Hotter than Potter

When Reverend Graham Taylor finally put his talent to use, he socked the biblical parable way beyond all previously known boundaries.

Virtue didn’t come back 10-fold. Nor 100-fold.
As he put his signature to a deal in July with American publishers Penguin Putnam, the Yorkshire vicar banked more than £300 000.

The deal, less than 24 hours after his vicarage garage sale raised a couple of hundred quid for church funds, puts the debut novelist, an ex-policeman who left school with few qualifications, straight into modern story-telling’s major league — “Hotter than [Harry] Potter”, say the adverts for Shadowmancer, Taylor’s [JK] Rowlingesque 300 pages of occult, wizardry and teenage daring.

More than 80 000 copies sold within the first month. The Putnam deal is five times bigger than the Americans paid for Rowling’s first instalment from Hogwarts.

“It takes a bit of getting used to, but no one’s famous in Yorkshire,” says Taylor, a big, fair-haired, open-faced 43-year-old, surrounded by children at his parish in Cloughton, north of Scarborough. “If you need your feet keeping on the ground, this is the place. We just carry on as we are.”

“Daddy, we got the swimming pool!” interrupts Lydia, the youngest of his three pre-teen daughters, dancing into his study. Is this Mammon creeping into the virtuous life of the suddenly very rich church mouse?

“No it is not,” says Taylor, with the authority learned during his time as a beat officer with the North Yorkshire police. “She’s just talking about a very cheap paddling pool for the garden.”

Even so, Taylor shows a self-confident acceptance of his amazing change in fortune.

His book is good, he says frankly, quoting a fan letter from a couple of lads: “Did you read The BFG, Mr Taylor? Because you write as excitingly as Roald Dahl does.”

Shadowmancer reached publishers in London after being privately circulated among parishioners. One of those parishioners, a retired reader for Faber & Faber in the TS Eliot days, recognised quality. Faber published the book.

The inspiration for the story was inevitably the Boss, although God acted through a Yorkshire coast deputy, the Anglo-Saxon poet Caedmon. “I believe it was Caedmon’s story that made my book happen,” says Taylor, who was brought up in an unusual home: his cobbler father was stone deaf and sign language was used as much as English in the family’s Scarborough home.

Caedmon, famously, was a shepherd boy at St Hilda’s great abbey in Whitby, ignored until he suddenly gave song to some of the most beautiful verse in the “childhood” of the English language.

“One of my previous churches was right on the site of St Hilda’s village,” says Taylor, who had a useful lesson in the ways of the media in that late 1990s period. Goths and witches and disciples of Dracula, who came ashore beneath the cliffs at Whitby Abbey in Bram Stoker’s novel, held an annual gathering in Taylor’s parish graveyard. First he welcomed them, then he denounced them, inevitably making headlines each time.

Dracula is one influence on Shadowmancer’s story of the indescribably evil Reverend Obadiah Demurrel, whose plan to take over the universe, starting with Scarborough, is challenged by four tough 14-year-olds (eagerly endorsed by Lydia and her sisters Abigail and Hannah).

Another is the extraordinarily numinous atmosphere of the North York Moors. This is a well-trodden literary landscape and one with a dark side that Taylor, like Dahl, CS Lewis and the great fairytale writers of Germany and Denmark, unerringly aims at children “who want to be frightened, who need to learn how to deal with fear”.

“I use the landscape all the time in Shadowmancer — I saw some awful things in a lovely place when I was a policeman. You don’t forget that combination of beauty and cruelty,” says Taylor, who writes rapidly — “10% from my own experience and 90% from my imagination”.

The latter is the key to his sudden, fortysomething eloquence. “It’s amazing what lies in our imaginations — it’s like Malcom Muggeridge said: ‘If people knew what was going on in my mind, they’d think I was a monster of depravity.’”

Out it all pours, influenced, too, by Taylor’s late teens as a runaway in London. This period, after he left home, further education college and his job as glass-washer at Scarborough’s Penthouse nightclub, informs his second book (the Potter pattern is well under way, with more lucrative advances and great glee at his publishers).

It’s called Wormwood and tells the story of a girl called Agatta coping with the real horrors of London’s 18th-century streets. “It’s halfway finished,” says Taylor, who is currently pounding Soho and the East End in his Yorkshire hiking boots on days off to get the landscape right. “I wanted an opportunity to get a lot more of the world’s evils and violence into a story.”

He knows these evils from his time as a teenager in London, and from a vicious attack that ended his police career. Set on in Pickering by 35 drunks after closing time, he was left deaf in one ear and with a growth in his throat, where he was kicked senseless.

His attackers, five of whom were later jailed for long terms, knew that he was training to be a vicar at the time. “Where’s your God now, Graham?” one sneered as a leavetaking.

Taylor bears no resentment — and not just because of his wonderful turn of fortune. His priesthood is thoroughly New Testament and therefore embraces such issues as gay priests and ecumenical fellowship.

“We’ve doubled the congregation at Ravenscar by joining up with the Methodists. As for gay priests, I was led to ordination by one. We should be interested in what goes on in a man or woman’s heart, not their bed. Anyway, who did Jesus mix with? He says nothing about gay people or women priests. He was concerned with much more important matters.”

Not surprisingly, Taylor’s success is very good news for the church and charity, which have always received a tithe (a 10th) of his income. That has now swooped into six figures.

“Things can still go amiss, though,” he says, pottering among the gravestones in his cassock and white trainers. “I asked our church treasurer to sell some of the last copies of the original edition [self-published with the proceeds of the vicar’s petrol money and sale of his motorbike] at our bring-and-buy.

“He cleared 12 — at the original price of £5,99. I had assumed he knew that they are now worth £1 000 each.” — Â

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