From the ages of six to eight I lived in the complex and dangerous former British colony of Aden in what is the modern country of Yemen. The occupying British had only pulled out one month before my family arrived to join my dad, who had been there for a year working with the new country’s air force.
The early experiences I had there were unforgettable and remain captured in my memory. As I grew to adulthood, I realised that events I had unwittingly been caught up in were actually moments of historical significance for South Yemen, Britain and the wider world. Added to that, after our family was sent back to UK, my dad, who had remained to see out his contract, was mysteriously killed there.
Living with these difficult personal circumstances, as a young woman I set out to investigate what happened to my dad. I also wanted to find out more about the extraordinary circumstances I had been living in during the two years that I had spent in Aden as a child.
In 1996 my search took me out to Yemen, returning there in 1997 and 1998. Each of these journeys was incredibly difficult to undertake, as Yemen had not been a stable country since our departure nearly 30 years before. As most people will know, it remains very difficult to visit to this day.
I had extraordinary adventures on those three visits, running a gamut of emotions as I visited cherished childhood haunts, whilst also trying to find my dad’s grave and about what had happened to him in Aden. On each return home, family, friends and just about everybody I knew were fascinated to hear about my Yemen travels and my personal story there. Until that time, even though people knew of this backstory I had filed away in my life, somehow these experiences and the tales I was telling them about now brought alive detail that had not previously been grasped.
Then I shelved the project. Family life was becoming more pressing. I no longer had time for interests outside of my daily routine.
Fast-forward ten years and life’s heavy load was lightening again. So, my thoughts turned to what many people had been urging me to do: writing my experiences. The memories, the research, the sheer mystery of my dad’s story were all too interesting not to be recorded.
And so my blog came into being. Never imagining that I would ever be formally published, it seemed the perfect and reasonably easy way to enter my story into the public domain. As if it were a book, however, I divided the story into chapters. Each of those chapters appeared as a monthly post, illustrated with photographs and memorabilia that I had inherited from my mother. This magazine-style serial lasted for twelve months from 2017-2018.
I was not particularly tech-savvy and had very limited experience of writing for an audience. However, I was amazed and gratified to see, each day, WordPress statistics coming in that showed the blog taking off. My blog posts were being read all over the world.
It was only when I was approached by a committee member of the London-based British-Yemeni Society (B-YS) that I learned that this personal blog – often including the most basic memories of a young child – was being considered as a brand new historical account of a little known era and place that academics had long been wishing to learn more about. Yemenis and ex-pat Yemenis were apparently intrigued to read this new account of events in their homeland.
The B-YS committee suggested I develop the blog for print, offering me the wealth of expertise they all share on Yemen and publishing books about Yemen. I certainly needed it because I was now being taken into professional realms that I had never before imagined. The decision was taken in May 2019 that I would self-publish and I was introduced to a small publishing and design firm just outside London.
This arrangement worked very well. Not only were they very understanding and supportive of my project as well as my inexperience, but somehow, owing to my innate writing skills and past secretarial experience, I was able to intuit effectively the vast amounts of professional advice they were giving me. That included the publishing process they were guiding me through, as well as, of course, their skilled handling of the layout and production of my book.
It was decided that the book would be titled the same as the blog had been: Boy from the Moor. Named for my dad’s moorland birthplace in Devon.
We worked methodically and quickly through the summer months. Volunteers who were interested in my project came on board. Generous colleagues of the designers, B-YS members and friends of mine: I received expert proof reading, editing, technical and publicity advice. This proved invaluable on my journey to becoming a self-published author. And, of course, production costs were helpfully kept down.
I will never forget the day that the consignment of 500 books arrived on my doorstep in London, it was Thursday 5th September 2019. All the stops had been pulled out to get them to me, giving me time to launch publicity for the forthcoming Christmas market. It was amazing and emotional to finally hold in my hand the first copy out of the box. The beautifully designed finished book encapsulated months of hard work, years of painstaking research and of course, my extraordinary personal story. A friend took me straight out for a champagne lunch to celebrate!
My launch was held in Westminster on 28th November. Like all things when you are a self-published author, I organised it all myself. It was well attended, and I was moved that my audience were genuinely interested in my work. B-YS members came to support. I sold fifty copies that night, plus a further twenty at a local signing two days later.
Since then demand for Boy from the Moor has been slow and steady. I have had to learn, and be creative, about promotion. Not to mention invoicing, accounts and generally what is expected both of an author and a publisher. I now have a dedicated website, Instagram account and Facebook page. I have subscribed to societies and clubs of interest. I have persuaded a range of independent bookshops to carry the book. In January I kicked off a schedule of monthly promotional events that I had set up with a presentation to the history society of my dad’s hometown. Unfortunately I only managed that, plus a February signing, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and all further plans were put on hold.
However, it has been amazing and gratifying to discover the momentum that Boy from the Moor has gained since its early weeks of life as sales, queries and other opportunities have continued to present themselves, keeping me busy and hopeful for my book’s future.
I still can’t quite believe that I am now a fully-fledged author and publisher!
Born in her mother’s home city of Cambridge in 1961, Helen Balkwill spent her childhood in the Middle East: first in Sudan then South Yemen. On the sudden death of her father when she was eight, the family returned to Cambridge. Helen was then sent to boarding school for a number of years, finishing her education studying for secretarial qualifications back in Cambridge. Employment followed not only in the secretarial field but also in such varied positions as museum telephonist, hotel receptionist, shop manageress and finally civilian work for the CID.
The idea being to fit her work around a travel schedule that would satisfy the wanderlust she had developed as a result of her early years abroad. After marrying however, she settled on the UK south coast to raise her children, whilst working in property renovation. During those years she began to research her father’s mysterious death whilst also attending writing courses.
Helen is now based in London, from where she travels widely, spending chunks of time in the West Indies discovering the cultures and histories of the various islands. Whilst there she enjoys the sunshine and kind of lifestyle she had become accustomed to as a child in the Middle East. When not travelling or keeping house in London, Helen enjoys fitness classes, reading (especially non-fiction), playing Scrabble, gardening, dog walking and dog minding and socialising with a wide variety of friends and extended family, and also, of course, with her two young adult children.
Boy from the Moor is Helen’s first book, but she is already working on other projects, at least one of which she hopes will result in a future publication.