Kellie Strøm was born in Denmark, raised in Ireland, and now lives and works in London, where he has a nice final spot picked out for himself under the crab apple tree in the back garden. At age seven his ambition was to write and illustrate children's books, but along the way he got diverted into newspaper illustration and film design. Now over three decades later he's finished his first picture book, and it'll be in shops next spring. He always was a slow worker. Below Kellie takes you on a reading journey.
Kellie Strøm on Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad - and stories of the sea
I was reading Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes that February three years ago. Most of my contemporaries were marching. Most of them seemed to assume that I thought as they did, and I began to feel a bit paranoid about speaking my mind - a perfect state in which to read this. Razumov is a student in Tsarist Russia. A fellow student, Haldin, a revolutionary, seeks shelter from Razumov after having killed a Minister of State. He assumes Razumov is sympathetic to the cause. A mistake.
What more can I write without telling? Well, Razumov finds himself sucked into playing the role that others project on to him. We're used to spy stories where the agent pretends to be someone else. Here everyone knows who Razumov is but they fail to see what he is, and he becomes increasingly demented, trapped inside his own skull as he seeks to conform to their assumptions. Was it Conrad's writing which made this book so engrossing, or was it my own paranoia which merged the book with my own reality? The only other book by Conrad that I've read was Nostromo, and it didn't have the same effect.
I've never read any of his sea stories, but a year later I was reading a lot of sea novels, not by Joseph Conrad but by Jan de Hartog: The Captain, a story of the Murmansk convoys, a book about fear in wartime; and Star of Peace, about a ship full of Jewish refugees fleeing Germany and being turned away by every country where they seek shelter. Here Jan de Hartog went some way to avoiding the trap of Holocaust rescue stories, which risk allowing the reader an escape from the horror, but you have to read it to see what I mean. The novel was based on his play Skipper Next To God, written for the Dutch Underground Theatre during the occupation.
And then Captain Jan. This book - in Dutch Hollands Glorie - became a symbol of resistance in Holland, despite having nothing much to do with the war. It's about ocean-going tugs, and the men and women sailing them - well, one woman.
A year after most of the marchers were done with marching, S and I were in the hospital, and as she rested between contractions, I read on. The crew of the Jan van Gent were towing a broken-down old windjammer to the wrecker's yard. The mate Jan Wandelaar had been sent by the tugboat's captain Siemenov to take control of the sailing ship's emergency crew, a useless lot. And a storm was blowing up.
And then, all of a sudden, a stranger emerged from the galley like a mole out of its tunnel: a grey-haired gnome, the mere sight of him enough to make one seasick. He wore a little cap, grown to his skull like the cup on an acorn, and a kind of apron covered with grease-smears and blood-stains. He was carrying a steaming pan, and he announced: 'Me cookie, here dinner ready.' He then put the pan on the deck, waddled back to his hole and disappeared into it again.The storm gets worse, flapping sails, the hawser snapped, broken legs, topmasts plucked off, and lots of wind and water. Jan and two fellow tugboat sailors are alone at the helm of the sailing ship.
But who was this, crawling from his hole? The mole with the bonnet and the gory apron! He hauled himself along the rail towards the poop with one hand, while in the other he carried - seeing was believing - a kettle of coffee to revive their spirits. He didn't say anything - there was still too much noise in the universe for conversation - he merely handed the kettle to Jan and shuffled back, one hand on the rail. The sea and gale, as if abashed by such a stroke of boldness, let him pass unharmed.And that was when our daughter was born.
Funnily enough one of her favourites now is the book Sailor Dog by Margaret Wise Brown and Garth Williams: 'Born at sea in the teeth of a gale...' And like her big brother she also loves the Danish comic strip series Rasmus Klump.
Klump is a young boy bear who sails the world in the good ship Mary, with his friends Pingo the penguin, Pelle the pelican, and Skæg, an old sea-dog of a seal. Also along are the little ones, the toddler-like mischievous turtle and parrot. The best thing for Klump is a feast of his mother's pancakes, and his greatest worry is getting his trousers wet.
Written and drawn by wife and husband Carla and Vilhelm Hansen, the stories are closely in tune with childhood games of make-believe, full of incident and invention, but never burdened by too much plot. Unfortunately they can't be found in English, so when I read them aloud I translate as I go, a strain on my already worn out brain. The strip ran for a period in the UK in the Evening Times - of what city I don't know. And at least two books were published in the US in the 1970s, though I haven't yet been able to find them.
So if you can't read Danish, you'll have to make do with French or German. You can enjoy the stories under the name Petzi, and read as once again Skæg sits down to tell someone of the time he was sailing in the Bay of Biscay, only to have his story interrupted every time just as he gets to the part 'And then the cook came running!'
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]