He has worked as a journalist in several countries, particularly Northern Ireland and Rhodesia/Zimbabwe as a war and political reporter; as chief of staff of a Sydney daily newspaper; editor of a regional NSW newspaper and finally creator, editor and publisher of his own successful magazine.
He considers himself privileged to have won several awards for journalism and magazine publishing in a career that has involved lecturing on journalism, public speaking, broadcasting, marketing and promotion.
In 2009 he sold his magazine with the sole intention of achieving his life-long dream to be a successful novelist – writing primarily in the genre of historical fiction.
He lives in the spectacular Blue Mountains of New South Wales west of Sydney where his writing desk peers out over a sweeping valley, visited daily by chattering, squawking sulphur-crested cockatoos, glorious king parrots, resplendant rosellas and the occasional wedge-tailed eagle.
His beloved Blue Mountains are featured as the backdrop to this website, with various features highlighted in the rotational photographs on the Home Page.
In the past three years, several of Spencer's short stories have been judged 'Highly Commended' or 'Highly Recommended' with three being published in two separate anthologies.
His third manuscript, 'The Voices of Crabtree Lane', earned him a coveted 12 month mentorship and publishing guarantee with the innovative Brit Writers Awards in England. He is proud to be one of only 15 authors world-wide selected for the Programme - and the only one from Australia.
That Programme culminated in the book's launch at the London Book Fair. It also became the only novel ever to be launched from inside an iconic red British phone box in the sleepy Essex hamlet of Wyatts Green, where Spencer grew up.
The Voices of Crabtree Lane is a work of historical fiction, set in Wyatts Green in the bitter winter of 1958, with the 'phone box' playing a pivotal role in the narrative and featured on the book's back cover.
It is a compelling, nostalgia novel packed with mystery and adventure. For more details and a synopsis, please see below.
‘A wonderfully observed tale of a teenage boy’s Essex adventures full of pace and mystery with lovely humorous touches. The writing is rich with descriptions, some of which are visceral. In particular, descriptions of the countryside brim with life, allowing the reader to experience the sights and the smells.’
UK Literary Consultant Joan Byrne
Below is the transcript of a recent interview with Spencer by Brit Writers, the publishing mentors of his new novel 'The Voices of Crabtree Lane'.
Before we delve deeper into the mechanics of your writing, tell us about Spencer Ratcliff.
He is a hopeless dreamer – and a very appreciative one who has lived simultaneously in several worlds and parallel universes for as long as he can remember.
I’m sure it’s the same for all who aspire to be creative, be it writing, acting or any of the arts.
It can get dangerous out there in ‘alien land’ but I have been extremely fortunate. I’ve survived intact from a thousand flights of fancy and numerous circumnavigations around the cosmos, relishing every precious moment.
As a small boy I was constantly told to ‘wake up’. As a teenager I was advised to keep my feet on the ground; as a journalist I was instructed to deal only with facts; but now, as a somewhat mature small boy of independent means, I can dream and dribble and scribble to my heart’s content. And I do.
Thank heavens I refused to stop dreaming. I was a young man when Robert Louis Stevenson finally convinced me to leave my native England and follow in his footsteps to the South Seas.
Before I’d ever stepped onto a plane, I’d already travelled the world half a dozen times - by pen - ruining the maps in my Philips' New School Atlas which I still look at sometimes to re-live my wealth of real and surreal adventures.
Like all people who write fiction, I spend an inordinate amount of time observing the human condition, wishing it was not on the critical list.
It’s a privilege to be able to step in and out of the real world at whim, into rampant imagination. Wherever I may be - earth or the Milky Way – I’m on Cloud Nine if I know I’m not hurting or harming anyone. I am so lucky to have reached an age and position where I have the time and opportunity to really care for those dearest to me and to spend my hours writing.
How blessed I am to be having a book published. It’s a privilege to be able to write and the most unbelievable privilege to have a publisher want to help you give birth to your novel and sent it out to the world.
I was taught that actions speak louder than words; that it’s not what you say but what you do that matters. I firmly believe that.
My novel ‘The Voices of Crabtree Lane’ has some 120,000 words of ‘saying’ so it is imperative to me that together, those words actually ‘do’ something as well.
I may never know if they achieve that but I really hope so. I’d like them to entertain, produce a smile, sigh or tear, tweak a memory, tug a heart-string, provoke an action or reaction. I want to write novels that live and breathe and that bubble with energy and empathy.
What was it that drove you across the seas from a small village in Essex with that iconic red phone box to the Australian Blue Mountains?
Robert Louis Stephenson, Dylan Thomas and two Australian girls I met in London’s Kangaroo Valley.
RLS because he painted such tempting portraits of the South Seas and foreign ways; Dylan because his pen dripped with dreams and rhyme and sometimes no apparent reason, calling me to go forth and learn of all his mysterious, mystical worlds of conjured words and wit; and the Aussie girls because they were pretty and spoke of sunshine, space and endless opportunity.
During my four years training as a journalist I managed numerous continental trips by pen; one by plane on a jounalist assignment to Germany and one by car to the shrine of my hero Mr Thomas, in the South Wales town of Laugharne.
My hamlet of Wyatts Green was nice, but Sydney, Singapore and San Francisco had the edge, especially when I discovered Australia would welcome me as a new resident if I managed to contribute ten pounds towards the fare.
On top of that, I desperately wanted to work for radio and the BBC had rejected me while the ABC in Australia promised an interview. Before I knew it I was a ‘Ten Pound Pom’ working as a radio journalist and suffering second degree burns from the sun after a silly suicide visit to Bondi Beach.
Your third novel The Voices of Crabtree Lane was set in Essex, Wyatts Green, where you grew up. How much of your book is true to the village you lived in?
The majority of the book is quite true to the village and indeed the entire area. The geographical locations are accurate with some roads correctly named and others fictitious. Oddly enough, the name ‘Crabtree Lane’ is made up.
When the BBC interviewed me there, a couple of curious neighbours popped out to see what was going on inside their treasured phone box. They were worried we were there to ‘take it away’, When they found out about the novel, they wanted me to call it by its real name ‘The Voices of Wyatts Green Lane’. I did seriously consider it but for me it didn’t have the same ring.
The book recalls the lane exactly as it was, as it does the two old shops, the stagnant pond, my old bungalow, the water tank tower, the church, the school and scout hall at nearby Doddinghurst and the lovely old windmill at Mountnessing.
The old haunted house is real too, though I bet the current owners know nothing of our imaginings and adventures in its days of abandonment.
Needless to say, the phone box is as authentic as myself. Like me, it is still functioning half a century later, albeit battered with age and a few bits missing.
I have created a couple of locations like the Wyatts Green pond on the common, but who’s to say it wasn’t filled in after I left?
What was it that triggered you to start writing ‘The Voices of Crabtree Lane’, where did the initial inspiration come from?
I think the triggers for me were ‘time’ and the passing of it. When I sold my magazine I knew I’d need a good twelve months of reading novels to clear my head of four decades of journalism, facts and ‘truth’ before I could even begin to learn to be creative again.
For the last 18 years of my career I published and edited my own magazine and like so many other people, worked up to 60 hours a week. Journalism is a dedication and a passion in which I revelled each and every day.
I loved it and breathed it in like oxygen. It took me and my pen all around the globe by plane and allowed me to learn new things and meet exciting new people every single day of my life. I have been so incredibly fortunate to have had a long career that I enjoyed so much.
Since the day I became a journalist there was never time to ‘write’ and little time to even read a book. The sale of my magazine changed all that and allowed me to pursue my childhood dream – of writing a book and, heavens to Betsy, even getting it published. So the trigger for me was indeed the passage of time.
The inspiration to write was always there. It may have become buried beneath layers of journalism, interviews, press conferences, court cases, politicis, tragedies, loves and wars; but it was never very deep.
Every single news story or feature I ever wrote has trained and enabled me to write a narrative whose characters, I hope, jump out of the pages.
The initial inspiration for this particular novel stems purely from a return visit to the lanes and fields of my youth. Again, it’s all about ‘time’.
While my children are all grown, fed and watered into the world, I am, thank goodness, still a teenager inside my head. The mature me finds itself happily tugged back to the halcyon days of mystery and innocence.
It’s called nostalgia and like everyone else, I love it and think it good medicine in small doses. I have only to walk down my own memory lane to see old Miss Sharpe on her verandah, to shudder at Aggie the witch, and to smell the cooking from number 5 Crabtree (or should that be Wyatts Green) Lane? The inspiration was on the wind.
It’s a great title, how did you come up with it?
As mentioned earlier I didn’t want to use the real name of the lane so I cast my mind around the village to search for something pertinent.
I already knew I wanted to have the words ‘The Voices’ in the title as I kept seeing that expression used by all those invisible Literary Agents who spend so much time and energy rejecting or ignoring us.
In interviews they constantly talk about how they look for a new ‘voice’ and how they want to hear ‘the voices’, so I thought I’d give them a whole lane full of them.
Then I remembered how my brother once fell in the stagnant pond down the bottom of the lane behind our house, emerging with the stench of rotting crabapples in his ears and mouth. The smell was bad but the word ‘Crabtree’ sounded good.
You are a journalist and as well as this you write historical fiction. What was it that made you switch genre and write a young adult novel?
I think my preferred writing genre of historical fiction stems from a strange blend of career as a journalist and my love of history in general.
Aside from the actual writing, which I love doing, I am able to conduct detailed research and deliver some of that back absolutely accurately – a la journalism – and also weave it in with some delicious fabrication when and where I choose. Oh the power!
I see a strong parallel between journalism and historical fiction and, after all those years of factual discipline, I am finally free to make a few things up without getting into strife. Oh joy!
I actually set out to write ‘Crabtree Lane’ specifically for the huge, nostalgic Baby Boomer market, eager to revisit their golden teenage years, though numerous people have told me it will also appeal strongly to senior primary school readers as well. I hope they’re right.
In the process of writing it, I soon found myself looking down from above on my ‘gang’, my life and my village. Because the novel and many of the characters are drawn from real life, it was an absolute pleasure to write. In fact, much of the book seemed to write itself. I’m sure I frequently got up in the morning and found half a new chapter on the laptop.
Is there a message in ‘The Voices of Crabtree Lane’ that you want readers to grasp?
Yes there is, though nothing super heavy. I hope the reader is transported vividly to that very different world of 1958, to ponder on the dramatic contrast with the lives of adults and children in 2012.
I hope the Boomer or Young Adult feels the richness of friendship, love and loyalty; senses the physical and emotional deprivations; the lack of disposable income and the fact that money and material things simply didn’t matter so much back then. Nobody I knew had either.
The prime messages are simple: friendship and loyalty are worth more than fortunes; forgiveness is gold; and the voice of youth may be naïve, but it still has much to say and should be heeded.
Are you working on any other writing project at the moment?
I have in fact just completed another novel, also historical fiction, for which I’m actively seeking a publisher and or agent. It’s titled ‘Zimbabwe ~ Eye for an Eye’ and is set in that country, spanning the years from 1975 to 2013.
I lived in what was then Rhodesia for three years, covering the war at its worst from 1975 to1978.
The book begins in 2013 with the kidnapping and mutilation of Mr Robert Mugabe, then flashes back to the horrendous war of liberation.
It takes the reader deep into Africa - steaming with heat and hatred - where the Bible blends mischievously with ancestral spirits, where an ‘eye for an eye’ is gouged from the scriptures to suit purpose or prejudice, where one man’s justice is another man’s vengeance.
The book follows the lives and loves of two white and two black families who are plunged into heart-breaking tragedy and turmoil. Some are slaughtered; others maimed as faith and human decency are tested beyond belief.
Most seek raw revenge; a few want honest ‘justice’; but then there’s also the Law of Lex talionis – an eye for an eye, hand for hand……..to contend with.
If any adventurous publishers are reading this, please call me as Mr Mugabe is kidnapped in February next year at his 90th birthday party…. so time is of the essence!!!
I like to write because….. since childhood I have marvelled at the magic of words; their delicious, infinite ability to paint pictures and set imaginations ablaze.
As a young man I discovered Hemmingway, Steinbeck, Stevenson, Huxley, Paterson and many other brilliant writers, with, in my opinion, the literary genius Dylan Thomas conjuring, juggling words and worlds without compare.
Between them they took me around the planet, the Milky Way and the Universe. I am, thank heavens, still up there.
As a journalist, writing in my favourite genre of historical fiction provides a huge measure of satisfaction during the intensive, detailed research process.
One of my greatest pleasures comes from crafting word portraits of geographical features and seasonal moods; of being able to transport the reader on a journey back to treasured times, to retrieve and revel in youthful emotions, smells and tastes that have been tarnished or buried by time.
I like to write because I wish to entertain and enthrall, to paint a canvas that absorbs, to create my very own people and to reflect real ones, be they compassionate or cruel, brilliant or bizarre.
I like to write because it permits me to create dreams, to give birth to compelling characters and powerful voices that reflect the mental, physical and spiritual wealth or poverty of the human condition.
The adrenalin takes me into the unknown, challenging my thought processes, invariably forcing my storylines and characters to deviate and develop.
To me, a brilliant novel is a literary jig-saw puzzle packed with individuals who step out of the pages, who talk to you, who demand your attention.
Creating every colourful piece of that puzzle and then being able to click them all together to produce the final glorious picture, is surely one of the finest arts of this wonderful world.
I have many missing pieces … but I’ll never stop searching for them and learning.