Bitter-sweet North Walsham homecoming for leading author Mal Peet

Multi-award winning author Mal Peet returned this week to his north Norfolk birthplace; the setting for his latest novel.

But it was a bitter-sweet homecoming for Mr Peet who remembers his first 18 years in North Walsham as 'impoverished, miserable and colourless.'

'I legged it as soon as I got a place at university in Warwick,' added Mr Peet whose books have earned him accolades including the prestigious Carnegie Medal in 2005, and the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize in 2009.

His latest book, Life: An Exploded Diagram, is a part-autobiographical coming-of-age novel aimed at ages 14-plus.

It follows working-class boy Clem's growth to maturity in rural Norfolk, and his relationship with the daughter of a rich landowner during the fear and uncertainty of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Like his hero, Mr Peet, who now lives in Devon, grew up on North Walsham's then new Millfield estate and attended Millfield Primary School. His return visit to meet pupils there this week followed a strange twist of fate.

Carnegie book reviewer Joy Court, based in Coventry, read the novel, realised its strong Norfolk links and sent a copy to her brother Andy Freezer whose wife Lesley is bursar at Millfield School.

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Mr Peet, who also writes books for younger children with his wife, Elspeth Graham, chatted to pupils about being an author but the adult content of Life: An Exploded Diagram means that they will not be reading his latest work for a few more years.

In the novel North Walsham is renamed Borstead but many other place and business names are unchanged. The EDP and its sister paper the North Norfolk News are also mentioned.

Like Mr Peet, clever Clem is sent to grammar school; in real life North Walsham's Paston, but disguised as Newgate in the novel - the name of an infamous London prison - where he endures humiliation, bullying, sarcasm, violent games, caning, snobbery and 'ferocious patriotism.'

Mr Peet recalls a bleak 1950s Norfolk where his father was a factory hand in Caley's Norwich chocolate works, and his mother Grace, who died in North Walsham a few years ago, did the accounts for a number of Walsham traders.

but with the passage of time his memories have become more positive. 'In my 20s and 30s I looked back with great unhappiness and thought it was awful,' he said. 'We had very little money and there was no culture, but now I realise that I did have an amazing amount of freedom. We would go off on our bikes all day into the woods and no-one would worry'.

He clearly remembers the grim days of the missile crisis, when confrontation between the Super Powers brought the world to the brink of nuclear war: 'I remember being very angry that I might get blown up by America and Russia. I thought: 'I haven't done anything with my life yet. If I die in North Walsham - what a disgrace!''

* Life: An Exploded Diagram is published by Walker Books and costs �7.99.

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