Today I’m delighted to feature Costa short-listed author John Ironmonger. John is the author of ‘The Whale at the End of the World’ (previously called Not Forgetting the Whale), ‘The Many Lives of Heloise Starchild’, ‘The Coincidence Authority’, and ‘The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder.’. His novels have been translated into sevem languages.
John was born in Nairobi, Kenya. At the age of thirteen he was dispatched to boarding school in England (St Lawrence College in Ramsgate). He studied Zoology at Nottingham University, and went on to complete a PhD degree at Liverpool studying freshwater leeches and flatworms. This led to a period lecturing at a new University in Nigeria (the University of Ilorin).
John has worked in the IT industry since the 80s, and travelled widely, spending time in America, Europe, and the Middle East.
He lives in Parkgate, Cheshire with his wife Sue and has two children and three grandchildren.
Over to John:
Which 5 pieces of music/songs would you include in the soundtrack to your life and why?
From my childhood it would be ‘A Swingin’ Safari’ by Bert Kaempfert and his orchestra. This was so popular in Nairobi, where I grew up in the 1960s, that you could hardly go a day without hearing it on the radio or as background music in a shop or a cafe. It reminds me so much of the exotic innocence of my boyhood. It’s joyous and uplifting. I still love it.
And in the same vein, ‘Malaika’ by Miriam Makeba. Malaika must be the best known Swahili song. It is a love song, ‘My Angel,’ and is still the one song that always brings a tingle to my spine.
For my teenage years I would have to pick ‘Strawberry Fields Forever.’ I loved the Beatles and this was a record I played so often the needle on my record player nearly wore through the vinyl.
For my student soundtrack, it’s Melanie or Van Morrison … I was equally in thrall to both. Sorry Van, I’m going with Melanie. Leftover Wine. Raw and powerful, just a singer and her guitar. Perfection.
And for my adulthood it has to be Prince. We would see him every time he performed in the UK. The consummate musician. There has never been anyone better. Tough to pick just one track. It is going to have to be Purple Rain. To watch Prince play this track was to be transported to the tenth level of guitar heaven, like a spiritual experience. Unbelievable.
No room then for Martin Simpson or Afro Celt Sound System or the Bhundu Boys. Shucks. Sorry guys, I love you all too.
What 5 things (apart from family and friends) you’d find it hard to live without.
My reading spectacles. I hang them around my neck because otherwise I’d lose a pair a day. There are virtually no candid photos of me without the specs around my neck.
My dog Poppy. She’s a golden retriever and she’s almost fourteen. I’m so used to walking her every morning, evening, and night-time, I don’t know how I shall cope without her. She is our third retriever and I know we won’t have her too much longer. So I’m making the most of every walk.
A paperback novel. I do need to have one on the go at all times. I leave it around the house, usually propped open face down (don’t judge me) and I constantly have to go and look for it (‘has anyone seen my book?’) When I finish a book there is this strange and uncomfortable hinterland you enter before you start another one. And then the wonderful feeling of reassurance once you get past the first few pages and you’re hooked all over again.
My guitar. I am a rubbish guitarist but I do like to fool around on the guitar for a while every day. It’s a good way to relax. I have been on zoom calls where I have muted my microphone and turned off the camera and just played my guitar to myself. Please don’t tell.
Chocolate. Damn that sweet tooth.
Can you offer 5 pieces of advice you’d give to your younger self?
…er… … if I avoid all the stuff I couldn’t possibly publish, well I’m still left with too long a list …… so let’s just go with …
The only things that really matter are the people you love. Never ever lose sight of that.
Don’t be a dick
Don’t waste any time
Don’t listen to my advice! What do I know?
Tell us 5 things that most people don’t know about you
I’ve seen a Javan rhino. OK, I know that may not seem particularly amazing, but consider this. Javan rhinos are the world’s rarest and most secretive mammal, they only live in one forest in Java (Ujung Kulon) and it is a place that has no roads, is swampy, and is almost completely inaccessible. Moreover no one ever sees them. Even people who spend a lifetime researching in the forest never see them. So my wife Sue and I are very smug. We may be the only westerners to have seen a Javan rhino and her calf.
I’ve driven across the world’s deadliest minefield. The Berm between Western Sahara and Mauritania has killed more than 1,500 people. I’ve driven over following a ‘safe’ route with my friend Mike Taylor, and revisited where the Berm borders Algeria with my friend Graham Ibbotson.
I once met Idi Amin in a bar and he bought me a drink.
I was part of a team that made the Guinness Book of Records for speed reading the complete works of Shakespeare
When I was a schoolboy I once raced against Steve Ovett. (He won).
Tell us 5 things you’d like to do or achieve.
I have an unofficial bucket list of places to visit. It’s a pretty fluid list but, as soon as Covid is over, I’d like to make a start. The list today might include Oman, Grenada, Greenland, Russia, Peru, Madagascar. Tomorrow it might be a slightly different list.
I’d like to buy an acre or so of land and plant trees on it for perpetuity to offset all the carbon I’ve used (and still use).
I’d like to write a feature film
I’d like to write a TV series
I’d like to write a classic novel. Well. I can still dream.
Lovely getting to know you John, especially as we’re almost neighbours (well both in Cheshire – I’m a bit further north near Northwich). It was lovely to hear Melanie again she was one of my favourites. I think her version of Ruby Tuesday is far superior to the original. I might need to start hanging my specs around my neck too. I don’t need them for reading but if I want to watch the telly I’m lost without them and invariably I have to look for them every night. Common sense would say leave them in a fixed place, but … How fabulous to see have seen a Javan rhino, and with her calf! Nowhere near as exciting, but I did see a white rhino in Kenya, much to my husbands dismay. He’s been to Kenya twice and hasn’t seen one. The day I went out on safari, he stayed at the hotel as he was ill, and he missed it. We all now need to know the Idi Amin story – are you telling? Good luck with all the travelling, we’ll certainly appreciate it much more having endured the past 18 months. Here’s hoping all your writing dreams come true too, they’ll help pay for your mini wood.
The Many Lives of Heloise Starchild
REMEMBER ME WHEN THE COMET COMES…
On the day the comet came, a girl named Heloise was born. She would live a fine life, and inherit a fortune, but would meet a cruel, untimely death.
Years later, strange dreams plague Katya Nemcová, a teenager burdened with a rare and curious gift. Memories come to Katya in her dreams – images and stories from a past that isn’t her own. Are these ghosts real? And what of the memory she seems to have of Heloise’s treasures, two centuries old?
A novel that spans the history of Europe – from revolutionary France to the world wars, the Prague Spring, post Brexit Britain, and beyond – this is the irresistible, adventurous and affectionate story of a quite extraordinary woman, her exceptionally talented ancestors, and the curious memories they share.
The Whale at the End of the World
It all began with the whale.
When a young man washes up on the sands of St Piran in Cornwall, it is clear to the villagers that this is not a regular day. What has brought him here? And what is the crisis only he understands, that threatens not only their community but all of civilisation?
With a global pandemic on the horizon, and a whale lurking in the bay, the villagers of St Piran must band together to survive. Intimate, funny and heart-warming, John Ironmonger tells a compelling story about the important things that hold us together, and how hope can be found, even at the end of the world.
The Coincidence Authority
Thomas Post is an expert on coincidences. He’s an authority. People come to see him, to ask him if he can explain strange events that have befallen them, and he can always explain these things away. We poor humans, he would say, have a tendency to make patterns out of random shapes, or to construct meaning from the random behaviour of the universe.
But one day Thomas gets a visit from Azalea Lewis, and his world will never be the same again. For Azalea’s coincidences seem to go off the scale. The lives of Thomas and Azalea become entwined, their destinies entangled. And now, with Azalea apparently dead in a foreign land, Thomas must reassemble the pieces of her life in search for the patterns that drove it. And that means he must try to unravel the coincidences that so afflicted her.
The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder
SHORTLISTED FOR THE COSTA FIRST NOVEL AWARD
‘Maximilian Ponder is lying face up, dead, on the dining table in his own front room. This is something you really should know, right from the start.
‘Max would also have wanted you to know that this is a Henri II style, French, walnut extending dining table, standing on solid turned legs with fretwork decor to the middle, also with ebony and sandalwood inlay, designed by the French furniture maker Nicolas Rastin and probably dating from around 1900 …’
Maximilian Ponder shut himself away for thirty years in an attempt to record every memory he ever had. Now he lies dead, surrounded by his magnum opus – The Catalogue – an exhaustive set of notebooks and journals that he hopes will form the map of one human mind. But before his friend Adam Last can call the police and inform them of Max’s death, one rather gruesome task remains in order for Max’s project to be complete.
Interspersed with sections from The Catalogue, Adam tells the story of the man he knew – a man whose life changed dramatically the day he buried a dead labrador and fought a duel with his father. What emerges is both the story of a friendship, and also of a lifelong obsession, a quest to understand the human mind, memory and what constitutes a life.