaven, but there could be a terrace of houses.

On Marriage

My novel, Where’s Sailor Jack, has two main male characters. Bob struggles to come to terms at being sent off by his wife before half-time in their marriage match, Richard doesn’t get why he’s not brought on until the second half for his. They both take marriage seriously, yet I’m sure they’d both mock its sacramental status.

I can write the dialogue now. Bob – “It’s only because Joseph had popped his clogs and Jesus got roped in by his mother for that wedding in Cana. He’d too much sense ever to take the plunge himself. And then the miserable buggers hadn’t bought enough wine.” Richard – “They probably had. He seems to have liked a drop. He just needed one more for the road back to Nazareth.”

Sacrament or not, marriage was around well before Jesus. And divorce too, allowed by Moses. Bob divorced Jane without really wanting to. He later worried that Jesus took a harder line on divorce than Moses had, before eventually convincing himself that he hadn’t. This was perhaps as well for the rest of the tale. This family saga doesn’t assume any sacrament, though I found marriage, or the lack of it, helpful in labelling who all the characters are and how they relate.

The present day urge seems to be for marriage not to be the exclusive preserve for heterosexual couples of child-bearing age. Indeed many in this group do not see the point of it. The LGBT communities rightly point out that the church has always been prepared to marry people who had passed the age where children would arise. Increasingly, they see value in the public proclamation of their relationship with the moral and legal ties this creates. They like the designer label.

I am old enough to remember girls who intended to keep their virginity until they were wearing a band of gold. I suspect that it was mainly those who had married before the pill became widely available who succeeded in that aim. A relationship can be about both companionship and sex, or either one separately. So could marriage, and still can.

Yet there is something about marriage that creates strong ties. The statistics can’t be totally spurious. Yes, maybe the marrying kind would be more likely to stay together than those with wandering eyes even if marriage was banned. The creation of a formal unit sharing the same name and roof is a powerful unifying force.

And a church wedding is special. The Anglican prayer book thunders; “Those whom God hath joined together, let no man put asunder,” words powerful enough to worry Bob, but not to convince him that they’re absolute. Catholic tradition says that the two to be married are the ministers of the sacrament before God, and not the priest.


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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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:

Website         Twitter          Facebook      Amazon         LiterallyPR

Or contact: