Richard Oliff - Success tastes sweet for writers

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The written word has held a fascination for me for as long as I can remember.

Fifty years ago yesterday, April 12, 1962, just short of my seventh birthday, I won a certificate of merit with an honourable mention in a national essay-writing competition organised for schools by Cadbury.

Pupils were required to study the subject of cocoa production and write an essay called The Story of Chocolate, based upon one’s own research. Quite a tall order for a six-year-old. It’s one of the main reasons why, even to this day, I find it so easy to find Accra on a map.

Everyone who was entered by their school received a bar of chocolate for their efforts, the better essays getting a certificate and a tin of chocolates.

It’s surprising how many writers were first inspired by this clever scheme, including TV presenter Anne Robinson. In the Daily Telegraph on October 6, 2001, she said that, on winning the Cadbury’s essay competition at the age of nine, she ‘wanted to write, and become famous!’

I don’t remember being quite that conceited, though before putting thought to paper I remember my inspiration was always to be able to match my dad’s ability to tell a story. He had written several books throughout the 1940s which he would carefully type out as he sat at his little bureau.

One such mighty tome bears the title Guts Is Game, which is a mixture of biography of growing up in a tiny village in Essex, and a fabulous example of fantasy, giving licence to begin and end in such a way that the unsuspecting reader would have no way of knowing about its more personal content.

Today, should my dad have chosen to pay to have such a book published, we might treat his effort with the derogatory ‘vanity publishing’ term – in other words, of no interest to anyone apart from the author. However, it dawned on me, having read this particular book most carefully, that it is in fact a wonderful history and social comment on the way in which the less well-off survived an arduous lifestyle at the turn of the past century. What began as a reflective tale of his boyhood and early adult life has since become a genuine insight into my dad’s world long gone.

It’s important that anyone with a penchant for writing should not be discouraged by the powerful publishing houses from putting down those things that truly matter in one’s life. Its use to the immediate and objective contemporary reader may be limited, yet in time, it may well see its day in the sunshine as a document of reflective relevance.