When Michael Apichella, an American academic, arrived in Bury St Edmunds, his mouth gaped, his mind raced and he uttered just a single word: “Wow.”
That was two decades ago, but Bury still has the “wow factor” with the good doctor, as evidenced by his monthly column on these very pages, which look at the town and its characteristics and characters from a unique outsider/insider perspective.
Now he’s taken that column a gigantic stride toward by using Bury as the basis for a new adventure novel, which the Bury Free Press is helping to promote in what is thought to be a unique way.
Next week, the BFP will publish the first instalment of The Chronicles of Johnny Pilgrim, a galloping yarn very much in the Robert Louis Stevenson vein, like the 1883 pirate yarn Treasure Island, or the man-in- pursuit-of-inheritance Kidnapped, written three years later, but even more like the less-known, but nevertheless masterful, The Master of Ballantrae, a tale of revenge set in Scotland, America and India.
The printed extract will then be published on the BFP website to a worldwide audience at 6pm on the following Sunday.
We will do the same the following week, with a print instalment on the Friday, and a repeated online version two days’ later.
After that, the instalments will be online only, at 6pm every Sunday at: www.buryfreepress.co.uk
Michael, a former professor of English who has a PhD in creative writing and an MA in Journalism, said: “This is a great opportunity and I cannot thank the Bury Free Press, my local paper and trusted news, information, interest and comment provider, for this opportunity.
“We think it is a unique way for a debut novel to be launched on the world.
“I have cut the novel by about a third for the online versions, so there are many parts of Johnny Pilgrim’s progress that people will not know about unless they buy the book.
“We hope that’s the appeal. I love the fact that the people of Bury will get the first opportunity to follow Johnny Pilgrim from his home town out into the world.”
Michael, 62, now writes, raises chickens and paints abstract landscapes (he recently had an exhibition at the Apex) in the town centre home he shares with his English wife Judi.
They have five children, who are “scattered around the world.”
His research included the history of Georgian England, its navy and the 18 th century slave trade.
He commented: “Sad to say, although outlawed here in 1833, the slave trade continues globally today.
“But I did not have to read-up on much else…the American colony settings are where I have visited or lived.
“And, like all good fiction writers, I made up the rest.”
So, back to the kernel of the novel, Bury St Edmunds, as viewed by a visitor who felt compelled to become a resident. How did that happen?
“Bury has stirred the artistic side of my brain,” said Michael.
“The ancient abbey, the cathedral, the ties with St Edmund, Magna Carta…then the links with Defoe, Dickens, Ouida and Norah Lofts (Peter Curtis and Juliet Astley are two of her pen names)… I mean, what writer would not be inspired by working here?
“I’ve written three other unpublished novels with international settings.
“My themes vary, dealing with coming of age, failure (as a wonderful teacher) and the way the media affect our thinking.
“That said, I now hope this book will truly represent my work.”
With the central themes established in his thinking, where did the storyline come from?
“Years ago, I told my children instalments of a tale set in the mid-18 th century about a trouble-prone, English teen who runs away from home and ends up in America by way of colonial Africa.
“The central character is kidnapped. Beaten. Sold as a slave. And becomes a hero more than once on two continents. He even meets the girl of his dreams.
“The kids always wanted to know how the story ends. Heck! I didn’t even know how it began at the time!
“The ‘Great Aha’ came about 20 years ago, thanks to an obscure memorial stone, commemorating one Mary Rookes, attached to our cathedral’s outside southern wall.
“Mary lived in a house jammed between the cathedral and the Norman Tower.
“Don’t ask me why, but that stone gave me the beginning and end, as well as the characters’ names, and the setting – Johnny and his brother Roger, two supposed orphans, board with Mary in this long-gone house, which is as clear in my mind now as my own house.
“I now had the beginning of the tale.
“After being cut out of his estranged father’s will, which all goes entirely to his disabled brother, 15-year- old Johnny steals a small part of the inheritance and runs away, thinking of life on the road will solve most, if not all of his difficulties.
“When he is beaten up and pressed into the merchant navy while waiting for the Cambridge mail coach in front of Cupola House, he’s about to discover his real problems have only just begun. How’s that for an introduction!”
Asked if there are any parallels with his own life, Michael replied: “Do you mean does my novel have a moral? If so, then it is this: having run away to Canada as a teen, I know that avoiding unpleasant circumstances doesn’t solve much.
“Facing them does. Though seldom in the way young people expect.
“As all older readers will agree, I hope, it takes the passing of time to put life’s problems into proper perspective.
“This theme drives all the action in The Chronicles of Johnny Pilgrim.”
A synopsis of The Chronicles of Johnny Pilgrim
Teenage Johnny Pilgrim and his brother Roger are high-spirited orphans.
They are in the care of Goody Rookes, a poor widow who runs a coffee-house in 18th century Bury St Edmunds.
Johnny is fiercely protective of Roger, who requires two sticks to walk. One day they learn that their father is not dead.
In reality, Squire Elias Partridge, their wealthy absentee father, had placed the boys in Goody’s care after his beloved wife Emma died giving birth to Johnny. The squire, now dead, leaves a will in which Roger is to gain all the squire’s worldly goods and Johnny receives nothing as Squire Partridge blamed him for his wife’s death.
Stealing that inheritance money from Roger and determined to make his own way in the world, Johnny waits in front of the Cupola House for an early-morning coach to take him up to Cambridge. There he is set upon by a press gang who steal his money and force him into sea duty on a slave ship under the renegade navy officer Captain Pollard, running first to Africa and then to the Caribbean.
Falling out of favour with the captain and crew during the voyage, Johnny is sold to an African potentate as a white slave.
Eventually Johnny escapes and is rescued by Captain Evans of the British Navy who signs him on as a crew member, agreeing to take him back to England and so to Bury St. Edmunds following a stop-off call in the American colonies.
By the time the ship reaches the port of Philadelphia, Johnny has been punished and is imprisoned for insubordination. Escaping the ship’s brig, he jumps ship and swims ashore, hoping to begin a new life in the colonies. His real problems are just beginning.
Eventually Johnny reaches Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) and meets a Moravian family.
Johnny falls in love with Anna Mulhenberg, the headstrong and socially-aware 16-year-old daughter, and she, in turn, is enamoured by his quirky charm. When he learns he is wanted dead or alive by HMS Navy, he bolts without saying goodbye to the Muhlenbergs, fleeing deeper into the primeval forest.
Sick from a snakebite, Johnny shelters in a ramshackle cattle shed and is found by escaping African slaves, a brother and a sister called Amara and Nabid. The pair use their skills to nurse Johnny back to health.
Needing a white man to travel openly by day, they ask Johnny to travel with them to St. Anthony’s Wilderness where they are to meet a guide who will go with them to Canada and self-determination. Johnny, having himself been a slave in Africa and not liking it one bit, agrees and, risking his freedom, joins with the pair, pretending he is their owner. In turn, Amara and Nabid use their survival skills so the three may subsist in the wild, uncharted lands.
After being reacquainted with the Muhlenbergs in St. Anthony’s Wilderness, Johnny discovers that they are involved in helping escaped slaves get to freedom in Canada. Meantime, Anna and Johnny fall in love. Affected by Anna’s integrity, Johnny confesses that he is a thief and a naval deserter.
However, the young couple soon recognise if they wish to start a new life together one day, Johnny must first return to England to pay for his crimes…