Former bookstall owner has tall tales to tell

If they'd let me stay on, I would still be going down there every year. Richard Yeo, a novelist based in the Scottish Borders, is talking about his time as a naval navigator in Antarctica.

By The Newsroom
Sunday, 28 February, 2016, 07:00
Author Richard Yeo.

“It was a life-changing experience, working in largely uncharted waters, breaking through ice floes and all in the most exquisite, unspoilt environment on Earth.”

Richard devoted 21 years of his life to the Royal Navy, but opted, when the time came, for a completely different way of life. From the bridge of a ship to the tools, ladders and life of a thatcher was quite a step.

Richard continues: “Lots of sailors turn to craft industries when they retire. It has to do with the desire to create something permanent. You see, the finest navigational career creates nothing: No wrecks, no collisions. The water just seals over behind you.”

For six years the thatching company developed and grew – his sphere of operation being Devon and Cornwall but, as he admits, he wasn’t really a born businessman, and when the recession of the early-1990s came, the business – admittedly, a niche affair – hit hard times.

Richard then went to university and immersed himself in the study of social policy.

“It wasn’t a useful degree but I had three glorious years being intellectually challenged and reverting to adolescence,” he laughs.

“At the end of the course, I walked from Plymouth to St Davids in Pembrokeshire to become part of a retreat centre – I felt that I was looking for something, something not yet defined in my heart and mind.”

There then followed a number of years working as a cleaner and living in communities.

Richard even ran pilgrimages and was a tourist guide in Oxford. Finally he went to New Zealand for a year, working on organic farms.

“That was a wonderful period. I travelled the land from Cape Reinga in the north to Sterling Point in the south. For no obvious reason, I became a second-hand bookseller, setting up my stall in markets along the way.”

On his return to British shores, Richard decided to settle in Berwick where he continued book-selling in the market under the name Slightly Foxed.

He also worked as a gardener and branched out into carpentry. Subsequently, he moved to a cottage on a Borders farm near Coldingham.

And it has been in this period that the urge to write, and to get to the heart of life – ‘the heart of the matter,’ as he says, has been strongest.

Of his writing Richard observes: “I’ve always been able to write academically and for business purposes but creative writing eluded me. Then I found myself in a small group of would-be writers. We agreed that each of us would bring with us, on the first night, an A4 piece which we had written.

“Ever since spending a term at primary school studying the Romans, I have had a strong feeling for that period. Mary Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth also caught my imagination as a child.

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“I had the strongest image of a centurion in a fort on the edge of the Syrian desert, gazing into the night, knowing that the fort would be overrun at dawn but remaining true to his calling and that’s what I wrote about.”

That centurion became the forerunner of Lucius, the hero of Hadrian’s Trader, Richard’s first novel.

“I was intrigued to discover that 30 miles inland from where I lived, was a huge Roman camp, Trimontium, which figured in The Eagle of the Ninth. It is a fascinating place, situated 60 miles north of Hadrian’s Wall. In its time it controlled the whole of southern Scotland.”

Richard expanded the first page each week for the group and gradually, Hadrian’s Trader, the story of a Roman soldier, based at Trimontium, took shape.

Of writing, Richard has much to say to new authors: “It’s rewarding and painful. The down side is the degree of personal discipline needed to stay at the keyboard when the sun is shining and outdoors is calling but that is outweighed by the joy of creating, of watching the story grow, very often in ways that you couldn’t have predicted. Publication of the first book is key.”

Is there a moment when self-confidence finally takes over? Richard is emphatic about that: “Once you’ve been through the whole process and held the finished book in your hands, you can dare to believe that you are an author. It gives you permission to write the next one.”

His second book, The Chinese Magus, had a different genesis.

“Some years ago, I was asked, out of the blue, to lead a Christmas meditation for the Mothers’ Union in an Oxfordshire village. I based it on TS Eliot’s poem The Journey of the Magi. For no obvious reason, I felt that the speaker was a high-level Chinese administrator and the idea grew.”

The book tells of Xiang Li, Governor of Xinjiang Province, intellectual and astronomer, who is called from his safe, rational existence to make a winter journey across the known world to witness a birth.

The experience changes him profoundly and he makes the return journey as a holy fool – his emotions and actions having been changed by his journey of mysteries and epiphanies. Strangely, the world around him changes, too – his wisdom having been enhanced by his epic travels across mountain ranges, the endless steppes, and the desert.

What is he working on now? “Many people asked me for a sequel to Hadrian’s Trader and I thought that was what I would do this winter. However, the creative urge had other ideas and I found myself writing instead about Xiang Li’s daughter. The story is still unfolding but, broadly, it is set around the journey of Joseph of Arimathea and the Holy Grail to Britain.”

Does Richard have any further advice to aspiring authors? “Sit down, on your own, and just write. You don’t have to show it to anybody else. There is a good chance that after 20 minutes, words will be flowing freely. It may not be of publishable quality but that doesn’t matter. You are exercising your writing muscle.

“And don’t be put off by age. I was 60 when I wrote Hadrian’s Trader. Later life is rather well-suited to being an author.”

‘The Chinese Magus’ is published on March 25 and is available for pre-order from Amazon.

The book is already available in Berwick in the following outlets: W H Smith, Grieves Stationers, Berrydin Books and Jones and Jones, Bridge Street.