BOOKS / Bright Bugles and Golden Eyes: Marianne Brace on Lesley Howarth, a novelist with flower power

'I'VE ALWAYS had this strange attraction to heavy, manual labour,' says Lesley Howarth. She has been a market gardener, a pub cook, a flower picker, a pottery worker and a geriatric auxiliary.

But after building her own home, shovelling cement for her husband, Howarth experienced a mounting sense of frustration. As an only child she had spent 'a lot of time sitting on the stairs writing poetry'. As an adult she was suddenly gripped by a powerful new urge to write. 'I had a terrific logjam of ideas and had to express them. So I started writing quirky short stories, and immediately felt a lot better.'

Three years later Howarth read about Walker Books in the Guardian and sent them her manuscript. When the novel was accepted, subject to some minor reworking, 'I went to pick tomatoes and cried'. Walker Books receives up to 100 manuscripts every week, but The Flower King (pounds 4.99) is only the second unsolicited one they have published. The first, Hugh Scott's Why Weeps The Brogan?, won the Whitbread Prize.

The Flower King is the story of a 12-year-old boy's quest for a local celebrity, a plant merchant known as the Flower King; it also describes the boy's attempt to restore his friend, a woman in an old people's home, to happiness. 'In a lot of classic children's books,' says Howarth, 'the protagonists are 12. It's an ideal age to write for. Children are very empowered at 12. They are old enough to go anywhere and do anything, but are unburdened by adolescent worries. Once you tip over into adolescence, stories have to be much more grounded in reality.'

When Howarth was 12 herself, she was a busy reader: 'I had a marvellous series of Dean's Classics. You got Coral Island, The Man in the Iron Mask, A Tale of Two Cities. I bought one every week.' Then, aged 16, 'I had this massive, intensive poetry reading thing. I particularly liked D H Lawrence's animal poems.' But despite her enthusiasm for literature Howarth was asked to leave school ('I spent all my time in the common room knitting rugs') and at art college she stopped reading altogether. 'I was completely sated, didn't pick up any books between the ages of 17 and 35.'

A 'hippy, lumpy jumper' phase followed. Howarth moved to Cornwall and worked as a market gardener potting and rooting at Endsleigh, the Duke of Bedford's estate ('one of the happiest periods of my life'). But then she and her husband threw in the trowel and flew to California. They bought a Honda motorbike and travelled three and a half thousand miles across Mexico and the United States. 'When we came back we had nothing. We had to live in a friend's mother's caravan at the bottom of her garden - a sobering experience.'

With three daughters to bring up, there wasn't much opportunity to write. But six years ago Howarth started attending a local creative writing class and had a go at several novels. Publishers' rejections were no deterrent. She simply felt 'I must get better, and if I can do something good enough, somebody will recognise it'.

The ensuing novel, The Flower King, is 'an affectionate portrait' of the Tamar Valley where Howarth lives. It comes out of her experiences as a daffodil-picker - 'being lifted by the sight of a sea of yellow all around. I also knew that the flower fields were gradually disappearing around our area, which used to be big for flowers, and I felt that was rather poignant. The names fascinated me. I liked the sound of them.'

For the book, she made up new ones: Mohr's Bugle, Humboldt's Goldeneye, Lawry's Golden Belle, Madame D'Or and Little Addie named after a girl who picked for the Flower King. The boy's friend, Mrs Pinder from the old folk's home, was that girl.

But Howarth also taps into the otherness of children. The narrator, for example, has a passion for colours. He doesn't just see them, he feels them, defines everything by them: 'Take it from me, red's trouble. Any kind of red . . . Red's a panic button, black's a cruising shark. Orange, purple and brown are all mixtures, and bound to be tricky.'

Auras and otherworldliness are taken a step further in her second book, MapHead, which Walker Books is publishing next. It's a sort of fantasy rite-of-passage story, again with a young boy as the central character. He and his father are part New Age travellers, part aliens, equipped with peculiar and powerful talents.

'I've always liked the idea of the extraordinary which is just below the surface of the ordinary. It's really a book about the interface of the two.' Howarth has her characters living in a tomato house. 'I felt they would base themselves around plants . . . for the vibes. Having worked in a tomato house I realised you could live there quite comfortably - there are things to eat, drink, places to lie down. It's always warm.'

Howarth's is a fresh voice, as if she too has been cloistered in a greenhouse away from the world of children's fiction. MapHead begins: 'The reason Powers'd liquefied the cat in the end greenhouse first is it asked for it. It was a scrawny grey number with pleading yellow eyes and sticking-out hip bones, like it'd swallowed a box or something.'

In both novels there's a quest and a coming of age. MapHead becomes his own person, though an odd one. The narrator in the first book learns from the Flower King to ' 'Find what you love and do it'.' It is advice that has served Lesley Howarth well.

(Photograph omitted)

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