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Howa quest for cheap cigarettes endedin historical novel; Catherine Jones talks to writer Terence Morgan about losing out to Jimmy McGovern and his debut novel set in medieval Bruges.

WHEN Terence Morgan entered an ECHO short story competition in the mid-1970s, judges were impressed enough with his writing skills to award him second place.

But who could have beaten the would-be writer who, 35 years later, is making his debut as a full-blown novelist with The Master Of Bruges published this week? "The winner was Jimmy McGovern," he laughs. "He was unknown at the time - and the next time I saw him he was writing for Brookside.

"So I was a bit miffed about that, but there you go!" There are worse people to lose a writing competition to though, and Terence's success led him to a freelancing post with the Merseymart where he was the paper's theatre critic.

Readers may also remember his Scouse Trek comic strip which ran in the ECHO for two years.

"It was a parody of Star Trek, a gang of Scousers who set off to go round the universe," he explains. "It was to find the secret of Scouse which had been lost over the years.

"They got two of the ingredients when there was a massive strike. The papers went on strike for six weeks and they decided during that time to get rid of any extraneous material and that included us sadly.

"So we sent them down a black hole which was actually the Mersey tunnel. Theoretically then they can reappear."

Bootle-born Terence himself disappeared not long after that, teaching English in both England and then in Singapore for many years.

But a few years ago he decided to return to these shores, retiring to rural Lincolnshire with wife Lesley.

It was then the 65-year-old, who had penned school books during his career, first had thoughts of writing a novel.

And he admits the idea came, indirectly, from his wife who is a smoker.

"We moved to this tiny rural village in Lincolnshire from Singapore," he says. "We decided not to go back to Liverpool or Southport or any of the places that we'd lived before.

"I was just after a quiet life. "And of course after a while she ran out of the duty free cigarettes that she'd brought back in bundles.

"I saw the price of them in the shops here and thought, I can't afford that, because at the time we were living on about pounds 70 a week. we would be still if I hadn't turned 65.

"I looked on the internet and apparently Belgium was the nearest place you could go to that was cheap for cigarettes.

"So we went on a ferry trip from Hull to Zebrugge, the idea being you get off, spend a day in Bruges and then come back on the boat.

"I'd never been to Bruges before and it's the most wonderful place. It's gorgeous. So once she was out of cigarettes again I said look, this time let's spend a few days there and I'd like to look around.

"That's when I wandered into the Memling museum."

The chances are many people will not have heard of the 15th century German-born but Flemish-based Hans Memling, described as "one of Europe's most brilliant and enigmatic painters".

But he was around during one of the most turbulent times in medieval history and Terence has used that as the basis of his book which weaves historical fact with a vivid plot involving the royal families of Burgundy - including Princess Marie with whom Memling forms a close bond, and England.

"I originally had a princess and the painter type Mills and Boon in mind but then as I got more into it I discovered all the people who wandered about Bruges at that time," Terence reveals.

"People like Caxton and Richard III and Edward IV and so on, so it developed a bit further away from the romantic nonsense!" Terence's

Memling finds himself at the heart of a political storm which involves all those figures people may remember from school history lessons - Richard III, the princes in the tower, and Henry Tudor.

"I see this story as sort of grouting," explains the author. "You've got these people, big historical facts and I'm filling in the gaps.

"I did try to stick myself into medieval times and wander about the city thinking like Memling would."

Although Terence's story was rejected by a host of people - "four million agents all mocked and scorned me" he jokes - major publisher Macmillan accepted it for its "new writing" arm.

In fact, Macmillan is so pleased with The Master Of Bruges, it has already asked Terence for a follow-up.

That will feature a minor character from his first book, and another name from history lessons long ago, Perkin Warbeck - the man who claimed to be one of the young princes from the tower and the rightful heir to the English throne.

Terence is already well ahead with research and writing for his second book, having just returned from Tournai where Warbeck lived for some time.

But he admits he doesn't find writing the easiest thing in the world.

"I do anything rather than write," he laughs. "Make toast and turn on the radio and go down to the shop for the paper.

"I tend to speed up a bit in the later stages. Quite a lot of the early stuff is research and I'm sort of laying out the big stones. Then the grouting starts getting filled in.

"With this new one I've written quite a lot of the beginning and quite a lot of the end and the middle isn't being filled in at all. There's quite a lot to go."

Meanwhile The Master of Bruges has just hit the shops.

Terence smiles: "I'm probably going to be the oldest debut novelist of the year."

. The Master of Bruges is published by Macmillan New Writing costing pounds 16.99

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MASTER OF BRUGES: Writer Terence Morgan with the cover of his new novel
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Publication:Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England)
Date:Jan 8, 2010
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