The diary of a Lincolnshire nobody

Book Launch Events

• 3rd February, 7pm: ‘Lincolnshire Voices’, cheese and wine evening with reading and signing. At Tealby Village Hall.
• 24th February, 2.30pm-4pm: Book launch including an author talk, signing and refreshments at Sleaford Library
• 25th February, 7pm: Author talk and signing with Lindum Books at The Collection venue in Lincoln.

Words by:
Yusef Sayed
Featured in:
February 2023

The wildflowers, history and poetry of Lincolnshire are celebrated in a new comic novel that charts a disastrous year for one retiree. Yusef Sayed spoke with the author, Keith Rylands-Bolton.

Sebastian Scattergood is having a bad year. Having recently retired, he and his wife Jan have been looking forward to redesigning the garden, enjoying their new conservatory and starting a new business – offering themed walks based around Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s life and writing. But their vision of tranquillity has been upset by unreliable tradesmen, local pranksters and a scandalous story in the press. There is growing concern for Sebastian’s mother too, whose dementia symptoms are worsening.

Sebastian Scattergood is the humorous new novel by Keith Rylands-Bolton. Presented as a diary kept during 2012, the UK’s Olympic year and Sebastian’s annus horribilis, the story is set in a fictional village in the Wolds and includes numerous references to real places, landmarks and establishments. Keith took literary inspiration from George and Weedon Grossmith’s nineteenth-century classic The Diary of a Nobody. But while the peculiarities and pretensions of Sebastian’s character are drawn out for comic effect, his experiences closely mirror events in Keith’s own life.

He explains: “The origin was the things that happened when I retired, between 2009 and 2013. There were lots of domestic disasters which occurred that were very unfortunate. It’s all those things coming together and I suppose it was cathartic in the first instance because it’s trying to get a hold of that and fiction allows you to distance from it.

“The character of Charles Pooter, I suppose, is nearest to what Sebastian Scattergood is. He’s also a little bit like a middle-aged Adrian Mole – one of my friends said an aging Adrian Mole meets John Shuttleworth! I’ve always wanted to write a diary from the basis of somebody who is an eternal optimist but for whom disasters accumulate and has no sense of self-irony. And he’s also very obsessive as well.”

Born and raised in the Lincolnshire Fens, Keith lives with his wife, Jane, in Tealby. He has always had a close attachment to the county’s landscape and a particular passion for its places and wildflowers. Sebastian’s diary reflects this keen knowledge. As the frustrations of day-to-day life mount, the Scattergoods venture out to explore villages and historical buildings, sharing different names for the flowers they encounter. The richness of Lincolnshire detail adds a deeper layer to the narrative – the scenarios and sense of humour born out of the people and places known to the author.

“I was born in Boston and my nana lived in South Kyme, so I used to visit her a lot. From the age of 10 I used to go out and work on the land, so it would start off with fruit picking after school. We’d be picked up in a double-decker bus from Boston and be taken out to the fields of Frampton. After that I got work with a ganger and that would take us further afield, particularly around Spalding and areas like that. And then later on working in the factories connected with canning. There was one that was a cocktail onion place – that was an experience and a half!

“I’ve written about the Fens in a memoir and novel. But for this one I wanted to focus on the Wolds because I do a lot of walking in the Wolds. I wanted to look at all the different things, like landscape and flora and fauna, and literature and food and entertainment. I’m particularly interested in wildflowers and I walk every week with friends, so it’s actually getting to know the Wolds.”

Keith took a teaching course at the University of Lancaster before going into a career in teaching, specialising in special needs provision. While his character is highly critical of most of the local am dram productions he is dragged along to by friends, the author speaks of the great happiness he found as a Head of Drama at De Aston School in Market Rasen, where he taught later in his career.

“I was a year in the boarding house as a tutor, which was a great way of getting to know students. I started off as an English and special needs teacher and then after three or four years I went to do a diploma in special education at Bishop Grosseteste University. I went to Louth and then came back to De Aston as Head of Special Needs and combined that with looking after the training of teachers as a professional tutor. Then I taught Theatre Studies and English A Levels, and after a while I changed and I ended up as Head of Drama. I loved it. It’s a marvellous job to have. You wake up every day thinking how lucky you are.”

After retiring from teaching, Keith wanted to turn his attention to his other varied interests; not only a keen walker and reader but counting himself an ardent supporter of Lincoln FC too. He has written previous, unpublished books, one of which, Tall Tales from a Flat Land, was longlisted for the Bridport Prize – another based on his childhood experiences, In the Land of the Beehive, was shortlisted for the ‘Spotlight First Novel’ prize. He is currently working on his next book, which centres on a headteacher who is undergoing a breakdown as the Ofsted inspection approaches.

Trying Times for Sebastian Scattergood will not only draw many readers in with its relatable mishaps and its poignant exploration of the onset of dementia; it is a prompt to take a renewed interest in the Lincolnshire countryside and get outside. Some of Sebastian’s upsets are eased by escaping into a good book, friendly games with his Thursday Night Club, or a favourite rock album played at full blast. Other times call for a long walk through the Wolds – and the figure who proves crucial as things begin to seriously unravel is another Lincolnshire writer: Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Keith explains that writing the novel was an opportunity to rediscover the poet’s work.

“When I retired I did think of taking guided walks and then I thought, well actually that might spoil my enjoyment of the walking. But I’ve always been interested in Tennyson as well, so through Sebastian I could actually live out my fantasy of doing ‘Tennyson tours’ and it meant that there was something that connected the walks. Obviously many of the places in the Wolds have connections with Tennyson and I live in a village that has a strong connection. And also it has allowed me to produce a satire of places like Tealby which are seen as much sought after, ‘posh’ places – but it’s gentle and affectionate.

“I did read a lot of biographies of Tennyson and Emily, his wife. I was rediscovering the poetry, particularly the early poetry as well. That poem to his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, whom he lost, ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’, I think that’s a marvellous elegy. So a lot of the early poems that feature the Wolds, and then occasionally dabbling in the dialect poetry which is interesting as well.”

A number of events to promote the book in the county have been confirmed for this month (see side panel) and to coincide with publication, Cranthorpe Millner has produced a series of maps based on Sebastian and Jan’s ‘Babbling Brook Experience’ walks. Keith says he has a particular fondness for the Wold Newton Trail but it provides bad memories for his protagonist.

“That’s always been a particular favourite. It has a wood where in the spring there’s fantastic wildflowers. It’s covered in bluebells and wood anemones. But it’s on that walk where things go drastically wrong for Sebastian, which lead to a horrible report in the gutter press.”

While readers follow the path of Sebastian Scattergood’s misfortunes, its author is clearly making positive strides forward with a new life in writing.

Trying Times for Sebastian Scattergood is published by Cranthorpe Millner Publishers.

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