Tommy Catkins – a novel

by stephenpalmersf

Last autumn – three quarters of the way through my “year off writing novels” – I found myself pondering three possible works, one of which was to be written over the winter holiday. The first was a novel about a shell shocked solider returning to Britain in 1915 after his experiences in the trenches; the second was an uncategorisable novel with animal characters and a philosophical theme; the third was a YA novel set in Wales with a magic-realism feel to it.

One evening, I found myself winding down at the end of the day listening to an album. The lights were low and I was considering which of the three works might be the one to go for. The album I put on was A Trick Of The Tail by Genesis – I’d been enjoying their albums over a couple of weeks, having not listened to them for some time. As the beautiful songs passed by I began to realise that their themes matched the theme of the first work; the soldier returning to Britain. It was a remarkable fit, and so I began putting together in my mind the fundamentals of the novel.

Four songs stood out as somehow encapsulating the novel: Entangled (a simply gorgeous Steve Hackett classic), Mad Man Moon (Tony Banks’ finest moment I think), Ripples (a Rutherford/Banks collaboration) and A Trick Of The Tail, which is another Banks classic. Entangled in particular seemed to convey what I had in mind – a hospital setting, hints of Freud, hints of mental turmoil, and an environment of healing – I wanted to write a novel about a soldier whose shell shock was so profound it left him in an impossible dilemma. Mad Man Moon had the water/rain references that were an important part of what I was creating, while Ripples somehow encapsulated the “underwater” feel that also seemed a vital part of the setting. As for A Trick Of The Tail – that managed to encapsulate the “otherworldly” feel I was looking for. I later found out that the song was written by Banks after reading William Golding’s novel The Inheritors.

Although the album served to encapsulate a novel that was already forming in my subconscious, I did take two specific things from it – the idea of the underwater world characters having tails (A Trick Of The Tail) and the mythical monster the Squonk, which I’d initially rejected as a reference, but which during later research I found matched my scenario almost exactly.

By the time the album had finished playing that evening I knew this was the novel I wanted to write next. I felt that indefinable twinge of excitement within me which signified: “this is the one.”

Yesterday I completed the first draft of Tommy Catkins, and it seems to have gone really well. The novel has a slower, more lyrical, more melancholy feel than, say, the Factory Girl trilogy. I think it likely that it will be the last novel for the foreseeable future written in a WW1 setting. I do think however that I’ll return to Victorian/Edwardian times for new settings, as I much enjoy writing in that era.


Following a horrific experience at Verdun, Tommy Catkins – shellshocked and suffering head injuries – is sent to a private mental hospital on a river island in Wiltshire, where he is subjected to the primitive treatments of the era. But the island appears to be a portal to the mysterious world of Onderwater, where live a race of blue-skinned people with tails. Will Tommy be tempted by the lure of this phantasy, or will the love of Nurse Vann pull him back to reality, and recovery?