City Lit Blog

Q&A with City Lit student Alan Bignell

Story added 26th Jun 2019


We recently caught up with City Lit student Alan Bignell to talk about his new book: The Year I became Al: Half a century on, an Englishman relives his first 12 months in Canada

Alan Bignell Book

What inspired you to write this book?

At the beginning of 1968 as a very unworldly young man I emigrated to Canada. It was the first time I had left home and a huge jump into the unknown. I went to Montreal which was then the most exciting city in the country having just held a hugely successful world fair, Expo ’67 and been nominated to host the 1976 Summer Olympics. 

My first 12 months there were some of the most memorable of my life and although family circumstances brought me back to the UK a year later, I retained an enormous affection for Canada in general and Montreal in particular.

Fast forward to 2018. It was then I decided to mark the 50th anniversary of my departure to Canada by writing a blog reliving week by week that very special first year. Apart from vivid memories, I was helped by the discovery of the letters that I had sent home in 1968. These had been carefully kept by my mother but only came to light again many years after her death.

The weekly posts appeared each Sunday morning all year and for many followers, reading them became part of their Sunday ritual. 

Towards the end of the year it occurred to me that, slightly adapted, the blog posts together might make a very readable e-book. I had no idea of how to go about this so when I saw a City Lit course, ‘How to publish your first book online’ I signed up. 

In a nutshell, what’s the story you have written?

The book retraces my life in 1968 covering the people I met, the places I lived in, my work in an advertising agency, my encounters with music, my romances and some scary trips across the border to the USA. At the same time, I have reviewed these experiences seen from the present day.

How did the City Lit course help you with your book?

The course I took covered an enormous amount of ground but it gave me an overall picture of the steps that I would need to take to get my book published. At that point, I didn’t have a finished manuscript so what the course gave me more than anything was the inspiration and encouragement to continue working on it and bring it to completion.

What are your tips for aspiring writers?

I don’t think I would even describe myself as a writer, more as someone who writes about things that I find interesting. What I would say though is make your subject something that you’re passionate about. And keep refining and refining your text. Also don’t expect to make money from your book. Over 200,000 books are published in the UK every years so the competition to get your book noticed let alone read is enormous. 

What are you currently doing?

I’m working my socks off to get my book known. (The title is ‘The year I became Al’ because in Canada no one ever called me Alan, it was always Al.) I’ve managed to be interviewed on Radio Four’s Saturday Live programme and my wife and I have been to Canada to try and promote the book there. While in Montreal we visited the house I lived in 51 years ago. The present owner made us very welcome and the event was covered by the local media. This in turn brought about interest in the book from the local historical association and a possible route to the public library.

Back in London, the trip and the book have been featured on our local community news website, Chiswick W4 and in The Chiswick magazine. In addition, I am presently working on a 15 minute radio programme that contrasts passages from the book with impressions recorded while we on our recent Canada trip.

While doing all the above I’m carrying on with my day job as an Alexander Technique teacher and playing guitar in a band called A Wing and a Prayer who perform country and Irish songs at charity events and around West London care homes.

Are you planning to write more books?

Not at the moment. I think I’ve more than enough on my plate at present. But I must say I’ve enjoyed publicising the book as much as publishing it. And I give a lot of the credit for both to my excellent City Lit teacher, Christine Robertson.


The photo at the top of this article shows Alan (sitting) with his housemates outside the Montreal house they shared in 1968. Alan lost touch with them and is trying to reconnect now. If you have any information on Dave, Jill, Vickie or Rolf, who may be back in the UK and would all be in their seventies, please contact him at


> Find out more about Alan's book on Amazon

> Read more about Alan on his personal blog

> Follow Alan on Facebook @becamealbook



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