A Write Natter: Alan Cleaver and Local History

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Alan Cleaver is a retired journalist living in Whitehaven, Cumbria. Loving nothing more than wandering the Lake District fells in search of fairies, boggles, lonnings, and all things slightly odd – we were invited for a talk on local Cumbrian history.

Alan’s dedication to the detail in living history and recording even the smallest of interactions is perhaps the most curious exercise in history I’ve ever encountered. His approach to local history and engaging with the niches of local legend and folklore from the curiosity of lonnings to a fascinating story of boggles will interest anyone with a budding interest in history. I especially recommend this read to any student wanting to consider their routes into writing non-fiction or self-publishing.

Why did you choose to start writing books about Cumbria?

The long version is that my background in journalism moved me up here in 2005 from Hampshire to work at Whitehaven News. Like most people, I thought I’d like to do a book – everyone has a book in them.

I was interested in books for a number of reasons. They’re wonderfully inventive, even at 3000-year-old they’re still the best way to present information. But when I go into a library, I see that all the children’s books that are so shiny and colourful, but by the time you see the grown-up ones they’re all so dull and ordinary. I thought it was such a shame.

Why do publishers think that when you turn 18 that you want slabs of text with only images now and again? I got into looking at to how a book was put together and I think it was inevitable that if I was ever to put together a book it would need to be about Cumbria.

What’s your favourite area in Cumbria?

Eskdale, I think. We always end up going to Eskdale if nowhere else. I think the perfect day would be going to Ravenglass and getting on The Ratty train to Eskdale, sausage egg and chips, and then a walk. It has two lonnings, it has all sorts of walks and passes, there are stone circles. Eskdale look after their footpaths so it’s always a lovely place to visit.

Did you know Cumbria well before moving here?

Before coming up properly in 2005 I visited on and off to see relatives; one day I just turned around and thought “why do we keep going back to Winchester?” The lonnings really attracted me – all the locally named paths where few of them are recorded on maps and there’s such a long history behind them. One of my goals was to have one of these lonnings listed because sadly they’re being taken away by development. I feel guilty adding some of these to maps because some of the magic is that they’re unknown but it’s good to discover them.

What was your route to publication?

When I moved up the first thing I did was sign up for a bookbinding course with a tutor from the British Library. He showed us how to make a book that could last 500 years – I didn’t need that much of a shelf life, as long as it could get out of the shop. Most of my books though were printed at home: print the pages, fold them, stitch them, crop them, glue them, then make the case. We started producing these little books on local folklore and it was a good way to measure the market for these things. At most you could produce about six of these in a leisurely week.

One lady said to me that all they want to do is produce two books for their grandchildren and this is the ideal way to do it really. You don’t need to produce millions of copies for it to make a mark.

The next level is the whole print on demand thing that’s taking publishing by storm. You can upload the file somewhere and then the book is bound only when it’s ordered and you take the profit afterwards. It’s good because you’re not at the mercy of publishers choosing your book for mass production.

After that, you can and do go to the publishers for a mass print copy when you know it’ll be good. I get roughly 2000 at a time and store them in my basement for them to sell over time.

But I think it’s best to start small with the more intimate books and then move them up that chain as it gains more and more notoriety.

Is there anything you wish you knew before you started?

The good thing was that the people I worked with gave such good advice that I avoided most of the pitfalls. But there is always more to learn. The first book I made on lonnings I thought would be a great success but died a complete death. Family and friends are the greatest supporters and tell you your work is brilliant so it can be quite humbling outside of that. The best thing is to have an external editor who will go through it and tell you what is working or not working. Proofreading is essential, you read what you want to read so you need things checked, I’ve sent a book off for its fourth edition and still find issues.

What other writers do you admire?

Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession – and for me, it was the quiet hit of Lockdown. It’s so beautifully written, it feels just like sitting next to a brook or being on a beach.

The Book of the Damned by Charles Fort is a favourite of mine. He was a madman honestly, he would cut out paper clippings, he had drawers full of them. It really is a wonderful paranormal novel.

There’s another one, Sold for a Farthing by Clare Kipps. She kept a diary of when she kept a sparrow for years during the war – she would distract children from the bombs by releasing this sparrow that would do tricks. It’s just one of those totally bizarre books that’s such a joy to read.

Can you give us an exclusive on any upcoming books?

I have one book just out. The sad part of the Lockdown is that I couldn’t do much since I needed to go out and see places for my work. I feel as though this is a modern hodgepodge where I wrote down some local legends and folklore with some drawings.

My next one will be on postman’s paths. I came across the concept when I was out walking and spoke with a farmer. A postman’s path are these unofficial paths across fields to save postmen time on their rounds, they’d keep knocking down drystone walls getting through them so farmers would leave them a path through instead. These small things aren’t written down – it only belongs to the people who know where they are and what they’re called so they need to be written down.

I would like to thank Alan for his exploration of the niches of Cumbrian history and his explanation of some terms I have long taken for granted. You can find his work available on Amazon and in local bookstores.

A Writer Natter runs weekly from Friday 21st January to Friday 4th March. Events are streamed online and are available to watch later, or places can be booked now from the host library or via email: tom.ashton@cumbria.gov.uk

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