The Story behind ‘Country Boy.’

Last week I posted the background to how my latest release ‘Alderslay’ came into being. It struck me each of my books has a story behind the story so today is the turn of ‘Story of a Country Boy.’

Although ‘Story of a Country Boy’ is a work of fiction, it does contain many elements of fact accumulated over a number of years. The story begins in a sleepy village in Malta in the late 1950s/early 60s. At that time the country was under British rule before being granted independence in September 1964, and British forces maintained military bases there until 1979.

The island was not the tourist attraction we know today, schooling could often be a hit and miss affair if the children were needed to help in the fields, and illiteracy was not uncommon. The girls were chaperoned and expected to learn appropriate housewife skills for when they married and had a husband to look after. With raging hormones and news filtering through of the freedom of London’s swinging 60s, it’s not surprising young men left their families to seek their fortune with a new life in England, Canada or Australia.

Until I was in my 20s, I wasn’t totally sure where Malta was, but over the years the nickname IDB (Italy and down a bit) became a standing joke. I visited the island regularly, and classed it as my second home. My initial introduction to the island was through a man who became the love of my life, but also introduced me to the basements, cafes and back rooms where the Maltese men gathered in various parts of London. I would often sit reading a book while they played cards or snooker, gossiped and argued, or cheeked each other with insults while accompanying themselves on a guitar. It wasn’t until much later I realised my presence was quite unusual, as wives and girlfriends were normally only seen at specified gatherings around Christmas time.

In some ways the Maltese are similar to the Italians in that they can be LOUD. Over time I learnt the two men shouting and screaming were not preparing to kill each other, but merely discussing the merits of a particular car or brand of aftershave. Some of the men’s clubs were truly dives, but I was always treated with the utmost respect, and discovered the biggest villains were often the ones most dedicated to their families. I met prostitutes, pimps, handbag swingers and high-class whores, saw the seedier side of life and the best of the humanitarian, community side.

Although TJ, the main character in ‘Story of a Country boy’ is not based on a single person, he is a combination of various individuals I knew from that time. When writing the book, I did wonder if I should delay releasing it as some of the characters were still living, and might be annoyed if they recognised certain people or events. A chance encounter put my mind at rest when by coincidence, shortly after the book was published, I met up with one of the old-timers who had unwittingly contributed to the character. Rather than being upset he was delighted to be reminded of the early days, and felt I had done the story justice. He wanted to read more, and for a while regaled me with other tales from those times that I had either not known, or had forgotten with the passage of years.

The idea for a sequel was born and I’m now working on ‘Son of a Country boy’ which again is partly based on facts, but brought up to date and told from a different viewpoint. To accommodate the second book in the series I changed the ending slightly of the first book, and believe it has made it stronger. Will there be a third? Perhaps, perhaps not. Sixty years is a long while, attitudes change, countries change, and what was commonplace at one time might appear unbelievable to subsequent generations.

Amazon purchase link.

By a strange twist of fate, the era and the island have both been in the news over the past few days with the announcement of the death of HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. He and the Queen spent the early years of their marriage living in Malta, and would be familiar with the early settings described in the book.

May he Rest in Peace.

© Val Portelli April 2021

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