Twenty years ago, I saw a bricked-up doorway in an alley in a small medieval French town. It gave me the spark of an idea. A year later, a prolonged heatwave in the UK prompted the notion that the resulting book should be set during the heatwave and drought of 1976 – which I remembered vividly from my childhood – and that it should explore the subject of climate change and the effects of human activity on the environment.
A couple of years later, I still hadn’t put pen to paper. I had, however, made the decision to finally complete one of two novels that had been lurking in my brain for some time. Would it be the Scottish book that I’d begun a decade before or ‘The Doorway’, as it had become known?
The topicality and increasing urgency of climate change, exemplified by another UK heatwave that summer, decided me in favour of the latter. I would push on with what became Time out of Time.
Fifteen years later, in 2021, Time out of Time was finally published. It had undergone various iterations in the meantime, one of which ended up toning down the theme of climate change a little because early readers felt one section was perhaps a little hectoring. The version that was published is definitely a better book than the first draft.
But here I am, nineteen years after the initial decision to focus on global warming and the environment, hiding away behind drawn curtains and closed windows because, outside, the temperature is forecast to reach a UK record today – again.
This is Yorkshire. I live high up on the Pennines hills, in an old stone cottage with two-foot-thick walls. Most of the year it’s cold and draughty. We get the worst of the weather sweeping in from both sides of the country here on top of the hills – wet and windy from the west, cold and windy from the east. Today, however, the temperature in Leeds, just 15 miles away, may hit 40 degrees Celsius or more. Yesterday, in the late afternoon, I noticed my temperature gauge in the garden creeping above 34 degrees for the first time ever. For once, I was grateful for the protection afforded by living in an old stone house set within a north-facing disused quarry, where, with some judicious curtain-closing, we were able to keep the temperature down to a pleasant 22 or 23 degrees. I count myself very lucky, given the difficulties faced by so many throughout the UK this week – and of course in other parts of the world where temperatures routinely rise to these heights.
Little did I suspect when I began writing Time out of Time, or even when I finished it almost four years later, that within little more than a decade, the UK would witness temperatures of more than 40 degrees. Such temperatures were only to be experienced elsewhere – Death Valley in the USA, perhaps, the Ethiopian desert, the interior of Australia – not in our usually rain-swept country on the north-west tip of Europe jutting out into the temperature-moderating Atlantic. I had only once ever witnessed a similar temperature – when the temperature gauge on the air-conditioned train I was travelling in away from Madrid ticked up to 40.
Allie, the 12-year-old lead character of Time out of Time, certainly has never experienced such temperatures. A typical 1970s child, she’s hardly been outside England – just one foreign holiday with her family, to Brittany in France which, as her dad says, has ‘lovely beaches, but it rains a lot’. Brittany being very like Britain usually is in many respects. The heatwave of 1976 for Allie is a run of many weeks of good weather to be enjoyed with her friends. She doesn’t have to commute on crowded, stuffy trains to the City of London to work like her dad; rather she and her friends can be taught in classes outside under the shade of trees in the school grounds until the end of term, and they can play in the park or in the countryside, sucking ice pops and dangling their feet in the cool streams. That’s what I did as a kid in 1976. (That said, I wasn’t dragged by my parents to an ancient house in the countryside that summer like Allie – my move was two years before, and not to a romantic old house but a 1920s suburban bungalow. Nor did I have to cope with loss of friends and having to make new ones.)
So far, since publication, I’ve focused on Time out of Time as a historical/timeslip adventure story. But this week I’ve wondered whether I should make more of its environmental themes. As one reviewer aptly put it, it offers ‘a timely and topical warning of how our actions in the present can influence the future of our planet.’
During the evolution of the story, I had to take a decision on just what time periods Allie would be transported to when she finds her bricked-up doorway. Anyone who has read my Order of the White Boar sequence won’t be surprised I considered the Wars of the Roses, but the lack of any significant action in the area of Surrey where Allie’s Priory Farm is situated prevented that. Instead I opted for the late 14th century, the English civil war and the Victorian period (late industrial revolution), each of which fascinates me for various reasons and had varying effects on the landscape and wider environment. One or two early readers suggested I should concentrate the story on just one period (for example, Will’s story in the civil war), but, having been brought up on very episodic children’s books like Bedknobs and Broomsticks and the magical books of E. Nesbit and Edward Eager, I wanted my time-traveller to skip among a variety of time periods.
**Spoiler alert** If you haven’t read Time out of Time you might want to look away at this point. Or, if you’re considering buying it for a young relative, and are not bothered by any plot spoilers, you might want to carry on.
With the main plot of the story based firmly in what, to today’s children, is the distant past of the 1970s, it was suddenly obvious to me that Allie would also have to travel forwards in the history of Priory Farm. Into her future. To the ‘present day’. Whenever that was. And that she would have to take lessons from that time – our time – back into the past with her.
Of course, the ‘present day’ changed over the writing and editing of the book. What life was like in the UK in the mid-2000s was rather different to what it was in 2012 when I wrote the second draft – and again different to when the final version was published in 2021. As one minor example, I abandoned a strand about waiting for the Harry Potter books to be published as the date of publication of the final one, HP and the Deathly Hallows (2007), receded into the distant past (just like the publication of Susan Cooper’s final ‘The Dark is Rising’ book which I had been eagerly awaiting in 1976: it was published in 1977!) I also had to update various other cultural references. (But a big thank you to Tom Daley for taking medals in both the 2012 and 2020/1 Olympics! And thank you BBC producers for casting the first female Doctor in ‘Dr Who’ – that allowed me a nice touch in the final sequences!)
Forecasting the future may be easier when you’re actually living in the times portrayed. But this week it’s occurred to me that perhaps Time out of Time was not quite robust enough in its portrayal of the time Allie travels to in her last trip through the doorway. (I was careful not to specifically date that year in her future: after she asks, with increasing apprehension, ‘Is this the year 2000?’, she then prevents another character telling her the exact year, having realized it might be better not to know.) Yes, usually damp, dreary England is living through another heatwave and drought in ‘Two thousand and …’ and the effects of unfettered development on the landscape, climate and individuals – and even the heritage environment – are touched upon. But the thought that the temperature would top 40 degrees anywhere in Britain during that unknown year was nowhere on my radar. Perhaps it should have been. If I’d heeded the warnings sooner, I could have added such touches into the narrative.
But then again, if we’d all heeded the warnings sooner – after 1976, or indeed at any time since – maybe we wouldn’t be facing the normalization of such weather conditions – and everything they bring with them: wildfires, desertification, ice-cap melting, sea-level rises, flooding, increasing human migration, plant and animal extinctions. Back in the early 2000s, I thought perhaps my germ of an idea for a book could contribute to the growing calls for change to prevent the coming climate crisis – especially by bringing the issue to the youngest generation who would, after all, be most affected by it. A fifteen-year delay put paid to that, of course (I am a very slow writer) – but plenty of other authors rose to the challenge well before me, quite apart from the huge numbers of climate scientists and others calling for action over the years. Yet what has been done? Precious little so far, it seems – and the crisis that was on the horizon twenty years ago has become an emergency that is now here.
Allie’s dad, when she asks him how the future can be changed, says ‘some people think there are billions and billions of parallel universes, all existing at the same time – that another one is created every time someone makes a decision one way or another, or does something different … No two futures are the same. Perhaps we just have to make a different decision and the future will be different.’ It starts her on a course to make a change – and hopefully make a difference. Maybe – hopefully – in Allie’s parallel universe, these days of 40 degrees extreme heat in the UK will never happen.
Time out of Time can be bought direct from Alex (AlexMarchant84@gmail.com) or via all good stockists.
Alex Marchant is author of two books telling the story of the real King Richard III for children aged 10+, The Order of the White Boar and The King’s Man, and a third in the sequence, King in Waiting, which continues the adventures of the young members of the Order in the following years. A fourth book, Sons of York, was published in June 2022.
Alex is also editor of Grant Me the Carving of My Name and Right Trusty and Well Beloved…, two anthologies of short fiction inspired by King Richard, sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK).
Alex has also published a standalone timeslip novel for readers aged 10+, Time out of Time, relating the adventures of Allie Turner through a doorway into history found under layers of old wallpaper at ancient Priory Farm.
Alex’s books can be found on Amazon at:
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My Twitter handle and Matthew Wansford’s