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Comberton author has 101 words to save the world

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Mary Strickland (42999011)
Mary Strickland (42999011)

November being National Novel Writing Month offers an opportunity to showcase some of the region’s literary talents, although none is likely to be as prolific as Mary Strickland, whose 101 Words to Save the World is now on sale at the Book Warren Café.

The Comberton-based braille technician began her authorial odyssey in 2012 with a novel, Opening Closed Doors – “loosely based on a true story” – and has since published The War Letters of Lt Meyrick Edward Selby Lowndes, 1898-1918 (he’s a family member) plus a six-book biography of another family member, Betty Selby Lowndes. Two books chronicling her experiences living in Spain – Children, Animals, Malaga and Homing Birds – are awaiting publication, as are two other novels, The Crazy Horse Club and Mule Trek. And 101 Words is the first in a series.

Despite this extreme-scale industriousness Mary, who grew up in the vicarage at Debenham, Suffolk, claims she’s not usually bursting with ideas.

“I don’t get inspiration easily,” she says. “Things just happen.”

Six books, though, just happened?

“Betty Selby Lowndes was a very eccentric and strong-willed woman born in 1900,” she explains. “She had been through three marriages by the age of 35, she was a real force of nature, a society figure when she was young and she was an outrageous character which is why I wrote about her. She liked to shock, by for instance swearing in public with company. It wasn’t meant to be six books obviously but there were a lot of photos.”

There’s clearly quite a work ethic in play though.

“I do it all in a journalistic way,” Mary says. “It’s all things based on real life in some way – I like to get a real-life situation and fill in the gaps. You usually find real life is stranger than fiction anyway, but writing is like having another life. It’s like living in another world, but it’s also something you can do at any time, so for instance during lockdown you’ve got no excuses.”

Mary moved to Cambridge in 1979, right after leaving school, did a degree in English literature “at what was then Cambridge Tech and is now ARU, then went to journalism college in Harlow, did work experience at the Town Crier and then moved to the Cambridge Evening News in 1991”.

She stayed at the News until 1999, then left because “having lodgers paid the bills”, before moving to Spain for several years, and returned to the region in 2010.

“I got a job at Comberton Village College in the visual impairment department, then went on to become a braille technician. I’m the least likely person in the world to be called a technician!”

The ‘technician’ part of the job involves the use of a hand-brailler – “like an old typewriter, it’s mainly used for maths and science, the things that can’t be done on a computer”.

Claire Thorby, general manager of the Book Warren and Cafe, is a big fan of local authors. Picture: Keith Heppell
Claire Thorby, general manager of the Book Warren and Cafe, is a big fan of local authors. Picture: Keith Heppell

The role has proved to be something of an eye-opener.

“It makes you appreciate how difficult it is not to be able to see. We forget all the little things in life which are so important, and writing and being able to read is one of those things.”

101 Words is a series of observations – snapshots of the animal kingdom and factual assessments of the state of play when it comes to conservation and living sustainably – with elegant line drawings by Cambridge designer Robert Attwood accompanying the single-page tales. It’s a rough-and-ready guide that comes in a small format the size of a postcard – a nice gift, and something you that will fit in your bag or your pocket.

“I wanted it to be relateable for people who don’t want to read in-depth – it’s like a snapshot of what things are like if you’re an alien who came to Earth,” says Mary. “Some are pastoral pieces – I grew up in an old country village – and some are anecdotes from my own experience, or from newspapers or charity stories that caught my interest. Others are about human relationships with animals.

The picture that emerges is of a species – us – which is cruel, often deliberately but also in ways that are casual or offhand, which sort of makes it worse.

“The journey started because I’ve always had animals and anyone who likes animals knows how sentient they are – anyone will tell you they have a lot of emotions, including even embarrassment, so it makes things so much harder for us when we’re doing all these things to creatures who are just as intelligent in their own way as us.

“This is a general read about animals and the environment – I call it 101 Words because that’s roughly how many words there are for each story, and the next one will be ‘102’ and ‘103’... so there will be sequels. They’re all about the way humans have interacted with the world and changed things, usually for the worse, so it’s a mixture. Some are funny – I hope – and some are just straight facts or factoids.”

Mary is delighted to be one of the local authors at the Book Warren and Café. She joins other local writers in stock at the Willingham premises including wildlife specialist David Chandler, novelist Barbara Kastelin, children’s authors Janine Parkinson and Kinsey Dittner (Doctor Lottie), illustrator Louise Piggott and children’s poet Antony Gilbert (‘Chocolate Toothpaste’).

National Novel Writing Month is a creative challenge – write 50,000 words of the first draft of a novel, with mentoring and other support for those that stand out. Details here.

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