Amazingly I find it’s thirty years since my first children’s book. THE CONJUROR’S GAME was published by The Bodley Head in 1990. Obviously it was a great thrill for a young author to work with such a legendary press. They produced a lovely hardback with a cover design by John Vernon Lord which I still really like for its restrained and enigmatic quality.
The book was very successful and had some great reviews. It’s about a boy who accidentally restarts an ancient Celtic board game and then has to deal with the chaos that ensues. I used the Irish word Fidchell for the game, but was actually thinking of the game played in the Mabinogion story of The Dream of Rhonabwy between Arthur and Owein. In fact I used a quote from the Jones and Jones translation of the Mabinogion to preface the book.
And as they looked they could hear a rider coming towards them, to the place where Arthur and Owein were over the gaming board. The squire greeted Arthur and said that Owein’s ravens were slaying his bachelors and squires, And Arthur looked at Owein and said “Call off thy ravens.” “Lord” said Owein “play thy game.” And they played. The rider returned towards the battle, and the ravens were no more called off than before..
I wrote to Gwyn Jones asking for permission to use the quote and he replied very graciously, and sent me a signed pamphlet, another great thrill, as he was a giant of Welsh scholarship.
After the book came out in paperback it was read on Radio 5, then a dedicated children’s radio station, by none other than Jon Pertwee, ex-Doctor Who. To hear his well-known voice read my words was bizarre. I sat listening to it as if it was someone else’s story. I taped it from the radio on a cassette, which was what you did in those days.
Shortly after I heard that the book had been shortlisted for the Smarties Prize, then a very well-known award. If that happened now I would be astonished and delighted but then I just thought it was the sort of thing that happened to books. I had no idea how lucky I was. The Prize-giving ceremony was held at the Barbican in London and I went along. I don’t remember too much about it, but Roald Dahl was there, and indeed won the overall prize. The Conjuror’s Game didn’t even win its section, but I didn’t really mind. I was already writing my second novel, and thought prizes must turn up at some stage. I had a lot to learn about the vagaries of the children’s book world! Still, the book remains a favourite and maybe the first edition has a rarity value- I don’t think the print run was huge..