A Hundred Years To Arras

By Jason Cobley

From a Somerset farm to the trenches of France: one man's coming of age through land, love and blood

Friday, 31 January 2020

Zero to Hero?

My journey as a writer began when I was very young. In the right circumstances, I was a sociable child, but I needed my own downtime, my time alone, which I spent drawing and writing stories. We didn’t have much in the way of telly, of course. We didn’t even have central heating until 1981, after we’d moved house to an MOD quarter in Chatham Dockyard in the biting, bitter winter of 1980. My Dad was in the MOD police, and wherever he was stationed every three years or so was somewhere that opened up new adventures to me. Being eleven years old and finding a hatch in the grounds of our house that led to an underground bunker was quite a discovery. The place had been barely used since the 1940s, was still equipped with a map of the dockyard on the wall and distinctively 1930s telephone in a meeting room that we discovered once we descended a good twenty feet or so underground. It was a long ladder. It was a little glimpse into the past, kept ready as a bolthole for the great and the good should nuclear war come calling. It was the 1980s.

Maybe my fascination with a human connection to war started then, I don’t know. We moved again when my Dad was posted to Devonport dockyard in Plymouth. This time, my parents bought a house, which wasn’t quite so adventurous. Plymouth, though, was where I had been born fourteen years before, when Dad was in the Royal Navy. He told me snatches over the years, but it wasn’t really until he passed that I found out any real details about his naval career. And it wasn’t until just before he died that I found out that we had a relative with another military connection. Dad’s mother had a sister who married a much older man, having met as servants on a farm in Suffolk. They had a son, named Robert Gooding Henson. By this time, I had stopped playing in air raid shelters and was married with a teenage daughter.

My father’s passing had an effect on all of us, but if anything, for me, it stoked a creative fire. I had already started tracing our family tree on my father’s side to find the link to the Henson family, and traced the Cobleys back to the 18th century. We all came from labouring or farming stock, my grandfather eventually ending up in the Welsh coal mines. My father’s generation was the first to take a different route, and mine was the first where anybody went to university. But it was Robert’s story that moved me. I took the sketchiest of details, combined it with the facts that we knew, and developed it into a work of fiction. The names are real, the events are real, and the rest has emotional truth.

I’m one of those people who has always lived in his head – probably too much. There’s always an internal narrator that is sometimes very unreliable, sometimes sad, sometimes manic, sometimes curious and sometimes very angry at the world. I’ve placed myself in what I imagine is the mind of Robert Gooding Henson, and it’s through this work of fiction that we are connected.

I had been published before intermittently as a comics writer, also having had a novel for children put out by a small publisher, but ‘A Hundred Years to Arras’ is the ‘serious’ novel (I like to think it’s also quite funny) that I’ve spent my life preparing to write. It tells the story of Robert, his time fighting in France, and his connection to land and family through time and place. In my own small way, it’s a way to connect with my father too.

I had submitted the novel to many agents and publishers. Most agents didn’t reply at all; those that did were actually complimentary of my writing, so ironically those rejections encouraged me enough to try a submission to Unbound. I didn’t hold out much hope, as their standards are high, but I was soon offered a contract, and so here we are. The Unbound model gets the novel professionally edited, published and marketed just the same as if it were published by Penguin or Random House, available in all good bookshops as they say, but it’s dependent on me being able to prove there’s an audience by getting a certain number of supporters.

At time of writing, I’m 52% of the way there, and 159 of you have liked the project or me enough to place a pre-order for the book and / or pledge for some of the other rewards available. You have no idea how much I appreciate this support from friends old and new, family, acquaintances, work colleagues and complete strangers who have paid for the book in advance. I’ve never known so much support, and I’m working hard to make sure the novel is worth their trust.

We still need to make up that 48% though. The last few weeks have added a big round zero to that figure. Zero is a beautiful concept and a lovely shape, but I’d love it to transform into something else. The Ancient Egyptians used the idea of zero in their accounting, and it was related to their symbol nfr, which means ‘beautiful’. There’s a beauty in zero, in the concept of nothingness. However, the Ancient Greeks didn’t see it the same way. They had no symbol for zero and couldn’t accept that nothing could also be something. Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps the next digit is just around the corner.

If you’ve been considering, I’d love it if you could become a supporter now and help us shatter that beautiful zero. If you’ve already supported, why not share it with someone who you think would be interested? You could even buy extra copies as presents for that friend or relative who would appreciate having their name listed in the back of the book, is interested in The Great War, or just enjoys good literary fiction. Do join me on that journey.

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