Last Friday of the month, and a bank holiday to boot. What more excuse could be needed for a celebration, and joining me for Friday Night Drinks tonight, I have author… James Morgan-Jones.
Welcome to the blog, James, and thank you for joining me for drinks this evening. First things first, what are you drinking?
Red vino, definitely. It doesn’t have to be expensive; just something good quality.
If we weren’t here in my virtual bar tonight, but were meeting in real life, where would you be taking me for a night out?
Well, I’m up for the theatre. I’m longing to go again. I’d fancy a good play, but as it’s your night out, if you fancied a musical, that would be fine. After the show, we could go for a guzzly slap-up – maybe the Ivy in Covent Garden.
If you could invite two famous people, one male and one female, alive or dead, along on our night out, who would we be drinking with?
As we’re having a theatrical night out, I’d choose the late lamented (and outrageous) grande dame of theatre, Coral Browne, along with Alan Bennett, whose play ‘An Englishman Abroad’ was based on her memoir. They’d be an inexhaustible fund of hilarious and very risqué theatrical anecdotes and I imagine the evening would be riotous. We’d have to be on our toes – they both had/have a rapier wit.
So, now we’re settled, tell me what you are up to at the moment. How and why did you start it and where do you want it to go?
I’ve just put together a second volume of short stories and am currently finishing off a play. Then it’s back to my ‘big’ project – the Glasswater Quintet, a series of inter-connected novels. Four are already published, so the next – entitled The Ice Chandelier – will be the last. It all started when I was doing an MA in Creative Writing at Trinity St David’s university here in Wales. The first part of the first novel – On the Edge of Wild Water – comprised my dissertation for the course. It grew from there. The sequence takes an anti-clockwise trajectory, starting in the 2000s, then going back to the 1970s, then the beginning of WW2. The fourth novel comes forward again to the 1990s. The last will take the sequence full circle (and then some), set just a few years after the events depicted in the first novel. The books are connected by place and character and are maybe best described as psychological thrillers with a supernatural slant. They also have a strong historical dimension. And they’re emotional, atmospheric and dramatic.
What has been your proudest moment since you started writing and what has been your biggest challenge?
The third novel of the Glasswater Quintet – The Stone Forest – has a long opening section set in a community on the Thames marshes in the 1930s. This community actually existed, but of course, does so no longer. I had only imagination to rely on, plus some photographs and a few recollections of an archivist who had lived there as a child. It was quite daunting, as it’s very important that it should be effective, and I had no idea if I could pull it off. I think now that I did succeed – as an imaginative recreation, on its own terms, it really does work and I’m proud of it.
What is the one big thing you’d like to achieve in your chosen arena? Be as ambitious as you like, it’s just us talking after all!
Truly? – I honestly think that if my work were both widely recognized and enjoyed for its quality, then I’d be happy. Of course, money and awards would be nice.
What do you have planned that you are really excited about?
The play I’m currently writing. I went to drama school in London and started off as an actor, so being able to add a play to my CV gives me great pleasure and a sense of achievement.
I love to travel, and I’m currently drawing up a bucket list of things I’d like to do in the future. Where is your favourite place that you’ve been and what do you have at the top of your bucket list?
I once had an Italian friend who lived in Milan and we travelled by train to Venice. It really is the most extraordinary place, and in those days, wasn’t horribly crowded. Now I believe it’s virtually impossible to move there, even in winter. It’s a pity. Venice is truly unique. I love Italy generally, actually. What I’d really love would be to undertake a ‘Grand Tour’ of the whole country, as the Victorians used to do. By train. The Italian trains are much better than ours.
Tell me one interesting/surprising/secret fact about yourself.
I have a silicon disc under my right eye as a result of a car accident. How fascinating is that?
Books are my big passion and central to my blog and I’m always looking for recommendations. What one book would you give me and recommend as a ‘must-read’?
I’d steer you towards Beryl Bainbridge. She was a very quirky writer, and is one of my favourites. In her later career, she turned to fictional recreations of famous historical events and was immensely successful. She was shortlisted five times for the Booker prize and never won. She was actually referred to as ‘the Booker bridesmaid’. It’s rumoured that her failure to win sprang from the prejudice/bias of some members of the Booker juries. Beryl didn’t wear ‘the right tie’ – ie, she hadn’t come through any of the educational establishments or professions that the literary establishment considered requisite. She started off as an actress in repertory and never went to university. I think it rather pissed them off that she was able to do what she did without it. Shamefaced, they awarded her a posthumous prize, which was voted for by her fans among the reading public. They chose her great novel ‘Master Georgie’. But for my money, if you haven’t read it, I’d recommend Every Man for Himself. Much has been written/filmed/recorded/discussed about the sinking of the Titanic; but for me, nothing has brought me so close to the feel of that time, and to so authentic a sense of the great tragedy that was the Titanic’s maiden voyage. There’s a terrific apprehension of not only the ship, but of an entire era, sailing towards catastrophe. Like all Beryl’s books it’s quite short, but it’s a fantastic achievement.
For the four fraught, mysterious days of her doomed maiden voyage in 1912, the Titanic sails towards New York, glittering with luxury, freighted with millionaires and hopefuls. In her labyrinthine passageways the last, secret hours of a small group of passengers are played out, their fate sealed in prose of startling, sublime beauty, as Beryl Bainbridge’s haunting masterpiece moves inexorably to its known and terrible end.
So, we’ve been drinking all evening. What is your failsafe plan to avoid a hangover and your go-to cure if you do end up with one?
Do you know – and I apologise in advance if this sounds sanctimonious – but I don’t really get hangovers. I’ve been ill once or twice quite soon after over-indulging in alcohol, but that’s invariably been because I haven’t eaten properly beforehand. Even then, though, I didn’t really have a hangover the following morning.
After our fabulous night out, what would be your ideal way to spend the rest of a perfect weekend?
By the sea. As we’ve been in the West End, I suppose it would have to be somewhere accessible from London. Perhaps the Essex coast. I was born and brought up in Essex and I have a nostalgic fondness for those places. Maybe Walton-on-the-Naze. I set a short story there, loosely based on childhood experiences, in my volume The Wheel and Other Stories.
Thank you for joining me tonight, James, I have thoroughly enjoyed our chat.
James Morgan-Jones was born and brought up on the Essex/London borders. His mother was Welsh and his father from the East End. He trained as a professional actor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and worked for several years in the theatre. After a serious accident he retrained as a feline behaviourist and now lives in West Wales. He began writing seriously after gaining an MA with Distinction from Trinity Saint David University in Carmarthen. He then embarked on The Glasswater Quintet, a series of supernatural/psychological novels, linked by character and place but set in different decades, from the 1940s onwards. The first book in the series, On the Edge of Wild Water, was published by Wordcatcher in the summer of 2017. This was followed by the second in the quintet, The Glass Citadel, later that year, as well as a short story collection, The Wheel and Other Stories. The third novel, The Stone Forest, was published in November 2018, followed by the fourth – Eye of the Rushes – in 2020. In the autumn of 2019 James’s first collection of poetry, Living Places, Passing Lives, was published by Wordcatcher.