Steve Goddard explains how an unmarried mother and the most influential LP of the 20th Century provide the inspiration for a novel.
During the ‘Summer of Love’ of 1967, a woman in her early 20s was living with us. For anonymity’s sake, let’s call her Heather. Later that year Heather gave birth to a child she named after me.
It was a relationship that inspired my novel Whatever Happened to Billy Shears?
I was 14 at the time. Heather came to south London from Scotland to give birth to an ‘illegitimate’ baby, far from disapproving, wagging tongues. My mother offered her lodging for the final months of the pregnancy.
Heather was a redhead with pale skin and mischievous freckles. She was bright, profane and sexy. We had the same sense of humour and teased one another endlessly.
When she returned from hospital and presented her son – named Stephen.
“Lyrically, Sergeant Pepper gave us a snapshot of 1960s Britain in cultural flux”
I was flattered, of course, and became something of a surrogate father. I changed the odd nappy, winded the young boy after feeds and pushed his pram up and down our sizeable back garden.
On the morning he was to be given up for adoption, Heather shut herself away with her baby. Eventually, she re-appeared from her room. “I’ve said my goodbyes,” she said stoically, and walked straight out of our house and out of my life. I have never heard from her since.
Some other characters came into my life during that heady Summer of Love: circus performer Mr Kite, a family called the Hendersons, a girl called Lucy, a parking meter attendant called Rita, a horse called Henry – and a nervous, love-struck singer called Billy Shears.
On the day of its release, June 1, 1967, a friend of mine turned up with the Beatles’ latest LP under his arm; Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Wildly inventive, built on tape effects and experimental studio technology, Pepper wasn’t so much a record as an existential encounter: the dream-like haze of Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, the fairground fantasy of Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite, the music hall parody of When I’m Sixty Four – culminating in the ‘orchestral orgasm’, as producer George Martin called it, of A Day in the Life.
Lyrically, Sergeant Pepper gave us a snapshot of 1960s Britain in cultural flux.
We had heard a thousand songs about faraway California and Kansas City, Tulsa and Texas. Never before had unfashionable places like the Isle of Wight, Blackburn and London’s Bishopsgate featured prominently on a ‘pop’ album.
But after we’d followed her down to the bridge by the fountain, what happened to Lucy? After Mr Kite topped the bill, did he go on and conquer the world? Did Billy Shears get over his nerves and sing to audiences far and wide? And what befell the young girl who ran away from home at five o’clock one morning, to meet a man from the motor trade? The Beatles left us to make up our own minds, of course.
And, in real life, what happened to young Stephen, now heading for his 50th birthday? I shall probably never know, but the events of my Summer of Love gelled together to form the basis for my novel.
What if all the characters on Sergeant Pepper had known each other? What if some of them lived on the same street? What if 15-year-old Billy fell in love with Lucy only to find she had eyes for Godfrey Henderson, who lived in the big house across the road? What if the car accident that befalls the ‘lucky man who made the grade’ leads to the unravelling of a mystery that has lasted five decades?
The novel opens on Christmas Day 2015 with Canon William Shearwater reminiscing about lovely Lucy Pitcher, who turned his quiet suburban world upside down with one handstand. Meanwhile, English teacher Sophie Daggert, adopted at birth, embarks on a search for her natural parents.
A series of twists and turns bring Sophie and ‘Shears’ together in a shocking journey of self-discovery. In this novel, I have attempted to open up a conversation about the 1960s and its disputed legacy, asking questions about changing social customs and beliefs.
And, of course, Henry the (rocking) horse dances a merry old waltz – with a little help from a few friends.
Whatever Happened to Billy Shears? by Stephen Goddard is published by Marylebone House, Paperback, £8.99 Amazon