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I didn’t mix with schoolboy rough and tumble and fights

PUBLISHED: 19:12 05 December 2018 | UPDATED: 08:09 06 December 2018

Iris Reeve with her two oldest sons, Robin and Terry, in the family garden in Bungay in 1943   Picture: CHRIS REEVE

Iris Reeve with her two oldest sons, Robin and Terry, in the family garden in Bungay in 1943 Picture: CHRIS REEVE

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Chris Reeve’s writing is powered by the passion of his mum, whose love of words pulled her through sleepless nights and the tedium of housework

One of Mike Tingle's illustrations in The Dictionary Boy  Picture: MIKE TINGLEOne of Mike Tingle's illustrations in The Dictionary Boy Picture: MIKE TINGLE

Well I never. To me, Chris Reeve has been a man who over 30 years plucked quirky and intriguing tales from the past and put them in books for us to enjoy. Now, I’m seeing an unexpected side…

First book A Straunge & Terryble Wunder – The Story of the Black Dog of Bungay came out in 1988. It was followed by 15 more on local history (including the recent Secret Bungay). Now, a 180-degree turn – a story in rhyming verse about a lad who soaks up words like a sponge… and turns into a dictionary. With – SPOILER ALERT! – a tough ending.

“The story does have dark aspects, but is not entirely tragic,” says Chris. “His life of solitary reading was happy, and, although short, it ends with the blissful vision of him still reading, floating on a cloud in Heaven.”

It sounds as if Chris is very much on the same wavelength as young Zachariah Sprock…

“Zak is a personification of my love of reading. I have always read avidly, and I used to get to school an hour early every morning in order to enjoy the pleasures of the solitary school library before lessons commenced.

Chris, his brothers and sister set off for an afternoon stroll in about 1952. 'I'm the one in the middle - the only one in the family with curly hair - aged seven at the time'       Picture: CHRIS REEVEChris, his brothers and sister set off for an afternoon stroll in about 1952. 'I'm the one in the middle - the only one in the family with curly hair - aged seven at the time' Picture: CHRIS REEVE

“The library was stuffed with ancient volumes resulting from the grammar school’s 400-year history, so a real goldmine. Because I was so hungry for words I ate only a piece of dry toast for breakfast before rushing off, and became, like Zak, a very skinny lad.

“Like Zak, I was also to some extent bullied at school, as I didn’t mix in with the normal schoolboy rough and tumble of football, conkers and fights.”

So when did Chris’s literary endeavours start?

“I’ve been writing poetry and verse since infancy. My ambition was always to be a published poet, and when I was a teenager I won two national poetry awards; but after I left school, and moved away from home, I wrote very little and the dream diminished.

“It now seems that my home town of Bungay was the catalyst for my creativity, because, when I returned to live here following early retirement from my career as museum curator and art historian, I almost immediately started writing again.”

Another of Mike Tingle's illustrations in The Dictionary Boy  Picture: MIKE TINGLEAnother of Mike Tingle's illustrations in The Dictionary Boy Picture: MIKE TINGLE

Chris was spending more time in Bungay by the 1980s (he’d been born there in 1946) and settled again permanently in 1995, becoming fascinated by the town’s history.

“I also started writing poetry again, with little publishing success, but my humorous verse narratives on history themes have been performed for various events in the town, and on the stage of the Fisher Theatre. So this is the direct link with the evolution of The Dictionary Boy.”

After the emphasis on history, verse is quite a step-change, isn’t it?

“Writing verse is a much greater pleasure than prose. I love the discipline of creating rhymes; it’s a bit like putting a complicated jigsaw together.

“My mother was a strong influence, and developed my passion for poetry. She learned huge chunks of poetry by heart, and to alleviate the boredom of housework, and managing a family of five children, would recite aloud during household chores.

Chris Reeve in the former King's Head Hotel in Bungay in 2016, in his role as chairman of Bungay Museum Trust    

Picture: James BassChris Reeve in the former King's Head Hotel in Bungay in 2016, in his role as chairman of Bungay Museum Trust Picture: James Bass

“She also read stories and poems to us every night at bedtime. She told me that reciting poems in her head helped her to get through long, dark, sleepless nights, particularly when she was growing old and becoming house-bound, and in increasing pain from arthritis.”

What’s writing like for Chris?

“I have often found that during the creative writing process words and themes can develop as if by magic. You can hump away stodgily for hours or weeks, and then suddenly the brain spins into overdrive and the poem, or narrative, seems to just write itself.

“The Dictionary Boy verses developed slowly, due to the difficulties of the 16-syllable lines and working in the long and abstruse words, and after a couple of weeks I abandoned it completely.

“It was about two years later when I looked at it again, and thought it still had potential, and that’s when the magic happened. It was finished in just a few hours. I can’t explain why.”

From where did the idea come?

“It’s chiefly inspired by my love of words – one of the greatest pleasures when writing is hunting through my two stout volumes of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary for precisely the right word that is needed.

“I hope young readers will enjoy discovering the long and unusual words and finding out their meanings, and develop a life-long love of words as Zak and I did.”

* The story of The Dictionary Boy runs across 30-odd pages and is illustrated by artist Mike Tingle, whose prints and paintings appear regularly in Royal Academy summer shows. It’s £6.99, and available from bookshops and Amazon.

Mum’s priceless gift

Iris was born in Bungay in 1908 and spent most of her life there, apart from a few years in Holland and France as a teacher and governess.

Chris says his mother had an amazing memory – even in her 80th year she learned the entire Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by heart. (It’s long!)

She was a teacher locally, a Girl Guide captain, and involved with the Women’s Conservative Association and Church. Iris died in 2000.

Here’s a taste

For several days, Zak lay in bed, his anxious parents by his side.

His uncle had been ordered home, disgraced (though he apologised).

But when the boy at last awoke, he groaned, then muttered “Apothegm,

Acropolis, Axungious, Albumen, Bumpkin, Brummagem,

Barometry, Basilicon, keep oscillating in my brain,

What can this mean?” and with a scream, collapsed beneath the counterpane.

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