Is 'Swidgers' a real word?
The name 'Swidgers' is taken from a family in one of Charles Dickens’ lesser known fantasy Christmas stories called THE HAUNTED MAN. The tale is set at a college and the Swidgers are the good, hard working people who have served there for generations. One Christmas, the chemistry teacher at the college, Redlaw, meets a mysterious phantom who offers the melancholic scientist the possibility of wiping out all his unhappy memories. Memory is a familiar theme in Dickens, but whereas in A CHRISTMAS CAROL Scrooge is made to recall the past, which is presented as good, in THE HAUNTED MAN Redlaw takes the opportunity to forget the past, which turns out to have terrible consequences for those around him. It’s only with the redeeming power of Milly, wife of William Swidger, that things are at least partially put right. Swidgers in this supernatural tale are a source of intervening good, which fits in with the SWIDGER book series.
Swidgers, of course, is also a word that combines elements of ‘switch’ and ‘dodge’, and this too somehow seems appropriate for our Swidger interventions in human life in THE TIME THAT NEVER WAS, THE TIME THEY SAVED TOMORROW and THE TIME OF YESTERDAY'S RETURN.
Where did the idea for The Old Coach Inn come from?
The inspiration behind The Old Coach Inn came at least in part from a sort of Tree House that Steve Nallon sees still every day on his daily walk around Chipping Barnet in north London where he lives. To say too much would be to give away part of the plot, but it’s such images as these that often find themselves living unobtrusively in the mind until one day, and often unexpectedly, they suddenly emerge and turn themselves into something quite magical.
What sort of book are people calling SWIDGERS?
In publishing, there’s what is known as ‘The Shelf Test’, which means simply, ‘Does your book have a specific shelf it can sit on?’ And with SWIDGERS, is that the Sci-Fi shelf, Fantasy shelf, Teenage Fiction shelf or Some Other Completely Different shelf?
The SWIDGER book series is set in the real world but within that real world are cosmic beings who may look and act like humans but unknown to them are intervening in their lives. This genre, or type of story, is sometimes called Urban Fantasy and you’ll find elements of it in the HARRY POTTER books and, of course, the classic television series DOCTOR WHO. Yet these, like SWIDGERS, also have parallel worlds and sometimes changing timelines and histories. And a story with features such as these is usually called a Portal Fantasy or Time Adventure.
SWIDGERS has some eerie and frightening passages but is not primarily a Horror story of blood and gore, so don’t put it on that particular shelf. There’s some science in the story too, or at least Swidger science, but with no machine such as the TARDIS, it isn’t strictly Sci-Fi either. Yes, Swidgers are bizarre cosmic beings, but not in the same way as vampires, werewolves and ghosts, so the Supernatural section isn’t right either.
The Thriller genre is often defined by the moment-to-moment sensations and moods it brings out in the reader or viewer. The Thriller is especially noted for eliciting heightened suspense (“I was on the edge of my seat”), shock and surprise (“there were so many ‘jumps’!”) and of course anticipation and anxiety (“a shiver ran right down my spine when I read that bit”). There are certainly many thrilling sequences in SWIDGERS and a few 'jumps', yet the books aren’t just about sensations and feelings for there is a thinking and cerebral side too. And this brings us to the Mystery genre.
The Mystery tale is one where there is some sort of missing piece and someone sets out to find it and so solves the riddle. In book one of SWIDGERS, William sets out to discover why he has been ‘sought’ and so THE TIME THAT NEVER WAS is essentially a ‘mystery plot’ where the reader shares in William’s ongoing detective work. Without giving too much away, William does make a major discovery about himself in book one and this is developed further in book two, THE TIME THEY SAVED TOMORROW. But this discovery does not end the story. Finding out why he has been sought in many ways is just the beginning of his adventures. That said, there is certainly a mystery element in SWIDGERS and that’s been one of the main appeals of the story to many young readers.
Magic Realism is a genre known for its apparent ordinariness, plus its malleable concept of time, and SWIDGERS has these features too, yet Magic Realism tends towards the dream-like and the allegorical whereas SWIDGERS does not. Dreaming does of course play a part in the plot of THE TIME THAT NEVER WAS yet the form and style of the story is never surreal as with much of Magic Realism, in fact SWIDGERS keeps its feet firming on the ground throughout.
What about calling SWIDGERS a Comedy, after all many readers have repeated said how funny the books are? They have described Granny as ‘hilarious’ and what she and William get up to as ‘laugh out loud funny. Perhaps then SWIDGERS should be put on the Comedy shelf?
What all this shows is that it’s often difficult to classify a story under one simple label. SWIDGERS has many thrills and spills, and there are certainly some scary parts too. At its centre is a strange and curious mystery that William sets out to solve. The Universe as described in the SWIDGERS series certainly isn’t what you know it to be, but rather what you can imagine it could be. And that’s its strength because as you read the books, you have to re-evaluate your own familiar Universe and see it in a completely different light.
SWIDGERS then has a feet-on-the-ground style but it’s still a Fantasy – and a rollercoaster Time Adventure to boot. So what do we call it? Perhaps it’s best to is simply combine the key elements and call it a Fantasy Time Adventure – with, of course, a good dollop of comedy thrown in!
Who inspired the Granny character and what she looks like and sounds like in the audio books?
In THE TIME THEY SAVED TOMORROW, book two of the SWIDGER series, Alicia says of Granny that whenever she touches someone with her hands, ‘a little bit of them becomes a little bit of her’. And that’s how writers are too, for often it’s the real people in writers’ lives who somehow are absorbed into themselves and ultimately find a way into their creative worlds. And the real people who are Granny are the bizarre coterie of elderly aunts and grandmas who helped bring up Steve Nallon in his early years in Yorkshire.
Auntie Janie, or more precisely, Great Aunt Jane, the sister of Steve Nallon’s paternal grandfather, Charlie Nallon, certainly influenced how Granny looks and speaks. Janie (left), as everyone called her, was the oddball of the family. She spoke ten-to-the-dozen and most of what she said came from the other side of the rainbow, but she had a joyful and often giddy way with her and it’s these character traits that have echoes in Granny. And it’s certainly Janie’s remarkable long ginger hair that inspired Granny’s own flowing locks.
Janie was a peculiar woman, yet the sort that would appeal to a young boy. Steve discovered as the years went by that Janie had been scarred in ways both physical and emotional. In a bizarre accident she lost part of her foot after getting it trapped in a tramline (an incident now adapted into Granny’s own back story), and according to the family gossip, Janie had had a clandestine marriage to the local greengrocer who then died within a couple of days. It’s incidents such as these which alter how we see ourselves and the family always said it was indeed these events that had left Janie injured internally as well as externally.
It was Steve’s maternal grandmother Mary (second left) who took him and his sister in to live with her after his father’s mental health deteriorated past breaking point. Mary was born before the Titanic sank and was a ten year old girl in middle of World War One and a mother of two young toddlers with a husband oversees fighting throughout the whole of World War Two. It had been a difficult life and now here she was at the age of seventy taking in two teenage children in a two-up-two-down back-to-back house scheduled for slum clearance. Mary’s second daughter, Steve’s mother sister, was born partially deaf and this led to Mary habitually speaking very, very loudly all the time and to everyone, a trait which is now a distinct feature of Granny in the SWIDGER audio books.
Mary had certainly had it tough, yet somehow she found the resilience to cope with whatever life threw at her and this of course is one of the main strengths in Granny’s character. Hers was ‘tough love’, the hallmark of many Yorkshire women who had had difficult lives. There were no hugs or kisses, but for those Steve had his paternal grandmother, Carolina or Lena, as every called her.
Lena Nallon (centre) would smother everyone in her big bosomy embrace as soon as they were through the door. One regular visitor, her son Ronnie, brother to Steve’s father, would tell her dirty jokes, which always made her laugh. Lena was one of those women with a strong life force who only looked for good in the world. It was a life force that revealed not only in hearty laughter but also food for Lens would cook the best Sunday dinners ever.
The quiet listener in Steve’s childhood was Great Aunt Marjorie (right), sister to Mary, his grandmother on his mother’s side. Marjorie was one of those women who observed rather than chattered and would only share her thoughts about people after they had left. Her views were considered and calm and weren’t always typical of her generation for Marjorie was the only person in the family who talked openly positively about gay people being no different to anyone else. And it’s this live-and-let-life approach to the world that strongly influenced the Granny character.
Granny is then an amalgam of all these aunts and grandmas and many other women too who, each in their distinct way, greatly influenced Steve Nallon’s early life. And these women had lifetimes of experience that had made them who they were. It’s often said that writers have a garden they can dig, well, luckily for Steve, his is a loving one, wild in places and rocky too, but with a good earthy soil that, he hopes, has given colour and cheer to the life enhancing ‘Granny’.
What are the cultural and literary influences at play in SWIDGERS?
By osmosis, what writers read or see on the screen can sometimes subconsciously flavour their own creative output. The inhabitants of The Old Coach Inn have, perhaps, an antecedence in the Lost Boys of J.M. Barrie’s PETER PAN, but it was only after completing the book that Steve Nallon even noticed this. There is, however, a more conscious homage in the world of The Old Coach Inn. Well, one line.
‘Would you like a potato?’ asks Salton Manning at William’s first dinner and that same question can be found in the James Whale seminal horror movie THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932). Seems harmless enough, but spoken by the actor Ernest Theisger as Horace Femm it’s weirdly threatening. And Theisger’s performance had such an impact on Steve Nallon as a child that, as a small tribute to him and director James Whale, it has become Salton Manning’s opening salvo with William.
The complete history of The Old Coach Inn is one of the secrets that William discovers in the second half of THE TIME THAT NEVER WAS so not too much should be said. However, once you know its past, it isn’t such a surprise that the plays of Shakespeare were among those books that were already there. In The Old Coach Inn, Shakespeare is more a punishment than a pleasure, reflecting perhaps the experiences of many young readers encountering The Bard for the first time.
In the late 1990s, the Steve recreated and performed Homer’s ODYSSEY as a one-man show and in the visit of William and his mentor Granny to The Royal Academy of Art there is an allusion to this mythological tale when William notices a painting of young Telemachus and his guide and the goddess Athena. Interestingly, Mentor is the name and identity Athena takes when in human form. And hence our word ‘Mentor’. Granny, as has been said, was inspired by all those northern women who helped raise Steve but it’s interesting to learn that a figure not too dissimilar to Granny is there in Homer in a story created around three thousand years ago. In fact you will find small echoes in Granny of the characters that Steve was drawn to in his early reading, notably Aunt Betsy (DAVID COPPERFIELD, Charles Dickens), Aunt Augusta (TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT, Graham Greene) and, of course, that childhood favourite, Mary Poppins, the magical nanny created by P. L. Travers.
Granny’s own cultural influences are difficult to gauge as she doesn’t give too much away about her past, except of course forever quoting those folksy sayings of her mother. However, Granny does tell William that her only education was Sunday School and so it shouldn’t be too surprising that she makes various references to biblical stories such as Moses and the Burning Bush (EXODUS, Chapter Three), Jeremiah and his Clay Pots (BOOK OF JEREMIAH, Chapter 18), plus Daniel in the Lion’s Den (BOOK OF DANIEL, Chapter Six).
The SWIDGERS series has its own back story as to how the Universe came into being and this is explored in a dream motif fable told be Echo on a starry night in Dungeness. How did it happen, the fable asks, that what was once a good world somehow went wrong and became less perfect than it could be? And what is the role of Swidgers in putting that right? Some biblical imagery and references are used to explore this Swidger fable and their history and nature. The snake, for example, is a reoccurring image throughout the series. It’s there in electricity cables, on the tapestry at The Old Coach Inn and as the ghost train at the funfair at Trafalgar Square. In chapter one of the first book, the cable-snake’s origin, or ‘genesis’, is from a deep pit. The idea of The Tree being able to enhance The Power of Hands which Swidgers possess also clearly has biblical undertones.
Where did the Swidgers come from and why were they put here?
All the great myths of our planet have a back story that tries to answer the impossible question, ‘Why do bad things happen in what could be, and perhaps once was, a good world?’ Pandora’s Box is one explanation, and the tempting snake of the Garden of Eden is another. Each myth also presents its own way of putting right the wrong: ‘What can the world be given to return it to its equilibrium?’ And the worlds of fantasy fiction have these too. LORD OF THE RINGS, HARRY POTTER, STAR WARS, all are built on back stories concerning the origin of an evil and each too have people who are then tasked with setting it right. SWIDGERS makes no claim to the literary merits of John Milton’s PARADISE LOST or indeed the creative genius of J.R.R. Tolkien, George Lucas or J.K. Rowling, yet it too has its own lyrical tale of ‘The Fall’ and the role of Swidgers in putting the Universe back to what it once was.
The SWIDGERS fable is told by Echo under a starry night on that desert beach of Dungeness early in book one of THE TIME THAT NEVER WAS. This tale, ‘our own Swidger story’ as Granny calls, is about the Universe dreaming it’s a real Universe and then suddenly waking up and discovering it is. Only then something goes wrong and the reality of the dream becomes a nightmare. The full explanation and meaning of this allegorical tale is not fully revealed until book two, THE TIME THEY SAVED TOMORROW, yet William is bright enough to understand that it somehow connects with Granny’s observation that Time is ‘out of joint’ and it’s Swidgers who were born to set it right.
Why are coming-of-age stories so very popular?
The very title of Joseph Campbell’s influential book THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES (1949) illustrates that for centuries spiritual and mythological writers have mined the same archetypical tales and ultimately only the names of the heroes and the geographical settings have been changed. King Arthur. Jason. Aeneas. Gautama Sakyamuni. Kyazimba. And to those you now might the heroines Moana and Mulan.
Universal folklore has a shared journey and this is true for Coming-of-Age fantasy fiction as well, where the full spectrum of child’s capabilities is explored in supernatural context. In a typical story a young person discovers within themselves, or is given or offered, a special power, but this gift is usually desired too by a Dark Force who is prepared to kill in order to possess it. The Hero, and let us assume the Hero is a girl, often meets a Mentor on her journey who offers her guidance. There will be obstacles to face and trials to overcome, and the Mentor figure is there to help, but in the end the Hero must confront that Evil Force on her own and the inevitable battle, which can be either mental or physical, becomes the rite-of-passage that takes her towards adulthood.
You can find this structure, for example, in the classic tale of Aladdin and his Lamp. There are many versions of the tale but essentially the Hero, Aladdin, a young lad no longer a child but not yet a man, discovers a secret power, in this case the Genie of the Lamp, but Abanazar, the Dark Force of the story, seeks it out too and is prepared to kill Aladdin to have it. Change the names and a few details and you also have Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker. And indeed, our own Hero of SWIDGERS, William Arthur.
In each case, and yet each in their individual ways, the boundaries of what the child believes themselves capable are challenged or even pushed to an extreme and broken and when they are that full rainbow spectrum is found within them. Such archetypical coming-of-age can be found across the world and many theories have been put forward to explain why. The most famous explanation is by Carl Jung who argued that human beings share what he called a ‘collective unconsciousness’ populated by universal symbols and archetypes, including The Shadow and The Wise Man or Great Mother. These resonate with all human beings because, he argues, we are telling each other essentially One Story. The Human Story.
Where do all those weird and wonderful domestic tips of Granny’s come from?
One of the few books that his grandmother had in the house was 501 YORKSHIRE HOME HINTS and was passed on to Steve Nallon at his request given when she died. He kept it for years and then, when developing the character of Granny for the Swidger series, had a look through it and saw that these household tips were perfect for her.
Some of the oddest tips feature in The Old Coach Inn section of the tale where Granny and William are made to do domestic work, notably 79, 88 and 89:
79 A bird Cage Tip – ‘A little bag of sulphur suspended in the birdcage is not only healthy for the bird, but keeps away the parasites which attack some birds’.
80 Care of a Parrot Cage – ‘The cage should be scrubbed out with soap and water, but care must be taken that it is well dried afterwards, especially the perches as parrots are delicate birds, and any dampness might easily make them liable to rheumatism. Never rub the wires with paraffin’.
88 Woodworm in Furniture – ‘When furniture has become attacked by woodworm, brush it all over the inside with paraffin. This may have to be done two or three times to allow the oil to soak in. If the furniture has legs, stand these on saucers containing paraffin and the wood will absorb it’.
89 A Damp Larder – ‘If your larder is damp, keep a 2lb jar of lime on the floor. The lime will absorb the dampness, and must be renewed when it becomes wet.’ The most macabre home tip in the book is probably the one about cockroaches’.
51 Another way with Cockroaches – ‘A large number can be trapped by spreading pieces of cardboard with a mixture of flour and plaster of Paris, and placing here and there a saucer of water. The cockroaches eat the plaster mixture, which brings on great thirst, then they seek the water, and this “sets” the plaster and so destroys them’.
The Editor notes in the Forward ‘As these hints come from so many sources and cover so wide a field, there are necessarily several which the Editor has had no occasion to try out personally, but they are offered on the recommendation of practical housewives.’ The book cost six pence and research suggests books in the series were available from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Falling tiles and the Swidger book series
The story behind the writing of the SWIDGERS book series really begins with a falling tile. Coming home from the shops one day, a tile from the roof Steve Nallon’s house landed directly on his doorstep. And Steve was just moments away from being under it. Someone had, however, helped him with his shopping and it seems those seconds had made all the difference. Such is fate for when the roofer came round to fix the roof he said that if the tile had landed on Steve’s head at a sharp enough angel its razor edge would easily have sliced through his skull. But even if this were not the case, the weight itself would have killed him. And all this happened on his birthday too. It was then this incident and those missed seconds that inspired the whole idea of SWIDGERS. And falling tiles became of a major happening in the first chapters of THE TIME THAT NEVER WAS.
In story theory, there is what is known as the Catalyst Event or, as it is sometimes called, ‘The Day of Change’. This event is sometimes a sudden arrival – ‘A Stranger Comes to Town’ – or a change in the environment – ‘A Storm is Brewing’. In laymen’s terms, it’s what upsets the apple cart and THE FUTURE WAS ALWAYS WAITING combines the arrival of The Stranger (the Dark Force seeking William) and a change in nature (the sudden meteor strike of frozen ice).
In the apparent ice storm, a roof tile is dislodged and it seems destined to kill The Man, Australian, who our hero William is following. Later when Granny arrives in William’s life, she talks about humans, or The Commonality as she refers to them, being at the mercy of the next tile that falls. In SWIDGERS then, loose or dislodged roof tiles are both a story event and a kind of emblem of fate. Falling tiles have a bit of a history. In THE LIFE OF PYRRHUS (Volume 4), Plutarch describes an incident during Pyrrhus’s assault on Argos in 272 B.C. where a woman sees her son being attacked by the King of Epirus: “His mother, like the other women of Argos, was watching the battle from her roof top and when she saw her son fighting the king, she felt the danger and so lifted up a roof tile and threw it at Pyrrhus. The tile fell on his head below his helmet and crushed his neck, so that his sight became blurred. Pyrrhus then fell from his horse and landed near the tomb of Licymnius.” The poor King of Epirus was subsequently dragged away and a sword finished what the tile had started – and the head of Pyrrhus was sliced off.
By the Elizabethan period, a falling tile had become a byword for sudden death. In CHOICE OF EMBLEMS, a book of woodcut image prints and poems compiled by Geoffrey Whitney (c. 1548 – c. 1601), the fatal tile is a feature of Emblem 176:
"Three careless dames, amongst their wanton toys,
Did throw the dice, who first of them should die:
And she that lost, did laugh with inwards joys,
For that, she thought her term should longer be:
But lo, a tile upon her head did fall,
That Death, with speed, this dame from dice did call."
This compilation of short verses by a range of poets, including Ovid and Horace, was well known to Shakespeare and many of the poems’ morals and maxims can be found in his plays. The combination of falling tiles and death is there in ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL, written sometime between 1601 and 1605. Bertram says in an aside to a Lord that he has no need to strike for Paroles is as good as dead, “Nay, by your leave, hold your hands – though I know his brains are forfeit to the next tile that falls.” (Act IV, scene iii, line 190).
Fans of the novel BEN-HUR: A TALE OF CHRIST (1880), plus, of course, its many motion picture adaptations, will be aware that Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish nobleman, is falsely accused of attempting the assassination of the Roman governor of Judaea. This happens when a loose tile is accidentally dislodged from the roof of Judah’s house during a military parade and the said tile then falls and strikes the Roman governor, knocking him from his horse. Although Judah is ultimately found not guilty and receives no trial, he is nevertheless sent to the Roman galleys. Later, of course, Ben-Hur becomes an accomplished charioteer and indeed has a whole series of adventure, yet it was that loose roof tile then set the epic story in motion with one of its highlights being that famous race. But remember: there’d be no chariots without that falling tile.
What stories and people from Steve Nallon’s own school days have managed to find themselves in SWIDGERS?
The episode involving the strange potion added to the fermenting cider was inspired by a real event from Steve Nallon’s own time at school. In his first year at St. Michael’s College in Leeds, he and his classmates were asked to bring in apple juice for a science experiment in fermentation. The boys were told that at the end of term they could taste the apple juice that by then at would have turned into cider. However, that never happened because the teachers drank it all.
This incident is one of those youthful resentments that somehow lasted a lifetime, for Steve never forgot the sense of unfairness and, frankly, the lie he was told. The plot around Echo’s bizarre concoction and how Granny encourages William to put it in the cider cask fits into the plot well enough for it’s all about our hero becoming more daring. And it’s become a favourite part of the story among young readers, especially when the potion takes an unexpected effect on the Headmaster. A revenge of sorts for Steve and his long standing sense of injustice.
St Michael’s College, then a Jesuit grammar school, gave Steve a great education and it’s also here he began performing. Cider aside, he has very fond memories of the school and its teachers. Several real people who taught St Michael’s College in the 1970s have had their names adapted and made into teachers in the book. Tony Roper was a P.E. and drama teacher and very popular with the boys. He has become Mr. Roper, the English teacher whose nickname is ‘Stringy’. Mr Laverty and Mr Flynn were Steve’s form masters and both were friendly guys known amongst the boys as ‘Finbar’ and ‘Kevin’, which, they discovered, were their first names. Steve has now combined these to create Finbar Flynn, the unfortunate maths teacher who gets sent packing when his statistics joke goes wrong. Another teacher from St Michael’s College was Paul Brook, an exceptional tall man whose nickname became ‘Big Bill’. In THE TIME THAT NEVER WAS Mr Benjamin, also very tall, is nicknamed ‘Big Ben’.
The whole idea of the episode at the Parent Teachers Meeting was partly inspired by Kevin Flynn who said that meeting Steve’s grandmother Mary Oddy was a daunting experiences for she was, in his words, a ‘fearsome woman’. Most of the parents who attended PT meetings were, he explained, only ten or twelve years older than himself, however Mary had an entire lifetime of experience. Kevin Flynn added that for a teacher a Parent Teachers meeting was always a daunting experience. This had never occurred to Steve when at school but it put a germ of an idea in his minds which then developed into Granny’s night at the school.