By Simon Downham-Knight
“Eleven-year-old runaway, Kevin arrives at an isolated boys’ home run by sinister and brutal monks. After witnessing a ghostly apparition, he realises his life is in danger and he must plot his escape.”
Last week, I celebrated finishing a rough first draft of my upcoming novel Saint Solange, by spending a day at Jo Barnfield’s basement print department in Bath. There we used vintage, antique, moveable type to create the above image as a frontispiece for it. Saint Solange was very much inspired by the scandal at the Haut de la Garenne Children’s Home on Jersey and the ghost stories of M.R. James, Susan Hill and Henry James. It was also inspired by films from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s that featured children and young people dealing with the difficult world of adults, such as Whistle Down the Wind (1961), Tiger Bay (1959), Sky West and Crooked (1965), and The Railway Children (1970). Children’s films that did not talk down to, or patronise the viewers.
Before late last year I had only ever really written scripts and screenplays. I was always writing as a blueprint for something else, rather than for the sake of words or good prose. Saint Solange was originally conceived as a screenplay and was written as such. I entered it into several contests and got into the semi-finals of the Shore Scripts Feature Contest in 2020.
This was a boost at the time but ultimately frustrating as it ultimately didn’t win. I had been here before; having written several other screenplays that got close to being produced but ultimately fell at various hurdles. Around the same time, I started reading Alan Moore’s huge and incredible book, Jerusalem. I found the sheer size and ambition of the book to be an inspiration in and of itself, but an interview with Alan Moore on YouTube turned out to be the true thought bomb. He said, “It takes hundreds of thousands of pounds to make a film but all you need to write a book is a piece of paper and a biro.” These words were something of a watershed moment for me. I began writing short stories in earnest with a feeling that I would write a series of them before I tackle a bigger narrative like a novel. However, in January 2021, I was tempted to undertake Ali Flind’s #WRITE2021 Challenge which is “a free year-long challenge aimed at getting you writing more in 2021 – 2021 words a week, to be exact. Whether you want to write a novel, a blog, a non-fiction book, a weekly short story or a combination of these things.”
Getting into a regular habit of writing has been great and I have found that I have regularly far exceeded that amount as well as writing the short stories that I have been posting on this Blog.
Haut de la Garenne means top of the rabbit warren. This always struck me as an odd name for a place with such a deep and twisted history. Haut de la Garenne was opened in 1867 as an industrial school for “young people of the lower classes of society and neglected children”. During the second world war, occupying German forces used it as a signal station, and in 1945 it became a children’s home again. There had been rumours for decades that children were suffering sexual and physical abuse and suspicions that the island’s authorities appeared reluctant to investigate. Senior police officers opened their inquiry in September 2007 and took 1,776 statements from 192 former child residents who identified around 150 people as abusers. A number of former residents went public to tell of their ordeal. Peter Hannaford, one of Jersey’s leading trade union officials, who was sent to the home as an orphaned child, waived his right to anonymity to tell the Jersey Evening Post how his earliest memories were of abuse.
“Boys and girls were raped when I was there,” he said. “The abuse was anything from rape and torture. It happened every night. And it happened to everyone.”
The terror of being isolated in a place like this, with no way of escaping, embedded itself into my brain. I would dream about being stuck there and the idea for a ghost story told from the perspective of an eleven-year-old new resident was born from that.
My aim is to rewrite/edit over the next few months and to have a printed version of the novel ready in time for Christmas.
Copyright 2021 – Simon Downham-Knight