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Samuel Burr on the Real-Life People Who Inspired The Fellowship of Puzzlemakers

Posted on 9th May 2024 by Mark Skinner

In his joyful and moving debut novel, The Fellowship of the PuzzlemakersSamuel Burr spins an absorbing tale of friendship, mystery and the families we make for ourselves, as orphaned Clayton – brought up by a commune of extraordinarily sharp minds, Britain's best puzzlemakers – arrives at a crossroads in his life. In this exclusive piece, Burr discusses the inspiration behind his brilliant book which celebrates kinship that can form across generational divides.

If the first novel you write is memoir and the second fiction – as the theory goes – then I suppose I have some explaining to do. 

Let me paint the scene of my debut, The Fellowship of Puzzlemakers.

There’s a house, Creighton Hall, where a community of elderly enigmatologists live, including a curmudgeonly jigsaw artist called Hector, a handsome mazemaker called Earl, and my heroine Pippa, a legendary cruciverbalist, who has fought for her place as Britain’s top crossword compiler. 

At the heart of this extraordinary society lies a young man called Clayton Stumper. Once abandoned at birth in a hat box just outside the door, he’s now twenty-five years old with a penchant for fortified wines and Jaffa cakes and is desperately trying to piece together the clues of his past. When Pip – the main maternal presence in his life – passes away, the final puzzle she leaves behind promises to help him in his pursuit for answers. 

And so the quest begins… for Clay to crack the one puzzle the Fellowship have been unable to solve. To find out where he’s come from, and crucially, where he’s going in his life. 

I should start by saying that, unlike the protagonist of my story, my parents didn’t leave me on the steps of a crumbling old house and expect a bunch of eccentric geniuses to raise me, nor was I bequeathed a puzzle that promised to reveal the mystery of my parentage, but I am a young fogie at heart and I do adore Jaffa cakes.

I have something else in common with dear Clay. My life has been shaped by some fairly extraordinary older people, and it’s these formative, yet unlikely multi-generational friendships that are the beating heart of my book.

In the opening chapters of The Fellowship of Puzzlemakers, as the esteemed crossword compiler Pippa Allsbrook establishes her puzzle club in a room above The Old Queen’s Head in Islington, we get a sense of this. 

‘Fellowship…’ Pippa reminds herself ‘... she knew there was a reason she’d come up with that name. It was the most important component of all, of course it was… it wasn’t just about finding connections but making them. Human connections.’

At the age of eighteen, I made a documentary inside a retirement village, living with the residents for a week, uncovering the village secrets, hearing all their incredible life stories. This led to me winning a scholarship to study Film and Television at university, where in my first year I volunteered to assist an 84-year-old artist, writer and filmmaker. The late great Mira Hamermesh. She was a pioneer, a taskmaster, a tyrant. We became best mates. 

And then there’s Pauline. 

Every conversation with my friend starts the same. Within a few rings, she picks up. The line is tinny and crackles, frequently dipping in and out. It is one of the last landline numbers saved on my phone. Who doesn’t have a mobile these days?

‘Let me turn the telly down, hang on . . .’

I can hear Pauline smiling the second she realises it’s me calling, as she goes to find the remote, to put the rolling news on mute.

‘How are things?’ I ask.

‘Oh . . .’ Pauline sighs. ‘We won’t go into that. Tell me about you . . . what have you been up to?’

In the three years we have been speaking with each other, there is little the two of us haven’t shared over the phone. And not just a generic run-down of our weeks, but who we’re rooting for on Married at First Sight (me not her), what tinned meat is on offer at Aldi (her not me), even what minor ailments we’re suffering from (either of us really). Together we have swapped memories from our childhoods, and regrets from our past. We have cried together, vented together, laughed together. We have never met.

We are telephone friends.

It started four years ago. I was watching funny videos of cats on YouTube when I spotted the advert. A national elderly charity was encouraging people to sign up for a unique scheme pairing them with older people via telephone exchanges.  The older people taking part would be socially isolated, those who might otherwise go days without speaking to another human being. The commitment: thirty minutes a week. I had just spent eight minutes watching two cats dressed up as Cagney and Lacey and didn’t plan to stop anytime soon. I could probably spare thirty minutes a week, I thought.

On paper, it shouldn’t work. There are fifty years and one-hundred-and-fifty miles between my telephone friend and I.

Pauline’s life began in the 1940s, mine in 1990. She grew up in the era of war-time rationing, air raid sirens and the cries of rag-and-bone men, while I had to brave the millennium bug, Sunny Delight and The Spice Girls. I am a TV producer, she is a pensioner. I am gay. She is not. I’m an introvert, she is an extrovert. (“Just because I’m a mature lady doesn’t mean I don’t like meeting new people,” she once told me.) And while I have more family than I know what to do with, she is alone. 

I suppose, in that sense the Fellowship is a kind of utopia, but why does it have to be fictional? Why do mature people with a lifetime of stories to share, and lessons to pass on, end up on society’s scrapheap? 

I hope my debut novel encourages people to ponder this, because at Creighton Hall, the Puzzlemakers’ age is anything from diminishing. In fact, it’s their greatest strength. As one of my characters proclaims on Page 238, ‘There’s a thousand years between us all . . . imagine what we could achieve together’.

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