The Sailing Ship Tree

Sometimes there would be a message for us hidden in a secret hole in one of its branches.

The Sailing Ship Tree is a daring adventure story. Four children are connected to a mansion in Liverpool. One is the son of a wealthy owner of a shipping line. One is a servant. The other two are twins, the children of the butler of the house. And one of them was my father!

Here's how I came to write it:

One of my most treasured possessions is a diary of my grandfather’s. It’s just a simple little notebook covered in worn black leather, and the copper script inside is faded and very difficult to read. It tells the story of a journey he made by steamship to Australia to join his wife in 1892. When he arrived he discovered that she was dead.

Barkhill MansionHe remarried, and became a butler in a large house called Barkhill Mansion in the Mossley Hill area of Liverpool. It now belongs to Liverpool John Moore University. Here I am standing on the steps as if I were lady of the mansion! In those days it was surrounded by countryside. In 1902 my father, Walter Alfred William Hollingsworth, and his twin sister Dorothy were born in the lodge cottage there.

My own father loved writing, and would have loved the acknowledgement of being published. When he died at the age of 93 I discovered some stories that he had written, some set on the Barkhill estate of his childhood. The discovery of these story fragments, and the diary, all put me in touch with the recent past of my own family, the grandfather I had never met, a vanished lifestyle, and, in a sense, with my own need to write.

Walter and DorothyDad was the greatest influence in my career, in that he encouraged me to write from a very early age. He used to type up my poems and stories for me and send them to the Liverpool Echo, and he shared all my excitement when they were published on the children’s page. And he was always writing himself. To me there was nothing unusual about creating a story – it was something my dad did. So when I found his stories all parcelled up with their rejection slips I decided to write a book that would celebrate Dad’s life, and that would also incorporate his own memories. They became a kind of springboard for my novel. In a sense, The Sailing Ship Tree is a collaboration between my father and myself.

It sounds easy. In fact I found it harder to write than anything else I’ve attempted, and despaired many times of being able to bring it off. Writing about the past has its own peculiar problems. When I wrote Children of Winter, set in Derbyshire at the time of the Great Plague, I made a conscious decision to avoid detailed research in order to keep the narrative as simple as possible. In Street Child, set in the poverty-ridden streets of Victorian London, I was drawn into extensive research, which was utterly beguiling. I had to drag myself away from it. The more you know, the more you want to know. The more you know, the more you try to incorporate into the story. It’s a dangerous trap. The story is the thing.

Now in The Sailing Ship Tree there were three governing factors. It’s set in the years between 1902 and 1914 – a period in history that is well-documented and is, what’s more, still within living memory. Like a film-maker, I browsed and interviewed and researched, I visited the kitchens of the Big House, talked to people who were children then, avid for authentic detail.

But it’s also family history – Dad was leaning over my shoulder, his other children and grandchildren and greatgrandchildren were eager to pick up the pages as they dropped out of my printer. What did my grandfather look like? Did he have a temper? What was my grandmother’s christian name? What colour eyes did she have? Did Dad like eggs?

Help – but hang on – it’s not a biography. It’s not a social document. It’s a story! What about the children that its intended for? What about all the things that have to happen to make a story work – all those hopes and all that love and fun and fear and crisis and adventure? There’s only one place to look for those, and that’s my imagination.

When I first started writing, in 1980, I wrote a book called How Green You Are! It’s a collection of connected stories. It’s set in my own childhood, and it has everything and nothing to do with my own childhood. Every story begins with something that really happened, and takes off into something that never happened at all. When I talk to children about it I call it mixture of ‘I remember’ and ‘Let’s pretend’. I seriously believe that those are the two basic elements of every story that’s written.

So when I panicked over what I called in my head ‘the Dad book’, I remembered that. I could actually do anything I wanted with this material, in order to make the story work. Let go of the facts, and ‘wing it’. After all, that’s what you ask the reader of fiction to do, every time.

But where do you start, and how do you draw fiction from fact? In this case, I needed to step back a bit from my dad, in order to invent him as a fictional character.

That was the hardest thing. I invented two more children, Tweeny, the maid, and Master George, son of the owner of the Big House. The Big House itself became a kind of character, because it was the only thing that the four children had in common. And from that came their meeting-place, where secrets were exchanged – a chestnut tree, the sailing ship tree.

I tried at first to write the book as the ‘we’ of the opening chapter – the twins, but I soon found that it was impossible to keep the story going if I couldn’t split the twins up from time to time. I thought I would let Dorothy and Walter share the story-telling, but then I thought that as Master George and Tweeny were just as important, they could be narrators too! Dorothy weaves the other three voices and their very different stories together. So, I had resolved the probl;em of the voice – but what was the main story to be about? And then, looking back to that diary of my grandfather’s, I thought of the driving project of the story – a boat passage to Australia. I researched the immgration boats at the Liverpool Maritime Museum, and found out what kind of conditions the people would have sailed in – very uncomfortable, and a long journey lasting ten or twelve weeks. I found out what Barkhill would have looked like before it was converted into a university college by visiting its little sister, Sudley, which was owned by the Holt shipping family and donated to the people of Liverpool as an Art Gallery.

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