THE ISLE OF MAN AND LITERATURE
There’s something about the Isle of Man – whether it’s the varied landscape and the shifting light; the way in which you always feel that somehow, you are ‘elsewhere’ – that has continued to attract and inspire writers for centuries.
Sir Hall Caine, Victorian novelist born in Liverpool to a Manx father, took his inspiration from the Isle of Man. At the height of his fame, Hall Caine was household name on both sides of the Atlantic. His 1897 novel, The Christian was the first novel in Britain to sell over a million copies and assured the writer access to artistic circles which included Ruskin, Rossetti, Matthew Arnold and Robert Browning. Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, is dedicated to Caine.
Often criticised for their sentimental plot lines, lack of strong characterisation and intense tone, his fifteen novels were wildy popular with the public and were translated into thirteen languages. When publishing a Hall Caine novel, his agents came to expect moral outcries in the press as he tackled social taboos including illegitimacy, infanticide, the divorce laws, anti-semitism and women’s rights. His work was performed on the West End stage and made into sixteen films – the final one, The Manxman, directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Whilst Hall Caine concentrated on large social issues, choosing to paint characters with broad strokes, his contemporary, TE Brown, focused on the details of Manx domestic life. Born in Douglas and educated at King William’s College and later Oxford, Thomas Edward Brown is best known for his posthumous 1900 Collection of Poems of TE Brown, a volume of narrative poetry written in Anglo-Manx dialect.
Brown’s 1871 poem, Betsy Lee, evokes in its rhythms and tones the spirit of the Manx narrator who recites the tale of local girl, Betsy. For generations of Manx people, the narrator’s descriptions have encapsulated the childhood delight of an archetypal, Manx summer’s day:
Now the beauty of the thing when childher plays is
The terrible wonderful length the days is.
Up you jumps, and out in the sun,
And you fancy the day will never be done ;
And you’re chasin’ the bumbees humin’ so cross
In the hot sweet air among the goss,
Or gath’rin’ bluebells, or lookin’ for eggs,
Or peltin’ the ducks with their yalla legs,
Or a climbin’ and nearly breakin’ your skulls,
Or a shoutin’ for divilment after the gulls,
Or a thinkin’ of nothin’, but down at the tide
Singin’ out for the happy you feel inside.
That’s the way with the kids, you know,
And the years do come and the years do go,
And when you look back it’s all like a puff,
Happy and over and short enough.
TE Brown became the Isle of Man’s National poet in 1930.
For the next twenty years, no Manx writer’s voice was heard until, on the 25th of March, 1946 Douglas-born Nigel Kneale made his first broadcast on BBC Radio, performing a live reading of his own short story,Tomato Cain, in a strand entitled Stories by Northern Authors.
Kneale had studied law in the Isle of Man but following the success of his short story, moved to London to study at RADA. For a while he combined acting and writing until Tomato Cain and Other Stories won the Somerset Maughan Award in 1950. Publishers wanted him to write novels but his passion was for television. He became one of the BBC’s first staff writers, soon chastising the corporation for its sedate and theatrical dramas. Together with Australian colleague Rudolph Cartier, Kneale revolutionised early TV drama through science fiction.
The Quatermass Experiment hit British screens in 1953. It was the first adult, television science-fiction production and held the audience gripped for the entire run. Its plot, which involved an idealist government rocket scientist battling the spread of a mind-bending alien vegetable, engrossed an audience who were living in uncertain times. World War Two had ended; the Cold War was just beginning. Kneale’s series encapsulated the British Zeitgeist.
Kneale continued to write big adaptations and screen plays, on both sides of the Atlantic, influencing, amongst others, writer Stephen King. He returned to the BBC for The Road in 1963 (in which the population envisions a nuclear war) and The Year of the Sex Olympics in 1968. Here, he not only reflected but predicted life in a Britain where audiences watch The Live Life Show, a Big Brother-style TV series where a family is filmed 24 hours a day as they try to survive on a remote island – shot, of course, on the Isle of Man and containing a dark twist to the plot.
Nigel Kneale never regarded himself as a science fiction writer and insisted that he never read books from that genre. It is more likely that, like other Manx writers, his inspiration came from the Island itself. ‘There’s always been a traditional belief in the Isle of Man in things you can’t quite see’, he once commented. Nevertheless, he was described on his death in 2006 by the Guardian as ‘one of the best, most exciting and most compassionate English science-fiction writers of this century.’
One of TE Brown’s observations on the Manx character was that of a certain shyness and self-effacement. When Kneale’s son, Matthew won the Whitbread Book of the Year in 2001 for his novel, English Passengers he observed, ‘Matthew’s much better than I am. I just wrote screenplays.’
Matthew Kneale’s 1988 novel, Whore Banquets, which is set in Japan, won the Somerset Maughan Award (marking a father/son double) and in 1992, he received the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for his novel, Sweet Thames.
Although born in London and educated at Oxford, Matthew Kneale maintained a strong interest in his Manx ancestry. It took him several years to research English Passengers and hours were spent in the Manx Museum, listening to old phonographs of Manx dialect before the creation of the authentic characters Captain Illiam Quilliam Kewley and his Manx crew who sail, with their English passengers, to Tasmania.
The novel is a poignant exploration of the plight of the Aborigines and was also shortlisted for Australia’s Miles Franklin Award in 2000, making Kneale the first non-Australian author to be shortlisted for the award.
International bestseller Sheila Ann Mary Coates fell in love with the Isle of Man in the 1970s when she settled in the fairy tale mansion, Crogga.
Born in 1937 in Dagenham, Sheila wrote under several pseudonyms, including Charlotte Lamb, Sheila Holland, Sheila Lancaster, Victoria Wolf and Laura Hardy. Her first historical and romantic novels were serialised in Woman’s Weekly Digest although throughout her life, this versatile writer was successful in many genres, tackling such taboo issues as child abuse and rape. Sheila worked each day from 9am to 5pm, able to complete a novel in approximately two weeks. By the late 1970s she was publishing up to twelve novels a year with Mills and Boon. By the 1990s, she had published more 160 novels and achieved sales of over 200 million worldwide.
Author, Chris Ewan led a double life for some time. He trained as a lawyer with a City firm, completing that training in Amsterdam. Ewan lists his two main passions as travel and crime fiction. It wasn’t long before he was combining both in the form of his first novel, The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam, winner of the 2008 Long Barn Books First Novel Award.
Seeking a change from his City lifestyle, Ewan felt pulled towards the Isle of Man where he joined a local firm, practising as an English Solicitor. The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam was published in America and Germany, earning him further commissions for The Good Thief series – and leading to the decision first to work part-time, then to leave the world of law completely in order to concentrate fully on his writing. His last novel, The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice, was published in 2011. Chris Ewan continues to live and write in the Isle of Man – which is the setting for his next book, a standalone thriller called Safe House, to be published by Faber in August 2012.
He will not be the last writer for whom the Island has provided a peaceful, safe and stimulating haven for writing. Perhaps that stretch of sea between the Island and the rest of the world allows the writer a fresh perspective on their ideas and experiences. Certainly, Hall Caine returned to write after his travels, as did TE Brown and whilst he didn’t return to live in the island, it is apparent in his work that Nigel Kneale, and in turn his son, Matthew Kneale, both continued to be inspired by their island roots.