Paul Mann

The Leek Club

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The Leek Club

Kindle Reviews: "I am utterly astounded by 'The Leek Club.' Never thought it possible for anyone to capture the unique humor, harshness, irony and energy of mid 20th century mining towns. See more reviews

It’s been said that everybody has a book inside them. Just about any publisher will tell you that’s not true.

Which is why I hesitated to write anything remotely autobiographical. It seemed such a conceit when there were far more exciting stories to write.  So, I hesitated for 20 years or so. Then I saw Frank McCourt’s success with Angela’s Ashes and thought there must be an audience after all for maudlin drivel by deluded old farts.  And, to be fair, I’ll blame others for encouraging me. What clinched it was something that happened about 17 years ago. I was living in Canada at the time and, after years of exuberant recreational drinking, I was trying to get sober. Which was poetic really seeing as how Canada helped me perfect my insobriety. I met weekly with a little tribe of AA nomads who all had media backgrounds because, as a drunk with a media background, it was thought I’d relate better to drunks of my own kind. I suppose, for instance, it might have been difficult to relate to a drunken cowgirl. Not a problem I’d have had if I was still drinking. (I digress, I know, but hey, it’s my website). Anyway, one of these nomads was a former network political reporter called Doug Small, a lovely guy who was once photographed handcuffed to the drinks cart on a cross-country flight. I told Doug about growing up in a Northumbrian coal mining town just after the war when food rationing was still in effect, there were bomb sites everywhere and pillboxes and barbed wire still littered the beaches. Doug said it sounded a lot more colorful than his childhood, growing up on the Canadian Prairies. I thought anything had to be better than growing up on the Canadian Prairies. Somehow I extrapolated that to include everybody else’s childhood – in the world. And who am I to ignore an audience that size?  

There are rules for writing anything autobiographical and obviously somebody explained them to Keith Richards who begins his book with a drug and alcohol fueled ramble through the American south in a car loaded with illegal substances. So, if you want people to read your book it better be a fun read. And it better be the truth.  Even a work of fiction has to tell the truth. It should also have a unique background that readers can, nonetheless, identify with. Readers of Keith’s book couldn’t all be rock stars but they could relate to his story because rock ‘n’ roll was a big part of their lives. They probably grew up with the Stones, bought Stones records and went to a Stones concert or two. And everybody can relate to getting wasted. The unique background of ‘The Leek Club’ was easy. Leek clubs were peculiar to coal mining towns in the northeast of England for the first half of the 20th century. Miners competed to grow the biggest and best leeks and win fabulous prizes. First prize might be a set of living room furniture and there’d be more than a hundred other prizes ranked in order of importance. So the third place winner might win a new TV set, a fourth place winner a radiogram – all the way down to a bottle of whiskey or a case of beer.  And competition was cutthroat.  Growers had secret formulas to grow the biggest leeks and unscrupulous rivals would sneak out at night to sabotage a competitor’s leeks. As show time drew near some miners had their wives sit out all night to guard their leeks. It was a weird time that looks all the weirder in retrospect but in that time and place – it all made perfect sense. 

That’s not all. The northeast of England has its own unique language that dates back to the sixth century. Known as ‘Geordie’ it’s almost impenetrable to outsiders. Scholars say it qualifies as a separate and distinct language because it has so many unique words indigenous to the local population. When I was growing up it never occurred to me when I said to a friend ‘See ye the morn,’ I was using an ancient language. It was just the way we spoke. Modern English, the English known today as Essex English, originated in the 17th century. Geordie precedes it by a thousand years and, except for Welsh, it's the oldest living language still in everyday use in the British Isles.  

So, we have a colorful environment with a vivid sense of time and place. But not everybody cares about leeks and not everybody wants to speak Geordie so why would anybody outside the northeast of England care about ‘The Leek Club?’ Well, I’m a baby boomer and boomers are the biggest, noisiest, most self-absorbed generation in the history of the world. As we age we take a greater interest in our past, in our shared experiences. And the 1950′s and the 1960′s are worth remembering. Mainstream publishers ask who would want to read another boomer book? The answer is more than a hundred million other baby boomers in the U.S. and the U.K.  We’re also the last generation to read books in a big way and we have the time and money to indulge ourselves. We love to compare our experiences with the experiences of other boomers. Experiences that involved a lot of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Say what you like about us, we weren’t dull.

Finally, any book has to have a decent story.  I didn’t want to write a dull historical narrative any more than I wanted to write ‘a misery memoir.’ I wanted to tell a story that had drama. And it had to be funny. Because no matter how miserable life can be we triumph over it by laughing at it. And all those cock-ups and embarrassments we went through are a lot funnier when seen in the rear view mirror.  The story I’ve told is based on fact, the background is real, and the stakes are high; how does any one of us get through life without compromising everything we hold dear? And that is a universal theme.

So, that’s the story behind ’The Leek Club.’  I offered it to publishers and agents in the U.S. and the U.K. and they all passed. And, seeing it from their point of view, I can understand why – it’s too much of a niche book, it won’t appeal to a broad enough demographic etc. There are plenty of reasons for saying no. But since when did people like us take no for an answer? By necessity I’ve had to publish it on Kindle and Amazon print-on-demand. Will it sell? Will people like it? Will it move, anger and entertain people? I hope so. Because I don’t think it’s just the story of my life. I think it’s the story of a lot of lives.