Pen iconPen Pals

The play that became a novel

A northern mill town. A family business. Two pens. Her daughter has one. Who has the other?

In the summer of 2012, I completed the Hull Truck Theatre Playwright course for new writers under the Hull-based Playwright Dave Windass.

As part of this process we were required to write a plot synopsis, then a full-length play. Sticking to the sensible advice given to us that you should write about what you know I wrote a script about a family business in the strike-torn Britain of the seventies. I called it Pen Pals.

Getting new work performed is nearly impossible, and the script was both very wordy and had a prohibitively large cast. It lay dormant until the autumn of 2015. By then I was Director of Corporate Services for Humberside Probation and took the opportunity to retire ahead of the forthcoming privatisation.

I decided that Pen Pals would make an ideal first novel since the story and plot were basically all there. It took me until November 2015 to complete the first clunky draft which I shared with some friends. The feedback on the story was not entirely unflattering, but the storytelling was pretty awful. I enlisted the services of my sister in law Sue Vaudin Gore, and she helped me to understand what was wrong, particularly with the first forty or so pages which are so critical. I then enlisted the services of Alice Baynton as editor, and together we substantially remodelled the story into the finished book. My thanks must also go to Simon Hartshorne who formatted the book and designed the stunningly simple cover.

Sadly Sue recently lost her long battle with cancer. I’d like to dedicate Pen Pals to her memory.

Pen Pals tell the story of Murgatroyd Pens, an iconic British brand produced in an old mill town in northern Britain, and of the Murgatroyd family who created it. As with all families they have secrets, and decisions made previously come back to haunt them. In strike-torn 1976 family matriarch Jean Murgatroyd is faced with an impossible decision as her headstrong son James runs the business towards bankruptcy. In 2000 Jean dies and the long-standing enmities of the family surface in a battle for the future of Murgatroyds and with it the future of the one horse northern town in which it operates.

In the original play, each act started with a poem read by one of the characters. I removed them from the book version as they didn’t seem to work. I print them here as a reminder to how things were.

So now my friends to 74. Little has changed, we know the score.

The miners’ strike, the lights went out, the three day week, no money about.  

Heath is gone, and Wilson’s in, what a bloody state, it’s grim.

Recession’s back and grips the nation, and yet we’ve seventeen per cent inflation.

The start of rampant oil crises, as OPEC jacks up oil prices.

Unions signed the Social Contract, but sadly it had little impact.

The writing’s surely on the wall, we’ll soon be making bugger all.

Forward now to ’76, a time of problems tough to fix,

Britain’s bust, we’re left with nowt, the IMF has bailed us out.

The Chancellor says, no ifs no buts, we must have public spending cuts.

Now you may think, oh yes it’s true, our latest problems nothing new.

But in 76 the novelist thing, Britain’s still manufacturing?

Those jobs have gone now, weren’t we bats? We’ve turned our mills into yuppie flats.

Service economy? For heaven’s sake. A country’s surely what it makes?

So there you are, so now you see, how things were and came to be.  

While pickets stood in sun and rain, their incomes flowing down the drain,

the bosses, such a motley bunch had drinkies and a business lunch.

Our factories gone now, such a shame. I think you see. We’re all to blame.

At factories right across the land the picket lines were fully manned.

The miners surely showed the way, the management had little say.

Sometimes for weeks, sometimes for days customers saw such long delays.

They went abroad as was their right, so much for British industrial might.

You just can’t deliver when you please, the British Industrial disease.

We gave it away, a simple crime, we only had to ship on time.

Travelling forward once again, speeding fast through Thatcher’s reign.

Then John Major, man of grey, then to Blair’s new labour way.

Government swings from blue to red, not much difference truth be said.

Making things just isn’t cool, red or blue they’re bloody fools.     

Pen Pals is a story of how industrial Britain lost its way but set in a family story of the loves and lives of the characters. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Kindle and paperback versions available from Amazon