In 2009, Philip Spires collaborated with the sporting legend, Martin Offiah, to produce a book, Martin Offiah’s 50 Of The Best, celebrating the skills and thrills of rugby league.
Hi Philip, Welcome to Literature & Fiction! Please tell everyone a little about yourself.
Philip: I was born in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, in 1952 and was brought up in Sharlston, then a mining village. I did grammar school in Normanton, took a chemical engineering degree from Imperial College, London, and then decided to teach, after a PGCE at King’s. I then went to Kenya for two years as a volunteer. On returning to Britain, I did sixteen years in London education. But the travel bug was with me, and in 1992, my wife and I decided to move to Brunei, where we lived for almost seven years. Three years in Zayed University, Abu Dhabi, followed and then semi-retirement beckoned and we moved to Spain. Since 2003, I have done some part-time teaching, we run a small tourist rental business and I have completed a PhD, as well as five books.
When did the writing bug bite, and in what genre(s)?
Philip: The only time I have ever suffered travel sickness was when I was very young indeed. I insisted on writing out the story of The Three Little Pigs in an old desk diary while on the back seat of a Standard Eight – and I was very, very sick. I write better than that these days, I hope. So I must have enjoyed creative writing as a child. I even tried to write a couple of novels when I was a student. Thankfully, they are both lost. I even wrote poetry. Unfortunately, I still have it. I have kept a commonplace book since 1973. It’s a work-book, not a diary, full of random jottings, book reviews, concert reviews, travel writing, research notes and trivia. In 1978, when I set about the first of my Kenyan novels, I used material I had written in the commonplace book while I lived in Kenya. The second Kenyan novel, Mission, arose out of issues that A Fool’s Knot could only skirt. The common-place book remains an idea bank that bears interest. There’s a wealth of material in it. Nowadays, it’s almost exclusively just book reviews, however.
When you started writing, what goals did you want to accomplish? Is there a message you want readers to grasp?
Philip: I have always been fascinated by politics, not only in the ideological sense, but also at the level of relationships between individuals and groups. It was Karl Marx’s wonderful writing on the links between individual identity and roles within economic systems – means of production, if you like – that prompted me to revisit my own background. My home area, once proudly socialist and comprising miners and families who worked hard, played hard, but always fairly, and then died young, is now transformed into a shadow of its former dignity, populated by apparently compliant servants of consumerism, most of whom can’t afford to consume. In Kenya, I was fascinated by people’s relationship with the poverty that dominated their lives. In Brunei and the Emirates, it was wealth and its pursuit that endowed respect, fed aspiration and moulded attitudes towards the poorer rest of the planet. How characters are formed by their nurture, how lives are sculpted by their social context, and how their presumptions generate interests that determine action continues to fascinate me. My writing explores these ideas and relationships – at least I hope it does! I write about ordinary people, because every life is extra-ordinary. Kings, queens, princesses, spies, celebrities, those famous by virtue of mere fame are, for me, smaller than life, their identities often a product of someone else’s marking concept rather than their own even canalised experience. I thus find such folk less than interesting. But the characters that populate the novels of writers such as Graham Greene, William Boyd, Julian Barnes or Pat Barker – to name but a few – are fascinating in every detail. So, it is this process of nurture within nature that underpins what I write. Individual journeys through life are unique and intrinsically interesting. There’ll always be the odd issue to confront along the way!
Briefly tell us about your latest book. Is it part of a series or stand-alone?
Philip: My latest book, Voyagers, examines several strands related to individual and group identity. It’s a set of short stories loosely based on the experience of travel. It is thus not travel writing, as such, but it may be writing about travellers. It opens with a novella, Discoverers. This is set inBrunei and tells how a college teacher sets out on a routine assignment that would be anything but routine for someone who did not live in primary rain forest. But the teacher’s time is up. His supervisors want him out, though he only becomes aware of the threat after its effects have already begun to bite. He is bright enough to counter and to outwit, but has he forgotten something? Maybe it has something to do with a political campaign he is running? Eventually, if we want our own way, who cares about the facts? In other stories, a little-travelled retiree is rudely intro-duced to the potential threat of the matriarchal. A young art student, apparently liberal, even revolutionary in taste and style, reverts to a new-found middle-class safety when confronted with a choice. In a distant future, a tele-transported man fails to be reunited with his own identity. Australian travellers feel threatened by the claims and connections of a casual acquaintance, but would you believe him? A young couple visit an idyllic village where local lives are anything but idyllic. Things are what they seem and simultaneously they are not. Things agree and contradict; it’s the interpreter that adds meaning and consequence. Reality is often merely neutral.
How do you develop characters? Setting?
Philip: The settings for the Voyagers stories are all real, culled from my own observations and descriptions of trips that I faithfully recorded over the years in my commonplace book. The stories visit some well-known tourist sites – Ephesus and Bodrum, Florence and Venice, the Vietnam coast, a Devon village. The Brunei rain forest is more out of the way, and I doubt many tourists visit the green room in Westminster Central Hall. Sometimes the events and the people are based on those encountered in my travels. The Australians were in Dubrovnik and they were talking to a spiv in a bar. There really was a field trip up the Belalong River into Temburong’s forest. The pub in Devon did exist. Some of the people in the stories were also there, but the characters are amalgams, constructs and juxtapositions to highlight relationships, habits, opportunities, threats. The child abuser I place inVietnam was quite real, but I encountered him inIndonesia. The writer and the politician who meet in Protesters are both real people, though the story does not name them. I know they met in that place because I was in the audience to hear both of them speak. I imagined what might have transpired between them behind the scenes, however. The characters in my Kenyan books also draw on real people, but real people conjoined, merged to create a narrative. There really was a man killed by his father as a result of a family disagreement based on cultural conflict. I never met either of them, but I knew the issue over which they disagreed, and that substance became the plot.
Who is the most unusual/most likeable character?
Philip: In Voyagers I like the central character in Assessors, the science fiction story, despite the fact that we never actually meet him. He is an engineer, a specialist in the maintenance of the urban domes in which people now live. He has been to a conference and has been – as usual – tele-transported back home. His problem arises out of his apparent re-classification at his destination. His body arrives intact, but his intellect has been down-graded, his knowledge and skill-base stripped out and replaced with only basic functions. He writes, apparently, an email asking for his case to be reassessed. If the downgrade was intended, then what motivated it? If it was not intended, then could he have his old intellect back, please? The fawning, grovelling style he adopts, however, might not necessarily be him. The story was inspired by a report of BBC Radio 4´s Today programme in which an American-Japanese physics professor predicted the imminent realisation of an ability to tele-transport large molecules by virtue of our intricate knowledge of genetic sequences. The very next report featured the opening of Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Five, where travellers and their luggage could not be reunited.
Share the best review (or a portion) that you’ve ever had.
Philip: Here are a few excerpts from Amazon reviews of Mission.
A tragic accident is seen through the eyes of five different characters, including the victim. Unforgettable – I became totally absorbed. I will remember my time spent in Phil Spires’ African community for a long, long time. Highly recommended. (Maureen Moss)
… Despite the events being trodden over by several people, there’s always something fresh to discover, a new insight into a character, a shocking revelation, and even though you think you know everything already, you read on, wanting to understand the individuals and their inner worlds, and still learn more. The narrative is coloured by the sights and smells of a small town in Africa, the petty tribal disagree-ments and the long-lasting resentment of past ignominies under colonial rule. It is not a light read, but it is rewarding. It’s obvious that these characters lived with Spires for several years, he knows them so well, and by the end of the book, we do too. A memorable and quite remarkable book. (Nik Morton)
The plot is centred round the lives of five characters who are more or less implicated in the death of Munyasya a derelict ex Kenyan army officer. Although the `accident’ occurred more than thirty years ago this tragedy is still playing out its dramatic consequences in their lives. In reading the novel I was constantly reminded of Lawrence Darrell’s great work `The Alexandria Quartet’. In “Mission” the sense of place is not so poetically depicted but there is no doubt that we are in Africa its vibrancy and heat pervades each chapter and as in the Quartet we see one event or set of circumstances from the varying points of view of the main characters. How differently each views those same events! (Michael Elsmere)
A fine story set in beautiful Kenya, colorful and filled with mystery, intrigue, and twists. The characters are real as is their perceptions when seen through their eyes. A magnificent story set in magnificent locale. (Bill Copeland)
What are your current projects?
Philip: My next project is already finished in that the text is written. What I am doing at the moment is precisely nothing, however, except reflect on the ideas it contains. A couple of people have read the book and I am waiting a while before re-reading it myself. I might change some aspects of it. Who knows? It’s called A Search for Donald Cottee. Don, also known as Donkey because of a thicker than usual lower lip, has retired early after years on sickness benefit, having once been an electrician in a coal mine. He and his wife, Suzie, have driven to Spain in a Swift Sundance and have parked permanently on a Benidorm caravan site. Suzie, who prefers to hide a motor-accident scar on her left arm under a suitable garment, long ago adopted the nickname Poncho. So Donkey Cottee and Poncho Suzie seek a new and restful life in Spain. Don continues to campaign on environmental issues, being passionately against wind-farms. Via an old flame who threatens to reignite, Suzie takes on the management of a cabaret bar. Don meets women of his dreams, is disowned by the daughter he has, is captivated by the one he perhaps never had, falls into caves and gets mixed up with politics. Suzie makes a ripping success of a bar that the owners wanted to fail so they could demolish it. My parody of Don Quixote is a comedy that turns suddenly and devastatingly tragic. I hope to publish later this year.
How does your environment/upbringing colour your writing?
Philip: From the material of A Search For Donald Cottee it will be clear that the experience of Yorkshire mining areas over the last four decades is an important element in the book. As youngsters, fired with the late 1950s and early 1960s myths of mobility, betterment and opportunity, Don and Suzie strove to realise their personal and shared dreams. Their daughter got everything she wanted only to reject it. They got their bigger house and a mortgage to match. When the strike of the 1980s began, Don continued to work because, as an electrician, he was “maintenance”. But he was duly ostracised, labelled a traitor by his colleagues, labelled at home perhaps in the same way that the rest of ThatcheriteBritain labelled the strikers as traitors. Don was thus doubly an outcast, damned for being and damned for not being… And then, after years on the “club”, Don retires to find he is still a little man in others’ bigger schemes, despite the film-set location of the Med, sunshine and cheap beer. But in the end we are still not sure what happened to Don or Suzie. He might just have had the last laugh, if there was one…
Where can folks learn more about your books and events?
Philip: I have a website at www.philipspires.co.uk where you can find some extracts from the books. A new page devoted to Donald Cottee will appear soon. Voyagers, my travel stories, have their own page at http://www.philipspires.co.uk/voyagers.htm. Please do have a look at the material, but please do remember that all I want to do is write the kind of book that I would want to read. If you would like to share that experience, I would be at least flattered. The books are available now in Kindle and other ebook editions, though Voyagers can also be bought as paperback. Here’s the Amazon links for my work: